Interview with Robert Anastasi


Today I have the distinct pleasure of interviewing Robert Anastasi, known to us as Bob. During the course of the interview, Bob will share with us some of the experiences that he had as a principal.

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Q: Bob, how many years were you in education?

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

A: A total of twenty-five years. Twenty as an administrator and five as a teacher.

Q: What or how do you feel about the principal's responsibility in terms of viewing the principal being the instructional leader?

A: It has been said for many years that one of the major responsibilities of a principal is to be an instructional leader. I think this is true. It is a major responsibility, but I'm not sure that the training has taken that into consideration, or in that respect, the many other duties that impinge upon the instructional leadership that a principal has to do.

Q: What really led you to become a principal?

A: I guess it started after teaching. I enjoyed teaching so much. It probably had some to do with ego, and some to do with the fact that I could help kids. I knew that being a principal, I could affect more kids than I could in the classroom. In all honesty, it was also the way in raising a family where I could make more money, whether that should be the case or not is debatable. So it was a combination of all those things. Wanting to have some leadership and what teachers do that affect kids.

Q: What educational paths did you follow?

A: Normal BS, Bachelors in Elementary Education. Then my first thoughts were to go in for a masters in guidance and counseling. But I'm talking about the early 60's and at that time I talked to some powers to be and that was kind of thought of as a radical idea. Counselors weren't in the elementary schools and that is where I wanted to stay. I thought and still very much think that is where you get the biggest bang for the bucks and where the changes are made. I was discouraged to go into counseling and then decided I'd just start in the masters program in administration at the University of Maryland. I thought that would be the end of it. As my career continued about 18 years, the thought came that it would probably be a good idea to go on and get my doctorate degree. This was for purposes of a second career, the thought was not because it would make that much of a difference in the principalship. I'm not sure you need a doctorate to be in the principalship, but it could very well help you in future years.

Q: In terms of your extensive educational background, do you feel that it contributed to your philosophy of how a school should be run as a principal?

A: Yes, it had to. My experience as a first year principal played a very important role, I think, in my feelings as far as principalship. That was probably one of the biggest influences.

Q: How would you describe the school's philosophy that you were very instrumental in establishing?

A: All sounding trite, but kids come first. I would every year say at the beginning of the year and many times say, I know you've heard it before. When I have to make a quick decision, and it's not that often, the first thing I have in mind is what's best for the kids, second in mind is what's best for the total staff and school and third in mind is what's best for the parents. I would tell the PTA that too, but that doesn't happen that much. Normally you have time to make decisions and get input from teachers and parents. In essence, it is whatever is best for the kids. My philosophy is if you have a happy staff, do things for staff and protect them from some of the bureaucratic things that they don't really need or want to know about. Let them concentrate on the task of teaching and feel good about the school and what's happening. The kids will benefit in the long run.

Q: Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the importance of a positive school climate. What were some things you did to create a positive environment for students and staff?

A: Simple but important - Smile. I truthfully believe, not just because I was a principal and had the experience, but that the principal really does set the tone. And that tone is by his/her demeanor, walking around the building, being friendly, and saying hello. One thing I learned early in my career, fortunately, we did a peer presentation. Four or five Principals, John Lewis was my peer principal and he would come and walk with me and spend a day with me and I would do the same at his school. One thing he told me very early in my career was that I was very friendly, but I didn't look kids straight in the eye. I think that was important for me to learn. I think that helped to create a climate for kids. I think kids as well as adults like you to look at them. So I tried to make eye contact with students and staff, said hello, walked around the building, every morning tried to be out to greet the kids as they came in, for a couple of reasons, just the atmosphere of saying hello, smiling and cheering them up. One of the other things I try to do is a judgment call. I try to shield the staff from things that come from "central office." There is a lot of talk about shared administration now which I believe in, shared decision making, which I believe in, but for the most part there are a lot of decision teachers just don't want a part of. They want to be able to teach and do their own thing. They want to be informed about it and know that they can always have input into any decision that's made and if they know that and feel comfortable there are a lot of decisions they don't want any part of. So things that came down that didn't make any sense to really bother teachers about, I wouldn't do that, I would handle it myself or whatever. It's the same thing as trying to give kids more tasks on time that you ask teachers too, I think as an administrator you have to give teachers more time for tasks so that teachers can do teaching and not all that comes down from "central office."

Q: An important component of the whole school community is the parents. How did you promote positive public community relations?

A: I used to say that 80% of the job was probable public relations and parent involvement. It all ties back to my philosophy if the kids are happy , the parents are happy. The kids are going to benefit. Keeping the parents happy is important. How you do that is part magician, part juggling, (laughter) part actor, a big part is sincerity. Parents need to know that you truthfully like kids. If they know that, that is a big part because if you like kids you will do what's best for them. That's why I always say at the PTA meetings decisions I make will be for your kids. Not just to please you, maybe some won't please you, but I am the expert in education and I'm going to make some different decisions in what's best for the kids. Always again, easy to say, I don't know the real answer to it, having parents as well as teachers feel comfortable in coming to me with problems, questions, involvement. Knowing that seldom did I get angry at them, so that I didn't disagree with them, but had an open discussion which they felt comfortable with. It's called the open door policy, but that is too simple a term and we could talk an hour about that, but we won't.

Q: In reflecting back on your career in terms of a principal, what are the five most pleasant principalship activities that you've been involved in?

A: The most pleasant was seeing the kids "perform" at the PTA's, at shopping centers or just for the school. The chorus', the talent show and any kid who had any talent could perform. That used to just bust the buttons off, you would really feel proud. Calling them my kids and enjoying it. Just working with teachers knowing that what they are doing is benefitting kids, and helping kids. A real bear is what we call the EMT (Educational Management Team). That can be very depressing, but after you work your way through the depression, you realize that this was a team of people rally dedicated to helping a certain child. In some respects this was enjoyable. I've never really said that before, but when I think about it, at times it did get to you. But again knowing that this whole group of people reading teachers, resource teachers, speech teachers, etc. working on this one job. I love working with parents. I've said that if the actors and theaters went on strike, you can get a bunch of teachers and administrators and put them up on stage and they'd do fine because most good administrators and teachers have to have some acting abilities. So I enjoy working with parents.

Q: Would you please discuss the five most unpleasant activities of a principalship?

A: The reverse of the EMT at times. Again as I said, that would be very depressing. Also at times there were needs that couldn't be met by the school. And therefore, having no control over the parents because in this country you aren't going to have and shouldn't but it can be unpleasant and distressing knowing you can't help the child because of things you have no control over. Another thing was the bureaucracy. It is necessary in a large system. It can be improved upon in large systems, but that's hard to do, and bureaucracy is not always pleasant to deal with. If you're a fairly competent principal sometimes you can avoid that bureaucracy if your teachers, staff, parents and kids are doing well the bureaucracy won't bother you too much. There weren't many unpleasant things. Truthfully, I loved the job. It was good to me. I accomplished things in it. In one school, I was threatened with closure and we met four and five nights a week. So at the time, it wasn't pleasant, but it was necessary to save the school. In general, there were not a lot of unpleasant things with the Elementary principalship. It doesn't mean it wasn't hard, it's a very hard demanding job.

Q: How many schools were you a principal in?

A: I was a principal of three schools. One in a very demanding upper class community, lots of parent involvement, kids coming to kindergarten, many of them having traveled the world and our job was to guide them through education. The other one was in a low social economic community, with kids coming to school with very little verbal interaction, a lot sitting and watching television, first experience with groups was kindergarten. It was a real educational challenge with teachers. The third school was more in a middle class community a little bit of everything that added different challenges.

Q: I'm sure all three communities had different pressures, but as far as yourself, how did you handle those pressures?

A: Not well very early in my career. Had some stomach problems, ulcer type problems. (laughter) Until a fellow principal of mine, who was trying to go to school full time to be a principal and getting his degree had half of his stomach removed because of ulcers. His experience taught me a lot that life was worth a lot more than getting ulcers over it. I started to learn some stress techniques to learn how to handle that and realize that you are doing the best you can and all you can be asked. Some of that is in the book that I co-authored.

Q: Certainly in reviewing that book , what really prompted you to author that?

A: It was an interesting process, four of us working together, three principals and a central office person had decided to renew ourselves and do something different. We formed a partnership to do some consulting. The offer to write a book came through one of the partners who had written an article and the company came to him and asked him if he would be interested in a book. He brought it back to us, and we said yes. We could talk an hour about that process. It was successful and it is now in its fifth year. Sold under a million. (laughter)

Q: If you had it to do all over again, what would you do to better prepare yourself for the principalship?

A: I don't know. I was fortunate in that I had two full years as a full fledged assistant principal. This was as an intern, but two years as assistant principal under a principal who gave me lots of responsibilities, consequently, I felt that I got lots of good training. I know that doesn't happen now, because a lot of times there is a lot more turnovers, resources, funding for that type of thing. What would I do differently? I guess if I really had to do it over I probably wouldn't do anything differently because I feel good about everything that has happened. I might have tried a wider range in teaching. I taught fourth and sixth grades, maybe I should have taught a first or second just to get that experience. I truthfully believe you have to be a teacher in 99% of the cases to be the most effective administrator because of the empathy. I do agree that there are always exceptions in finding a good leader that will be a good principal.

Q: Then do I hear you saying you would enter the principalship again?

A: Oh, oh, most definitely. I loved my time as a principal. Missed many things as a principal, but I am enjoying my second career.

Q: How did you handle or did you ever experience teacher grievances? Did it vary according to situations or what steps did you use in handling that?

A: I handled some wonderfully and some poorly. (laughter) It's a learning process. I was around as assistant principal when the first strike occurred, first and only strike in Montgomery County around 1967. Those were trying times. We're really young as a profession and in a union which people don't realize. And we're still going through the process of becoming a union in education. When the first few grievances came about everyone was realizing and they were real confrontational. We are now learning that in grievances, both sides are trying to learn, it is a way of clarifying language in the contract. When you look at it in this perspective, it's not a win/lose situation. It's a matter of clarifying contract language. So I think the first few I handled poorly as a lot of administrators may have in that we didn't understand the process and many of us took it personally. And many times it was meant personally by the grievant. I think some of that is changing as we learn to deal with it.

Q: What would you say consumed the majority of your time as principal?

A: People involvement. Walking down the hall. Teachers need the security of seeing you and time to chat. My toughest job was in an elementary school when I had over 80 staff, and you have to judge your time. Again, I didn't learn that for many years, you don't come in and learn that as a principal, it comes from on the job learning.

Q: What suggestions would you offer to Universities that could better prepare candidates for principalships?

A: I like the idea of a true internship or similar program. If the district, and there are many around the nations that don't, has assistant principals, then the universities have to work with that district to try to give that aspiring principal some time in the position. Field experience I guess is what I'm talking about. I don't have the answer how to do it. I know it takes money to do that, but there needs to be some way that you can be an assistant principal and step in as principal to get the feel. Next I think universities need to look at some of the things we are doing in the national principal academy. Look at some of the training business and industry have done and how they have done the hands on training. Some universities are doing that. I think that's good. The closer universities work with the professional association that deal with the members, school districts, and look at the needs the better off they will be. I am very biased in that I don't think Universities in general have changed much as I don't think High Schools have changed in the last one hundred. I think, I'm biased, because Elementary Schools have tried everything. I think that has helped us. We've looked as to what makes an effective school. High Schools and Universities have not changed much in the last 100 years as to how they look at things or the way they work with their students. Hope that doesn't get you in trouble Mrs. Fleming. (laughter)

Q: It's often said that being a principal is a lonely job. Do you support that statement or do you feel otherwise?

A: NO, I support that statement. Again, most elementary schools have one administrator they don't assistant principals. To just bounce ideas off the wall, talk about what's best for kids, a decision to be made, you can do that with teachers. but teachers have to teach so they don't have time for that. Yes, it can be a lonely job. That's one thing we are trying to put a plug in with the national association of principals. We are setting a pace. We are trying to set up a network where principals can make contact all over the nation. I'm talking about ten years down the line. Every principal can make contact.

Q: Basically what do you feel the superintendent's role should be in terms of supporting the principals?

A: You said it in the question. Supporting the principals and a lot of superintendents do not do that. I understand it is a strenuous position and they work for the lay board and the public thinks they work for them and they do. They have to be supportive, the superintendent will not be successful if he/she doesn't have their administrators behind him or her. It's a two way support system. I think the superintendent has to be up front with the administrators and simply say these are perimeters we're working in, budget constraints. He or she needs to say, I work for the Board of Education, they hire and fire me, they have these demands. Let's see how can we work it out so it's still best for you in the schools and still keeps everybody happy. The superintendent can't keep everybody happy. He/she has to make judgments at that point and those are based on experience. My hope is that we would get more superintendents who have elementary backgrounds which we don't currently have.

Q: Describe your reasons for opting to retire when you did?

A: Age, renewal, challenge, I had been a principal for 20 years. At one time, I wanted to be superintendent. I did not feel that I could've been superintendent in Montgomery for whatever reasons, and was not ready to leave the county or move out of the area. I had been active in association work and knew that Washington D.C. was a major place for associations. Being 50, I thought it was a good time to change careers so I started looking into the association world. I said a prayer at night. In making my contacts, the national principal association said they had decided to expand. So I was the first new position they've hired in ten years and I was fortunate to get that. My change was not from real disenchantment with the job, maybe a little boredom. I could've changed schools and maybe that would have been my next move to do that. But it seemed to work out best that way for me.

Q: If we were to call on teachers that you supervised , how would they describe your leadership?

A: Wonderful, super ... No. (laughter) It would depend on what teachers you called. (laughter) I would hope they would say I was fair. I know they would say nice, kind, pleasant, a good instructional leader, excellent people person, at times too soft. Those are probably general. A nice guy.

Q: If you had advice to give to beginning principals, what would that be?

A: I hope to have the opportunity to give that advice. We are working at Virginia Tech. We are looking at the aspiring principal program. Some advice would be looking and learning the leadership styles that you can possess and knowing what your most prominent ones are. It's important to see if that's going to really work in the education world. Tying that together ... teachers believe that because they teach, they know about the school, but most teachers are concentrated on one task in the classroom, not worrying about how you coordinate the bus duty, play ground, lunch, how you deal with the new teacher, experienced teacher, the experienced teacher who has burned out or bored, how you deal with a proficient teacher. You need to look at your leadership style. I think one of the most important things I would emphasize would be human relations skills. Again, my philosophy, if the parents are pleased, staff is pleased and kids are happy, then you have a well run school and a lot of that depends on good public relational skills.

Q: Are you implying that the entire school and community should be happy and satisfied? (laughter)

A: No, that would be wonderful. Again. I am implying the whole community should be happy and satisfied, but that's not realistic in most cases regardless of how many you are dealing with. You are going to have that. I've always tried to get teachers to accept that and not to take it personally. It's very hard for the teacher to like every kid and for every kid to like every teacher. There are personality conflicts that don't match. So when you get started in the year, even before parents would come to me, teachers should come and say Johnny and I just don't like each other. There's nothing wrong with that as long as they don't take it out on the kid. And let's do something about it before the mother comes and says Johnny hates his teacher. So, no it's realizing that we are adults and kids are kids, not miniature adults. You're not going to please all of them.

Q: The last question, what have I now asked you that I should ask?

A: You've done a good job and asked a lot of good questions. It's fun to think about it again. I guess maybe what you haven't asked and I don't know the answer is the future of the principalship. The school site base manager idea. The idea of bringing George Patton in as principal. Let me kind of go with some of those. I said earlier just to repeat again 99% of the cases to be an effective principal, you needed to have been a teacher. If you really read what former secretary of education, Bennett said about bringing people in from outside, he talks about two years of training. It's almost that they become a teacher anyway. So he's still talking about lots of training in education. School site base manager is something that many principals in the job now are not ready for. Sounds good, but the training is not there. Many principals in the job really don't have knowledgeable budget controls. That's another dimension, and principals are going to feel weighted down. I think principals for a while are going to avoid that idea. It is a lot more work until you learn how it works and manage it within and see that it can be beneficial: So it has a ways to go... I thing its important that it goes along with shared decision making. The future of the principalship, I don't think truthfully will change a whole lot with respect to being a manager of people. It'll change in the principals of the 21st century who will be more technologically oriented, and come in growing up on computers, which will help in managing. Managing offices will be more technologically advanced. Unfortunately, education is farther behind in technology. With what business is doing -- we are quite behind. In essence, the principal has to be a people person, dealing, managing, coordinating and cooperating with each other for the benefit of the kids. Otherwise you have covered it wonderfully, Mrs. Fleming.

Q: Thank you, Dr. Anastasi.

A: You deserve an A! (laughter)

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