Former Principal of Gilbert Linkous Elementary School, Blacksburg, Virginia March 24, 1999
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Q: First, could you introduce about your family background, your childhood interests and development. Please tell about your birthplace, elementary and secondary education, and family characteristics.
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: First of all, I tell you that I have been accused to be from Alabama because a way speak. I never lived in Alabama. I was raised and grew up in Campbell County near Lynchburg, Virginia in large farm. We had six seven hundred acres. I think I learned an appreciation for education earlier because of my dad. He was 54 years old when I was born. But mother was 17 years younger. He was farmer. He only had four fifth year education. Of course, he walked many miles to school. It was difficult. But he became very successful farmer and had a saw mill. He often kidded me when I was in college that he could do math quicker than I could. My dad valued education and he had every reason he not to because he did not have much opportunity for education. He had four children. I was the youngest. He sent all four of us to college. Two did not finish the first time around but later they went back and finished college. We were very disciplined and we lived in a nice home but did not have much money. We had things that we needed. For example, all my friends had bicycles, but I did not get a bicycle until my sophomore year in high school. By the way, I still have it. I can remember I had a certain things to do and certain tasks to perform after school and I had designated responsibilities. For example, I prepared all fire wood to burn in our stoves. We had a stove in every room. We had no electricity. When I was 14, a sophomore in high school we got electric power. We were very much in the country. We had everything we needed but, as I said, for example, we had one pair shoes a year. We could have had more cash if we really wanted to. But I don't think money meant much to a farming man. I went to elementary school. Back then, we only had grades one through seven. High school was grades eight to eleven. We went to school eleven years when I was in school. I got a very poor education in high school compared with people today. Our high school was very small and we didn't have many faculty to teach. I did have Latin, for example, which helped with college English. I was well behind in math in college. There were 14 in my graduating class in high school. I played sports, all sports in high school. I played baseball. We had a baseball team and we hadn't any substitutes. When I went to high school I did not think about education in terms of where I wanted to go and where I wanted to be. We had very poor guidance. When I got to Virginia Tech, I enrolled in civil engineering and soon I found out that I did not have enough math background. I changed after one quarter and enrolled in agricultural education which lead to teaching vocational agriculture. In first quarter I got .57 QCA based on 3.0 QCA then. After the change of curriculum I raised my QCA to 2.27. It was one of best things I ever did because I got into public education. One of the people who was interested in me in high school was a vocational agriculture teacher. Being in farming as a boy, I felt I would contribute and I liked the idea of going into teaching, which I did.
Q: Could you describe circumstances surrounding your entry into the principalship? What motivated you to enter the principalship? How the motives changed over the years?
A: First of all, things happened in my life for reasons I don't really know. May it was divine guidance. me. Back when I first came to Montgomery County my father had just died. I really didn't know what I had to do. I had been in Air Force for four and half years. For some reason, a professor at Virginia Tech found that I was out of the Air Force. He wrote and asked me to come to Virginia Tech. This was 1959. He had a job and he wanted to offer me. He had another opportunity I could take. Those two opportunities were this: one was a job at Blacksburg High School teaching vocational agriculture. They wanted to make that department a teacher training center. The second opportunity I had was to going in farm management under Dr. Love in Agri-Economics. If could took the job I could get a doctoral degree and stay at Virginia Tech. I took the job as ag-teacher and worked with Dr. Evans Thomson. I enjoyed my years there. There were a couple of years teaching Vo-Ag and training student teachers. After two years as Vo-Ag teacher, an assistant principalship at Blacksburg High School opened up and they asked me if I would be interested. I didn't have a master's degree at that time. They said that is Okay, but I should go back and you can go back and get master's degree during summer and also I could take eight o'clock classes during the year. I took eight o'clock classes for two years. In two years I had 60 hours towards to my master's degree. I went into this job with a lot of apprehension, but I fell in love with it. (as assistant principal of Blacksburg High School). After two years as high school Assistant Principal a job opened up to which I didn't apply. Margaret Beeks and Gilbert Linkous Elementary Schools were built. These two new schools would replace the old High school which was adjacent to Tech campus at that time. They had 13-14 hundred students. So they built Margaret Beeks and Gilbert Linkous Elementary Schools. At this time Mr. Gilbert Linkous was on the School Board and he made quite a name for himself. He was local man, very respected, not highly educated in terms of college degrees. He had a very sound approach to education and he was voted to the outstanding School Board Member in the state of Virginia. When Gilbert Linkous School was named after him he told all Board Members, he wanted Steve Wheeler to be the first principal at Gilbert Linkous. These circumstances led me from teaching to high school administrator and now to elementary school administration and supervision. It seemed that my destiny was chosen by various jobs being offered me at opportune times. All jobs for which I did not apply. I was ag-teacher from 1959 to 1961. I was high school assistant principal in 1961-1963. I became principal at Gilbert Linkous in 1963and I stayed there for 10 years. During those 10 years we grew from a school of 700 to 1,125 students. We moved to school that was built for 590 students. We had 714 when we moved in. I had 1,130 at the peak there. We rented church buildings. I rented 6 rooms in Christian Church across the street, four classrooms rented from the Lutheran Church, 2 classrooms in Methodist Church in the downtown. We had 44 classroom teachers. In addition to these 44 classroom teachers, I had seven special reading teachers and a librarian. I had to hire cafeteria people and see that food was prepared. We had 85 percent of the students eating in cafeteria. We bused students in from outlying locations for library, meals, music, and physical education. I had wonderful group of teachers and everybody just pulled together. I don't ever remember any complaints. We had a highest test scores in the County all during that time as an illustration. I would like to tell this little history. We had student-teachers coming to Gilbert Linkous. We had a student-teacher supervisor from Radford College. She was talking to me about a student-teacher who wanted to learn to teach fourth grade. I had really good faculty in the fourth grade. But at that time I had 44 students in one teachers class. And she said please don't put a student teacher in my class. I said we had to. Before the student teacher arrived my designated teacher had a professor at Radford College to test all of her students the first week of school and test them in the last week of school. The average grade of improvement for those 44 students was over two grades beyond their year. This is an example of what can be done if you have good teachers.
Q: What experiences or events in your personal life influenced your management philosophy, leadership philosophy?
A: Well, I guess my management style is summed up as one of trying to get the best people I can to work with me. I also like to get advice whenever I can. When I was principal I got advice from teachers and other staff whenever we had problems. I had a policy of "open door." Teachers could walk to my office any time, except when I was in parent conference. In the end, everybody knew that a decision would be made by me based on consideration of everyone's advise. My style is to have good people working for me, stand behind them, and back them all the way. My teachers knew that I would do that. Anyway, I do believe that my management style is that people who work for me knew that could make suggestions and influence my decisions. I had to depend a lot on teachers, because as mentioned before, my idea of the principal is he has to be in position to help teachers. Even though as principal I did not have training in elementary teaching methods, it is surprising how you can really help teachers. I could go in and suggest things that would improve the environment that could make a teacher's job easier. I could suggest how she could work with different groups at one time. There were real simple things that, I could see in school. I spent a lot of time in the classrooms. I went to a classroom one time. I knew that this teacher was considered to be a good teacher but I also noticed that she set her reading group right under the pencil sharpener. She told all the students they could go and sharpen their pencils any time. It didn't take much time to help straighten out this situation by moving the reading group away from the pencil sharpener. I always told my teachers, even though I had responsibility to evaluate them, that they could depend on me to never do anything that would hurt them and that my objective was to make them better teachers. I do think they were at ease when I was principal. I had suggestions and we talked a lot. I often learned why they did things way they did and sometimes they had good procedures I hadn't thought about.
Q: You have described your management style. I would like to clarify one thing. What makes a "good principal ?" Could you describe the personal and professional characteristics of a "good principal."
A: I hope I was a good principal. But what do I think are the characteristics of a good principal ? The first objective, the main objective, of a principal is to produce and maintain an environment for learning. A lot of that has to do with your organizational set up and what you expect of your teacher and other staff. I do think that if you loose sight of fact that you are there and produce an environment you can teach you lost battle begin with. My teachers, when they had problems, they could come to me even though I might not be able to help them. I would get them help. I am sure, they knew my weaknesses as well as their weaknesses. Second, I think a good principal has to love students and people in general. I think they have to know how to develop relationships. I often told beginning teachers when they came in to spend time developing relationships with their students. Many were so concerned about pouring out all this knowledge to students that they did not always know what is going on with individual students. They did not know sometimes that they bored some students. I told my teachers to take the first two days and develop real relationship with students. Third, I often told my teachers about the technique of questioning. For example, you have class and you ask your questions. What you want to do is not to call on one person too much. You should even ask John, who does not raise his hand what he thinks about the question. And you have to encourage John to answer. You should give encouragement to that child rather than saying "No. That is not right answer." A lot of teaching and a lot of human relations is just common sense. I think in education we sometimes get so caught up in knowledge that we lose sight of our purpose. Fourth, recognize "readiness." We had students who came to school who didn't have clothes, nice clothes to wear. We had students who came hungry. I think a good principal has to recognize all the things that can be done for students to prepare them to learn. For example, at Gilbert Linkous I would like to tell you that I had a wonderful time and most parents were wonderful to work with. We tried to get all parents involved with their children's learning. I visited homes of parents who did not involved to learn of their situations and to get know these students. For example, many times I took students from their home straight to Dr. Boatwright. One of the boys was so ill, his eardrum was almost ready to burst and his family was incapable getting him to the Doctor. I went into a home one time, it was a dirt floor. I saw that for breakfast they had soda and potato chips. To work on their problem, the faculty and I got together with parents whose children had good breakfasts. These parents started to feed breakfast at Gilbert Linkous before the county had a breakfast program. I think you have to look at students and see what they need in terms of physical needs as well other needs. And then you have to recognize the concepts of "readiness" to learn. We had students that really could not learn to read until he went to third grade. They were not ready to read. We had students in the first grade who had never had seen themselves in mirror. When we were praised for Linkous having the highest test scores in the County. I took that praise with pinch of salt. I knew that what we were saying was average scores, and average scores don't mean much. We had some high scorers. But we also had some very low. Even as we were being planned, we had about 18 percent of our students reading below grade level. I think a good principal should analyze what type faculty he has and how he can improve faculty's function with students. I think he can encourage good parent participation. We had a very good volunteer program at Linkous. We had retired, non-working nurses who staffed our clinic. They were genuine nurses. We had a good parental participation overall. Many volunteers worked as tutors in reading, spelling, math, and science. The students who needed the most help had the least parent participation in the school. Volunteers really helped these children.
Q: Now let's discuss the principal's other roles. It is often said that the principal should be active in community affairs. Please discuss your involvement and particpation in civic groups and other community organizations.
A: When I was at Gilbert Linkous Elementary, I was always at various meetings at least five nights a week. One of them was the Rotary Club. At that time I was in military reserve and we had Committee Meetings as well as maneuvers. There were many school related groups: PTA meetings; Budget meetings and planning meetings of different kinds. I think the Rotary Club was one of my favorites because you got to talk with other leaders from other businesses and organizations. I think the principal has to not only be visible but he has to participate in various community activities. We had a lot of support from a lot of people when I was at Linkous. We had AAUW which is women's organization of educators at Virginia Tech. We had all kinds of clubs in the community that would contribute, to help to improve the library and contribute to the breakfast program. Virginia Tech Corp of Cadets had a profound influence on my management style. And then, I was in Air Force as an officer for four and half years. I guess the military discipline, I don't mean that in terms taking orders and making orders, but in terms of having very structured planned goals that you head for. The military also how to and how to consider various things you need to consider in order to attain those goals. Funny thing about it, my parents were rather disciplined as far as our doing right or wrong. I think that gave me the structure in my life that I needed. I carried these all my life in education and in Air Force. I had tremendous leadership responsibilities in the Air Force. I learned to get along, to get the job done not in terms of me being there to give an order, but for me to give an order in such a way people would want to respond. At Gilbert Linkous people knew that after I got all the information, one person would make the decision. Once having made it, people would know that I would stand by the decision and explain why I made it. I guess the military really influenced my management style.
Q: Now I would like to ask about the role of Assistant Principal. You were Assistant Principal then you became Principal. What do you think should be the role of the Assistant Principal?
A: Personally, I think of role of Principal and Assistant principal all are messed up in education. Let me tell you why? Long ago, when I first became Assistant Principal I learned that you had a certain administrative responsibilities that you were judged on, graded on more than your personal expertise. There was more emphasis on whether you got your reports in on time than whether you were helping teachers. You knew that you are evaluated on certain administrative capabilities you know where your time went. I believe there should be one person to do all the administrative work. Call that person School Administrator or Assistant Administrator. If you wanted the principal to do his job which we defined principal as educational leader. Then we need to organization call school so he can lead not just be the administrative leader. He should in position where he can provide leadership to teachers who have problems in teaching. How many principals can do that? They are so busy today doing other things. At Gilbert Linkous when we had 1,135 students, we had one secretary and me. Then they gave me an Assistant Principal and later a Resource Teacher. I did not want the Resource Teacher to be mixed up with anything like evaluation. I wanted my classroom teachers to talk to Resource Teacher about how do teach. I think we should get Master Teacher out of classroom teachers and make them Resource Teacher. Then you could get a good building administration to take care of all the paper work.
Q: I would like to question you about school size. Discuss your views about increasing school size and your suggestions about ideal size of schools in terms of administration.
A: I have very concise ideas about what size school should be. I think elementary schools should never be more than 500 students. That is kind of arbitrary number. I think between 350 and 500 the lower number would be ideal. In high schools, there has been a lot of research. Experts came up with 1,000 students as minimum that you can have and might be still offer the wide variety of courses what you want to add. I think 1,200 students all right. I think if we get more that you have just problems everywhere. I think you can maintain that feeling of comradeship among your faculty better when you have smaller schools. Parents can identify with the total program rather than segments of it. I think that is really important. We got the idea in education, somewhere back, that bigger is better. It just isn't in education. We have learned the hard way by building some of huge high schools. People loose their identity. They loose pride. Size influences not only academics, but athletics as well. At a large high school with 5,000 students you can only have 11 people in football team and five people in basketball team. You can see the ratio would be better in a smaller school. I do think smaller schools are better. One of the things that would improve education more than any thing else is pupil-teacher ratio. Long before was it was popular, I advocated along with a lot of my colleagues that pupil-teacher ratio was probably the most important component of good educational program. People asked me what I mean by low. It depends upon your organization. I have been in many classrooms. There is no way you can teach kindergarten with 25 students. I would say 15 is optimal. I can not prove it scientifically but my observation tells me that is true. When I was principal we did things that we would be thrown out of profession for doing today. We used grouping, we used achievement and ability grouping. For example, I had five classes of fifth grade students. I had a top class and I had bottom class. I had mixtures in between. We had a few parents who didn't like this system because of the social-economic aspect of it. I still maintained we could more easily reach the student at his performance level and teachers could teach better under this system. If you integrate your students in lot of other programs like art, library, music, physical education, exploratory courses, you can do so much and yet still teach these students in homogeneous groups in the core subjects. If I advocated it now, it would be hard because right now in Montgomery County they advocate mainstreaming special need students and they claim it is working.
Q: Now a question about bureaucratic complexity. Would you comment on the situation during your administrative career? Was paper work a problem? What would say about this?
A: You got to remember that I have been retired 13 years and I have been away from education 13 years, from 1986. I think that a good administrator has a real good right about administrative chores. I think administrators are expected to do best on paper work. He is probably evaluated more highly on this work than anything else. I think that the most good administrators want to have the appropriate help in administration details so they can concentrate on overseeing education and working closer with teachers. There were many days I could not possibly get in classroom because of discipline, attendance, and administrative chores. Yet teacher's needs don't change and they are going to have problems on that day as well as any other day. There is always a tie in between administrative duties and instructional programs. I think that you have to have an educator in that sort of thing but I do think you can take away a lot of the tedious, even time consuming things that eat up a principal's time. When I went to Linkous, there was building and I had not grass, no playground. Every year I had to hire four teachers and I had to get that room set up and I had to find desks. Sometimes I used my own pick up truck to haul desks to set up a classroom, to haul supplies. I went to my PTA and I said our children don't have a playground. They said what plan do you have. PTA raised the money. My PTA gave me money and we blacktopped the area, dug our goal posts. Then, I went to Roanoke and I bought basketball goals. We marked play areas for different games and so on. It ended up Okay. I think that today administrators complain that they are tied down with so many administrative procedures that they don't feel like they can to do the other job.
Q: Would you discuss general relationship with Board of Education and comment on the effectiveness of school boards operations in general.
A: When I was principal the school board was appointed by school electoral board and the school electoral board was appointed by Circuit Judge. So it was a little removed from people. Now we have school board elected by popular vote, by people which is, I think, a good way of doing it. The School Board when I was Principal had the responsibility for developing policies and the Superindentant and his immediate staff, central office staff had responsibility overseeing that these policies are carried out. This filtered on down to the Principals, the other Assistant Principals and so forth. The relationship generally was one where the Principal made reports to Board. Board members would visit schools and tried to keep up with what we are doing. The relationship was good with those School Board members who took their responsibilities seriously in terms of making policy. We had some School Board members who got little mixed up sometimes and got into the daily routine of school operation. When School Board members stuck to policy formulation and would come and talk to Principals about policies and what policies were needed in order to make our job effective. I think that it was great system.
Q: Next question is related school curriculum. Now school curriculum has became much more complex in recent years. Would you comment on the nature of the curriculum during the time when you were principal and compare to the situation in today's schools?
A: Let me just say that wiser people than I have tackled this curriculum problem. Right now, as you know, we have a big discussion about SOLs. I think the problem with education when I was principal and when I was teacher is the fact that we were not consistent throughout state of Virginia on what we taught. It is true that everybody in fourth grade had Virginia History. It is true that everybody in Virginia had algebra. But at the same time, our curriculum was primarily based on textbooks and whatever that textbook had in it is what was taught. We had a state list of approved texts. For example, we had six English books approved by state and you could use any one of those approved books. We had teacher committees and they worked on selection of textbooks. Whatever textbook you picked teachers generally said that was the bible. I think we got away from this business breaking down our learning program into specific objectives. I think we had textbook objectives but not learning objectives. That is a very difficult thing. I think closest we came to curriculum, mastery of curriculum, in terms of breaking it down, was when we went briefly into an ungraded program. I think that concept was one of the best concepts we ever came up with in education. Because it allowed students to progress at their own ability and pace. Now we are scaring parents and scaring educators by saying that if a child does not pass he will not be promoted. The ungraded school took away that promotion, that cast system whereby you just spent 180 days and you did whatever that textbook and whatever that teacher required and you went into the next grade. Under that system we have had students that were socially promoted. What you are going to do with the student who hadn't learned to read? That has been a dilemma of ours for years and years. And we do have 10 and 12 years olds who do not read, anyway, near the grade level they would be in relationship to their age. I think that the ungraded idea was good because you did not move forward in a curriculum until you had mastered a certain objective. When I taught agriculture I taught woodwork, for example. One of the first projects that you had in woodwork was to make a tool box. To make the tool box, students had to learn to select lumber and they had to learn to saw a board, had to learn different kinds of saws (crosscut) and they had to learn about types of screws and bolts. We had a chart and they had to go through and master those skills that were necessary to make the tool box. Once they had mastered all the skills - then they made the tool box. That is sort of thing, I think, we need to do in education. SOLs are just that, standards of learning, a certain standards that had to be met if you are to progress. But I still think we are going to have some students who cannot pass them. Then what are you going to do with them? Somebody is going to answer that question. I don't care what goal you set up. If you set up high jump, higher than you and I are going jump it. What are you going with guy who doesn't jump it? At the same time he has the law that says he has to go school until a certain age. What is going to happen to him when he fulfills the law but can't pass SOLs? We are demanding our students do certain things but we don't have an answer to that question of what to do if he can't do these things. I think there are some good answers to those questions. We have vast resources we can take to students that are not adept at learning some of these academic requirements we have. I think we can do a lot with students. There are a lot of vocations they can go into. The curriculum is more complex. I am sure it is more sophisticated in elementary school now. Now we have full time art teachers. We still don't have such things as foreign languages in elementary school which was something being suggested even back when I was in elementary school. We have advanced placement courses. I think schools are improved tremendously. They all have became complex. I think, in a way we've ungraded the high school even more than elementary school. High school has a way of channeling students into many different academic and career fields.
Q: Would you describe typical work day? How did you spend your time?
A: When school started, I would get school an hour before school started. During that time I had informal meetings with my custodians, checked with my cafeteria staff, I would have meetings with various teachers before school. Then when school started, I was on the go all day with parent conferences, school staff meetings, reports, and in the classrooms. At the end of day I was really fatigued. One of my favorite activities was when a teacher would ask me come to read to students. I would get away from some of administrative stuff. Every time, I asked myself what kind of job I am doing in this world and I wanted to get rejuvenated, just I would go to one of the first or second grade classrooms and see the eagerness these students had for learning. They look at the principal as being some type of God and thus I just love to dispel that. You can dispel it so quickly but still have them respect the role of Principal. During the day I had parent-teacher conferences and had to attend special placement meeting of special education students. I had to do some of immediate planning for faculty meetings and plan for principal meetings. If I write it all down it probably would be volumes. Wonderful thing about it was that a good part of it was new every day and you really enjoyed and you looked forward to it. It wasn't the same thing every day. We had a requirement that teachers meet with parents so many times a year as routine. I didn't want every meeting to be limited to a child's problem. I ask teachers to meet with parents routinely because I didn't want it to appear that when they saw their parents in school they had a problem. I always said positive things about their children and I asked teachers to do the same. With a few students it was really hard to say something positive.
Q: When and how did you come to decision to retire from your administrative job?
A: I never even thought about retiring until two years before I actually retired. That was premature in a way because I never thought I would retire at age 57. But I had 36 years of service when I was 57. When I went to School Board, it was 1973. I became Supervisor of middle schools. We had to organize middle school curriculum. We didn't implement what we organized, not fully. Middle schools are still not the middle schools and that we planned for a lot of reasons. One was, for example, we wanted a good transition between elementary and middle school and we didn't get there. We wanted more exploratory courses. A sixth grade student had K through five one teacher all day and then he jumped to sixth grade there were six or seven teachers. To help with this adjustment, our original plan was to have no more than two or three teachers student would see in the middle school. One teacher could take care of several subjects. After the middle schools were organized, the Superindentant said we don't need you anymore and we have to save money. The Superindentant approached me and said he would like me to be in administrative assistant. I became the administrative assistant to Dr. Sari, which I thoroughly enjoyed for number of years. Then we had a change of School Board members and they said "Wait a minute here. We just can't afford administrative assistant. But we do need Director of Purchasing." At that time, the purchasing law was coming to effect and all schools were required to get competitive bids, prices on things. I wrote a manual for the Directors of Purchasing. The School Board had a meeting and called me and asked if I would take the job, Director of Purchasing. I told them that I rather not and prefer to stay in instruction. But they said they really hard needed me to do this. So I consented. We got organized. We had a manual and things were going along. They had many strict requirements but I had carried them out. Having a military background, I didn't questioned policies as long they were honorable. We had certain personalities on School Board at that time. I am saying it delicately as I can. We had personalities on School Board that came up with this idea said: "Steve is instructional based and we're paying him so much for Director Purchasing which is based on instructional attributes. We can get a Director Purchasing cheaper." So I retired.
Q: I feel that there is something I have left out. What have I not asked you that I should have?
A: I talked a lot. I could have done a much better job of this if I would have had the questions beforehand. The first meeting I had with PTA , we had a big meeting. I told them that " You may not have a brightest guy as being your principal but you've got one who is willing to work hard and always be honest with you." I did that. I had no regrets as far as my relationships. I had a wonderful time in Blacksburg. People are wonderful here. We have wonderful schools in Blacksburg and Montgomery County. I think we have best schools now as we have ever had. I have two children. My son was born in 1952 and he is doctor of Medicine. He went to Blacksburg and Christiansburg Montgomery County schools. I know his education was such when he graduated school he could go any college he wanted to. He went to Davidson College and University of North Carolina Medschool. When my daughter came along, she went to Linkous Elementary School. She is a veterinarian. I am really proud of my children. She went to Blacksburg High School and she went to Virginia Tech for three years and went to University of Georgia Vetschool. We didn't have Vetschool here at that time. I say it to people who are so critical to education that education is there. What people can take advantage of this. Thank you Mr. Wheeler for sharing with us your experiences as administrator and your thought about education system in the United States. I have learned many new things. I would like to thank Dr. Dyer for assistance and for arranging of this interview and for all the help.
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