Interview with Benjamin J. Henley


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Q: Dr. Henley, what does it take to be an effective building administrator?

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

A: Well, it seems to me that one needs to know the mission, and purpose and the goals for that particular level in which he is serving. Obviously, he should know the techniques, and he should have respect for teachers and pupils, but I think that the big part of what one needs is interpersonal skills; skills that will enable him to get a good group of teachers to work together as a unit toward a common goal.

Q: How did you create this climate for learning in your school? Particularly, what technique didyou employ through your teachers and students to reach your common goal?

A: Well, one of the things that I did was to make available to teachers the supplies and the equipment that they needed, and that would help, were available to them things they needed for teaching purposes, but also I thought that it was my responsibility to have a disciplined school where there were few interruptions. A school that is safe, and where teachers could concentrate on teaching rather than on disciplining the students and dealing with interruptions. I tried to do that by creating drama in the school and allowing the children to participate in that kind of activity. That was one of the things. We also had gentlemen's week. I think I ought to say, at this point that mine was a special school, students were regular 5th and 6th grade students (about half of them); the other half were students sent from all over the city because they had learning problems and disciplinary problems so that when you hear me say something about drama and gentlemen's week, and things like that, that's because I was trying to put together two different sets of students. And I was trying to have them gain respect, one for the other.

Q: What did your parents expect from you as an effective administrator?

A: My parents, in the environment

Q: In the school.

A: My parents, because I had these students who came there with a problems, and they had been sent there because they had been disciplinary problems in other schools, my parents expected their children to be safe in the school. They expected them to learn the tools of learning, and they expected us to develop, our children to develop pride in themselves and to develop self-esteem. That was compulsory and most important things the parents expected from me and the faculty.

Q: As a principal and a central office administrator, what was your goal, what were your greatest concerns?

A: My greatest concern was to keep the students and teachers working at top level. It seems to me that we can motivate people to start out in high gear, but after a few weeks they seem to run down. Their motors get a little bit clogged up, and so for me, it was keeping that high level and I mentioned the fact that we had children who came from all over the city because they had problems and were assigned to us, so that we wanted to have our children who lived long distances and had problems continue to come to school, I guess that's one of my prime motives keep them coming to school. Keep them enthusiastic.

Q: How did you handle teacher grievances, and what usually were the main issues?

A: I don't think we had many real grievances. The school because it was special had good teachers, effective teachers. They had to be effective before they were assigned to that school. We didn't have many difficulties. I feel that one of the difficulties we had was on the assignment of students to classes, to teachers. And sometimes teachers would complain that I had assigned more in a particular teacher's class than in others. My pupil/teacher ratio is higher than other teachers. When making a judgment about the assignment of a student, one has to consider the problems and the personality of the child as well as the personality of the teacher, and sometimes it just happens that you think one teacher can be more successful with a child, than another one. That may cause class sizes to be different. So that was one of the problems that I had. I think another was in trying to create options for teachers. From this they could select the procedures they would like to follow. This had to do with testing students, and supervising students at recess times, and so on. Options and plans from which they could choose.

Q: Why did you decide to become an administrator?

A: Education is my field. You begin as a teacher, and fortunately or unfortunately, your success is measured by how you go up the wrong rungs from principal, vice principal, and so on. I was motivated in that way. I wanted to feel that I was absolutely successful in my field. But also, I went in that direction because as an officer you earn more money than you do as a teacher, and I was looking forward, I had a family and I wanted to earn as much money as I could. And I also wanted to have money when I retired. Have a better pension when I retired.

Q: Ok. Here's the toughest question. What was your toughest decision as an administrator?

A: My toughest decision was to fire a teacher and let a teacher go. That was a really difficult thing for me. The person was well qualified in another area, not in the elementary school. He was qualified to teach Spanish at the secondary level. He was not effective as an elementary school teacher, teaching all of the subjects that an elementary school teacher has to teach, so I. It was awfully difficult for me. It was also difficult to face my teachers after that. They were disappointed in me that I had let a teacher who they loved let go. I guess that was the most difficult thing for me. And that, you know, at other levels, one has to do that. You have to get rid of the personnel that's not functioning effectively. But that was my first and also my most difficult time.

Q: What's .your personal philosophy of education?

A: I believe that all children should learn and I believe that children should know that teachers believe in them. I think it ought to be clear to children in the classroom "My teacher believes in me." That should be clear in the classroom. My teacher's devoted to me! I think that that sums up what I believe. My philosophy is, I think though, additionally, that schools take on too much. We ought to be functioning just as the educational arm of the Department which, as I would call it, The Children's Department. In that department, there would be transportation, and that would be food services. I just think that we take on too much as educators. I guess that's my philosophy, too. It ought to be clear to the community and to parents that this is our responsibility and that we can't take on all things. Aids, drugs, all those kinds of things. May be just too much for us, and I think the city ought to think of a reorganizing services to children, and have a department where one section of it was education and that would be our function. I really thought that.

Q: Ok. What contributions do you think Part of what you are describing's problem is a result of the studies and reports in the 60s and 70s?

A: I don't know whether they are the results of the 60s and the 70s or not. Those studies, you could sort of predict what the conclusion was going to be. They did make us examine ourselves and reexamine ourselves. They did focus attention on measurable results that could be measured, rather than socialization. During the time that I was an elementary school principal, that was a big item of discussion. I should have mentioned to you that the students who had problems in my school, elementary school were 13 to 16 years old. That's pretty old for elementary school. And, the time does come when one has to move a 17 year old out of the elementary school. But that's socialization. And that became passe, I guess as a result of these studies. So they made us examine ourselves and they did focus on being able to say definitely what we were accomplishing and what wewere.hoping to accomplish.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on the revision of training for school administrators and teachers?

A: Yes, I do. We are becoming more and more a multi ethnic society, a multi-racial society, and we have children who come from varied cultural backgrounds, so that it seems to me that in preparing a teacher, one ought to have in mind that the teacher, the new teacher is going to have to deal with these sort of groups of people, and so I think I would put into the curriculum some courses, some activities, some ray of helping these teachers learn how to deal with different kinds of groups. How to develop respect for other groups and cultures. And to develop respect for their beliefs, and help them understand what's meaningful in the lives of other children. That's one thing that I think we ought to do something to help teachers, and then I think, if there's a way to do it, we ought to help teachers raise expectations with reference to students. I hear every now and then about a teacher who didn't believe their children could succeed, and I guess for those teachers the children didn't succeed. So raising expectations of teachers for children is important.

Q: What is your most pleasant experience as an administrator?

A: Seeing children finish their sequences. Seeing the happiness and if I go back to the kinds of students that I have, those who came already old when they came to us and then finished. This is an elementary school -- finish that! But whose parents hadn't believed they'd ever finish. So that's one thing that gave me happiness. I think another is having teachers succeed. Helping teachers to grow. Working out programs, and one that I mentioned is with St. John's. The big book program. Our teachers could go and earn Master's Degrees. That kind of program gave me happiness.

Q: Have any of your students ever come back as teachers?

A: Oh, yes indeed. I'm on the Board of Directors of a daycare center, and one of my very first students is there on that Board, and then there are others all around. So, indeed there are.

Q: Why were you happiest in retirement, and why were you the saddest? What did you miss the most about leaving the school system? What did you miss the least?

A: What did I miss the most, was the associations that I had built with teachers and officers for over 41 years in the school system. I miss that. I think that we were on the edge of turning things around as I left, so I miss that also. But I wanted to go because I'd been there a long time. That's one thing. And the second, I was putting in days that were far too long. I was going in at 8:00 and coming home at 11:00. Because of the assignments that I was being given by the Superintendent I was supposed to prepare reports for the Board and I had charge of everything, the day-to-day operations of the schools, and it just became too much for me. You have to make decisions, and one thing -- when you go out as an officer, you make decisions on the basis of the information that you have at that time. Later, somebody will see something else, and say well, you shouldn't have done that, but at that point. But, I enjoyed my years as a member of the school system. I really enjoyed it. It is not what I had hoped to do when I left high school. I wanted to go into something that was related to science. I really wanted, my dream was to be a bridge builder. Even today, when I see the bridge spanning you know, the bridge that goes over the Delaware, I just think that's marvelous. That's what I would have liked to have done. But I enjoyed what I did, and I guess that's the right thing for me to do.

Q: Is there anything that you think I should have asked that I didn't? You read the article on retirement? The Board Members that attended your retirement luncheon said that you were the only person they could trust and that you had left them. That was said a number of times in your years there.

A: I very much appreciate that, too. I do appreciate that. I think that maybe one ought to look at what question was it that you didn't ask me, and I kind of think that maybe what kind of person, what depends on making a good answer so that you didn't ask me that, but I think a person who's style is enables him to share leadership, who does not have to be given directions all of the time. Who can share, who knows that he's not the best faculty in every area. One of course who believes in children, and who understands that his goal is to help others. I really think that that faculty and to illuminate his common goals, whose members are supportive of one another, that's a skill that is laudable.

Q: Do you think a school-based management concept is going to do that? Given the resources.

A: Well, I think that principals ought to have more power. I've had problems with that, and one is that when the schools begin going off in different directions that's one thing. Maybe I didn't say power right. But my problem with school-based management, with divisions that we,re just ended regions, is that we say that we want officers to be closer to the people who are in the schools, and the schools themselves, but we don't give them the authority. If any of your regional superintendents who are out there, they can't promise things to their constituents because they don't have the money and the budget that is essential. You asked me about what I thought, if it were a good idea. I don't know whether it has really worked successfully. I don't know what I think it has worked successfully. A person who is working with a community ought to have the ability to make decisions and to give direction, but in order to do it he must have the funds and the resources to do it, and I don't know that part. Its the principals that's going to get that.

Q: Ok. Thank you very much.

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