The Oral History of the Principalship

Patrick W. Carlton, Ph.D.
Project Director
Phone: 540-231-9728

Oral History of the Public School Principalship - Introduction


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Oral History is defined as the preservation, normally through the use of audio recordings, of the recollections of those who have experienced important social occurrences or events. In a sense this technique is perhaps the oldest form of information transmission, dating to periods well before Man could write. Indeed, the oral tradition in cultural transmission has held a prominent place in virtually all known human groupings. For example Herodotus, the Greek chronicler of the Persian Wars of the Fifth Century, B.C., utilized oral history data collection techniques in preparing his research notes.

This tradition continues to function in many parts of the modern world. Rather than qualifying as a "johnny come lately" approach to data transmission and analysis, oral history deserves respect and veneration based upon its persistence and proven utility over time.

Oral history captures life information, the bits and pieces of data that would otherwise be lost to posterity. It serves to fill in the inevitable gaps in formal learning, often providing "the rest of the story," to quote a well-known radio personality. Use of the aural approach provides a sense of the respondent's personality, helping the researcher to understand more about "who this person really is," and providing hints concerning the respondent's inner thoughts and motivations. Intonation, voice timbre, and delivery can be surprisingly helpful here.

The project which generated this collection of transcripts began as a result of a happy pair of intellectual coincidences which occurred in 1986. The first was the exposure of the editor to the ongoing oral history project currently being conducted at the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The writer had opportunity to serve at the facility for several weeks, gaining an appreciation for and understanding of this important collection effort. Soon after returning from this tour, the writer came in contact with Dr. Roland Barth, of Harvard University, well-known for his work on Principals' Centers in recent years. Dr. Barth indicated during a formal presentation to a Phi Delta Kappa Chapter in Northern Virginia, that there was need for more in-depth and less superficial research in professional education generally, and on the principalship in particular. The writer characterizes Dr. Barth's remarks as raising questions concerning the utility of research which is "a mile wide and an inch deep"-like the Platte River in Michener's Centennial. The obvious conclusion was that research capable of being characterized as "a foot wide and a mile deep" was indicated.

School principals, as is true with other busy public officials, are subject to constant pressures, inadequate time for decision-making, the requirements to be responsive to a constant parade of internally and externally-based individuals, all of whom have a claim on their attention, and a lack of time for reflection and contemplation. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that so few of these persons record their experiences, thoughts, and dreams in written form. In most instances the insights of these participant-observers in the great social and educational events of the 1940's through the 2000's are in imminent danger of being lost, for the ravages of time continue to take their toll within their graying ranks. Thus, immediate action designed to preserve the treasure trove of information possessed by these dedicated educators seemed to be indicated.

Having come to this conclusion, the writer determined that the most effective-if not the most efficient-way in which to collect such data was through in-depth interviews with those whose long-term experiences and wisdom rendered them capable of providing assistance to generations of educational administrators yet to come. Thus, the Oral History of the Public School Principalship was born with data collection beginning in early 1986 and continuing to the present time.

From the outset, the purpose of the project has been to gather the recollections and wisdom of veteran building principals, most of whom have never before been invited to contribute to the literature of educational administration. These dedicated men and women constitute a "national informational treasure" of immense proportions. It has been the aim of the project to capture, in an organized and scholarly manner, information on a wide variety of educational topics from those who experienced the events of the past forty to fifty years. The audiotaped interviews, conducted by the writer and by advanced graduate students in Educational Administration, vary in length from one to three hours. Transcripts lengths vary between 15 and 100+ pages.

The interviews are based upon a standard question set, or protocol, with modifications designed to suit the interests of the person interviewed as well as those of the interviewer. Thus, there is some variation in content, although a substantial degree of commonality in subject matter does pervade the collection. Some of the topics covered in the interviews deal with: decision-making in education; ethics in administration; the characteristics of effective schools and of effective principals; philosophy of education and of administration; teacher evaluation and discipline; instructional leadership; school-community relations; teacher dismissal; grievances; relations with the school board and the superintendent of schools; career ladders and merit pay; training of administrators; and views on testing and the curriculum. The standard interview protocol, which has evolved during the nine years of the project's life, is included as an appendix to this document.

Due to the modest level of funding available, collection has so far been limited almost exclusively to the four-state area around Washington, D.C. (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina), with a few from other parts of the United States. Of note is a set of 16 interviews from Colorado collected while the editor served briefly at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley; and a set of 25 interviews from Ohio, collected while the editor served with Youngstown State University. Respondents were elementary, middle, and secondary school principals who retired during the decades extending from the 1950's through the 1990's. They vary in age from the mid-50's to the 90's. They are male and female, black and white. Their academic training varies from the baccalaureate to the doctorate.

Participants also vary significantly in degree of articulateness, knowledge of current educational issues, responsiveness and general attitude toward education and the principalship. While most respondents seem to have enjoyed and valued their administrative experiences, some are quite bitter about conditions under which they labored and are outspoken in their criticisms. The comments of some of the black principals who served before, during, and after desegregation in Virginia and Ohio are particularly impressive, filled with unusual insights into the "separate but unequal" school settings in which these men and women were forced to serve during the early years of their experience. The sense of hopefulness coupled with a recognition of and resignation to political realities of the day presented in these transcripts is noteworthy. Current and future generations of educators can learn important lessons in humility and steadfast dedication from these outstanding individuals.

The average American has a speaking vocabulary of only a few thousand words, far fewer than the average written vocabulary. Furthermore, most individuals do not speak in totally grammatical format, often to their embarrassment and chagrin when confronted with the recorded or transcribed results of their efforts. Consequently, the question of degree and type of editing during interview transcription is of salience in any project of this nature. In many projects, the interview subject is given the opportunity to review the final manuscript upon completion and to make any necessary emendations prior to the document's being placed in the project archive. Due to the pressures of time under which this project's interviewers labored, it was not convenient to engage in this practice. Consequently, those adjustments or corrections which were made were handled by the project typists and interviewers themselves.

However, the reader can rest assured that those corrections which have been made do not detract from the meaning of the text, and are usually cosmetic in nature. Repetitions of words or phrases; grunts and groans; and "uhs," "ums," and "you-knows" were all considered fair game for editorial excision and have, in most instances, been so treated. Every effort has been made, however, to avoid any change that would alter the originally intended meaning of the text.

Further assistance is provided to the reader/researcher in the form of transcriber-developed indexes. These indexes list those topics discussed and provide indications of tape numbers, counter numbers, and transcript pages. Unfortunately, however, the practice of including such indexes was not adopted until late in the project, with the result that these topical researching aids are unavailable in some transcripts.

This project, in existence since 1986 and depending for its development upon traditional collection methods, has now achieved a stage of heightened collection access via electronic means. The entire collection is now available on-line, allowing for its worldwide employment in doctoral and other forms of educational and historical research. The preparation of this internationally accessible website has been the responsibility of Mr. Edward E. Schwartz, Co-Director of the New Media Center. Mr. Schwartz and his dedicated assistants have devoted many hours to the creation of this structure and deserve great credit for their commitment and professionalism.

Based on the foregoing discussion, it can be seen that the importance of historical documentation of this type cannot be overemphasized. The office of public school principal is among the most influential of local level public service positions. These unsung heroes come and go, but the position remains, a symbol of administrative continuity and commitment to excellence in education, as well as to cultural continuity. The public schools have long served as a repository for American values and have served to transmit these values to succeeding generations of young people. As guardian of this process-keeper of the flame, as it were-the public school principal has long been an extraordinary influential-if relatively unknown-actor in our society.

Today's principal is bound by the silver cord of tradition and duty to those who have gone before, serving the children of successive generations of Americans both honorably and well. As such, the former incumbents of this position deserve great respect and gratitude. To those who have patiently donated hundreds of hours to the process of creating these important historical records, we must express heartfelt thanks on behalf of this and generations yet to come. Such generosity and public-spiritedness is truly noteworthy.

Patrick W. Carlton, Ph.D.

Virginia Tech New Media Center
Blacksburg, VA USA / 540-231-4826
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