Interview with Dr. Deanna Gordon

March 2000

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Q: The first one will be will you discuss your college education and preparation for entering the field of teaching?

A: Well, I went two years to Madison College, it was then. Started there as a business major rather than a teaching major. I changed majors a number of times. And my sophomore year decided that I wanted to teach. Then transferred back to Roanoke College my junior year, which at that time particularly was not heavy into education at all. So I graduated with the minimum number of courses in education. Student teaching was really helpful but with a secondary major in high school history.

Q: How about your education and preparation for an administrator?

A: That was a lot more systematic I guess, although I guess I always took the route that went the furthest around the education courses rather than wading right in and taking them when I began my career as an administrator as a part time administrator. I began with them knowing that I didn’t have the credentials but at that time I was the first assistant principal in Roanoke County, assistant elementary principal. The system gave me two years to complete it so I went to Hollins and Master of Arts and Liberal Studies and again took the minimum number education courses and the maximum number of content courses. Then the doctoral program at Tech, and you know, of course, was quite comprehensive then, and it prepared me well I think for my roles as assistant superintendent and superintendent.

Q: I wonder if you could discuss those experiences or events in your life that constituted important decision points in your career and how you feel about them now?

A: Well, you know in retrospect looking back over about 40 years there were a lot of things that look almost like serendipity. I probably would not have decided to go into teaching that sophomore year at Madison except for one particular teacher that inspired me. If the luck of the draw had been different, you know, and I had had another history teacher I might not have decided to go into teaching. The story about how I first got to be an Assistant Principal is really wonderful I think. I was in an elementary school, k —7 were all in the elementary school, at Herman L. Horn. And so when we learned … oh, we had about 700 and some students … and so when we learned Mr. Stone was going to get an assistant, you know we’re talking here 1969-70 something like that, there was one man on the staff, and so of course everybody assumed that he would be the assistant principal, and he very much wanted to be. And, no more than 2 weeks before he would have been appointed as assistant principal he was involved in or at least accused of, I don’t really know how it turned out, he was accused of shoplifting at a local store. And that hit the paper full blare. So, Mr. Burton, being the conservative sort that he was, didn’t want any part of that. So, I was the other seventh grade teacher and it was assumed that seventh grade teachers knew more than anybody else because they were the highest grade level and they came to me and asked me if I would like to be the assistant principal and I said sure. So, again when I went to Central Office, at that time Va. Tech was just beginning its doctoral program there were, oh, I believe at least a half of dozen people at central office who were taking doctorate classes and so there was lots of conversation about that. But, again, very few of them were women. But, there was one other person and that was Dr. Norma Peters, I don’t know if you know her or not, and she was finishing up her doctoral program. She had been brave enough to wade in there and she said, "Deanna, just go in there and do it." So, of course, that was certainly a turning point. Because I would not have qualified for several of the jobs I eventually had if I hadn’t completed the doctoral program. And certainly would not have created the network, the Va. Tech network. The network really sustained me throughout my career and it is still an important part of me.

Q: I would imagine. I was going to ask you what motivated you to enter administration but I think that kinda explains itself.

A: Once I got into it I found I really did like management. When I first thought about going into an assistant principal you taught _ a day and then you were a principal the other _ day. And so I thought, "OK, I can do that and they will still let me teach and I love teaching and I don’t want to give up teaching." But after I got into school administration I found I thoroughly enjoyed that so I was perfectly content to keep going.

Q: Would you describe your personal philosophy of education?

A: Oh, I just, I guess, I think that there is education and learning and I’m not sure they’re the same. But I always think and hope that whatever jobs I have had have motivated people to want to support learning. Certainly in the classroom learning more that education and certainly as I have gone up through the ranks. Trying to support teachers it seems to me is the most important thing any other administrator can do. I guess I think that teaching and learning one isn’t important without the other. Teaching can be wonderful but until it results in learning it hasn’t accomplished its purpose. And that always depends on almost a chemical or spiritual interaction between the teacher and the student. And so, I think you have to allow teachers a lot of freedom to find their own way of doing that. Not to say laissez-faire and I certainly don’t believe that everything that goes on in the classroom constitutes good teaching and would hope I would be quick to call somebody’s hand if I found things that were not supporting learning. But, I think that teachers need the maximum freedom we can allow them and all other administrators. Pick the best people and let them do their job.

Q: Can you kinda expand on the techniques you used to create a successful climate for learning?

A: Inspiring people to have confidence in themselves. I guess one of the nicest compliments I have had are the number of people who’ve come back and said, "Because of you I went on and took further courses or went on and learned more on my own." So, sort of helping other people feel that same thing. That I’ve got an individual style and I’ve got something I need to do and I need to get out and learn how to do that. So, certainly teaching them what I know would be one part of it but its probably not going to apply directly within their own philosophy of teaching and learning. Causing people to have confidence in themselves.

Q: A great deal of attention has been given to the topic of personal leadership. Would you discuss your approach to leadership and describe some techniques which worked for you and maybe an incident in which your approach failed.

A: I guess I’ve always also believed in being just as straightforward as possible. To put it coolly, when you get the principalship, and certainly then into the supervision, and the directors job a lot of times the administrators implementing policies not that necessarily go against the grain but that require a lot of rubbing off the rough edges. If there are tactful ways to say that. You have, of course, the local policies and particularly over my career we developed more and more and you all are certainly seeing a great deal of that in terms of state policies, federal policies, federal regulations as they shape all the hearing processes that you go through in special education cases and who knows whatever else. And so, trying to help people cope with that and still save their own motivation and then their enthusiasm for teaching. So, I’ve tried to be as straight forward with them as possible and saying this we have to do this because its rule and regulation and now lets get this done and get this done well and get it out of the way. Then you can go teach and do the things you enjoy doing. So, I guess being really straightforward with people and trusting them to use information. I think it fails when you run into a very few people, most respond very positively to that, a few folks want, well I guess for want of a better word, don’t want to hear the truth or aren’t prone to take that. Oh, I guess I can’t think of specific instances but there are people who aren’t really comfortable with you calling them in and saying, you know, this may not be the way either of us want it to be but it’s the way it is and so what are we going to do about it.

Q: A little bit different topic. There are those that argue that standardized testing can provide a way to improve instruction. Would you discuss your experience with such testing and provide us your views on its effect on the quality of the instructional program?

A: People would probably be surprised, maybe, I don’t know, but I wholeheartedly support standardized testing. And have been a supporter of the Standards of Learning testing program since we first began to develop some sort of vague standards almost 20 years ago now. I think the public puts billions of dollars every year into public education and they have a right to know whether the rumors they hear about, there was an article in the paper just this week about how many students can’t read well enough to succeed in college and can’t write well and can’t do mathematics. They have a right to know the extent to which that is true. A personal belief. I do think that in Virginia we were headed into a good process but that we got into a bit of a hurry and got too soon to hang the results out there without adequately preparing the student for these particular tests. These tests are so specific when it gets to social studies, and to science and to mathematics. That you know its sort of like throwing a dart into a stack of hay and hoping you hit one particular thing you hope is in there. I do think we moved too quickly and that’s what I’ll say on the program tonight. It’s not a bad program, we just got into a bit of a hurry with it. I think if educators can agree on what’s the core that needs to come out of a high school career. I think a high school diploma should stand for something more than just 13 years spent in school. And, if we can ever agree what those things are then its helping make sure everyone contributes their part to getting the students there.

Q: Would you discuss some of the pressures you faced on a daily basis and how you coped with them.

A: It’s funny at the time I really didn’t interpret them that much as pressures. The primary pressure was being everywhere, being 5 or 6 people. Particularly as Assistant Superintendent and as Superintendent. The school board wanted a lot of your time and needed a lot of your time in terms of preparing them for the policies that they were being asked to institute or the budget issues. Certainly you needed and wanted to be in the schools, all 28 of them. I had come through a time, particularly as elementary, social studies, science supervisor when I knew every teacher by first name, you know, when they were having new babies, when they were getting married, when they were going to school. As I got further away from that I was frustrated by not being able to build that repoire with new teachers. And, yet I did understand that with more than a 1,000 teachers and more than a 1,000 other employees, you couldn’t do that. But, of course, I admitted way back up there in another question that my personal philosophy was sort of to try and motivate everybody. And I don’t think you can motivate them if you don’t know them, this sort of trying to motivate from a distance was a pressure. Safety issues at times were more of a stress and how really little control you figured out you actually had over that. I guess one the starkling, horrible memories that will always be with me was my first year as Superintendent, we had had a really good year. Then there was that March day when I got the phone call from Mr. Woolwine saying that a 5 year-old child had been killed by being run over by one of our own buses and nobody’s fault, you know, ever found. The potential of course then came along with the school security issues related to the horrible things as with school shootings and I finally confessed to parents that we’ll do our best to keep your child safe; but, just like when you head across town with a van load of children carpool you can’t guarantee they’ll get there safely and I can’t guarantee your child coming home safe today. These things I think when I look back they were probably more stressful than I thought.

Q: I you had to do it all over again how would you have better prepared yourself for administration or would you?

A: Well, I certainly could have better prepared for the principalship but if I had been better prepared they might not have asked me to go to central office as a supervisor and I might not have become all those other things. Mr. Burton, the Superintendent at that time had told me at one time, "No, I don’t want you to come to the central office. We need good principals. I want you to stay out there as a principal." And then a year later, for some reason still not known to me asked me to come to central office as a supervisor. Like I say, if I had been better prepared they might have made me a principal and I might never have gotten in the doctoral program. I do think that earning a doctorate from the principal’s job is really tough. Dr. Cobble did it, and I guess Dr. Turner did it and I’ve known a number of people who did but that’s a tall order.

Q: What suggestions would you offer to universities as a way of helping them better prepare candidates for administration?

A: Well, actually people like Bob Carlton and Wayne Warner and Dave Parks, and I designed the Virginia Tech Principal Preparation so I had a chance to implement everything I ever wanted to make it more hands-on, to make it more experiential, feel-based. So, over a course of two years with playing around I guess Wayne Warner was the one person who always believed we could get by the Tech bureaucracy and find a way to do that. Sort of cutting down on the course structure a little bit and making it more feel based. Giving candidates more chances to interact with one another and share their growing pains and that sort of thing. But to the best of my knowledge that’s been pretty much implemented. I think that Virginia Tech, not just because I went there, is light years ahead what I encountered in Principal Preparation in other Virginia public universities. Well, the state has dropped the ball on that. And Thomas Elliot is a good friend of mine. We walked together in graduation from Tech. Of course, he’s realized how little he can do from Richmond if he doesn’t have a lot of support and they just aren’t able to hold the state college’s feet to the fire. And so some of them would come to me and say we had to get in 90 hours but we’ll sort of get in while we’re teaching, stroll down by the office on planning period or whatever and I’m saying no, I don’t think so.

Q: There are those that argue that the principal should be an instructional leader and those that suggest that, realistically speaking, they should be a good manager. What would be your opinion on that?

A: Well, they gotta be both. I personally don’t think that teachers…. If the most important job a principal has to do is to improve teacher performance and I believe it is then you’re not going to be able to do that if you are not an instructional leader. Just like with the Superintendent, Thelma Haynesworth didn’t expect me to know everything about science but she did expect me to know good teaching and learning when I saw it going on in her classroom and being able to react to what is good teaching regardless of what the subject matter or content matter is. If you’re going to be real candid then certainly nobody is going to get along in a school if they can’t do the management things. If the books are not kept well, if the attendance and the reports … if there’s not a good relationship with the community all those things. But the faculty looks to the principal to inspire higher standards for that school and continuous improvement. And so you have to come across as an instructional leader.

Q: What do you think about the ideal requirements for administration, for a person that wants to enter administration and can you think of a better way to screen applicants?

A: We’ve been really fortunate in Roanoke County in that we knew a lot of the applicants because we had a chance to be exposed to them as teachers. But, we’ve also been fortunate to hire a number of people from the outside. I think credentials are important, I wouldn’t want to overlook that and I think that’s an important part of the screening process. And quite frankly you do have three years from the time you hire somebody to let them know if they are not being successful and we have had to do that on a couple of occasions and people went back to doing other jobs instead of trying to continue on in the principalship. I think its worked pretty well really.

Q: What, in your opinion, should be the role of the assistant principal?

A: Well, ideally I would hope that every assistant principal had the opportunities I had. My principal was perfectly willing to let me be one of the instructional leaders. It didn’t bother him at all that some teachers felt comfortable coming to me and others felt comfortable coming to him about, you know, is this child ready to be promoted, what should I do about this attendance problem, what should I do about this discipline problem. So, he really prepared me by letting me see all aspects. I think it’s a total waste to have an assistant principal who, quote "do nothing but discipline." Nobody should do nothing but one thing. We’ve all got to share the duties that are not that inspiring. Everybody should have a chance to be exposed to the teaching/learning process as well. I would hope everybody would get well rounded in all of that.

Q: As you view it what characteristics are associated with the most effective schools?

A: I think this was a question in one of my graduate courses. What 1980? And I still think the same thing now that I thought then. As much as we would like there to be a recipe there isn’t a recipe. It’s the school that’s able to build camaraderie with its faculty, able to inspire them to believe that they have important roles to do. It’s the school that’s able to bring the community in an appropriate way. And certainly I think about the strong contrast between Bonsack Elementary school and Roland E. Cook Elementary school in terms of the amount of parent involvement. But Roland E. Cook teachers and staff took a lot of pains to try and bring the parents in at Roland E. Cook in a meaningful way. I guess when I think about the differences in schools I look at a Clearbrook and at a Glen Cove and at a Cave Spring and certainly they require entirely different things of a principal because of the community and of the faculty. And so the principal’s got to be able to take the hand that’s dealt and find a way to make a silk purse. There are certainly some common threads. I think the schools that are the most successful have principals who are cheerleaders for them. Whether its Chris and her group down at Clearbrook or Thad and his gung-ho out there with his Cave Spring kids. Totally different communities but the principal is a cheerleader for us, we’re the best, he believes in us or she believes in us. A principal who stays involved on a daily basis with teachers and with what’s going on. A principal who is very supportive of teachers as they go through the tough tasks of discipline or interacting with difficult parents. (laugh) And no parent means to be difficult, I’m not saying that but they have frightening choices they’re making to.

Q: Most systems presently have a tenure or continuing contract for their teachers. Would you comment on the strengths and weaknesses of such a system?

A: A lot of people don’t think tenure is a good thing but I don’t see anything in the world wrong with it. I don’t think we should be able to get rid of a teacher or principal either unless we can build a case for doing that and that’s all tenure requires. We’ve released teachers who had 20 years experience, we’ve released Principals who had 25 years experience. But you’ve got to be fair and candid enough to document what their weaknesses are in their performance and support them in growing into it and then showing them that they did not. If you can’t do that I don’t think you ought to be able to dismiss people simply because maybe they were going through one bad year or maybe their personal philosophy doesn’t agree with yours. Maybe they need to leave school, move schools or whatever. If they don’t take the initiative then you can take action. I don’t think there is anything wrong with tenure. It does make it difficult to dismiss teachers or principals and many times we try to take a short cut and don’t do that when maybe we should. There is way to do it and we need to just get over it.

Q: Would you discuss your general relationship, pro or con, with the Board of Education?

A: I think it was fantastic and if wasn’t I didn’t ever know it. Again, it was surprising that it worked as well as it did. Because at the time I was hired it was an entirely appointed board headed by Frank Thomas who had been chairman for 14 years. It was a very stable board. But, I knew when they hired me that 4 out of 5 would be gone in twelve months because they were not going to run for election. So Jerry Canada was the only one who was there a year later. As elected school boards came on of course they were more responsive to the voters and to the parent’s concerns. But, maybe it was because I was older than any of them but they always seemed to trust my judgment in the final analysis. Many times they questioned it but that’s their role. And so I thought we had a great relationship and I really enjoyed working with them.

Q: Principals operate in a constantly tense environment. What kind of things did you do to maintain your sanity under such conditions?

A: I guess that first of all trying to able to laugh and also keeping some outside interest whether its art, or yard-work, or traveling, and I think I have a pretty strong religious faith and that was real important. Lots of mornings you’re going up the road and you say, "God, this is too big. Let’s help me whittle this down to size." But I did this regardless of where I was in my career. Whether it was a college test or whatever. I guess strong spiritual grounding and outside interests that while I didn’t always have time to pursue I was able to read about or whatever. Attending the symphonies, going to the museums, those kind of things.

Q: Since you have now had time to reflect on your career, I wonder if you could share what you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses?

A: Well, I guess my strength primarily was having grown up here, having spent my whole career in Roanoke County. As I told the school board when I interviewed: people know I’m not perfect. They know where the warts are and they learned how to live with them. People knew me and what I stood for by having seen me walk it and living it. Again, they knew the parts they didn’t like and what they needed to get around. The difficulty was not having experienced other ways of doing things. I probably didn’t bring as many innovative things to the system as somebody who had worked in a number of different systems. Plus, I was such a cheerleader always for the system that it was difficult to admit things were wrong with it. I didn’t want to admit there was anything wrong with it. It’s like your job.

Q: Would you discuss the circumstances leading up to your decision to retire and maybe explain the mental processes you went through?

A: Again, I guess it wasn’t like a lot of people, none of my career has been as you can see. If anybody had asked me six months before I announced I would retire, and they did, I said I might work until I’m 65 at least. I hadn’t thought about retirement. Christmas of ’98 and we didn’t travel for whatever reason and I stayed home and read some novels cover to cover and I did some things around the house and whatever and I sort of began to weigh what is it that you want to do in the school business. We were going to be finishing several schools and getting others to that point. I had wanted sort of get us through this first leg of Standards of Learning. Make sure that we felt comfortable with that. With great leadership from people like Billy Reed and Dave Wymer and all of them. You know, I felt like we were comfortable with that. Financially, after 391/2 years, there is no reason to stay, you go home and make as much as you did going to work everyday and I began to think about all the things I could enjoy doing besides getting up to work every day. And I said this is probably the right time. So the first meeting in January I said to the Board I was going to retire and they said mid-year and I said yes, mid-year.

Q: Despite my best efforts to be comprehensive in my questioning did I leave something out?

A: No, as I looked over them I didn’t. It seemed pretty comprehensive to me. I didn’t think of other things unless you thought of other things. I don’t mind what you ask.

Q: Please discuss your style of personnel management; that is, approaches you employed that contributed to your effectiveness as a manager.

A: Well, let me see. I think one of the main things I did that was the most difficult was to stay out of the process of hiring teachers. Too many obligations and favors wanted. I did take a very personal responsibility in hiring all administrators. I sat in all interviews and you can learn a lot in 30-40 minutes.

Q: It has been said that good personnel managers encourage their subordinates and peers by staging celebrations on their successes. To what extent did you engage in this practice during your tenure as administrator, and to what extent did it improve morale and organizational effectiveness?

A: I guess I think that on the school level you must acknowledge people’s success. At the central level we encouraged the school board to recognize achievement and effort by staff and students. First Fridays as a time of spirit celebration. This is very hard to do with administrators because they are so task oriented and social interaction is hard to achieve.

Q: Some principals believe that teachers and other staff members are, in general, well motivated and reliable self-starters. Others feel that they must closely monitor the activities of their employees. What approach did you customarily use during your administrative career?

A: 100% the first type and you know I’m not Polyana to know everything but if something bad is going on you will know before too long. I think educators are professionals and know what they are doing.

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