Interview with Joseph S. Flierl


| Back to "F" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |

Q: How many years were you in education--as a teacher; as an administrator?

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

A: Harry, in the fourth grade I had a teacher, that turned me on. And I decided then...I want to teach. And I never changed that. That teacher was an inspiration. It was a woman teacher. But she was a teacher who could individualize and capture the imagination of what a kid is really interested in and liked to do and turned you loose on it. And from that particular example, I developed the idea that education was for the individual. And that my life could be helping individuals learn. So I began at that point saying, somehow, I have to find a way to college. Somehow, I have to be able to move into that education arena. So I went to the University--well it was Colorado State College of Education; from Englewood High School where I had graduated. Majoring in Social Studies, minoring in Biological Science. Wanting in the worst way to teach, in a field that at the time really wasn't much hope unless you were a coach. But I had a belief that there was something that would help me find a position, even though I was not particularly interested in coaching. And was not going to be a coach. I still pursed it and worked very, very hard. Took everything that I could take that would help me concentrate on how a person becomes unique. And so I took a lot of psychology along with it. Received my Bachelor's degree in 1952. In a year where the veterans from WWII had literally flooded the job market--very few jobs, lots of applicants. Did my student teaching at Englewood High because needed to live at home, save some money. Had at Englewood High an outstanding student teaching experience with a lady who had been at the department of Education and a gentleman who was a counselor. And from that experience that I had I was offered a job in Englewood, began my career there in the fall of 1952. And from the kind of opportunities that I had moved very very rapidly. From the classroom, to student activities, to Administration and had spent from 1952 through 1986 in the field of education. With no deviation. I had one year in the Colorado Department of Education as a consultant. That was is 1968-69 when modular scheduling was the rage. When at that point in time, "change everything", upset the fruit basket. Simply, destroy the traditional model of education that so many people were complaining about was the fad in schools. And uh, I did have a very interesting year. But, other than that, my life has been in education.

Q: How would you describe the schools that you've been at as an administrator?

A: The high schools where I had functioned, Englewood High School, Gateway High School in Aurora, Central High School in Aurora, Rangeview High School in Aurora all were schools undergoing very intense student population changes. In several different directions. Englewood HS where I began was a very homogeneous, Anglo, Suburban, College Prep High School. It began changing to a school with many handicapped students, declining population, increased Chicano population, militant Chicano population. Identified closely with the Corky Gonzales movement, in fact, Corky Gonzales had nephews and nieces who were in the high school at the time that I was there. And it was a school that had to respond to the needs of students with serious learning problems, with serious family disruption and with social disorientation because of ethnic background. Gateway HS, it was a real privilege for me to move into Gateway because it was a different kind of a world. Gateway was assimilating black families. Gateway was organized as a variable modular scheduled school. Gateway was an open space high school. Demanding team teaching of teachers. It was one of those schools that fit the model of uh the late 60's or early 70's trying to say education is totally a student responsibility. Go to the laboratories, to the teachers to get extra help. Individualized as much as it was possible, to individualize. A lot of tutoring. We had all of the great ideas that we attempted to put in place. Aurora Central HS was a lower socio-economic community. Integrating black families very rapidly. Integrating large numbers of black students that were "non-familied." In addition, oriental students--non-English speaking. Korean students who were English speaking but were--who were extremely street wise. Lower socio-economic white families. And a neighborhood of very affluent Anglo parents, mostly southern. And probably the most often heard word in Central HS was "Niger". With all the connotations then of racial strife and potential racial disruption at any time. Rangeview HS it was a southeast Aurora community, bedroom community well integrated with pretty well established families of all backgrounds. Successful black families--high aspiration for their children. The students came to that building from two other schools where their experiences were with a lot of disruption and a lot of alienation. And with a lot of feelings that they couldn't be very successful. They would not be very successful. With a background of drug abuse. A background of alcohol abuse. Non success in many efforts. Had all the ingredients of tremendous success but the students as they arrived were not success oriented. The experience of Rangeview included being the home-school principal with a second HS brought in after a serious physical problem the plant developed with Gateway HS in Aurora. And before Rangeview HS was one year old, we had become two high schools operating in the same building. And with the same equipment. One early in the morning until noon and the other noon until late afternoon. Both school convinced that students need suffer no loss of any kind of a program. There had to be a way to find an answer to deliver this, the opportunities to kids in a way any other HS was to deliver. That problem continued into the second year of the HS and so with in the first two years of a brand new school, it had experienced sharing it's building over both of those academic years. And yet, the students at Rangeview achieved a tremendous success. Academically, in activities, in athletics and they came on very strong. So that's the kind of schools that I've been in. All of them have been schools needing to face the reality that there was nothing simple about education. That there were multiple problems of different dimensions and demanded an administration and faculty that could be resilient and that could be creative and that could resolve problems. That could handle crisis and that's basically my experience. Its not been a single school that was simple and pretty solid and traditional and things pretty much the same from one semester to the next.

Q: Other than the opportunities that were presented to you, why did you decide to become a principal?

A: It was strictly accident, Harry. I was the youngest--was the only faculty member under 35 in Englewood HS when I took my first position. As such, kids naturally would navigate, would find a way to where I was. And that was just to be expected. Everybody knew that was going to happen. They, I was the eager young guy who would say yes to kids. If you need a dance sponsor, sure. I'll be there. If you need somebody to ride the bus, sure I'll ride the bus. If you need somebody to sponsor a club, hey sure I'll sponsor it for you. SO, I quickly established myself in the student activity program. And did experience a lot of success in the classroom. And so within three years I was asked to become a part-time director of student activities. Mostly because the school just needing someone to coordinate it, and the principal being an old man was tired of it and believing that a young person could maybe bring a dimension that could help solve some involvement problems with the kids. He came to me and said "hey, would you be willing to coordinated activities?" And so I was released from the classroom for three periods, taught two classes, coordinated activities for three, instituted a leadership program, made leadership training a part of the academic curriculum that was not student government it was designed program to sort out youngsters with great potential of leadership and help them develop some skills within the established organization of the school. That success, lead to the appointment as a full time director of student activities. And at that point I had taken no graduate courses at all. I had not one class in Educational Administration Theory. I had no class in academics of my own discipline at the college level. It was just coming out of a desire and willingness to try almost anything. If you have an idea, lets see what we can do with it. Coming out of a Social Studies background I think too was very very helpful in finding some success in that. I was pushed by the public school, Englewood Public Schools to get started in a graduate program. I was not one bit interested in administration, I took a guidance and counseling degree as a Master's program. All of these principals would come to me and say "Why are you doing that? Why don't you get the Administrative credential?" Looking at you for administrative position. I kept coming back and saying "It's my OPINION that right now what I need most off all are skills in dealing with the student with severs problems. That until I have those skills, I won't be a good administrator. That's where my interests are and that's where I think I can make my greatest impact so I'll take my degree in Guidance and Counseling." So the next step was to be appointed as a counselor in charge of various programs with disruptive students. That was about three years that I operated within that program. And at that same time, was asked by the principal to do scheduling, master schedule building. And was given the opportunity to learn some data processing functions. At that point it was all the card, the card system. But it was dabbing along in a lot of the administrative kinds of things; of the building in addition to the Coordinator of Programs for the Disruption of kids. In 1965, in the middle of the year, a junior high school exploded in Englewood, and the principal left. And the Superintendent came to my office one day and said "we would like you to go over and take that building." I had no idea why he would come to me. I would have thought that an experienced administrator would have been what they would want to put in there. But his opinion was that my being fairly solid with the HS aged kids, and being solid therefore with their parents, supported by those parents--that I would so well to go in to the community. His risking with me at that time that my emphasis on students and my emphasis on faculty working closely with students put me into a situation with only one or two administrative classes in the background. No certificate, but experience in some pretty crisis oriented programs at the HS. So I went in January. At that time we had the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The first thing I thought we needed to do was to apply for some money for staff re-training. The basic problem with the school was that the faculty had few skills in dealing positively with kids. Used almost totally negative discipline. Examples of such--sticking kids heads in waste baskets for a whole class period because they chewed gum. Egging girls in the shower because they didn't dress. Forcing students to physically run laps far beyond their capability until they dropped. It was a very punitive kind of JR HS. It was little wonder that students and parents finally said "We've had it. No more." Because we were a bit more enlightened by that time with what the idea of caring about kids was all about in a school. Caring about an individual kid--less emphasis on conforming and much more on being unique and individual. We were granted at that time $15,000, which was a lot of money--to pay teachers for an institute. We had a staff of twenty-five teachers who did get money to come for six weeks in an institute. We hired a full-time psychologist to help us plan how we would work with older men and women and it was a faculty again of a lot of much older men and women. In redesigning their concepts of their relationship to kids. What their function as a teacher would be. I was privileged to coordinate that. And here my Guidance and Counseling background was absolutely crucial in much of the success that we had with that program. We instituted core teaching, interdisciplinary teaching. We emphasized group involvement in diagnosis of kid's problems and planning of individual programs. It was the success of THAT particular institute that I was offered the job as a consultant with the Colorado Department of Education. Because, I left that JR HS then in 1968 after two and a half years as a principal to go to the State Department of Education. So much of what you see is accident. And I think that was true of the bulk of people who became administrators. You were either a highly successful coach, and would get appointed an assistant principal. Or you were a successful activities director or a highly successful teacher--charismatic kind of teacher. Or you were such a dynamic counselor you were given the opportunity then to move over. Let's face it--schools were basically much simpler. Teachers were much less demanding. The professional organizations--due process for teachers--was NOT particularly something that was emphasized. So, much of the training you get as an administrator now; you have to have or you're not going to be successful. You're not going to possibly survive. A year with the Colorado Department of Education, with traveling, with planting ideas-- but never being able to see them implemented was frustrating to me. It didn't take me long to see that I was a building person. That involvement with staff and kids was where I had to be. So when I was offered the principalship of Englewood HS in the fall of 1969, I took it and left the consulting business and returned to Englewood HS. I was non-certified, but the students for Democratic Society, the Chicano Movement, the thrust for abandoning dress codes and the need to respond to student demands were such that the superintendent saw in me the opportunity to work in a very political situation and perhaps resolve some problems and some tensions--so I was brought to Englewood HS by the superintendent. Non-certified and with only the experience of the JR HS. That was a four year experience. I did not actually return to full-time work in college to get the certification until 1975. That was when I was making a decision that I wanted to move beyond where I had been educated, where I had been nurtured, where I had been mentored and where I had been allowed to have a lot of success in a very friendly environment. I decided the world was big and it was necessary for me to move in to a much bigger district. So I knew I had to get my certification to do that and I took that professional training then and was certified then for the 1975 move to Aurora. I would have to say that there was little in my program that helped me that I had not already had. There was no internship program. There was basically a very academic budget class, a very academic and did happen to be a tremendously important law class. And that one of course in the early 70's was critical. ACLU sat on your desk very very often. You just had to know what the law was.

Q: I think you've already touched on this a little bit, but if you were going to take all of the schools that you've been at and put your school philosophy in a nut shell - how would you describe--what is the philosophy of Joe Flierl's schools?

A: My idea of a school is one that makes high demands on students to realize what their human potential is. And establish goals appropriate to them and realize that human potential. When I said realize in the first way to say know that they have potential. Find out what it is. SO a school needs to be based on the philosophy that kids must explore who they are. They must come to the realization of what they can do. Then the school must provide the opportunities to challenge them to realize that potential as far as it can be made to come to it's potential. I personally believe that a school must care deeply about the individual. The uniqueness of an individual. And must fins ways to move from forcing anybody into a mold. To breaking them from that mold and becoming what they are. I believe firmly in the comprehensive high school--that's part of my philosophy. The world is a unified kind of world and we tend to try and segment it. But the interrelationships are so strong that whatever the weaknesses might be of the comprehensive HS the strengths are so much more important that I believe that we need to keep all kinds of diversity. We need to keep all kinds of opportunities. We need as best we can to try to be all things for everybody. As best we can do that. I believe the emphasis has to be on the individual. Always helping the individual realize how he relates to the group, the broader group. But that his life is probably going to encompass many many different groups. And consequently he always must come back to the fact that I am who I am. I will be the best that I can be and that I will change. So education means to help the student to develop his own goals. To foster his quest for learning and to help him understand how he relates to the broader society. I have a very humanistic philosophy about the public schools. And I still believe the greatest skill we can give a student is to learn where information is and how you can retrieve it. And then how you can apply it. And how he can critically analyze it.

Q: Consistent within that framework then, what were some tools or techniques that you would use in order to create that climate? What things did you do to encourage your teachers to fulfill your goals, your philosophy, your vision?

A: Well, a school has to have a very strong staff development program. A school has to have a very strong staff involvement base. A school must somehow bring a faculty to realize that you don't point a finger at somebody and ask what they are going to do to solve the problem. Rather you ask what we together, each individually can do, to make a contribution--small as it might be--toward helping to bring some resolutions to major concerns. So #1--any HS might then--primary emphasis has been put on student develop student identification of skills, student leadership training, developing in the minds of students their sense of responsibility for what goes good and what goes bad within a building. At the same time, working with a faculty in all the different strategies that you can have--through building counsels, through department structures, through in-service programs. Broaden their concepts as much as possible. Open avenues where they will go to individual training on their own. And provide many many opportunities for faculty to be leaders within a school.

Q: What do you perceive your faculty members expecting of you as a principal? What do faculty members look for in principals?

A: SUPPORT. And amazingly enough, they're looking not for support in discipline. Not support in dollars and cents but in personal support in them in their value as human beings and in their reinforcement of achievement. So I have found, whether I like it or not, I was a counselor to teachers. That's where the greatest success was. They needed that. They wanted that. Secondly, they want you to be consistent. They want you to stand for something. They want you to know what you stand for. They want you to be knowledgeable and interested in what they are doing. They want you to be part of the daily problems that they face. They want leadership. They want to feel that there is somebody there in a crisis. They don't expect you to have all the answers but they expect you to try.

Q: How did you evaluate teachers? m Not policy but, what is a good teacher to you as a principal?

A: Many, many kinds of good teaching. There's no one that I would say right now is the best. There are many styles of learning. And there are also many styles of teaching. The good teacher is one who has many bags to draw from. The good teacher is one who can diagnose the student's need and has in his background and in his experience and in his readings a lot of different options of how he approaches instruction. A good teacher is a good motivator. A good teacher knows how to plan a lesson. Let me refer to Madelyn Hunter's model for a little bit. An introduction of that lesson-- to get the students to focus, to get the student to turn on to what is going to happen. To get them interested and excited and willing to participate is a primary key to successful instruction. And the better one is at that part of the lesson, the better teacher one is. If you are clumsy and stumble there, it is less likely that you are going to be able to rise to some real successful experience later on. So I am going to look in evaluating a teacher at how they relate to students. Their attitude and their motive being there. How they are able to bring students to literally focus on their content. And how they are able to excite those students to the extent that they will leave that room and pursue on their own. The master teacher is not the great performer. The master teacher is one who can turn a student to make a commitment to go explore far beyond what that teacher has asked them to do in a classroom. The master teacher is a teacher who can inspire students to pursue their own personal professional goals. You evaluate that by many, many observations. You evaluate that by spending many hours in the hall. Walking and watching and listening and observing. You see a teacher casually by opening a door and standing for a few minutes and watching what happens to that class. You evaluate that by intense observation and by good feedback sessions with the teacher. You evaluate a teacher by casual, informal conversations; instituted by the teacher or by you. You evaluate a teacher by the product that they turn out.

Q: How do you utilize your assistant principals?

A: I look for an AP that has knowledge in his area, who has a successful record in dealing with students. Who I expect, because either I've observed or believe out of an interview, can make a decision. Who can work with the faculty and with the students in a participatory model. Who is capable of bringing diverse factions together and facilitate communication. And who as a result of my talking with them with that person, I believe will be successful in helping people focus on a problem. Accept the reality that the problem is theirs and does not come from the base of causing people to blame. I want a AP who says I like you, I don't like what you did. And can communicate that to the student. Who is calm even in the most excitable situation. And how do I utilize them? Once I find that person I give them an assignment and expect that they will communicate with me three, four, five times a day. Keep me fully informed, dialogue with me about options, but will then make the decisions and solve the problem. I believe that an AP is a testing time. And that a principal who protects an assistant and does not put them in a situation where they are fully understanding what their limitations are, have the possibility of the acceptance of the full responsibility of something; has not given that AP the opportunity to grow and really decide whether he really wants the principal's office because the buck stops there. I want the AP to come in and ask me what I might have done. But I want him to come in and say this is what I did, and this is why I did it. And because basically I am a phenomenologist, which says I think people make a decision, a good decision every time they make one, because it's the best one they could make. And my function as a principal is to help expand their understanding, expand their field so that out of that they have more options. They have a broader grasp of different alternatives and might make a different decision the next time. I could probably count on one hand, the decisions in 25 years of administration that I have asked an AP to change. I don't ask them to change their decision but I ask them to change the frame of reference from which they made the decision in the first place. So that the next time around they probably won't make the same conclusion again. So my operation is consultation; it is facilitation, it is support. It is communication; that is why I want them to work with me. But I want them always to say; I want to make that decision, I am willing to make that decision, I will take the consequences of that decision. But I want to talk about it.

Q: What advise would you give to a person who is preparing and beginning to look for administrative positions?

A: Take on every possible opportunity that you can. To have as many different experiences that you can in as many different areas. Coaching is a good kind of experience to have. Sponsoring, getting involved in Student Government experiences. Working in the counseling area, serving as tutors, peer counseling supervisor, whatever. Any way that you can have an experience where you make decisions, you lead, you plant ideas, you facilitate other people to work toward solution of a problem. Good preparation for administration--find a mentor and spend many many hours with that mentor; talking. Setting up problem situations. Exploring all different alternatives. Ask that mentor to make a decision and then probe with him what the mind set was that brought him to that decision. What body of knowledge he drew from; if you have it it's confirmation. If you don't it tells you where you need to go. Do everything you can to understand your own emotions. To find your values. To find the bottom line that you can accept. And read--read the literature. Every article that you can find that talks about how people have handled problems. Have dealt with change, have brought ideas into the school setting. Read about it- that's getting alternatives. That's building in your mind all kinds of options. Get as many different kinds of situations for observation as you can. Use professional days and go out and shadow any AP that you know is a good one. And shadow different assignments that AP's have. Spend a lot of time talking with teachers. And asking them the question -"What do you want from administrators?" So you can take from that what is you. And all these different experiences, of mentor experiences, observation, shadowing, reading--you develop a style which is you. Which is predictable by other people. Which is consistent and which is real. People may not agree with you but if they can predict and they know basically where you're going to come from; they can live with it and they can support it.

Q: You mentioned a mentor, did you have such a person?

A: I didn't have such a person, but I had several that were models in my mind.

Q: Could you describe them?

A: Yes. I had a high school teacher who was called affectionately "Pop". He was wise. And he was able to find a way to bring people to talk honestly about what was wrong or what was right. I can recall numerous times, early on in my career, where I would sit with a parent and with a student and I would think "what would Pop Davidson have said right now?" I had a principal early in my experience who was not a verbal kind of a mentor, but one again that I would come back and say was a highly successful man in bringing people together. What did he do? And I would spend a lot of time trying to analyze in my own mind how he functioned. So he served as a disconnected--a detached mentor for me. In my generation, we taught very much as the best teachers we had or the teachers we really liked or the ones we thought were highly successful as they taught. In my generation that's basically how we grew as professional administrators. I had a couple college professors who were models to me of how you led people. Dr. Fred Plouke who later left CSCE and went down as President of Adams State College, was one of those people. My contact with him was in an American Education course. Where he talked a lot about leadership in the school. And I often came back to statements that he would make in that course about how you might function in circumstances that demand quick thinking.

Q: Discuss the most pleasant experience you had as a principal.

A: A telephone call from a black parent who said "you're the man but I like you; and my kids like you. And we trust you." I will NEVER forget Mrs. Graham. The ultimate, the ultimate thank you which was a pleasant experience was a gift of a trip to Hawaii on retirement. Tremendously pleasant experience. Being able to place a young woman as the first assistant principal in the Aurora public schools. Non certificated, ultimately my own replacement as principal in the high school when I retired. Tremendously pleasant experience. Risking but pleasant. And I'll really cherish was an invitation to lunch by several Special Education students who very often came by my door to say "Good Morning Mr. Flierl". And then at the end of one school year wanted to take me to lunch. That they would feel that they could even approach the principal makes me feel very good. And winning state basketball championship was a very pleasant experience. That helped. (Laughter).

Q: What would you consider the most unpleasant or frustrating or situation of that nature?

A: The confrontation of blacks and whites. No matter when it occurred it was terribly unpleasant to me because it said to me--"We have NOT developed respect. We have not yet brought students to the point where they can accept differences". And so any racial confrontation--not because it presented danger--but because it was such an obvious mark of need to resolve a problem yet unsolved. And I am a perfectionalist and I do demand of myself that we at least make progress in resolving the problem. And I do take a great deal of responsibility when there is failure. And it's stressing and distressing. Firing a teacher who over her career was a marvel. But who could not realize her day was done. And that she did not know where papers were. And where when I went in to observe, she was teaching mythology, thought she was teaching mythology in a creative writing class. Didn't even know what the class was that she was teaching. Very stressing and distressing and unpleasant. It is not pleasant to tell somebody who is working desperately hard to be successful that they are unsuccessful; and need to do something different. That's unpleasant. Losing a Bond election when needs are very very great. And knowing well that had we done our homework the voters were there. Pretty unpleasant.

Q: What's your biggest headache? Day to day your biggest headache?

A: Paperwork. Filling out forms. That's a headache. That always in my day had to be done at night or late after the students and teachers had gone; or weekends. Because to try to do it during the school day meant the door had to be closed and I really couldn't keep my door closed. And that meant that I would be interrupted ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty times trying to do one budget sheet. And tremendously waste of time and very frustrating. And there is so much paperwork in administration. I think that's really very annoying. Having the same problem recur over and over and over again. And hearing the same complaints about something you can do nothing about and you know you can do nothing about it. But having to listen and having to say "yes I know" and "yes I've tried" and "yes, I'll try again".

Q: What is something I didn't ask you that I should have asked you? What is significant in an oral history of a retired school administrator that I haven't given you the opportunity to share?

A: I think to keep your sanity. That you need to constantly evaluate bench marks. And to be cognizant of growth and progress. Otherwise discouragement--call it burn out if you want-- it's going to happen. The pressures to do everything right from the public; the stream of criticism of leadership in schools; of failures of students; of problems that are societal in nature--would all burn out the most eager and the brightest and the most competent very fast, in the principalship. And the principalship is turning over much much faster then it should turn over. Because that pressure, that stress, that constant drumming that things have to be different; will cause you to burnout on the principalship fast. And seek other levels of administration. And that's not to say that those aren't the jobs to go to. But the best people need to stay in the principalship. Those who are highly successful in the principalship need to stay there- and to stay there they need to keep their feet on the ground. Benchmarks of whether they are or are not achieving. And the reason to leave the principalship ought to be that you are not being successful in achieving the benchmarks. Not to leave because the job has so many stresses and tensions and frustrations. I think that's the message that has to go out to young people who are looking at administration. The action is in the principalship. The most difficult job today--there is no question in my mind--as I've gone through the profession, that the most difficult job is the high school principalship. And it's difficult because it's a decision-making position. Momentary, split-second decisions. And that's where our best people should be. We need training and we need realization on their part. That you can stay in it and you can keep your sanity and you can keep your enthusiasm and you can keep your cool in all sense of it; in your emotions. If you have that mentality and that realization that you are making progress. And that's all you can really hope--to make a little bit of difference in each position that you are. That would be my message. Get in it, know what you're getting into and know how you are going to function with it. Know who you are, and know what you can do and know where you can find personal satisfaction to stay on and how you can measure that. And you'll stay in administration twenty five years like I did.

Q: Thank you. I appreciate it.

| Back to "F" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |