IIt is Saturday, November 21, 1992. It is 4:00 in the afternoon. This is an interview with Verna Wylie, a retired principal from the Warren City Schools.
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Q: Verna, would you begin by telling us about your family background, your childhood interests and development?
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: Yes. Linda, I'm from a family of four children - three sisters and one brother, well really two sisters - three girls and one boy and I'm from a family that has a lot of educators. In fact, two of the members of my immediate family are educators. I have a sister who was the administrator over the Headstart Program for the Warren City Schools for several years and she retired three years ago. I was really motivated to become a teacher by relatives in the South because at the time that I went to school, you know as an elementary student, there were no black teachers in this area and just knowing that somewhere in this country were black educators kind of motivated me at an early age to want to be like the people whom I admired. I graduated from Youngstown College as well as having gone through Youngstown School system. I received my Masters Degree from Westminster in New Wilmington. I've done post-graduate work at Case Western Reserve, Kent State University and Adelphi College in Garden City, New York.
Q: You've had an interesting background. So you've been having local roots as well as been out of town.
Q: That provides for a nice cross section of interests.
A: Reasonably diversified.
Q: I would say very nicely so. Would you talk about the circumstances surrounding your entry into the principalship?
A: I was a classroom teacher, I think for nine years. You know it's been so long - I was also a reading teacher and also coordinator for the reading program, of the reading program for the Warren City Schools. And after 4 years of being the reading coordinator, I went to Dr. Boyd and requested to go back into the classroom. My reason for this request is I found myself getting so far removed from working with the children. I found myself doing much more desk work than I enjoyed so I thought this would be the way to get back to doing something that I truly loved. At this time Dr. Boyd strongly encouraged me to become a principal and I must tell you that I am one who had said deliver me from ever becoming a principal. I just...it just was not appealing to me but after spending a lot of time talking with Dr. Boyd and Dr. Boyd convinced me that I would be in a position to help a lot more youngsters by being the building principal, I finally said yes. So it was not a situation of applying for the principalship. I thought the assignment would be very very difficult because I was assigned to Garfield School in Warren and at that time there were absolutely no blacks in the building in any capacity and I said openly to people, I just was not willing to be the Jackie Robinson in education in Warren but I started thinking that how great it would be for the youngsters who attend Garfield School to see a black in this position. What I thought would be a very difficult assignment turned out to be a wonderful assignment. They were very very supportive parents, wonderful youngsters, and a great staff. I think when we talk about motivation for going into the principalship, you can see it was not a self motivated act, it was sort of encouraged by the superintendent but once becoming a principal the rewards were so great that it became a self-motivating kind of activity. Being a principal has just been wonderful to me throughout the years.
Q: That's a real interesting background.
A: Thank you.
Q: What techniques did you use to create a successful climate for learning?
A: Of course creating a positive learning climate is not an easy task but certainly a very important task. Some of the things that we did to create this environment... and Linda, I do have some literature for you to read
Q: Thank You.
A: that's from the school when I was building principal...we organized an advisory or school improvement group and they served as collegial decision makers. We planned together, we looked at problems together, and through the leadership of this group and the principal we were able to share our belief with other staff members that all children can learn. In fact, it became a religion in the building - that all children can learn because this has to be the basic assumption in creating an effective learning climate. So often the minute you say learning climate we think of discipline. Discipline is a very important component of a learning climate but first you have to start with a belief in what the youngsters can do. Compatible with the belief that all children can learn we also discussed and started to actualize the feeling that we are accountable for the learning that takes place in the building. We oftentimes would compare our profession with that of the physician and we sometimes would say you will not hear a physician blame the ills of his or her patient on the patient but we sometimes will hear some of our peers blame all of the problems of youngsters on the youngsters. So we said we have to be accountable. We have to look at what we are doing in order to make a difference. We have to give personal attention to youngsters with individual needs and individual...ah...problems. We must always avoid that missionary spirit where we feel that the children are nice but we have a low level of aspiration for those youngsters. All children can learn and we must have high standards or high expectations. Now I mean realistic high expectations. So this became part of the mind set of the staff with whom I had the privilege of working. Now based on that we certainly had to talk about those things that have to do with discipline so we talked a lot about a pro-active approach to discipline. Let's catch the youngsters being good. We had...we developed four or five building rules and this did not just happen, you know, one day but it involved teachers talking, students talking...involving parents, and discussing what is.. what should be the rules for the building because we knew that in order to get the commitment from the staff, the students, and parents, we needed to solicit their input. Once we established four or five building-wide rules, these rules were posted in classrooms...they were posted in the halls. Everyone knew exactly what the rules were and they also knew the consequences if the rules were broken. We also communicated the rules and high expectations to the staff and students through newsletters. We had a student handbook. We had orientation assemblies. We had meetings with parents. One of the problems that I still remember vividly it that there were sometimes problems in consistency in reinforcing the rules because you oftentimes will have one or two staff members who want to be considered popular by the students and sometimes they will not...they would not reinforce the rules so that the children would like them and of course we always stressed the importance of respect. Now part of our pro-active approach is we had building-wide positive reinforcement program. We used social rewards, we used tangibles and privileges. We were also able to involve the business community in helping us with some of the tangible rewards. Along with developing a positive school climate was the importance of the...of the principal being recognized as being supportive to the efforts of teachers. This did not mean that the office could be used as a dumping ground because we felt that we worked with the teachers enough for them to be able to use a lot of strategies to deal with their old pro-active approach or negative reinforce or even punishment. We even used bibliotherapy which I think is not used enough to help students reflect on inappropriate behavior. It was very common to observe the principal assigning a book to a youngster to read about bullying. We wanted them to reflect and think about their behavior, not just come up with a quick fix or "I will behave" which I'm sure is an approach you would certainly not recommend. We inserviced the staff...this was a big issue in our building as you have probably already determined...we inserviced the staff on the role of using negative reinforcers. Realistically we know that the positive reinforcement program will not reach 100% of the children but then we needed to talk about procedures and just what are negative reinforcers? What are appropriate punishments? When I came along as a beginning principal and in my early years in the principalship corporal punishment was acceptable but Linda, even back then, my contention and it was reinforced was that no staff member was to have a paddle in the classroom. There was a paddle in the office and I can sincerely tell you that in my many years as a building administrator I probably used it fewer than five times. We just found that there are other ways to deal with discipline problems.
Q: I agree. I agree completely.
A: And so often what we found is the youngsters who sometimes were recommended to be paddled by teachers were the youngsters who received the greatest amount of paddlings at home. Which means it was not effective. So that was one thing. But one more thing...we also worked on having a sense of community and this is such a big aspect of having a positive school climate. A sense of pride now whether I was elementary or junior high principal, we had that school song. We had the school motto. We did...we had the school mascot and all of this helped with developing school spirit. It brought pride, it brought loyalty and a sense of unity not only to the students but to the staff. It was great fun on Thursdays when we all wore our either Garfield School t-shirts, sweatshirts or of the East Junior sweatshirts. Staff and students alike. And of course, I still remember the slogan East Excels because it really helped to set the tone for improvement in the cognitive and affective domain. In fact...and I'll show you this a little later...we were given a half page coverage to our East Excels program but I have to share something kind of humorous because you know there's always students who are going to rebel against what you think is a great idea.
A: So with those students who rebelled it was not East Excels, it was East Repels. So I used to get a kick out of that and then we solicited the support of the parents in promoting a positive learning climate. Now I've said a lot but this is such an important element.
Q: And I know that didn't happen overnight. That was a long..those were long-term goals.
A: Yea, and you can look at this later.
Q: Thank you. Oh this is wonderful, thank you very much. What kind of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do?
A: Oh gee...teachers really expect principals to be able to walk on water. I say that in all sincere...you know...sincerity. When you respond to all of the teachers perceived - and notice I'm putting an accent on the word perceived needs - you're a great administrator. Sometimes when you are not responding to their perceived needs because your perceptions are not exactly the same, you are considered less than being an adequate principal. And it's very important for potential administrators to recognize this and also practicing administrators to recognize this and realize that your mission as a building administrator must always emphasize the importance of the students with the staff only being supportive of that effort. We were in the building because of the students and it's not the other way around. But when I think in terms of those components that are important to being an effective principal there are some. First let me preface this by saying after my so called retirement I was asked to go back to the school system for two years and I served as a staff development specialist and one of the responsibilities of that position was to train potential administrators so discussing the characteristics of an effective administrator was a very important part of that training and first we always emphasized and these are almost textbook kinds of things but they...they're....
Q: They work and they're practical.
A: They work and they're right, that's exactly right... they're practical. One is you must have a high stress tolerance because there are a multitude of unpredictables that one must respond to as a building principal. I once had an assistant and this was so difficult for him because he wanted to always be a step ahead and we would have conferences and he would say "Now Verna, if I do this, it will prevent this from happening" and that's ok to a point but you also have to be ready to not fall apart when those unpredictable type things happen so you have to have that high stress tolerance. You must be able to communicate not only orally but also written communication. You must be able to communicate not only with the staff, with the students but also with the public because you are the PR person for education. Everywhere you go, you know, people are going to listen to you and make some assumptions about education based on the way you communicate. But in communicating it is also very important to realize that you are not communicating at the person or persons to whom you are communicating or not understanding and receiving. Another important component is decisiveness. You must be able to make a decision if you are going to be an effective principal whether in the eyes of the teacher or students or Mr. Public. You cannot be wishy washy because when you are wishy washy it really creates a lot of instability in the building. You know I have sometimes felt that it's better to make sometimes a poor decision than to never make any decision.
Q: You can learn from a poor decision.
A: That's..that's right. That's right. And then too, when you make the decision make sure that you are going to be accountable. Don't make a decision and have to fall short of your expectations...blame it on downtown or blame it on some other entity.
A: Sensitivity is very important. It plays such an important role in the group dynamics that take place in the building. It also influences decisions that you must make...ah...it's extremely important for building principals to be aware of cultural differences. You have to be sensitive to cultural differences. I have observed youngsters being disciplined because an educator thought they had done something that was disrespectful when it was not disrespectful but it was just a very natural part of the culture. Let me share this with you Linda, African-Americans by nature generally are a little louder than Euro-Americans and oftentimes it's not being disrespectful or rude or disorderly conduct when you see a group of African Americans, say Jr. High students, talking...it can...it's just a very natural part of their communicating style. So this is just one indication and there are many...um...have to be sensitive to the strengths and weaknesses of the staff to others and always build upon those strengths. An effective administrator must possess leadership qualities. Now the debate to whether or not an effective administrator should be a manager or an instructional leader is one that will wage on and on probably through eternity but my contention is that an effective building administrator must operate first in the instructional leader role. Now one of the reasons that I was always able to do this is because I was fortunate to have extremely efficient secretaries. So I must say that because if a building principal does not have this luxury then he or she has to operate in many roles...um...when I say being an instructional leadership..I'm sorry...instructional leader I do not want to imply that this means a building principal has to know everything about all subjects but it does mean that that building administrator must know how to utilize the resources of Central Office and other places and persons. You have to know where to go to get answers for the staff if you don't have them. You also should have some kind of instructional skill. I really feel that all building administrators should be strong in some area of the curriculum. They should know how to deal with goal setting, that building administrator should know how to monitor progress...oh...an effective principal should also be a well organized person. I don't want to leave that out who practices effective time management tasks and of course the last but certainly not the least is there should be personal motivation and that personal motivation should be much more than getting a pay check.
Q: I think that's a real good global synopsis of what's necessary.
A: Um hum.
Q: Would you describe the expectations both professional and personal that were placed upon principals by their employers and the community during your period of employment and possibly compare those expectations with what's being asked of administrators today.
A: OK. I think the expectations I've already articulated plus additional ones would certainly speak for the administrator in 1992. Because of the increasing demands of society it means that the demands on the building principal or administrator is also increased. When I was a principal I did not have to deal with students carrying handguns. I did not have to deal with very many students who had drug problems. The increase in single parent families certainly has brought about a change. The unemployment problem certainly has it's impact on the school. All of these things indicate that the building principal is going to have to even be more sensitive to the demands of society. The demands that are brought about in a home where there is only one parent and that parent is working. Uh..you know we could spend a lot of time on the doom and gloom aspect of 1992 and schools but I don't like to give an inordinate amount of time to this - our press does, I think, too much of this because we know about the self-fulfilling prophesies and I think the more we emphasize and talk about all these doom and gloom aspects the more it gives us an excuse to not deal with reality and go on and teach the youngsters.
Q: I agree.
A: To the best of our ability.
Q: I agree and I've been doing reading that an administrator should always be optimistic and in any situation you can look at the optimistic side or the pessimistic side so I think it's part of a good administrators responsibility to be optimistic and to focus on what is good about the situation.
A: You know you could look at that glass, Linda, and see it half full or half empty.
A: And we certainly as educators we must look at that glass of water and view it as half full.
Q: Because if we don't as leaders there's not a lot of other people that will.
A: That's right.
Q: There are those that argue that more often than not Central Office policies hinder rather than help building level administrators in carrying out the responsibilities. Would you give us your views on this issue?
A: Yes, in my experience as a building principal I found Central Office to be very supportive more so than supplantive. I always felt like Harry Truman and his slogan...you know, the buck stops here. I don't want to sound like Bush or Clinton - I think they both used this in part of their campaign but I did not blame downtown for all of my errors and even when working with potential administrators in the leadership training program one of the things that we stressed is please don't go into the principalship and blame downtown every time a problem occurs. I think with the site based management we are going to see more and more administrators utilizing the resources of the...the..the central office staff.
Q: If you were king or queen for a day what changes would you make in the typical system wide organizational arrangements as a way of improving administrative efficiency and effectiveness?
A: There are many things I would do in terms of having that support staff....central office support staff being a little more qualified. First, I would make sure that adequate training and experience were prerequisites to becoming central office administrators. I think that all central office positions should be filled with competent administrators who have been trained in the area that they are expected to supervise. I think it is also to their advantage to have had some building level administrative experience. Central office folks should possess some of the same characteristics of an effective building administrator that we've already articulated. I think these are the things that would make them more effective as a resource to the principal. I would make sure that all central office staff administrators remained current on issues facing education and I would want all central office administrators to be capable of planning and conducting inservice sessions in their area of expertise.
Q: If you were advising a person who is considering an administrative job, what type of advice would you give them?
A: Linda, I would say that it's going to be a very challenging, demanding position but I would also say that the rewards are very great. I would also advise that person to think about his or her goal in becoming an administrator. This is not especially glamorous so I would want that person to really have a good vision or mission as to why he or she wanted to be a building administrator. I would also say get adequate training. I would also say that you must be aware of the characteristics of what one considers to be an effective administrator that compare your characteristics with what is expected and I would certainly stress the importance of knowing that you are going to work long hours. It is a position that can sometimes be very lonely and the reason for this is so often you must make unpopular decisions and the thing about making unpopular decisions when you may be ostracized and not held in high esteem with some of your coworkers because you've had to make an unpopular decision is as long as that decision was made in the best interest of youngsters and you can sincerely feel this way you're all right. You cannot have thin skin.
Q: And you can't be popular all the time but you have to do what's right rather than what's popular.
A: My contention was that I always wanted to earn, not just have, but earn the respect of the staff. Never mind loving me...of course, we all certainly like to be loved.
A: But if it means being loved as an administrator for the wrong reason deliver me from that kind of love. You know...
Q: I agree
A: Sure, years later you want that teacher to look back and say, "You know, that administrator did know a little something."
Q: And was able really to lead and make a positive influence on both the staff as well as the children he or she services.
A: And I don't want to leave that on that note by me because one of my...ah...one of my real prides is I have a box of letters that have been written to me by teachers and I don't care where I go, you know, when your spirits get
Q: That's right.
A: kind of low...you just take those letters...
Q: Keep those with you
A: And know that we have an awful lot of positive educators. Linda, you know I'm going to say positive educators if they sent me nice notes.
Q: That's right. I keep a file of those too. I was told to keep them under my pillow because they would be really comforts to me when I couldn't sleep at night.
Q: It has often been said that the principal should be active in community affairs. Please discuss your involvement with and participation in civic groups and other community organizations.
A: Oh, I think it's very important to be involved in the community. Not only is it important for public relation reasons but it also offers an administrator great networking capability or assistance. It helps to give the image that the principal and administrator is interested in much more than just school related issues. It is my opinion that principal outreach into the community is essential. If one wants to truly earn the respect that we as public servants and we are public servants...ah...if we want to earn that respect from the general public. Now personally I have been involved in many, many civic and community organizations, organizations such as Rebecca Williams, Valley Counseling, Parkview Counseling Board, Western Reserve Boy Scouts, Health Maintenance Program Board, Youngstown Playhouse...and I could go on and on and on and of course I certainly wasn't involved in all of them at the same time. Probably the one that I feel had the greatest influence was serving on the Youngstown African-American Advisory...Youngstown Playhouse African-American Advisory Council as the chairman because through the efforts of this committee, African-Americans became much more inclusive in the operations there at the Playhouse and for years African Americans felt isolated. They felt excluded from everything that happened at the Playhouse. It was sort of a place for the elite and we have seen a great change...um...,for the better, occur as a result. One example...of course this is sort of...ah...child related...when our committee was first formed there were I believe six or seven African-American youngsters in the Youth Theater Program. After we started operating we had as many as twenty-seven African-American youngsters involved in Youth Theater. That's just one example. I can give you many where...
A: people really made the difference.
Q: And that they can really demonstrate the talent that they always have had.
Q: And now have a place that they can showcase this.
A: But you see if the principal had not been involved in that outreach program perhaps this
Q: That's true
A: Would not have happened.
Q: That's true
A: Maybe I'm giving myself far to much credit.
Q: Oh no, I think you deserve it.
A: Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn't say that I'm very very active in my church because it not only has influenced me greatly as an administrator but as a person.
Q: That's wonderful and I think that does give you that spiritual base.
Q: Which we all, I believe, we all need.
A: Oh, I do too. I believe.
Q: Verna, it has been said that there is a home/school gap and that more parental involvement with the school needs to be developed. Would you give your view on this issue and describe how you interacted with parents and with citizens who were important to the well-being of the school?
A: Parental involvement is a must. The parents are certainly a very important part of the team. I remember once being questioned by Superintendent Abe Hammond when I was principal at Lincoln School and his question was "Verna, how do you get so many parents involved in school program?" I said, "Well number 1, Dr. Hammond, we have not set ourselves on a pedestal that says we cannot make a mistake" and we do appeal to the loyalty of the parents by saying this. You may see some mistakes made in the building but hopefully a minimum of mistakes. We also felt that it was very important to dignify the talents of the parents. We did not have them come to school just to pull on youngster's boots, wipe noses, and do very menial tasks so there was that sense of importance on the part of the parents and believe me they were important. We realized that parents are one of our most important resources. We need the support of parents when we're dealing with attendance, dealing with academic achievement, homework, discipline, we just must consider them an integral part of the team. Now it was a little easier a few years back than it is today because we have fewer traditional homes and what this calls for are alternatives to traditional ways of involving parents. Parental involvement has to take place in several basic areas. Parenting skills should be a high priority especially in certain schools where you feel that the help is needed a little more. This means helping parents know how to support the schools. There are ways of doing this...there are ways of getting parents involved in any type school. The reason I'm so adamant about this, Linda, is I was the principal of a school that was a feeder school for the youngsters from Fairview Gardens in Warren City. Fairview Gardens is considered to be...well it's public housing...public housing where a lot of problems exist. In fact, Fairview Gardens was in the paper frequently last year, but we wanted those parents to be involved. We wanted them to be supportive of the schools so since they would not come to the schools for awhile of course I must say that I would not expect teachers to do this because maybe I was a little braver. I would schedule meetings in the Projects in the office building so that I could get parents to come and we could talk about some things that were going on in school and I knew to schedule those meetings towards the end of the month when funds were not as great because it was before the AD..the welfare check was received. We always served, we always played games and there were of course the games were of an academic nature. If we played bingo, we used school concepts but there were prizes and some very nice times.
Q: What a great idea to develop rapport.
A: That's right.
A: And it worked beautifully. We even had parties at the Projects, you know hot dogs and the whole thing where parents, usually it was mothers, danced with the students and I must tell you that Mrs. Wylie likes to dance, and I would dance with the students but what we were able to do is to move from the project area to the building. The parents were...became unintimidated by an educator and we got parents - some of the same parents who were reluctant about visiting the school - started coming to the schools. Now I will tell you I did a few things that I should not have done and since I am no longer an employee, I will tell you one of them and don't be nervous Linda, I can't be fired. But I would encourage the parents to ride the buses so that they would have a way to get to the building and you know parents really are not supposed to ride the buses but I took that risk. Sometimes I would go and get a carload or get someone else to go with me and get a carload of parents in and bring them to school. But anyway, it helped get the parents there so I'm just giving you an illustration of a way to get parents from that area where we say parents don't care, parents won't come. Parents need to know about the role in communicating with the schools. We would talk a lot to parents about report cards, what those report cards meant and to look at report cards as a positive experience not one where you beat the youngster because he or she received let's say an unsatisfactory grade meaning a "D". But make it a positive experience in giving hope to youngsters. If what you do even with working parents, with parents in this area you will see improvement. It's just a matter of teaching parents how to use positive reinforcement to bring about a positive change. We made once again and I can't say this enough, we made the parents feel welcome because they were welcome. We made them feel important because they were important and they were unintimidated by the school environment. You know many times I went to the homes and I would drink a cup of coffee when I really did not want to drink a cup of coffee but I realized the importance of drinking that coffee even if the cup wasn't quite as clean as I would like because we just wanted to feel, wanted the parents to feel that we were a part of their world because we were part of that home/school team. We also...um...realized the importance of having parents volunteer and once again I've already alluded to this. We did dignify their talents regardless of what that talent would be. Learning - we had meetings where we would show the connection to learning. We would show parents some things that they could do to support the curriculum and we were always very careful to make sure that the technique or strategy that we showed the parent was commensurate with what we perceived was their ability. Now sometimes you get into dangerous territory when you try to make this type decision but we tried to. Then we also used parents in a governance's role. We needed to hear from them. We needed to solicit their input. We needed to listen to their recommendations, recommendations in terms of improving school climate. Parental involvement was a very important part of the whole improving the learning environment at the schools where I had, once again, the privilege of being principal. Because I guess I will end this when we talk about parental involvement by saying participation engenders commitment. When you have committed parents, you're going to have improved learning environments for youngsters.
Q: That sense of trust that you helped build is a wonderful quality. I think in that regard if parents did have a problem with their child at home they could depend on you as someone that you could just...they could just talk to and then work together as..as that important team in order to solve the problem. That's a wonderful quality that you did enable them to have with you.
A: You know and that not only happened with the building principal but there were many teachers who operated at the same fashion. We had many teachers where parents felt very comfortable to go and discuss even some of their intimate concerns and they did not feel as though they would be ostracized or laughed at. They did not feel as though they had to be careful, that they used correct grammar. We had a staff that realized the significance of English as a second language so there was some...and once again we're getting back to talking about being sensitive, aren't we?
Q: Yes, yes, and the real importance of the person
Q: Over what they may look like or how they may express themselves. Each individual does have worth and should be respected for that.
A: Umhum. Let me just...just tell a little....this really happened, it's kind of a funny story. I heard of it, now I was not part of this but supposedly a teacher went to a home one day and she was telling the parent that her daughter had a smell and the parent said to the teacher "I am not sending my child to school for you to smell, I am sending my child to school for you to teach."
Q: Very interesting. Just a change of focus for a minute or two. Um, I wanted to ask you about the role of the assistant principal. I know that you worked with assistant principals and would you be able just to discuss a little bit about that type of a role and what the utilization of that person should be while they're on the job?
A: It's always been my belief that the role of the assistant principal should not strictly be that of the disciplinarian. I know that's kind of the popular view or the popular role of the assistant principal. An assistant principal has to have some of the same skills and do a lot of the same things that the building administrator has to do. That assistant has to be supportive to the role of the building principal in all aspects. An assistant principal should be able to and should help evaluate staff, should work with students in a positive role and not just in a negative manner, you know, where you're punishing but do some things once again to prevent problems. Use the proactive approach. I was fortunate to work with an assistant principal who had a willingness to learn. He assisted in staff development activities, went to workshops, did a lot of reading. He provided leadership for various school projects. In fact, it was really a privilege to work with an assistant who was dedicated to providing the best possible education to every child. This person constantly was picking my brain. I think he picked everything, you know, that I had. Now to tell you what happened to the assistant...when I retired he was reassigned to become an elementary building principal and my successor did have some problems...I think because of such a different administrative style. So it was kind of..it was difficult for the staff but he...my replacement or my successor...remained in that building for two years and then Mr. Jacobs, that was the assistant principal, was reassigned after two years as an elementary principal to go back and become the East Jr. High principal. He was there one year and they closed East Jr. High, so he was reassigned to another elementary building. He now is presently serving as a building administrator in the Howland School System...ah...so I think he's been very successful. I think he developed a lot of those skills that we equate with effective building administrators as an assistant principal and if we had only permitted him to function as a disciplinarian think of how this man would have been cheated and he is making a very wonderful contribution to our profession.
Q: Well, that's wonderful. I guess he's a very flexible person too after moving so many times in a short amount of time.
Q: As you view it, what are the characteristics that are associated with the most effective schools?
A: First, let me say that I do believe in the Effective Schools Program so you're going to hear me articulate those things that are commonly stated as those characteristics of an effective school. Number 1 is there has to be a vision. There has to be visionary leadership and there has to be a sense of mission to be an effective school. You have to have some idea as to where you want to go and some of those things that you must do in order to get there. It has to be that strong building leadership - leadership that relates to being accountable for what happens in the building. You can't blame others, you have to be a strong leader and we've already talked about a positive learning climate but you have to have a learning climate where teachers can teach and youngsters can learn. You have to catch those youngsters being good. We've already talked about parent/community involvement. Once again, it's a must and you need a broad support base from the community, from your parents in order to have an effective school. And really a big...and a big concern of mine and probably a concern of yours, Linda, is there has to be an awareness of pupil progress in relationship to instructional objectives. If I were to specify one thing that I felt was too often a weakness in what goes on in classrooms, this would be one of the areas. Even in working with student teachers we have a time convincing them of the importance of having an evaluation component in the lesson plan. It's important to reflect on the student progress and see how their progress is equated to your objectives. You know, there has to be a direction and you have to know when you've gotten to your goal or objective. All of the classroom testing, all of the kinds of measurement things have to show an awareness of pupil progress and then the results have to be used as part of diagnostic teaching. Another part of an effective school program has to do with...once again, I've already said expecting teachers to teach and students to learn...I think I've probably touched on most of those characteristics of an effective school program. Now in my opinion if you don't have all of these components in place, and I mean all of them, I don't think I have named one component that isn't essential as one is to be, is to have an effective school...um...be part of the effective...be part of the effective schools program. If you don't have them all in place, then it is my opinion that you do not have an effective school. I know many of the administrators - and I have had the privilege of going - have gone to Columbus for the summer workshop that deals with OASIS.
A: And this provides a wonderful opportunity for building administrators to know more about effective schools. Now everybody is not a proponent of the Effective Schools Program and one of the concerns that I have heard about the Effective Schools Program, Linda, is that it hasn't been revised, that the same literature that you're reading and finding about or you're learning about in 1992 is the same literature that came about with Ron Edmunds. I'm not so sure whether or not this is a legitimate concern but when we talk about progress in relationship to objectives, maybe it is a legitimate concern, because do we know what kind of progress has been made from those buildings in the effective schools program as it relates to student achievement. Maybe you have seen some of the research on this, I have not studied that specifically but I do think that there would be a high correlation of those characteristics that you've discussed in principals and teachers implementing them and then students having higher academic achievement. It makes good sense that these things do fit together and I think that I just have to add here - I know you mentioned Ron Edmunds and I remember in my reading, effective schools initially started in urban areas. I think with our knowledge now of all children can learn, I think we then can apply what we know to suburban and rural areas as well so I truly believe in the philosophy of all children can learn and in applying what we know as successful elements of effective schools to all of our schools.
Q: Most systems presently have a tenure or continuing contract system for teachers. Would you discuss the situation at the time you entered the profession and comment on the strengths and weaknesses of such a system?
A: I can do that very briefly, Linda. Oftentimes, you hear tenure identified as a real problem in the weeding out of ...um...unsuccessful, ineffective staff but I contend that we did not and we still do not have a tenure problem as much as we have an administrative cowardice problem. Let me give you an example. When I was principal at East Junior High, I remember being told that a certain teacher was being sent to the building because the teacher knew, and personnel person knew, that this teacher would either shape up or have to be shipped out permanently. This disturbed me greatly because when I looked it was a teacher who probably should have retired years ago. She was 70, 70 plus - did retire unofficially, I'm sure, several years ago - and I looked at the evaluations. Now I had heard principals complain about this teacher and she had never received anything but satisfactory evaluations and this is not a unique practice. This is my reason for saying that too often it is not a tenure problem, it is an administrative cowardice problem. I also had the opportunity to evaluate the evaluation of teachers in a school system. It was some consulting work that I did. I read every single evaluation that was conducted in that school system. The majority of evaluations dealt with summative of the information as part of the process in the improvement of teaching. Now we know that should have been formative type information. Summative comes at the end so what does this say to me? This said to me that there were too many building administrators not helping teachers improve their skill as a teacher. We did some inservice, inservicing of administrators and fortunately did bring about a change in building administrators being more realistic and more honest in their evaluation of teachers but as long as we have building administrators who will not be honest, we will have teachers getting tenure who are less than adequate...um, you know...adequate classroom teachers, effective classroom teachers so I've...let me just repeat...it is not a tenure problem, too often it is an administrative cowardice problem.
Q: It's a very interesting perspective. I think I would agree with you on that. Cultural diversity is a topic of great interest and concern at this point in time. Would you discuss the nature of your student bodies and comment on the problems, challenges, and triumphs in which you participated while serving as principal?
A: Be glad to. Of course, we have already talked about the importance of being sensitive to cultural differences. You've asked me to comment on the nature of the student body. I think I've already mentioned when I first became a building administrator, I integrated the building with one and for, oh, a number of years this was the case. Then the year came when there were going to be some buildings closed and one building was to be Lincoln School. Let me share this with you. I was building principal of two buildings, Lincoln School which housed K through 3 and Garfield School which housed 4 through 6. I did not start being the building administrator in two schools but some...oh, the principal at Lincoln died and then I was sent to lead, be the principal in both buildings but Lincoln School once again was a...I integrated Lincoln School and Lincoln was to be closed. Washington School which was about 98% black student populated was to be closed. Both of these buildings were going to be transported to Garfield School where I was also the principal and as I've already mentioned Garfield was a school where I integrated with one. So it was kind of a unique experience. I was part of closing a school and receiving the same student body in another building and also receiving another student body that was...made very very cult...made a very cultural diverse situation not only from a racial standpoint but from a socio-economic standpoint. This time Washington represented the very lowest socio-economic area in Warren and Lincoln just the opposite so we knew there would be many challenges, many frustrations but we always felt that the rewards, once again, would be greater and that it was going to take some additional training on our part in terms of being sensitive to cultural differences. Problems, problems, problems, but we did a lot of meeting with parents. Once again, we went to Washington School and talked with the parents there to kind of allay a lot of their fears. Of course, being the principal at Lincoln was easy to communicate with the parents. But I think our big thing the first year that this integration took place was the fact that we only wanted to get to know one another. You know you cannot legislate love - we weren't going to sing the song getting...it was just going to be getting to know you, not getting to love you and that was one of our objectives the first year. We did all of those things that made us more sensitive to cultural differences and to respect cultural differences. Then that second year we said we've made it through getting to know you - let's talk about getting to like you and we did all of those things that brought about a change in terms of emotions that have to do with being in a very close situation with people with different racial backgrounds, different socio-economic backgrounds and you know we were brave enough, Linda, to move from getting to like you to getting to love you and I say in all honesty that there were no major major problems. We did not see those youngsters who were high achievers, we did not see scores drop. What we did find, though, is that the students from the low socio economic area did achieve better when they were integrated with youngsters from a high...from high achieving areas. Now in terms of ratio, the majority of the students still were Euro-Americans from various supportive backgrounds. Now I don't know what that picture would have looked like if it had been the opposite where the majority of the students would have been from the low socio-economic area where the achievement had not been that great. So we did have some things going for us in terms of the largest population in that building. Did I, have I made myself clear?
Q: Sure, yes and I think the part that I probably like the best in addition to having them succeed academically is socially you're preparing them for everyday life, for a life of diversity that they're going to have as adults and I think part of education should be preparing students for some of the things that they are going experience as adults and give them the skills in which they can do that.
A: You know we don't live in a homogenous world.
Q: No, we don't.
A: Let me go way back to when I was asked to become a principal and one of the reasons I did finally say yes is because at that time Garfield School had a lot of wealthy parents...a lot of wealthy parents in the area. You know you had a lot of physicians, you had chairman of boards, and I could even name names but that certainly would not be appropriate to do. A lot of the youngsters had seen members of my race in their kitchens because a lot of the parents had housekeepers and the majority of those housekeepers were from the black race and one of my decisions had to do with these youngsters are being cheated by not seeing a black in a certain type position so that too was part of my motivation.
Q: Very true. Would you describe a little bit about one of my favorite areas in education and that's of mentoring. What is your view on the mentoring program for new administrators in which an experienced administrator is paired with a neophyte?
A: I think it's essential. When I was in charge of the leadership program for the Warren City Schools, we did exactly this - all of the potential administrators were paired with a building administrator who we tried to pair them with those people who we felt were effective building administrators and they really...and I must say that...um...all of the potential administrators did become administrators.
A: And one of the reasons that Warren City Schools felt that this was an important program was because they were, they had been assigning persons to building administrator positions who had not had this experience and there were some problems. In fact I can remember one administrator who was assigned without ever having been a part of any kind of mentoring situation who did ask to go back to the classroom. And he did, two of them and they were encouraged to go back to the classroom. One almost lost his health. He became a very sick person because he had no one to not only share ideas, bounce ideas off of...uh...so I cannot say enough for a structured organized mentoring program - not just two people getting together to share ideas.
Q: Verna, who was your mentor? Or mentors?
A: A lot of them. One was...and she's no longer living...was Ruth Linamen. Um...I could go to her, it was not an organized type mentoring program such as the one we had in the leadership training program but she kind of took me under her wing and she prevented me from making a lot of mistakes. But I also knew that I could get on the telephone, I could go and spend time with her discussing something that I wanted to try, something that I wanted to do. Fortunately, I had a superintendent who was my mentor.
Q: How wonderful.
A: And that superintendent was Dr. Dick Boyd. I've worked with several superintendents but I have to say he's almost...he was almost my idol because as a school superintendent he was an instructional leader for administrators so I could go to him and he served as a mentor. I also had the Director of Personnel who had been a principal, Tony Beraducci, was a wonderful mentor for me so I was fortunate...there were just so many people I could turn to and felt very comfortable doing so. Once again, not part of a structured program which I think should be the case...um...where there should be structured programs, there should be certain types of activities that all administrators should be involved in even before they become administrators and I think some of these things should happen under the partnership of a mentor, is it mentee? mentor?
Q: They say mentor/mentee. I still think the mentee protegee, the mentor protegee.
A: Oh, OK.
Q: Verna, I've been hearing that sometimes principals operate under tense environments. What kinds of things did you do to maintain your sanity when things got especially stressful?
A: I'm not certain that I always maintained my sanity but at least I maintained it enough to not be admitted to an institution. It's important that principals have a life outside of school. I wouldn't give a dime for an educator who lives, drinks, eats, and sleeps education. I think being well-rounded is very important in bringing a whole person to the administrative scene. I personally always had a lot of interests. You know we know we have to devote a lot of time to our work.
A: But there should be some other interests. My interest has always had to do with the performing arts. I always involved myself in physical fitness activities and that's a wonderful way to deal with stress. I remember when I was Junior High principal, I went to a place called Soul Stretch. Soul did not have to do with race, Linda, soul had to do with spirituality.
Q: I've heard of it. I know...Wendy is a good friend of mine.
A: And Wendy, Wendy was one of the instructors and she was a tough instructor but just going there for a period of time helped so much to rid myself of stress. Then I joined Scandinavia and I would go there to rid myself of stress. Walking...and I don't do enough of that now, each day I say now tomorrow I'm going to start again, well you know how we do.
A: Also it was great. Another way that I've maintained my sanity was to realize the importance of prioritizing and getting closure on certain activities not having too many things going on at one time and not concentrating on a few things to get closure. That all relates to time management also. You will go berserk if you have fifteen different things going on at the same time and you keep those same things going on instead of prioritizing the things that you have to do, getting closure, moving on, adding too, and of course you have to burn the midnight oil in order to not lose...you know...your sanity. I also thought it was very important to use relaxation tapes. I don't know how many administrators use them but it helps with the deep breathing. I tried, I was not always successful, to devote a few minutes each afternoon in my office where I was not disturbed unless it was a case of an emergency and the secretaries would protect me because I think you'll be more effective and you can deal with situations once you get away for just a matter of ten minutes.
Q: Right. True.
A: Right off in your office...
Q: And just kind of take a rest
A: Cool. Cool out. Chill out.
Q: ...Experiences with us today and I thought we could just end our interview with asking you the question what would you tell us the key to your success as a principal would be?
A: It's a privilege to end this interview in this manner because I get a chance to reaffirm what I said initially. All children can learn and everything that we have done, hopefully, has always been in the best interest of the youngsters, at least was our intention. I think that has to do a lot with whatever success I have achieved as a building administrator. The children come first.
Q: I agree with you wholeheartedly and I hope that I can apply some of the wonderful advice that you gave during this interview as I go on into administrative positions. Thank you so much for your time.
A: Well, you're certainly welcome.
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