This is an interview with Mrs. Irma N. Webb, formerly elementary school principal.
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Q: Irma, it's really nice to see you again. I hope that you will enjoy sharing with me, and I know that I am going to learn much information from you.
A: Thank you, Brenda. I am honored that you would consider my career interesting enough to do this interview.
Q: You were the first person I thought of when I got this assignment. First, if we could begin, Mrs. Webb, would you tell us about your family background, your interest, and development, and where you were born and things like that?
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: This is a long story, Brenda. I really am a child of the depression, the Great Depression, born in 1921 in Switchback in McDowell County. This was a small coal mining town and my father was a coal miner. My mother was a stay-at-home-mother. Neither of my parents graduated from high school, although my mother left school in her senior year. The little town that we lived in was located along the main N & W railway, so we had a lot of benefits there from the railway. And Route 52 ran right in front of our front door. So, we were really on the main line although in an isolated location. I attended school in Inice, which was another small town adjacent to Switchback, grades 1-6 in Switchback Elementary School, and then Elkhorn High School was a combined school grades 7-12. The educational philosophy in McDowell County at that time must have been to push them along as fast as you can because I went to school about ten (10) years, and graduated from high school barely turned sixteen. I don't consider this was an asset of any kind, and in my educational career, I always counseled parents against considering vertical acceleration. This really prejudiced me against it. After graduating from high school, my parents considered that I was too young to leave home, and we were poor as church mice. There were five (5) children in the family and it was a real struggle for my parents to keep us all in school. I got a job with Pocahontas Fuel Company working in a company store, and they launched me on a little business career there in retail sales. When I did put in a year there, I decided to go into a nursing program. This probably was a big mistake, although I learned a lot from the nursing, I was not a born nurse. I probably, under other circumstances, would have made a better physician, but I toughed this out until I had all the course work in and then left without ever really being a practicing nurse. By this time, World War II is going on, and I decided to follow my brothers into the Navy. Ignoring the fact that I was a qualified nurse, I did not want to go into any sort of medical profession. And the Navy sent me to storekeepers' school at the University of Indiana. This was a big campus, the largest school I had been in before was Morris-Harvey which, back in the late '30's and early '40's was a two-year Methodist College I believe. But the University of Indiana was scattered out over a big campus and it seemed to me that our classes were deliberately scheduled a mile apart. We were there in the winter and most of us had been very disgruntled at spending most of the summer at Hunter College in New York in Boot Camp. One of my vivid experiences there, other than the heat, was a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt, who came to review the troops. Her plane was late, and we were out there on the sidewalk in full formation with these dress uniforms on in August, and the women kept falling around me like flies, fainting from the heat. And I stood there and prayed that I would faint so someone would carry me into the cool; but no, I was still bravely at parade rest when she came. But she was very amiable and apologized to us, and shook our hands up and down the ranks. Leaving University of Indiana I went to Norman, Oklahoma and was assigned there to a cafeteria store. I presumed that this was because of the big experience I had in retail sales back in West Virginia. But this was an interesting job. The concept of feeding the families of the military was just sort of gaining hold in the Navy, and we had the pleasure of setting this organization up for ourselves as a separate entity from the supply department. I had left the University of Indiana with the 3rd class Storekeeper's rank; and very early on, was allowed to take the examination for 1st Class Chief. Well, I never did get the Chief, but I was 1st Class Storekeeper, and the leading Petty Officer in my division. As you can probably estimate from looking back at this, I learned a lot in the Navy. There was lots of men, Brenda, and after a while, you couldn't see the forest from the trees, but it was a wonderful experience for me. Both the Navy and civilians in Norman and the Universities of Oklahoma were very kind and supportive to the women. Several people have asked me about my experiences there, and I have always said the women were quartered separately and guards with guns walked around our barracks all night. So, there were really no wild parties. Unless you moved elsewhere for this.
Q: Very good. From there Mrs. Webb?
A: I came back to the West Virginia, Virginia area, and accepted a position again from the Pocahontas Fuel Company, and became a buyer for them; buying merchandise. (Now, Pocahontas Fuel is a big coal company.) It's a big coal company, and later merged with Consolidation Coal Company. My stations were at some interesting places: Bottom Creek, Sagamore, and at Sagamore, I met my husband. We were married there in 1948 while I was working and our first two children were born while we lived there. By then, the coal mining business is really in a slump, and we opened a television sales and service business near Montcalm, West Virginia. I became quite an expert in verbally repairing televisions. I didn't have much idea what the components were, but if someone came in and described abnormality I could give them a quick diagnosis of the problem. Sounded very convincing. In fact someone insulted my husband once telling him that I probably knew more about it than he did.
Q: And then from your family business, where did you go?
A: Family businesses didn't go too well. Didn't go too well, so my husband went back to work for Pocahontas Fuel Company and I stayed home with four (4) children. We moved into a house that we built ourselves on five acres of land, and I tried to raise my children, to say, play mother in a big way. Not only to my own children but all the neighborhoods. When my youngest child was past needing a full time mother, I started back to school at Bluefield State, going into teacher education. When I embarked on this project, I really did not think I would teach school. I was thinking more of writing children's literature, writing children's books and the interesting thing is that once I began working with children, I became so full of the need to teach them that my stories lost all of their flavor and were really never as good as they were before I became a teacher. The courses at Bluefield State went well for me. I was only a couple of miles from the college and this was an interesting time there because it was a time they were integrating the classes at the college. But I ran home to see about my baby and the baby-sitter between classes, and graduated from there midterm of the 1965 66 school year and was offered a job at Pocahontas Elementary School. Now, if I knew then what I know now, I probably would have never gone over there, because this class had over-whelmed an experienced teacher, who resigned at the end of first semester. But, ignorance is bliss, and I went with this group which is a classic problem group. I was so chagrin and disappointed with my performance there that I signed up for another year to see if I couldn't do better.
Q: How long did you stay in education as a teacher?
A: I taught the sixth grade for three years and then taught the third grade for a year. By the time I got to the third grade, I had started some classes at East Tennessee State in the graduate program, and this was probably the most fulfilling of my years in the classroom. I had a small group of children and we were all students, and they were very sympathetic with the fact that I was going to school and they were going to school; and furthermore, we were in a new building. The school system had moved some temporary buildings to Pocahontas to contain the larger population which was assimilated when the schools were integrated. This is the only time I ever had a completely new classroom to work in, and it was quite an experience. In this year too, I can trace my interests in Special Education. The Director of Education had asked me to visit a little boy who was physically handicapped, and I visited him and persuaded his father to bring him into our classroom one day a week. We had steps so he couldn't make it with his wheelchair, but his father brought him into the classroom once a week and the children did a real inclusion program there all on their own. After teaching the third grade that year, Pocahontas Elementary was closing and the children were moved up to Abbs Valley. My principal was Dennis Witt, who is now Superintendent of Schools in Patrick County. Dennis had one opening at Falls Mills where he would be transferred, and he told me if I would teach the first grade he'd take me with him. So, I went to Falls Mills with Dennis and really learned how to be a teacher there, teaching first grade for two years and then becoming principal of the school. That was probably a seven-day wonder in Falls Mills. No one had ever heard of a first grade teacher being the principal the next year. They had ideas that principals should either come from the coaching staff or from the sixth grade classroom. The years I spent in Falls Mills as principal were really wonder years. In this small rural school, parents were just incredibly supportive. I came into the school and turned the instructional program upside down, and no one criticized it in any way. We had one really memorable experience there. We did a Parents Day once. The school board gave us one day that we could use in any way we wanted to for public relations, and we did an all day activity day. We had about 1,000 people come to school with less than 200 hundred students in it. The second year I was at Falls Mills, my superintendent talked with me about leaving the school and going into instructional supervision. But I felt that I had made so many changes in the school and that the parents and the teachers had cooperated with me, and we had the instructional program going our way, I decided not to do this. I felt at that time that I might be closing a door on myself, but apparently not. The third year I was offered a job in Bluefield, VA as supervising principal for two (2) schools, two primary schools. Logan Street, grades 1-3 and Dudley, K-3. One on the east side of town and the other on the west. The school board had plans for building an addition to Dudley school within the next three years, and I went from one end of Bluefield to the other. That year we had a lot of fun with this. It would seem that any time I was out the door of one school, I was needed at the other school. This is where I really worked on my planning and management skills. At Falls Mills, I had time and worked out once a scheme with the Standards of Quality and written my school objectives on a big chart and had a lot of fun with it. But when I came to Bluefield, I really had done a lot of work on planning and implementations and probably feel this is my greatest strength. I like to work in systems and to take an objective and make it work for this particular group of people. The children, the teachers, the parents, the staff, and I get a lot of satisfaction from that; and after leaving the school system, I really have done a lot of this as a volunteer.
Q: Mrs. Webb, did you ever have any regrets making the transition from classroom teacher to administration/principalship?
A: I suppose all of us who are teachers would really like to feel that the last experience we would have would be in a classroom; but that was not to be, and gradually over the years, I began to perceive myself as a teacher of teachers rather than a teacher of children. When I first went into the principalship I dallied around with letting the children read to me and teaching little math classes and one thing and another. Then, gradually learned that was not my job. My job was to teach teachers, and I do feel this is what I did the last years I was in the principalship. I worked with teachers on an individual basis, modeled for them, had conferences with them, and worked with them on what they perceived as their problems and their weaknesses.
Q: If you would, briefly describe your personal philosophy of education.
A: I have a pretty broad philosophy of education, Brenda. And this was developed over the years from the time I was in the classroom. Even in the classroom I did some educational leadership when I went into my graduate program. I already had three (3) big papers written from projects that I had done as a classroom teacher. Deaton and I, if you will remember, did the "Catch Up Program" at Falls Mills school. And then I became interested in the relationship of the teacher's personality and the personality of the children; particularly in teaching math. I was in Falls Mills at the time and this little school, we had one teacher, the fifth grade teacher, who stood at the door and saw that the children had their books and assignments in their hands, and then we had another teacher who wrote the assignments on the board and tried to teach the children at the beginning of the year to start using assignment books, and I tried to keep some statistics on the teachers in the school to determine the effect of this. I did another project on developing reading comprehension skills from the use of the basic readers. But my own philosophy of education, I suppose, would begin with my beliefs about the community. I think that the public schools as I have known it in my lifetime is a real outcome of democracy. That its democratically-based institution that has gradually come to serve many of the needs of children: the social, physical, emotional, as well as the educational needs of children and youth. And I firmly believe that the school belongs to the community. That the community has an interest in and a responsibility for the nurture of and the education of children and youth. Of course at this time this is a pretty popular view. This is the view that Mrs. Clinton espoused, but you can probably remember reading this in the old books at Dudley Primary School. This is what I believed at this time, and I think that the educational environment is the responsibility of the community. That the community is responsible for providing attractive, well-ordered, clean educational environment, which is age-appropriate; that's well furnished; that has the facilities that are needed by the children, teachers, and youth. I also feel that the community is responsible for the maintenance of the schools. I am not very supportive of school children and teachers raising money for facilities that they think are needed in the school. If children need band uniform, if the community can't support them, let's don't have band uniforms. I also believe that the community must be sensitive and responsive to the changes, particularly the changes that are going on now. All of the social and economic changes that have broadened and enhanced the role of the public school. If the school is to take more responsibility, the community must be willing to put more resources into the school. It can't be stretched much further.
Q: If I can take you from your philosophy of education into your management philosophy. You earlier indicated as an administrator, you considered yourself a "teacher of teachers." Could you maybe discuss this further and include some techniques you found successful in managing your constituents?
A: Some of my conflict in assuming the principalship was that I considered that I was an educational leader and was reluctant to assume administrative responsibilities. I don't feel that the two gel well together but my management system was pretty much a management by objectives. To have policy in writing and to carry it out. One of the teachers when I retired wrote this in the little memory book, which the teachers did for me that the first thing she remembered about me as a principal was I looked them in the eye and said, "I go by the book, do you have any trouble with that?" and I think Brenda, not only for administrators but for teachers, if you can't articulate it, in putting it in writing, then you don't know what you are doing.
Q: What techniques did you use to create a successful climate for learning in your school? Are there particular ones that you found to be more effective than others or I guess readily come to mind?
A: I would say that-that was one of my primary objectives as principal to create a climate that was favorable and conducive to learning. First I tried to make it my business to know that the teachers were prepared to teach what they were assigned to teach and that they were capable of dealing with the children that were assigned to their care, that they did have syllabus that they had written together, an agreement. Say that we had four sections of the second grade and the agreement of the second grade teachers that this is what we will teach. We will put this in the handbook when visitors come into the school, they can see what it is we teach and how we evaluate whether we have taught this or not. How often that we will be doing evaluations, and this also helps to make teachers feel more equal in the fact that a popular teacher does not have an advantage over a teacher who may be quite as capable a teacher but does not project herself as well to the parents. I tried to protect instructional time and to give teachers as much time on task as the schedule would allow and to give them clerical help whenever possible. To encourage parents to act as tutors to help teaches with preparatory sort of tasks. I did a lot of reading and concentrated this for the teachers and gave them little summaries of educational literature and of current events in education so that my teachers were always current on educational questions as well as current research.
Q: So, I guess I hear you saying that you had a strong view emphasis on collegiality and considered your school a community of learners.
A: Yes, yes indeed. And I like the system that we set up there at Dudley. The teachers rotated as grade team leaders. This is a great deal of support for the teachers and also was helpful to me since generally I would be dealing with one person rather than four and five.
Q: Mrs. Webb, you mentioned here keeping your teachers abreast of current issues within the profession. Would you comment on your thoughts and feelings concerning staff development?
A: In our school staff development was planned. Teachers submitted topics as they were closing out the year before, topics that they might be interested in for staff development for the next year. I tried to, during the summer, to learn myself about projects that were going on around the state, about the current legislation that I could share with the teachers, and tried to make their staff development pertinent. I tried to make it positive, and related to what the teachers were actually doing. Two whole years we used our staff development time for doing our accreditation reports, study and reports. One teacher made an observation once though, that maybe helped me a little. She told me once that I didn't need to tell them all I knew in one session.
Q: There are those who argued that more often than not Central Office policy hinder rather than help building level administrators in carrying out their responsibilities. Would you give your views on this issue?
A: During my time as principal, the Central office was not prone to send out directives that did not originate either with the school board, with the principals or with the teachers organization. So, I would have to be negative about that Brenda. I have not had much experience with a lot of regulations from the school board. We had that big policy manual which was the work of the school board, but that was a very useful tool to me as a principal. Having policy and then we broke this policy down into local policy that applied to young children in Bluefield and made this available to the parents as well as the teachers, and I have never felt this kind of constraint as a principal.
Q: Mrs. Webb, if you were advising a person who is considering entering public education as an administrator what would your advice be?
A: I suppose the first thing I would ask is are you sure this is what you want to do. And then to talk some about this being a position with such broad dimensions. I feel that the fact that I was a nurse and having had this experience with dealing with children was the utmost value to me as a principal. My time in the military taught me a lot about organization, and my little experiences in the Navy in the commissary store and with Pocohantas Fuel Company gave me some background in accounting and bookkeeping that helped me over a lot of hurdles that otherwise would have seemed insurmountable to me. As I perceive it, the principalship is maybe too big. We require that people be talented in too many different areas. I also perceive some problems in being the person who evaluates teachers and the person who are trying to improve them and get the most out of them and make better teachers of them.
Q: That leads us into a question on teacher evaluation. What is your thoughts or your philosophy on evaluation?
A: Brenda, I think probably much of teacher evaluation needs to be done when students are sophomores in college. At that point we could counsel out a lot of people and not have them obtain a degree in education and enter a profession in which they are profoundly unsuited. I have counseled several teachers out of education and this is a very delicate job to try to help someone find interest in another field which they can use their skills, and still not be wounded by failure. But my first consideration is the children, and I think that people who are not prepared professionally and are not highly motivated are a disaster in the public school. We probably should develop an earlier retirement system for burned out teachers in the schools. My own philosophy, I think probably principals should not be in charge of instruction. The principal, as we know it now, should probably be a business manager, And the person who is very strong in instruction and highly motivated to see children learn, should be in charge of instruction. And there would be a hierarchy of teachers from master teachers, assistant teachers to teacher aides.
Q: With that statement Mrs. Webb, knowing lately a lot of attention has been given to career ladders and merit pay, what is your view on those issues?
A: We come in conflict here pretty early on with the teacher association philosophies, and I don't know that merit pay would be meaningful in so long as the teacher associations view teachers as equal. I personally think there is large or larger hierarchy of skills in teachers as in any other profession.
Q: As you view it, what characteristics are associated with the most effective schools and what features characterize less successful ones?
A: Now, I'll of course be speaking as an elementary person, and Brenda, I believe when children learn that they're are happy. I believe when teachers are able to keep children engaged in learning, that both teachers and children are successful. I think a successful school is goal orientated. That there are appropriate assessment processes that are ongoing. I am not saying that I want kindergarten and first grade children to have standardized tests, I don't. But there are other ways of assessing learning. I think that teachers' problems are in a successful school, that teachers' problems are considered promptly and that they are supported in trying to work out their problems, and the children's problems are given immediate attention. In a successful school that we have a number of committees that work with teachers and with children. I like the school committee, if we have a child that is having learning problems I'd like for the teachers to meet first, what did we call that committee? Child Study. Child Study Committee. I like the child study committee for students that are having learning problems. This was a committee I used a great deal in the school, and many times one teacher was able to give another teacher some help, or I was able to point out some techniques that might be of assistance to them. I think in an effective school you see parents. I think parents participate in the school. That the children are well disciplined. That they are kept on task. That the schedule is consistent. That instructional time is protected. That the teachers have the supplies and equipment that they need. The teachers are not burdened with clerical duties. Do you want more?
Q: You mentioned burden clerical duties, what about administrators? Was that a problem as far as the amount of paper work in the bureaucratic complexity with which you had to deal with as an administrator?
A: Not particularly for me. I was fortunate to have some very good secretaries who took care of a lot of the routine administrative work, and as I have said before, I enjoy working out problems and evolving systems to deal with them. I am probably one of the few principals in the state of Virginia that liked the Standards of Learning and Standards of Quality in my time because it was a challenge for me to provide high quality education with whatever resources were available to me. I laughed one time and told Lester Jones that we got along very well that I always wanted to do something that wasn't on the program, and he was willing for me to do it as long as it didn't cost money or extra personnel. This was my real challenge.
Q: You mentioned the Standards of Learning, if I may draw your attention for just a moment to Standardized Testing. What are your thoughts about Standardized Testing, and are they used or can they be used for the improvement of instruction?
A: Yes, I think so. I think if they are used appropriately that they can be used to improve the instruction. But first for the instructional program that we can identify weaknesses in the program by Standardized Testing and I think if we use the result of Standardized Testing to improve the program for individuals it is worthwhile. I do not think Standardized Testing is appropriate for young children. We can test these children in other ways. We can evaluate them by their performance using checklist and inventories, and contrary to the thinking of some of my colleagues in my time, I found that from my observations, that the quality of instruction paralleled the scores on standardized tests. I do think that children should be tested on what they have been taught. And that if we are to give Standardized Test that the objectives covered by the Standardized Test should be a part of the program of learning.
Q: Mrs. Webb, taking you back to recalling some of the daily pressures that you may have faced as a principal, could you relate to some of the more specific pressures?
A: Probably most of my of pressures were self-inflicted. I left the door open all the time Brenda, except on the days when I was doing teacher conferences or teacher assessments. People just came in, children, parents, teachers, teacher's aides, cooks, just came and went and told their troubles and made their little complaints, and some days this just got a little hectic. Also, while not a crisis manager, I tend to leave things to the last minute. Gather all the data and then not really put it together until the last three days. This probably created more stress for the secretary than it did for me.
Q: What one thing would you say could be considered the key to your success as a principal? I have to interject a personal note here, Mrs. Webb in that I had the privilege of working with you and I know you were always well respected, not only within your community, but also among your peers and even throughout the state. What do you attribute to your success?
A: I like it Brenda, I like it. I liked what I was doing.
Q: If I may ask you about your professional code of ethics. Could you give us an example of how you applied those during your career?
A: I probably was the recipient of a lot of secrets, not only from the people in my own school, but the people in our school system, who had problems or had knowledge that they felt a need to share with someone. Parents probably used me a great deal in this category too. In fact I would say now we had a teacher at Dudley who actually had a nervous breakdown, and I don't think anyone in the school ever knew about this. I felt that confidentiality in a relationship is very important to me and high Standards. I did not keep secrets from parents. I tried to keep parents informed about what was going on in the school and if a parent complained about a teacher, I tried to persuade the parent to let me bring the teacher in and let them talk about this. To be open and above board with everything that went on in the school, and also Brenda from your own experience as a principal, you know that it is very important for everyone in the school to feel that he/she is of equal value to you. That the 3rd assistant cook can only function at her optimum if she knows that she is an important part of the school, and when we can devise ways that we include all of the personnel in the school in the instructional process, makes them feel that what they do is important. I think it goes a long way toward having an effective school. Dave Parks used to tease me about Pete, the custodian, looking more like the principal than I did. Does that answer your question?
Q: That does, that was an excellent, excellent job. As you alluded, we sometimes do forget about those little people who aren't really providing a direct service in the classroom but yet very important to the total school operation.
A: One of the schools I served as principal had a real hierarchy of consideration as the teachers and then the certificated personnel were treated differently, and this was one of my immediate goals to take care of this. Also, sometimes in a school system, we will see certain parents being given more consideration than others, and it was one of my goals for parents to feel equally valued in the school. If you have time, I'll tell you about the fried chicken.
Q: Well, I'm not sure but go ahead. We might.
A: Logan Street, of course you know, had all of the African American children. One of the school bus drivers was having trouble with a parent who met the bus. They didn't like his attitude and a delegation came to Dudley School, this was when I was serving the two schools, and upset the secretary. She felt that they were being a bit threatening. These big black boys. I came to the school and called the Transportation Director who gives me instructions not to let these people in the school! These parents. Then after this happened, I called the Director of Instruction and these two came to the school. And we had a really nice conference with these men. The cook was cooking fried chicken this day, so I sent a little note up and asked her if the chicken would stretch. We invited these four men then to eat lunch with us. Ruth put the fried chicken in the middle of the table on a big platter, and they're all pretty buddy-buddy by the time they leave the school. They were full of fried chicken and biscuits.
Q: Knowing that principals often operate in a tense environment, what are some of the things you did to maintain your sanity under often times stressful conditions?
A: I made a conscious effort to feel confident, Brenda; to know what was going on in the school; to know what was going on in the state, what was going on in the community, and I think that if you have this internal feeling that you are on top of it, that the little everyday occurrences don't get to you quiet as badly. Then I think you learn some techniques when teachers are sending children down to be disciplined, that it is just as effective to let these kids sit somewhere and wait a few minutes, as it is to bring them in and counsel with them immediately. That most of the time they work out their own problems if you give them a little time. And when the teachers come down to the office upset, many times they just need a quiet place. And if you get them a coffee and let them sit in your office awhile, it is just as effective as having them lose it there with you.
Q: Looking toward the end of our interview, would you discuss the circumstance that lead to your decision to retire at the time you did? Giving your reasons and maybe even some of the mental processes that you exercised in reaching that decision to step down?
A: I suppose Brenda that I am a person who always wants to leave winning. I felt like that our school was really a good school. There was a good staff there, we had a good program in place, and it was time for me to go. I had other interests.
Q: Certainly. And I want to interject Mrs. Webb, you were a very difficult act to follow.
A: Thank you Brenda, and so were you! So were you.
Q: If there was one thing that you could change about your administrative career in Tazewell County, what would that be?
A: I probably would have done more publishing, more writing and publishing. I just didn't take time to do it and that is the only regret I really have, that I didn't do this.
Q: Despite my efforts to be as comprehensive with the questions I have asked, is there anything you feel I have left out, anything that you would like to make a comment on?
A: Yes, Brenda, I"d like to comment on the influence of my longtime superintendent, Mr.Lester Jones. After I retired, he and I were chatting in a meeting once and I commented to him that I really didn't know until after he left his position how much influence that he had on me and in such an indirect way. He certainly influenced my philosophy of administration and supervision in very meaningful ways and was completely supportive. He never said a cross word to me in the twenty years that he was my supervisor. And could just lead me around by my nose and get me to do whatever it was that he wanted me to do.
Q: Mrs. Webb I certainly do appreciate you taking the time to spend with me, and going through this interview process. I am convinced it will be a great addition to the oral histories maintained there at Virginia Tech. Thank you very much.
A: Thank you, Brenda.
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