Interview with Roy Ford


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Q: Would you fill us in on your educational background and bring us up to your recent retirement.

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

A: I attended schools in eastern Colorado during the first 8 years of my schooling in a one room school house and I completed my high school work at Westminster High School here in the Denver area. After three years in the service I went to the University of Denver where I got my B.A. degree and subsequently got a master's degree at Columbia University at New York. I started teaching on January 2 of 1950, fourth grade in a Denver public school, and I taught for 9 years, was a teacher assistant to the principal for 8 years, worked as a research assistant on a special project. The district had gotten some money to develop television programs for channel 6 and worked as an elementary coordinator for a year and spent 23 years as an elementary principal. My most recent principal experience was at Crooken Elementary but prior to that time I worked in four other elementary schools.

Q: Why did you decide to become a principal?

A: Back in the days when I was teaching, many of my peers as well as my principal, felt that I had some leadership potential. As opportunities presented themselves it just seemed like a natural progression of things.

Q: How did you create a climate for learning in the schools that you were principal of?

A: This is a difficult question and still a very important one. I think first of all, being enthusiastic about what was going on in the elementary school is extremely important and projecting this to the staff, to the community, to the kids. I think having the materials and equipment people need to do the job available is extremely important. Being there, being available when people need help.

Q: You often hear them talk about leadership styles, techniques, what worked for you?

A: I'm convinced you can lead people much more efficiently in terms of their production much more than you can drive them and back during my teaching days I had some experience in both. So, to me it was real important to realize that the most important thing that happens in a school is the teaching function. And of course, if that is high quality, then learning occurs. Every other service in a school is supplementary to the teaching function. And, so making myself available to facilitate, to help people be successful, is real important part of the job. Did I answer that question?

Q: Yes, I think so.What role did you play or did you see yourself play in the area of public or community relations?

A: Well, obviously it's a part of being a principal because you have contact with parents all of the time and with community people all the time. Many of the contacts are on positive notes. Occasionally they are not necessarily on a positive note. But nonetheless, you have to sell the school to the community an(i enlist its aid all the time in supporting the efforts of your staff to accomplish the objectives that have been defined.

Q: What do you think teachers expect principals to be?

A: Well, jacks of all- trade. An immediate resolver when they get in a jamb. A facilitator, a person who acquires the material and equipment and this type of thing when they need them. A sympathetic understand of the challenges of their job. A person who appreciates their effort. A person with whom they can share their successes and frustrations, probably. Generally they want somebody that's there helping them be successful and be productive and takes a variety of forms at a variety of different times, and under a variety of different circumstances. There are things that happen in a classroom from time to time that are spontaneous and uncontrolled and sometimes they can be disruptive and often teachers need help when that happens. But I think they see it as essentially as a supportive role to their efforts. Again, a teaching function.

Q: How did you evaluate teachers? What comes to mind when you talk about teacher evaluation?

A: Well you know, the district procedure requiring teacher evaluation for non-tenured teachers as well as tenured teachers on a period three-year basis. Back in the dark ages when I first started this job I liked the procedure we had where the characteristics of and teaching were defined and you could observe it, or not observe it and you could say ,yes I see this or no I don't second this. In more recent times, the prevailing thought is that you should sit down with teacher, and help them identify their, strengths and weaknesses and work on the weaknesses. It has been my experience that it is extremely difficult for teachers to do that. It is extremely difficult for principals to do that. And as a consequence, in more recent years, I have not felt as successful in giving people guidance in terms assisting their performance and preparing a long range resolution as I did in previous years. Typically, in more recent years I would sit down with people very early in the year - like the first week - and we'd start working on three or four areas of their performance that they would try to emphasize and improve upon. Once we reached those, then I tried to visit every classroom once a week and with a follow-up conference in three or four days and I always gave people a copy of my observations as well as conclusions and any kind of agreements we had in the conferences afterwards. As I say, I never felt as comfortable with the newer procedure because it is so difficult for people to identify their behavior in ways that were observable or measurable. So I didn't feel as successful many times even though I had a more well organized follow-up procedure than I did in the beginning.

Q: What techniques did you use to make teachers feel important?

A: Recognize their successes. Tell them you thought they had done something worthwhile - particularly - letting the community know as well the things they had done that were especially effective. And of course, we publicized our test achievements and this kind of thing - letting the community know all the time what we were doing.

Q: What's your personal leadership philosophy?

A: I stated earlier, I think people can be lead much more efficiently than they can be driven. I think people in so far as it is possible, should be involved with the decisions that ultimately affect them. For some people, that is difficult, and getting some people to get involved in decision making is difficult. Some people want to be told. But the vast majority of people really prefer not to be dictated to. That's true of me as well. I had one experience during my teaching time that was like that. That was what initiated my first transfer by me.

Q: In your opinion, what does it take to be an effective principal?

A: Well, I think you have to be very sensitive to the needs of kids, to the needs of the members of your staff. You have to be resourceful in getting materials, locating materials, and getting money to get them if that is what it takes. You have to be enthusiastic about what is going on in your building and supportive of the conscientious efforts of staff members to be successful.

Q: What do you see as a way or means of improving education?

A: I think education will only improve - public education specifically when society redefines its expectations - get-at-able-way how should I say, we used to refer to things as being teachable. Values for example, are very hard to teach, because you learn them primarily by observing the behavior of people whom you value or whom you respect. And to say to teachers you will teach these values, it's extremely difficult to do and very time consuming and almost impossible to measure. I would like to see public education get back to teaching kids to be successful academically and skill wise and I think once we do that and take out a lot of this stuff that has been added in more recent years that is not specific and concrete, we'll find the schools being much more successful. I think also a part of the lack of student respect for teachers and school people has risen from the fact that the community, the public, doesn't any longer hold education in very high esteem. And I think one of the things we have to do is get back to letting selected people be in charge of operating the schools. I think we must give teachers the right to not have to tolerate or live with destructive student behavior. I don't think that should have to be an option. If a child is disruptive, I think he should be removed from the situation or some pressure or some means of persuasion brought on to him to bring about a change in his behavior by cooperation and this kind of thing. I think it's extremely difficult for teachers to teach almost anything to children who are not motivated to learn. I think we have a large segment of the population whom experience has not taught them that education leads you any place and, therefore, they don't place high value on education. One of the results of this is that many of the people tend to be very low income people - one parent family situations - and as a consequence, much of the nurturing and motivation of a very young child prior to age fifteen simply does not exist. I think in many of these low income situations there is a great tendency for parents to stick a bottle in the baby's mouth and leave it isolated by itself on the bed for long periods of time and I think children even at that age, even infants, need the stimulation that comes from being poked and proded and all of these kinds of things that more middle class people tend to do. I think this results in a lot of vocabulary development in part of children and you know the more experiences they have the more they have to talk about. I think this facilitates reading and develops language skills and this kind of thing that I think in areas where you have extremely severe economic deprivation and the corresponding limited motivation and drive and greed and all the things that propel the rest of us, children tend to come to school with many deficiencies that it probably takes the kindergarten and first and second grade teachers to get them up on a par where they are ready to absorb and learn what the school has to offer.

Q: As a principal, what do you remember as being your biggest concern?

A: My most recent experience was in a school of the lowest socioeconomic area of the town. There was a high incidence of families on welfare. It was very frustrating to me to see the amount of money and energy expended in this area and so little long term effect that it seemed to have on the children. For example, we probably staffed 60-70 children a year out of a student population of 250 for special education kinds of programs. Staffing involved probably 6 or 8 special staff pecple and it always seemed so unfortunate to me that so much money was spent on trying to make these learning disabled or learning handicapped kids perform at a normal level and the vast majority of them just didn't. We haven't learned how - well, I think we stil1 blindly assume that the public schools are going to make all children perform at some average level or better. I think one of the unfortunate things is that we don't tend to admit to ourselves that we can't actually achieve this for all children. We spend an awful lot of money in this country on special education and for the most part the kids that are handicapped by those needs tend to remain handicapped into their adult lives. We spend so much energy in trying to do things and still I think if we were giving these kids in low income areas very basic academic skills so that we could hopefully get them in - keep them in through high school - and get them right into the job market, we'd be doing a much greater service than we're doing now with the many extra things that don't really have meaning to them.

Q: As opposed to what you have expressed as a concern, as a principal, what would you identify as a headache? What to you would be a real headache?

A: One of the biggest headaches was the discipline thing. I would often times go to work - perhaps the biggest headache- is the way you would lose control of your day so easily. At one time I was preparing lesson plans for myself - I would prepare plans for the day or for the following day or for the following week. I would usually get to school about 7:30 in the morning and of course nobody was there so it was a nice quiet time. Then the staff would start coming in and of course I would have to be visible and available and you start small conversations and this kind of thing. And then the bus driver would appear with ten misconduct slips all of which involved getting children in, counseling with them. If it was a chronic kind of thing, alerting their parents. We have not had much guidance on bus discipline prior to the implementation of busing in the district. As a consequence I instituted an arbitrary procedure where children who got three bus misconduct slips in the course of the year would be suspended from riding the bus for two weeks. So this necessitated when they got the first one of contacting the parents - and usually on the bus slip form, there were three copies, and there were copies for parents - and I would write on there, on the very first one, this is John's first misconduct slip. If he gets two more he'll be suspended from the bus for two weeks. Please sign this and return it. The parents would do it and I would keep the copy as signed. Well, I would say about half the parents were supportive of that but some of the parents who were most educated were very resistive when the axe finally fell. And invariably these were families with two cars and this kind of thing so transportation was not a real problem. But it was personally inoonvenient for a mother who was not employed to drive the kids over. Or, a teacher would send you down five kids who had been misbehaving you know, do somthing right now. I used to joke with teachers that you shouldn't get upset if the kid calls you a bitch unless it's true because nowadays some kids do. Unfortunately, some teachers never saw the humor in that but you know kids are very skillful manipulators. I'm convinced children, babies, wouldn't survive infancy, if they weren't able to manipulate their environment and manipulate the adults. And of coarse, the baby who learns to cry at the right time to get a bottle or get his pants changed is learning how to control. The younger sibling who cries for mom when the older sibling does something to him is learning to control. As kids and as adultd get older, we use our mouth more to manipulate people than we do our body. But kids are very skillful at this and of course when they can work one adult against another I think that is for the kid but it can be awfully effective if the adult in question is not as objective and mature as he might be and of course it makes running the bus and trying to help the bus driver to do his jobin a safe manner is much more difficult. I've always felt I was lucky in having very conscientious bus drivers but there have been times when they, like everybody else, their patience wears thin. At this point I don't think there is a good answer for transporting 40 wiggly kids at one time and really be in control. One of the things that has been tried is to have aids on there and I think that has been relatively successful but it involves additional money and as we trim budgets some of those supplimental things go by the board. But I would say the loss of your day to,.... to discipline kinds of things is one of my biggest frustrations.

Q: As you observe different schools and different schools you've been in, could you off the top of your head - identify any characteristics that you would associate with effective schools?

A: I think the effectiveness of a school is highly dependentnt upon the community it serves and the support of the you get for the sschol's efforts and the motivation the kids have when they come to school. My first assignment was in a very middle class income wise area but it was in 1950 and at a time when people still had a blind faith in the worthwhileness of the objectives of teachers and tended to be very supportive when children were not 100% cooperative. Parents kind of gave you blind faith on your good intentions and admittedly I'm sure there were times that I didn't use 100% expert judgement but I think nonetheless children learned you couldn't work the ends against the middle. I think as a consequence some discipline or self-discipline arose out of that. I think self-discipline is an extremely important characteristic that we must all learn to get through life successfully. From there I moved to a more affluent neihborhood in a new school and these were people - a lot of professional people, parents in the neighborhood - and these were people whose experience had taught them that education does lead to some place, to a better lifestyle, to a better income, and this kind of things, and so they had high expectations for their kids and they were very supportive of the school's efforts to provide good quality instruction to their kids. In my first principals' assignment I was at perhaps the most highest income level of the city at the times - an extremely high percentage of professional people and many homes with high income. And that was to my way of thinking the most pleasant assignment that I ever had because the people were so supportive of the effots of the efforts of the staff to have a constructive influence on their kids. The integrity or the motives of the teachers were never questioned. And parents were realistic and could see that not each teacher was not able to give the same things to the job - the same quality of performance, but they bought into the overall efforts of the school and were very supportive. It was a real neat experience and I guess - probably not fair to say - but income wise every assignment was downhill from that point - I started in the most affluent areas and ended my service at the least affluent areas.

Q: As you look back, what was the toughest decision you had to make as a principal.

A: I think probably deciding to retire was the hardest thing I ever did. I was raised during the 30's and 40's and of course at that time a job was everything. You got a job and you stuck with it for life. I had long since decided I would work until I was 65 because at that time I would have 40 years of service and I had my payments on my house so they would be paid off just before I turned 65. 65 just seemed like a good - and my dad had worked until he was 65 - it just seemed like a good time to shoot for. But, the job developed a number of stresses through the years and one of them was the stress of rising from a small segment of the community wishing to become more involved in the operational decisions of the school - in the hiring and evaluating of staff and this kind of thing that I thought were not appropriate for parents to be doing. That was an increasing pressure. One of the things that has caused some frustration for me through the years has been the increasing militancy of some teachers on the staff. As you know, with the collective bargaining as they now enjoy and the grievance procedures, some people - a small number - but enough to become an irritant to me and other members of the staff seemed to me exploitave of those alternatives quite often. When we first started with grievances, it was pretty well defined what was grievable by statements in the agreement. Teachers could grieve about this. But as time went on the assumption was taken and indeed ultimately became fact, any concern was grievable. Well, you can get some real sticky things when someone's mad at a fellow and do something about that person over there. And, some things got to be pretty heavy and pretty unreasonable and I must say we never did take anthing to arbitration before we got them resolved. Some things were very frustrating along that line. Anyway, I became gradually, and also I felt at times, that the administrative support by my immediate superiors was not as great as it should have been. I felt there was a tendency in more recent years if parents went to the ad building to complain about a staff member or about the way a principal was doing his job, there was a great tendency to listen to that and to make assumptions before all the facts were known, before listening for example to the complaintee's interpretation of the situation. The longer I went I became convinced that the stresses were getting more than I could handle. If I stayed around too long I was likely to experience health problems precipitated by this. At 61, it seemed like an appropriate time to retire, which is what I did. I have no regret at all. In fact, one of the interesting things, I have very little contact with the schools. I have felt very little need. I don't miss the rat race at all.

Q: As you you look back, were you a building manager or were you and instructional leader?

A: In theory, and in most of the information you hear, the building principal is primarily an instructional. leader, but in fact you are both, and depending on the circumstances you spend a disproportionate amount of time in management. I always felt I was not getting into classrooms often enough. This was an ongoing problem. There are so many things going on that detract from your efforts. I would like to see buildings big enough so you could have a principal and someone in charge of supervision of instruction. Some of the larger elemmentary schools nowadays do have assistant principals. Unfortunately, building management takes about 51% of the principal's time.

Q: What changes would you make in the organization or administrative responsibilities?

A: One of the things I would like to see is a reduction in the paperwork, particularly the reports.

Q: As you look back, what was your key to success as a principal? What worked for you? What made it go?

A: I think probably seeing my function being a supportive person in function is a real key. You have to do an awful lot of thinlys that involve decision making and taking action in terms of leadership and I think particularyly like community relations and this kind of thing. Now and then, programs or practices are required by administrative superiors where there's not option as whether you as staff buy into it must be implemented so you have to make decisions that way which are not universally popular - oftentimes result in you being awfully uncomfortable. If we remember - it seems to me the yardstick for a school system is much the same as the yardstick for school and its staff - and that is how effectively do you serve the needs for the kids and the community and the school. If we spend a disproportionate amount of our time doing nonproductive things that don't have a pretty direct relationship to the academic welfare of kids, then I think it's very wasteful and nonproductive and harmful to everybody involved.

Q: Did you feel that central office philosophies prevented you from accomplishing goals you felt you could otherwise have attained?

A: Probably not a direct relationship but oftentimes the requirements or demands upon time and energy and resources did greatly affect what you could do and how much you could accomplish. As an example, every school in Denver each year is appropriated an annual budget for instructional materials and equipment based upon the number of children you have enrolled. Quite often in more recent years, as the budget crunch occurred, or as the superintendent and his staff got to preparing for the proposed budget in the fall, principals would get a directive to discontinue spending appropriated funds or curtail all expenditures until September 15. Well, often times wee ordered materials that may involve two or three months and they were being shipped and if you didn't have them on hand, obviously it was going to affect the instructional services provided at the beginning of the new year. So that kind of thing was very limiting and restricting and it may have gotten somebody out of the hole in terms of preparing a budget but it's my opinion it was very harmful to the instructional program for kids.

Q: What consumed the majority of your time?

A: I would say building management - putting out fires - handling emergencies - attending meetings. That's another thing that central administration does that is so wasteful - having so many meetings and one of the things that used to always annoy me was the fact that the people who made presentations at principal meetings, for example, had not given prior thought to what they were going to say, and as a consequence they rambled - which waas a great waste of everybody's time. I have often thought the all morning or all day principal meeting would make a great one hour meeting if somebody chaired it effectively and speakers knew in advance that they were going to have the obligation to say what they were going to say in five minutes.

Q: You've mentioned what you felt took a majority of your time. What would you have liked to have changed that to'? Where would you have chosen to put your time?

A: I would have preferred to have more time actually working with children--not just as a passive observer but doing things--taking over classess, going in and working as part of a teacher's class - keep My finger in the pie so to speak.

Q: Describe a typical work day as you recall from the time you got to school. What would you run into?

A: T would get to work around 7:30 or quarter t.o 8 1.11 t,he mor,inin, There were reports and correspondence and bulletin, that needed preparation - this kind of thing. The staff would start coming in around 8:10-8:15 so I tried to be visible and available as they came in. From there until about 8:25 I would be available to help them. I felt the principal should do the supervision of children arriving in the morning - meet the bus and occasionally stay on the playground and help with supervision until the bell rang - quite often did that after classes. The I would go back - or often times - respond to telephone calls, start back on my projects. Usually there were an observation or two, or a conference or two, that needed to be held. A number of arrangements that would need be made. Handling emergencies and this sort. of thing that occurred. Disruptive behavior on the part of children or health problems. I always took lunchroom duty. I was always in the lunchroom or on the playground from 11:30 until 1:00. In the afternoon again conferences would occur, observations, report preparation, meetings quite often out of the building, getting ready for meetings in the building. In more recent years we had more advisory committees of various kinds and it usually was my job to set the agenda and get the facility ready to go on that. Unfortunately I acted as secretary lots of the time. I found in terms of the accomplishment of the things that I most wanted to get out of my hair, the period of about 3:45-5:30 was the most productive part of the day. I hope that gives you some idea. I can't recall with much precision doing anything with much consistency.

Q: In some areas where schools have become larger and larger with student populations, what do you feel is the best organization for administering teachers in a school filled to capacity?

A: I think at the primary levels, at least at the first and second grade, it's extremely important that children have one teacher for most of their academic experinces. I think as children get older, and as they grasp skills of reading and writing and mathematics, it's more proficient, particularly in a large school, to use the platoon system of some kind, where the children move to teachers with varying resources and skilIs. I think we can better utilize the skills of teachers and I think where children move say every hour, the kids learn an awful lot in terms of handling a change, the self discipline that's involved in making the change, they just get more experience and more expertise in terms of the presentation by teachers who have some degree of specialization. In theory, the elementary teacher teaches everything. But in reality, we all know we do some things better than we do others. An executive decree by the superintendent or board of education doesn't really provide competence in those areas that they are not competent. For example, my own experience as a teacher, I never taught musio. I don't read music, I don't have a very good singing voice, and I was always able and my principal was supportive of the idea, of arranging coverage and I would teach another teacher's spelling for example while she taught my music. Later on I was involved with the platoon situation and then there was a music teacher. I taught art on platoon for several years and unfortunately I did it for 30 minute periods which was much too short of a time. Children would get tired of projects long before they were completed. There has to be a reasonable balance in the amount of time but I think a platoon is an efficient use of resources as children become older.

Q: What would be your ideal size, if you could pick a school. How large? How small? to best deliver instructional leadership?

A: I would see no more than 300 kids in an elementary school. I realize when you get in secondary schools you have to utilize the expertise of a staff in different organizational patterns but at the primary level there is so much importance assigned to developing the self-esteem of children and the optimistic attitudes that they can succeed and that they can do nearly everything that everybody is expecting of them. Maintaining that optimism that they come to school with in kindergarten is a real challenge. I think if it gets too big some children get lost in the shuffle.

Q: What are some effective techniques or maybe strategies would you have used to help yourself in your role as an educational leader? We talk about the change from the old days and identifying characteristics in teacher evaluation and coming up to present times when they're talking about identifying strengths and fixing the weaknesses. How do you get yourself in a position and what do you do to go after that objective?

A: Of course, one of the more recent emphasis in education is the onlgoing renewal of staff and persuading people that this has validity for them is a constant challenge and providing time to do that is a challenge. Learning to use new techniques and equipment is a challenge. An example of this is the advent of computers in elementary school. When we first became aware that we were going to have computers for use by the staff and children, one of the things we did was arrange an inservice involving the whole staff where each person had a computer to work on. This occurred at another school where they tried a lot of computers but it was very important for adults to learn that breaking equipment didn't have to be a big disaster. We to look at new machinery that way. Children don't look at it that way. The use of computers I think has tremendous potential for increasing motivation and immediate feedback it gives. I've seen children with learning disabilities do their work with computers. I've seen kindergarteners do it. (Lost data)

Q: If you could use a one or two word description, how would you prioritize your activities for most effective leadership?

A: Taking the time to give highest priority t.o instruction and having the guts and gaul to ignore those low priority kinds of management things. I never did that very successfully but I think a part of it, is having sufficient staff to aid you to take some of those things away. It's awfully hard to ignore an upset parent who is standing in the outer office. However, if you have an assistant that can give her undivided. attention and is perceived as being an pseudoadministrator, this would free you to go and do other things that would have a more constructive effect on the learning of kids.

Q: Did you ever have a model person that you patterned yourself after?

A: Well, I only worked for three principals. One of them was highly organized and knew exactly what was going on and I had the feeling could walk in any classroom at any time and do a credible job of teaching. I liked her. She was very definite in her expectations. In fact, she once said to me, I was using a means of control that she didn't approve of, she said if you do that again, I'll have you out of the building by the end of the week. I didn't do it again. My first principal was a fellow who didn't know beans about instruction but he knew how to make a pleasant place to work and cause people to feel appreciated. I see qualities of both of these people that I would like to have in me. There were times I felt successful. At times there were a few people I didn't feel successful with. Overall, it was a worthwhile, rewarding experience. Like all jobs, it did have its frustrations.

Q: As you look back, what were just a few of the activities that stand out in your mind as very positive? What are just a few short memories that you would list on your very good list?

A: One of the things that we did at.... that was a rewarding experience was that we had an annual tree planting ceremony. It's a neighborhood where a lot of delinquency occurs and destruction of property occurs. So trying to give the children a feeling of pride in the building and its appearance was an ongoing conneern. We coupled this with the recognition of some person in the commun ity or in the history of the school who had made contributions to the school. For each tree planting, we honored somebody who went to the school fifty years ago or provided a needed service to the community. We constantly emphasized improving student attendance. We had monthly student assemblies and awarded student certificates and traveling prizes and entertainment and that often motivated kids. When we were successful in raising our academic achievement in the standardized achievement tests it was a very rewarding experience. The implementation of the bilingual program I felt very good about. I'm convinced that the children can't read what they can't speak. Therefore it is very important for them to learn both the skill of reading as early as possible and to learn the dominant language as quickly as possible and I think if you lend those simultaneously, then I think it's much easier to start reading in the second language than it is to hit that cold as a child. As adults and we sstart learning a second language we don't start reading it first. It's real important for children to get initial instruction in the language they speak natively while at the same time beginning the second language. the dominant language. I think I program was an effective one. We were never very successful in getting parental involvement in the advisory committee which was one of the requirements of the court order.

Q: Do you have anything else to add?

A: No. I feel good about what we did today.

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