Interview with Grady Wade


This is an interview with Mr. Grady Wade from Arlington, Virginia. The date is October 30, 1987.

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Q: Could you start by giving me a little bit of background about your educational background before you went into being an administrator?

wade audio (Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)

A: Okay. Well first of all I think it is essential to be a good teacher before you become an administrator. You know the problems that are facing teachers. I started out as a primary teacher, then taught in the upper grades, then went into what was then called Junior High. After that I went into Senior High. After going through all that, my arm was twisted to go back into elementary -- which I hadn't taught in for a few years. The war years had come in there and I was in the Air Force. I said the only way I would be a principal was to go back and teach and see if I liked it again, because I had been in secondary and I liked that also. So I went back and taught three years. Well, after the first year they wanted me to be a principal. I liked it there, too, and I stayed for a while. So I had the background of starting there and going all the way up to Senior High and I have enjoyed all those ages. I found them all quite satisfying, but I think elementary is a very special spot because you have these children at a very early age and have a chance to be an influence on them and get them started on the right foot. Once you are into Senior High it is almost too late. So we have this important time -.---&'. young kid's life to really get them going in the right direction.

Q: In preparation to become an administrator, did you get an advanced degree in administration?

A: Yes, I got my Masters at Columbia and at Columbia we worked right from day one in a school - just like - well, in the courses, almost in everyone we took we also had to work in the school. Columbia had its own school there on the campus. Also there were schools in Harlem and Manhattanville.

Q: So you saw a good cross-section of problems of administrators?

A: Oh, yes. We went into every type of school economic levels and trade schools, because they thought you should be in there to see what you were doing. For instance, in the first week of school in an undergraduate degree, those students went into a classroom.

Q: Did you get your undergraduate degree at Columbia?

A: No, I didn't get it there. I wish I had. They felt it was very important to get your feet wet soon.

Q: My next question was were you a teacher before you became an administrator. Obviously, you were. Did you do all three levels in Arlington?

A: No, I was 15 years as a teacher and 22 years as a principal. I started out in the Southwestern part of Virginia and then when I came to Arlington that is when I went back to elementary because the Superintendent pressured me into going back into elementary because I had that background. Plus they wanted a man in the elementary school. That was during the time when there weren't any men in the elementary. I was the only one in that school. And then when I. moved to the other schools there were two of us there.

Q: What schools were you principal of in Arlington?

A: Well, I was principal of Madison School right at Chain Bridge which grew from 105 pupils to 450.

Q: Which year was it at its peak? Do you remember?

A: I would say in 1960 I imagine. Been a long time.

Q: Were you there when it closed?

A: No. It was good I wasn't. It is very sad even being away from there because it was a tremendous location for a school. We involved the parents there. So many things were like a family. The parents would still come to school even when we grew larger with their cook-outs and we would go out for lunch and have picnics. Even the other day I ran into one of those parents and they were talking about the closeness of the school. That I think is essential in any school, that parents feel very close to the people in it and the people in the school feel close to the parents. Then the child feels that they have the same backing at home and at school, not pitting one against the other.

Q: Would you look back at your last school and take me for an imaginary walk through the school? Were there closed or open spaces, was it an old or modern plant?

A: My last school was Nottingham. I was there for 12 years. It was a traditionally built school. As a matter of fact it was built the first year I came to Arlington. So some of the new teachers going to that school and I met during the teacher orientation. It was a traditional school and there were walls. However, we never let the walls stand in our way. We did, however, take down one wall and combined two classrooms because we had a gifted seminar class, which took children from Tuckahoe School and so many fifth and sixth graders would move in. We did have that openness, but as I said, we didn't let the walls stand in our way. A lot of the walls have gone back up now, but we always felt like we had an open school because we involved the community. We were working with the community all the time, we used the community resources. We are very rich in this area - many museums and just anything a teacher needs to supplement her program. So it was a traditionally built school but I always said that a good program could go on in any kind of building, even if you had a tent. If you have good teachers, a good staff, you could do a good program for kids even if you were in a tent.

Q: WHILAcY$&??SOV5?dofo&h&eTaL4ROoi&gge?nw4RTn6gul,VR @eifttegration or any of the school-closings?

A: Well, we had in my early days we had school board meetings on Saturdays. It was like a three-ring circus, I should say a ten-ring circus. We had some very controversial people on the board and who were on there to grind their axes and in some cases they were on there to cut the school down, and to defeat the purposes because there was kind of a political war going on. As a result on those Saturday meetings of the school board you would have a packed room with a different location every Saturday in an elementary school. The multi-purpose rooms were packed. You would think you were going to see an opera or something. You never knew what ,issue was coming up. They were looking at textbooks, they were wanting to discard certain textbooks because they felt one word might be communistic.

Q: About what time frame was this?

A: This is back in the 50's. That particular group went to Richmond and they were able to politically get the Virginia State Course of Study politically thrown out the window. Every teacher had what we called the Blue Book with the curriculum for grades 1-7, with all types of activities, objectives, and everything in graphic form so that you could see that this skill was taught during first grade or second or third grade. It was a terrific book really. As a matter of fact, when I went to Columbia, it was used as a textbook in three of my classes. It was written in the state of Virginia by some people who were really ahead of their time. But one place in there was a word that sounded maybe socialistic or communistic or what have you and they were able to politically have the legislature throw that marvelous piece of curriculum out the window. We have never had anything like it since. So they would fight almost anything. They were fighting building programs. One member of the board came up to me one day and said, 'Would you just as soon teach in a warehouse as a nice school?" Well, as I said before, a good program can be taught in a tent. But this was after the 50's and we had moved on. This was after Arlington had regrouped all its efforts for education. Arlington Schools was the subject of the 'March of Times' that was shown in all the theaters every weekend and was a "March of Times" news reel. Any kind of movie you would see on the weekend you would see that. As a matter of fact, I saw that before I came here. That part of the news reel was on the reorganization of the school system which happened just before I came here. But they wanted more I think to destroy things, but people in Arlington rallied behind the schools and we overcame It all and those people have long since gone. Their memories do still linger on because you never knew when they would be standing in your door and want to come in. But we didn't care, we weren't ashamed of anything. We were happy to invite them in. I think we won over a few of them they would never admit it.

Q: Were you involved in the busing program at all at that time?

A: The integration program I can't remember exactly what year we started that. I do remember the day that it started, but as far as the Junior High was concerned. There were Arlington police and State police surrounding what was then the Stratford Junior High area. It just was nothing. People were making something very big out of nothing. It was very smooth. Then when we started the busing into the elementary schools later - then in our school there was not one incident. I do recall one of our youngsters went up to one of the youngsters being bused in and said, "Why are you here?" And I remember the other youngster said, "I am here to get an education.' But everything was very peaceful and we never had an incident and it worked out beautifully.

Q: When you were a principal, did you consider yourself more of a building manager or an instructional leader?

A: Well, I think that one of the most frustrating things about being an elementary principal in Arlington and I will say that I really did enjoy my 22 years as being a principal, but the most frustrating thing is the fact that we had no administrative help. I was everything. There was no such thing as an assistant principal. Now back in my second year in Arlington I was promoted to b; head teacher. A head teacher taught all day long and had the regular responsibilities of a classroom teacher but also was kind of an assistant to the principal. But the fact is you had a classroom that you were responsible for and it made it impossible to really get into the problems that were in the school or things that needed to be done. The fact is you were teaching all day. But, a marvelous principal - but after school I was there to six or seven o'clock every night sitting down with her and going over things. This was all in addition to, and just for $100 a year more. It did give you a feel for it but you never really got to take over except one time the principal's mother died and I was in charge for a week but I still had my class. The librarian would come to me and say well, we have this problem, and the secretary would come to me and I could hear her feet coming down the hall, and I knew we had a problem. That was very frustrating. But when you became a principal you were expected to do all these things because they did away with the head teacher position and so the principal had no one. Now these head teachers were only in the larger schools. But I never had anyone to help me which meant I had to do it early in the morning which meant six or seven always every morning and I never left before six or seven because you had the management of the building problems, you had instructional problems, you had personnel problems you had all of it so what I had to do was to do a lot before and after school because I felt that my first responsibility was of course to be a visible principal. I was all over the building. I was everywhere. I was not one of those to go close the door in my office and if there was a problem hope it would go away.

Q: So you had somewhat of an open door policy and when the teachers had a problem they could come in?

A: Right, always, and I was visible and parents always liked the idea of having a visible principal and see you walking through the halls. It was just kind of like you would be at home and the family would be strolling through the house. The frustrating part was that I had to get all of this done without any help, but we did do it, but I would say probably a lot of people left the profession because it wouldn't take the time to do it.

Q: Did you think the teachers expected too much from the principal?

A: I think that it is true that they probably do but one reason is that they have never been where the principal is. I am sure that if I went back to the classroom now that I would be a much better teacher and that I could help my principal more because I have been there. But on the whole though, I would say that most teachers work very hard to solve their problems. I personally think that it is a good idea for teachers to solve the small problems that are going on, because I think it builds respect in the eyes of the children. They lose face as far as the kids are concerned. But I think the principal, should be there ready to help any time. And again I think there are times sometimes when the teacher tries to solve the problem when they should involve the principal. Later on the principal may have to come in on the situation and it may have been better if he had been in on it sooner. So it is kind of you have to use your best judgement. But if a teacher came in with a problem I never would tell her you should solve it yourself. But most of them I really think would try to do that.

Q: At the time when teachers were being hired, were you allowed to choose your own teachers or did the Education Center advertise and select or maybe send you two. How involved were you in the selection process?

A: In the early years very much. We could select our teachers. Now the personnel office would screen them and then we knew the people in the personnel office and we had a terrific. lady by the name of Mrs. Bordan who worked there who I say would have made a good superintendent. She could spot a good teacher, and she had never been a teacher herself, and she selected a lot of good ones for the county. She would be the initial screening and then she would call and say you know you are going to have a 4th grade opening. I have about six people. When would you like to start talking to them. And so we got some of the best ones in Arlington County some of them right now are in supervisory positions. They were selected initially by this lady.

Q: Were there one or two qualities that you felt a teacher had to have in order to be a successful teacher?

A: It is hard to really put your finger on this but I think after you have worked with people for a while that you can usually sense that this person is first of all going to be interested and that this person will have a way of working with children and will like them. I think some of the saddest things I have ever experienced in a school is a teacher in a classroom that dislikes children. The harm that can go on and I have seen some of this because transferring from school to school, I have inherited some people who have been in the profession for years and who really don't like children and it meant that the principal had to be constantly tuned in on that classroom to more or less protect the kids from this teacher. I was very lucky in that I was able to judge the ones that I selected. So I never had that to happen. We had some terrific people and you could sense that this person was going to have a rapport not only with children but with other teachers. There are some teachers who can't work with other teachers and some who can't work with principals. After a while you kind of sense that this person is going to be able to work well there and is intelligent and has the ability to be flexible and is a person who will be sensitive to kids problems.

Q: Did you ever have to let a teacher go?

A: Yes, back in those days it was up to us to make the decisions.

Q: Was there a grievance procedure at that time?

A: No grievance procedure, no.

Q: Would you just say, "You are a bad teacher and you are not coming back next year?

A: Yes, this could be bad and this could be good. Because I knew of some situations where some teachers left who should not have, and I only had this one incident. I would request advice from the personnel office and they were kept tuned in to the problem from the very beginning. I had a classroom with a terrific group of kids but suddenly they changed. I knew those kids for several years before. They were now sixth graders and had become different children. Their parents noticed also that they had changed. I had kept my eye on it because I was trying to figure out what this was. It finally turned out that she was threatening the kids. Her husband was teaching caving and so she was intimidating the kids by saying that if they didn't take a class on Saturdays and go into the caves and pay him $50, then she would fail them. This she held over their heads from the very beginning. When it all came out we had to just tell her she was that this could not go on. She did write back for a letter of recommendation. How can you recommend someone like that when they are practically destroying children. But we were able to get in a very fine person who was very warm and outgoing and the kids just came right back and were trusting again.

Q: As a principal, what was the one thing that you thought was the biggest headache? Was there one-thing that would drive you up the walls when you were in your office?

A: Well, I think that one of the biggest headaches or frustrations - can we say frustrations, too - was we had so much to do with curriculum. I just had so little time. I was straining to give it all that I had. But I needed more time. If I had had an assistant then I could have turned over the more mundane things to that person and I could have worked more on curriculum. I did work on curriculum, we worked on it all the time, but it was always frustrating because you never had enough time to give it. We kept telling them, and finally got an administrative aide, but because I dropped one-half of a teacher they took the position away. But she was not a professional, she was like an executive secretary or something like that. She worked on scheduling and things like that, with my help, but it took a lot of other things off my shoulders., But I think one of the biggest headaches was to work with inflexible and insensitive teachers. Even if you-have just one who had been in the system for 100 years and could not bend at all. If you moved this person from a classroom she would get upset because she had planted the tree outside her window 25 or 30 Years ago and she had looked at it every day and so she wasn't about to move. But when you are working with children you have to be flexible.

Q: Have you been following some of the news articles about merit pay in Fairfax County? Do you-think it will detract from teacher sharing and that sort of thing or is it a good thing?

A: Well, this came up and Arlington was debating whether to go in the merit pay plan. As a matter of fact, I served on a county-wide committee of parents and school people to talk about evaluating teachers, the merit plan or what have you. I talked with a lot of people at the Office of Education and got all kinds of material from them. And everything pointed to no. I frankly don't think that teachers have changed that much over the years and with all the other pressures that are on, that I'm not so sure that it would bring the best harmony into a school setting. I personally have thought all along that the sharing between teachers is a very important thing that no one should go into their classroom and close the door and pull down the shades and hide "my bag of tricks" because I want to be selected as one of the teachers to move up on the salary scale. Now I do think that there has to be something done for these teachers who fall into this category of being the best if that is what you want to call it. But I think that the merit plan as it is being thought up in Fairfax County is going to cause a lot of damage. And I have heard a lot of teachers moaning and groaning about the teachers who are very thoughtful and easy to get along with. They can see what the turmoil is going to be already. I have talked with a lot of the supervisory people and they see - they will have to evaluate them, and so forth - and they can already see that teachers are beginning to back off from asking them for help. There is a growing resentment that these people have been selected to grade them, and where there had been very good working relationships before and so forth they can see erosion going on already. I think that instead of a merit pay plan, teachers should be recognized but that they should be recognized by giving them other types of leadership roles. In Arlington ),ears ago, we had what was called a Helping Teacher. Some of the finest people I have ever met were those Helping Teachers in Arlington. I have never understood why they did away with the program because it worked so beautifully. These were teachers who were marvelous Master teachers in their classrooms and were taken out of the classrooms, and of course it was sad for the kids to lose these marvelous teachers, but these people moved out of the classroom and were assigned to an elementary school for a week or maybe four schools in a week and had gone in there to do planning or something.

Q: So they would actually be in residence at an elementary school at least once a week?

A: They were headquartered at the Education Center and were in elementary schools everyday of the week. If a teacher was having difficulty, and the principal had outlined it, this Helping Teacher, the principal, and the teacher would sit down together. The classroom teacher would then have the Helping Teacher come into her classroom and work with her. Sometimes the Helping Teacher would clear her calendar for a week and stay with that teacher who had possibilities but was halving some little difficulties. This Helping Teacher would come in and work with her through this and then come back periodically through the year as a type of follow-up. They were on a different salary scale so therefore were rewarded for their excellence in teaching. Some of them went back to the classroom after a few years because they preferred being in the classroom. They preferred having a class. Some of them went on to be principals and supervisors and some of them are still in the County and still working. I think there has to be another way to reward these excellent teachers, not something that is going to pit one teacher against another. If you look back over the years I could pick out the teachers who would go into their little classrooms and stop sharing. I don't think people have changed that much. I think that the word merit gives it a bad flavor to begin with, but I think they could merit in other ways and I think a kind of career ladder is much better.

Q: Did you ever feel that Central Office policies kept you from accomplishing those things that you wanted to do?

A: No. I never had any of that problem. I felt that when they knew you were doing a good job and progress was being made in the school, there were good school-community relations, and that the principal and the staff were working together and so forth, you had backing all the way. I never had them say you can't do this. But instead they were very supportive.

Q: Has the main office changed a lot in the last ten years?

A: I don't know many of them there any more. Most of them have gone out to pasture like I have.

Q: If you were training to be a principal again is there anything you would do any differently? You made a point of how important it is to actually get involved during training. Is there anything you think you could have done that would have prepared you better?

A: Well, I think a program where they have internships should be one of the first steps. I would like to see where the classroom could have two teachers with each one spending half a day being an intern at another school or some type of arrangement where they are still working with children but also beginning to reach out and dabble in administration to find out if they would like it. There are a lot of people who get into administration who should never go into it. First of all because they don't work well with people and if a principal doesn't know how to work with people there is nothing but trouble down the road. Not only that, but you have to work with other adults in the community that are not even connected with the school. There is an image that you have to build so that when parents, or people who have never had children in the schools they feel good about it because it is in their neighborhood. These people need to gradually get their feet wet and look at them and see if this person is really going to be able to work with teachers. I had one teacher who came to me - she was teaching in another school and had taught with me at another school - telling me that she had a chance to go to another county to be a principal. She wanted to know if I thought she would be successful. I don't know how I ever got the answer out because this teacher couldn't get along with the teacher across the hall. She couldn't get along with anyone. If they sponsored the newspaper and did a good job, or if they sponsored the patrols and did a good job, there was Jealousy. Could you imagine this person? So I frankly just told her that I thought that she would really regret going to this because she had to work so closely with people and that I had remembered myself that I had been on the receiving end of some of her venom along with everyone else on the staff so I was able to steer her out of this. She stayed in the classroom where she does a marvelous job, but if she had come into a school she would have wrecked the school in no time because there just was no human relations skills there. You have to watch these people early as they become an Assistant Principal or even before that point and tell how well they are going to work with parents and do they like children which I think is the most essential thing of all and are they-going to be seeing the child as being correct all the time and teacher wrong? Will they be able to look at a problem from all angles and then be able to come up with the best solution to the problem? The human relations thing is the biggest problem.

Q: Do you think there are any particular steps that should be taken before this person is selected perhaps a panel interview or several steps?

A: Well, I served on a committee that interviewed all the people who wanted to become an intern. I always went loaded with questions. As a matter of fact, sometime later one of them said "Doesn't he like me?" The other person said no, he just wants to find out if you would be good for an elementary school. Everybody asked questions. I tried to ask more probing things such as how they would react to a particular situation, how would they approach a parent or approach the child and teacher. I tried to throw out some problems to see how they would work with this, because a lot of times things happen and you don't have time to sit down and plan what the strategy is going to be. You have to be able to come up with it. The thing that was so annoying was that they had always selected the person before we finished interviewing. It would irritate me no end, and I finally just said I don't want to serve on this committee any more. Just take me off of it. "Well, why?" Because I feel that the decision has already been made and I feel I'm going through this for no reason at all." Some of the people selected like this were absolute disasters. They were selected because they were someone's friend or because they had been a physical education teacher or something. I come from a time the only person who became an elementary principal was a high school coach who had a good record but had never taught a day in elementary school. We have principals in Arlington who have never taught in elementary school and I resent it very much. I think it is terrible. There is no way that a person who has never taught in elementary school could be the type of person that an elementary school needs.

Q: Do you think a principal should be required every five years or so to go back into the classroom for a period of time?

A: Absolutely. I think it could be a part of the rotation plan.

Q: If you had the opportunity to go back and become a principal again, would you take it?

A: I think first I would go back to the classroom, and I might stay. Yes, I would take it. I have never regretted it. I have 37 years and have never regretted it.

Q: Did you decide to retire because it was just time to do it?

A: I wanted to do it while I was still happy. So many people become bitter and burned out. I wanted to go while I still liked it and while people still liked me. So that is when I decided one morning and I saw the birds and squirrels jumping around in the tree and I said, "Well, this life is for the birds and squirrels right now and I'm going to join them." There were so many things I wanted to do but because of the 12 month job I was limited in doing it. But, I never regretted a day. There were days when I could have jumped in the river like the day a Commonwealth's Attorney came to the school and I had to show him the door. Sometimes you have people like a Congressman who wants to run the show or have a big shot from the State Department who says he is going to interview the next teacher for his kid - I don't mean someone already on the staff. We had to hire a replacement and the man from the State Department said he was going to interview all the applicants for the replacement. I told him not as long as I was principal of the school. There are times when you would just like to walk out the door but you can't do it because of the kids. You have to hold your ground because there has to be some stabilizing forces otherwise you can have parents who come in and say, 'I don't want Mrs. A. for a teacher this year because she drives a Cadillac and I don't think any teacher should drive a Cadillac.' So I say, "You want your entire child's instructional year to be based on the fact that a teacher doesn't drive a Cadillac? I think there are much more important things. I am sorry but that doesn't enter into the grouping procedures." I think the principal has to say that this is the way things are going to be. You work through the problems but finally have to make the decision that for this kid's sake this is the way it will be. There is no one in the school who knows the children better, knows the programs and the principal can say this kid can work the best in this situation. Of courses you do this working with a lot of staff members. But people coming in saying I want this placement or that placement that is not in the best interest of the kid. You have to make the decision. So those are days when you would kind of like to say, "enough."

Q: You see an awful lot of stories in the paper lately about how bad public education is these days. Do you think education could have deteriorated to the point that some people say it has?

A: No. I don't think so. I do think that schools are facing a lot of problems and pressures today that haven't come around for a while but have - it's like this on-going cycle of - I can see some of the things that are happening today that happened to us early on. We overcame it and I think school people have to be very strong. For instance, the Counties have Parent Advisory Committees and when Board members are appointed, they all have their little political followers. They bring in some of the people of their thinking which is alright, but not to the point where they come in and just try to scuttle the workings of an entire committee for an entire year. As a result--then no progress is made in an instructional area for an entire year because of one or two people who write letters to the editor and this kind of thing and so forth, and in most cases letters tell nothing that really happened in the committee, in many cases just falsehoods. There are people who are very determined to make the school be the one that they want, and it is not the type of school that people really want. So I think that people have to just work very hard and I think schools continue to demonstrate that kids are leanings achieving, and that they are coming out and making good citizens. I think that that record stands for itself. I ran into the mother yesterday of a youngster who went to our school, and I hadn't seen her for about 20 years, and she told me that he had been a medical doctor for some time and was quite successful and just was so thrilled and said that he got his start in the elementary school because everyone knew him, worked with him, and accepted him, and she said you know he had his little problems, and I said yes he did. Everyone got him over his problems and today it is just wonderful. She said every time he comes home and goes by the school he says "My happiest years." So I think if the school people continue to do this - I often told our teachers, you know each teacher has a public relations person working for them. Every single child in the classroom is a PR person for this teacher. If that child can go home at the end of the day telling some exciting things they did today, not that we had P.E. or lunch, then you know we wouldn't have all these controversies a lot of the time. As a classroom teacher always planned on the board what we were going to do that wk,3,?&-) day. Well, we would have to do a little adjusting. We have to get use to changing. At the end of the day we summarized. We would look back at what we had done. They could go home with this fresh on their mind - this is what we accomplished today. They would be sitting around the dinner table, they talked about what they did that day. I remember one time the County Board had not passed the school budget and one of the fathers in my class was on the Board. His daughter came to me and said, 'You know I think my father is going to vote for the school budget. I am really working on him." He said later that a lot of the things she would come home and talk about convinced him that every cent that they could put into the school budget was worth it. Little Carla did a big job for the County that year. His vote determined it, he was the Chairman. So I think that you have to - all of these things - continue to have this interaction going on and so forth that I wouldn't care what big issues come up - the schools will survive. We have all these years. But I do think we have to be even more aware because people have become more sophisticated in their ideas and now even send people to Congress and get to be influential people who can in turn bring about laws that can harm schools, so we do have to be more careful.

Q: Thank you very much. I appreciate your coming in and sharing your time.

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