Interview with Joseph B. Johnson


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Q: Dr. Johnson, can you give me a brief biographical sketch about yourself?

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

A: Well, I am a native of Texas. I started my teaching career in the public schools of Galveston, Texas in 1941. That was interrupted for three years when World War II broke out. When the war ended, I started teaching in the Arlington County Public Schools. I taught math at the Washington and Lee High School while attending the George Washington University. Then I moved to the University of Chicago and taught in the public schools of Chicago. In 1946, I earned my Ph.D. degree at the University of Chicago at the age of 25. When I left the University of Chicago, I worked for the American Council of Education as Audio Visual Education Specialist. Then I went to work at the Virginia State Department of Education. I was able to travel statewide, visiting every school district in the State of Virginia. After my few years of service with the Virginia State Department of Education, I returned to Arlington County and was employed by the county public school system preparing curriculum and institutional materials. I spent six years doing that and then I became an administrative assistant to the County Superintendent of Schools. Later, I became Assistant Superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction; I was in that position for six years. I got tired of that, and in 1964, I became principal at Luther Jackson Elementary School, a school with an enrollment of 500 to 600 students and 27 teaching staff. In my 16 years in that school as principal I never drove to that school feeling unhappy. I enjoyed my years as principal and I must say I accomplished a lot during those good 16 years.

Q: As principal, what role did you play in enhancing school/community relations in your school?

A: Well, it seems to me this is a new concept or vocabulary in American education. In the school I worked, I think the whole situation regarding the community was in the dimension of looking at people as persons. Human relations in general depend upon how people perceive you. In the school environment, how you as principal perceive parents, students and teachers, has a lot to do with how school community relations work. And in fact, you don't separate these three groups from each other. They are part and parcel of what make the school achieve its goals and objectives. I believe you as principal must see the individual as a person and whatever description you have developed for that person to see is the yardstick that measures your relationship to that person. What you as an individual should keep in mind is that you are working with people of diverse talents, social and economic backgrounds. As administrator, my philosophy is to recognize every individual for what he or she is. When I was a principal, we did not have many of the problems school building principals have today; there were very little parental demands or pressures on the school systems that reflected on our performance and administrative tasks.

Q: Having said that, were there any particular pressures you faced as principal?

A: Yes, of course, I had pressures, especially when a new person joined the staff, how to make that person feel welcome to my school and how to support and help that person during his or her initial period as a staff member of the school. My main concern had always been to try to find out what they needed and if they anticipated any problems that we could work together to resolve. Very few times in my years as principal did I talk to a parent about a teacher, before first having discussions with that teacher about whom my conference with the parent is going to be the subject of discussion. I always make it a point for the staff member to know that a parent has brought up a complaint against him or her. of course, you can accomplish that either in a negative or positive way.

Q: May I ask you a question on teachers' grievances: did you ever fire a teacher, and if so, what were the reasons?

A: The formal grievance procedure you are referring to came into the picture after I had the school building. I was never in the position of having a formal grievance filed against me by any teacher. I was fortunate to have worked with people who were very happy in the school they worked. I believe in one thing and that is if you start with a positive approach in relating to a student, teacher and parents or so forth, you are to create an atmosphere wherein a person will recognize that he or she is strong or something needs improvement and if necessary, make changes as you move along. I always set a stage for a number of people to move on or, for those who find it impossible to cope with situations, to leave the teaching profession and the ones that I have had cause to ask to leave, some of them are still my best friends up to this point.

Q: How do you feel about staff training for teachers and administrators?

A: Well, I really don't have any specific answer to that question. First of all, I don't know how to answer that question adequately because every school district has its own policies about staff improvement. When I was principal in Arlington County, administrators were discouraged from gaining union such as the Arlington County Education Association. I have always felt that teachers are not being treated fairly well sometimes.

Q: How did you evaluate teachers and what techniques did you use to let teachers feel that they were important members of the profession?

A: Well, I always make great efforts to listen and I listen much more than I talk and when having a conference or evaluating issues, I try to bring to the attention of that teacher what people have said about that teacher. If there was any praise or complaint about that particular teacher, I will bring that up during the conference. I did not spend much time in formal evaluations of teachers. I had a tendency of visiting classrooms at different times very often and I was always welcome to come in and leave a classroom anytime I wished. I never prearranged my visits. I believe if you don't have a negative view about people, whether it be a teacher or student, you will always be welcomed in the classroom by the teacher with open hand. I never asked for an invitation to visit a classroom. I had pleasant working relationships with my staff. If a situation developed that was not pleasant to the teacher, I always asked that teacher to come up to me and discuss the matter.

Q: What was your leadership philosophy as school building principal?

A: I never did know all the answers to all questions. I believe in teamwork. When I started out in the principalship, Arlington County Public School system used to ask administrators to assign students to various classes. I followed that procedure for a while, then later I adopted my own style and began to ask teachers of various levels in the school to work together and come out with plans that will place students in classes in which their needs could be best served. I never had cause to make arrangements with a teacher about placing students in a particular classroom.

Q: How did you handle the civil rights issue and the things that came along with it?

A: Well, if you want me to tell you the truth, I never had problems as far as relating to minority groups. In the late 40's, it was almost impossible for a white person to associate openly with blacks. When I wanted my black friends to visit me, I would ask them to come to my house at night. Thank God today through the Civil Rights Act, I am able to invite my black friends over to my place in broad daylight. In my school, we never had any problems in implementing any provisions of the Civil Rights Act. For one thing, those people who were minorities in my staff were always given the first chance to choose, if they had to, on any matter that involved personal decision-making by staff members. Personally, I never had any difficulties in relating to the black teachers in my school. You should never let people feel uncomfortable to be around you.

Q: Did you experience any pressures from the school board as to how you should handle the bussing issue and school integration?

A: No, the Arlington County School Board at that time had able people who developed policies that were very clear and I want to say that they had a very positive outlook about social issues.

Q: It seems to me that integration was never a serious problem in your school, was it?

A: I cannot recall any instances when such an issue played any significant part in our school community relations. Early on, we had black parents who came to me experiencing concern over what they viewed as discriminatory practices by one of the teachers in the school, who gave to the black students in her class special reading materials. The parents claimed these materials were different from what the white students were receiving. When I investigated the allegations, I found out that the teacher was doing that to help the black students catch up with the rest of the class. When I explained this to the black parents, they accepted my explanation and we never had any more complaints related to discrimination.

Q: What do you think about the merit pay issue that is becoming a national trend in public schools?

A: Well, I would be ashamed to have a person who is not eligible to receive merit pay to continue teaching in the same school in which I work. I don't believe merit pay is a better way to solve mediocrity in the classroom. We need to be honest with people up front and stop playing politics in education. I cannot really justify the perpetuation of the merit pay concept.

Q: What about the idea of creating a career level for teachers such as Stage I and Stage II ladders? Do you think such an approach will bring more prestige to the teaching profession?

A: Well, my opinion about such a development in education is that if it is being done on an experimental basis to see the kind of commitment teachers would have in the classroom, it is fine; but when it becomes fait accompli, it is a different story. I think the whole thing boils down to who is involved in making final decisions on such methods. To me, many of these things are gimmicks to get rid of certain people in a particular school system. People have to be honest with people for something like this to work effectively. A principal should be able to do whatever is necessary to bring about academic excellence in the school building. I don't believe labeling teachers as Number 1 and Number 2 is the proper way to achieve that academic excellence.

Q: In light of these views you have just expressed, how would you describe yourself in terms of personnel management: do you consider yourself as a manager or instructional leader in the school building?

A: I never managed anything in my life. I tried to set the stage for others to follow my good example. I was very much interested in being a curriculum leader than trying to be a manager. Anywhere you find yourself in life there are things you don't change absolutely. All you do is try to help people bring about changes. Furthermore, there should be a genuine approach to helping people. I was generally able to determine a child's problems after I had met with the child's parents.

Q: What does it really take to be an effective principal?

A: I think it takes a lot of courage. For one thing, you should be able to spend a lot of hours and time on the job. You should have a positive attitude towards people. In the school building, the child has to do the learning, the teacher has to do the teaching, and the principal should create an ideal atmosphere for this process to go on smoothly.

Q: What about your relationship with your assistant principal?

A: It was nil, because I did not have any assistant principal. The school I ran only had 500 to 600 students and in those days, a single person could run such a school without an assistant. I really think it is not the same situation now because of the many complex problems principals face today.

Q: From your own point of view, what aspect of professional training must one have to become a principal?

A: I believe a graduate degree in school administration along with several years of experience as a classroom teacher is a better way to prepare administrators.

Q: How about central office policies? Did you feel inhibited by central office policies, or kept from accomplishing certain things you would have liked to accomplish otherwise?

A: None at all. I did exactly what I had wanted to do during my years as principal. I think we set our own priorities and agendas. I worked under six superintendents and a number of principals and teachers, and no one ever prevented me from doing what I wanted to do.

Q: Nowadays, most administrators are complaining about class size, school size and so forth. What do you consider to be the ideal size of a school that a principal should be able to run most efficiently and effectively?

A: I always felt that it was more efficient and more fun to work in a school with about 500 to 600 students, and a class with about 20 to 25 students. To me, that seems to be an ideal size from the standpoint of being able to do a perfectly good job. I know it is rather impossible to impose such limits today because communities are becoming larger and larger and the cost of having two schools in one area is astronomical. of course, I have seen some schools with 1,400 or more students run efficiently, but I have been used to working in a small size school environment. I should point out that I have been very fortunate to be in a school system such as Arlington County Public Schools, that does not face many of the problems that other school systems have.

Q: Would you name for me the five most pleasant and unpleasant experiences you have had as a principal?

A: To answer the second part of your question, I don't recall doing anything on the job that I did not enjoy doing. I think I enjoyed most my relationship with staff, with students and their parents. My staff and I learned from each other. I never did claim to have all the answers and therefore, I did not have some of the problems that other principals might have had. However, you have to change certain things as you go along performing your tasks and duties.

Q: If you could change any five areas of public education in the United States, what areas would you likely change?

A: I really don't have much say about such questions. For one thing, there is too much interference in American public education from government agencies, and presidents that sometimes make recommendations that have no significant bearing on educational reforms.

Q: If you were still principal, when the report, A Nation At Risk, came out, how would you have reacted to some of the recommendations the report made?

A: I would have been very annoyed anytime I made a move on that. Many of these reports may be useful in some areas of the country. Personally, I would not have paid much attention to most of these reports. For one thing, most of the people serving on some of these commissions have very little understanding of what is going on in the nation's classrooms. I never really took seriously any of these reports.

Q: What can you tell me about your retirement: did you retire because of administrative burn out?

A: I must say that I retired luckily at the age of 60 after being a principal just for 16 years. I was not expecting to retire in 1980 as I did, but because of drops in enrollment, the County had to make a lot of unexpected changes, and one of them was to close down Luther Jackson as a regular school. When that occurred, I did not want to get into a new situation or go to another school, so I decided to retire. I knew I had worked long enough to have a reasonable pension that would keep me going for life. Another thing is that I spent 40 years of my life working and sometimes neglecting my wife and kids. Now that I am retired, I feel that I wish I had spent more time with them. Moreover, having been working all that long, I thought I ought to be with my two grandchildren. I am also presently involved in many community activities.

Q: How would you describe a typical workday as principal?

A: I spent much of my time in the building. Sometimes I would to in from 6:30 a.m. until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. During the day, I spent much time going around classes to see what teachers and other support personnel were doing. I was very much concerned and involved in what was going on in the school building. When everyone in the school recognized this pattern, the entire staff began to express interest in having me visit their areas. Any principal who wants to create an effective school should make him or herself seen around the building very often during the day.

Q: In other words, one of the criteria for being an effective principal is for one to be visible in the building all the time?

A: Oh, yes! I have always worked in an informal manner, but at the same time, I tried to maintain a strong sense of discipline in the school.

Q: Dr. Johnson, what have I not asked you that I should have asked?

A: I would not attempt to evaluate a conference that has covered a broad area of the public school administrative spectrum. I believe the information you came here to obtain has been well covered and on the other hand, I believe I have done my best to provide that information to you.

Q: Is there any advice that you would provide me with in the event that I want to be a principal?

A: Nothing specifically I would say. I think whatever position you find yourself in, you should always have high regard for the people you work with and those that work for you. You should be honest with the people that you interact with on the job. In the school situations, you have to realize that you are working within an organization that has policies, rules and regulations to follow.

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