Interview with Clyde Keen


Today is March 15, 2000. I am here at Maury River Middle School library with Mr. Clyde Keen, former superintendent of Lexington City Public Schools in Lexington, Virginia. Also, principal for Lylburn Downing Elementary School which was soon changed to Lylburn Downing Middle School, Mr. King was in this capacity as principal from 1978 until 1994.

| Back to "K" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |


Q: Mr. Keen, if you would please begin by telling us about your family background, which includes your childhood interests and development as well as your birthplace, elementary and secondary education and family characteristics?

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

A: I was born in Buchanan County, Virginia in 1939. I am number six in a family of nine (9) children. There were six (6) girls, three (3) boys. My father was a coal miner and my mother was a homemaker. I grew up twenty-five (25) miles from the town of Grundy. All of my public school years, first grade through twelfth went to Whitewood school under the same principal. Our home was founded on Christian principals and our family life centered around the church and school. The family did everything together. We worked together, we played together, we raised practically everything we ate and enough of that.      

Q: Would you please discuss your educational preparation for entering the field of teaching?

A: I might say before I begin answering that, that while I was a high school student, growing up twenty-five (25) miles from town, we did not have telephones. And the principal knew that I wanted to be a teacher so he would often, when he needed a substitute, and since there were no phones, he would often come to the classroom and pull me out and I would substitute as a teacher, even during my high school days. And during my junior and senior years, I did a lot of that. Upon graduating from high school, I had planned to attend King College in Bristol, Tennessee to be a teacher. I had a full scholarship there. But the summer after graduation that I was to go to King College the superintendent of schools, a family friend, again he knew that I wanted to be a teacher. He asked me if I wanted to delay my college education for a year and teach in a two-room country school. And since teaching was in my blood, I accepted and gave up my college scholarship and so I taught in this two room school for one year and it was at that time that I knew I had to get a college education. And I then went to Clinch Valley College at the University of Virginia for two years then transferred to UVA where I received my BA in History and Education in Social Studies in 1962. Then I returned to Whitewood to my home school and I taught there for three years. During the next three summers I returned to UVA and worked on my master’s degree, which I completed in August of ’65. And that was in Public School Administration. And it was at that time, in the summer of ’65, that I came to Lexington as the Assistant Principal of Lexington High School which was housed in this building. And I was a teaching Assistant Principal that first year and in my second year here I was a full time Assistant Principal. So I was a teacher for four (4) years, Assistant Principal for two (2), a Principal for twenty-four (24) years and a Director of Instruction for three (3) years.

Q: What experience or events in your life occurred that constituted important decision points in your career?

A: Well certainly delaying my college education and teaching in the two-room school was a decision that led to experiences that I would have never gotten anywhere else. It made me certain beyond a doubt that I wanted to be a teacher and it also made me realize the value of a college education. And another major turning point was certainly my decision to leave Buchanan County and come to Lexington. It was not only a turning point in my career, it was a turning point in my life because it was here, at Lexington High School that I met the band director who became my wife the next summer. And then the last decision was taking early retirement, which has given me invaluable opportunities to travel and do things I had never had the opportunity to do before.    

Q: Could you talk about the motives for entering the principalship and under what circumstances you made these decisions?

A: Well certainly the principal, Mr. William Muncey, the principal of the school for twelve (12) years that I went to, I didn’t realize it at the time but he certainly was my mentor. His encouragement and confidence in me and has certainly given me the opportunity to substitute as a teacher when I was just a child myself. As I look back, I know that he saw in me, things that I know I did not see and I would say that that was the biggest motivator for me to move into the field of teaching and administration.

Q: How did your motives change over the year, or have they changed?

A: No, I never regretted my decision to become a teacher. I am one of these people that believes teaching is in your blood and if it is you best teach and not do anything else and I have never regretted my decision to be an educator.

Q: Can you please describe your personal philosophy of education and how did it evolve over the years?

A: I think my philosophy of education is much like the philosophy that was in the family that I grew up in, certainly a democratic philosophy. And from the very first day that I became a principal and was fully in charge of my own school so to speak, I realized that the principal was the key to the success of the school. The principal must be a strong instructional leader. First of all, the principal must be a teacher in every sense of the word. And from the beginning, I committed myself to be the best supporter that I could possibly be of my teachers. And in making sure that they had the resources they needed to carry on their jobs, that they had the time to teach and they had a safe and secure place to teach. And I guess with each passing year my philosophy became stronger as I gained more experience and personal confidence.

Q: Would you also include the instructional philosophy of your school, telling how it developed and evolved?

A: I relied very heavily upon the expertise of teachers in doing the very best job that they could do in their subject areas. And I made sure that teachers had what they needed to work with. I always felt very comfortable going into classrooms and seeing what was going on, discussing it with teachers and I think it goes back to the statement I made earlier, that the principal must first of all be a good teacher. And I never forgot the fact that I was a teacher first of all and wanted to make sure that the instructional leadership of the school was teacher and student centered. I’m not sure if I answered that exactly.  

Q: Could you tell us what techniques you used to create a successful climate for learning?

A: Well the over all philosophy that I maintained in making a school as much of a home environment as I could entered into it. I tried to have lots of plants in every school that I was principal in. When students and parents walked into the building I wanted them to feel this was a special place. I guess I always felt very confident that the climate of the school was one thing that I had down pat, that I had no problems creating a good climate. I wanted it to be a place where people wanted to come and didn’t feel like they had to rush in and rush out. And over the years students would come to school much earlier than they needed to and they would stay much later. I felt it was because of the climate of the school and it was a place that they wanted to be.

Q: Did you feel that there were any unsuccessful techniques?

A: No, not …all of my schools that I was involved in were basically small schools and so I never felt unsuccessful in any of my attempts there.      

Q: What kinds of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do?

A: I think first of all, teachers want a good strong leader, someone who is organized. They want to come in the first day of school and see the evidence of planning during the summer. They want positive leadership. They don’t mind a leader that doesn’t have all the answers. They want someone who is willing to work with them and if he or she doesn’t have the answers then to know where to go out and get them. They want a teacher (principal) who will support them in whatever they do, who will get the needed resources. Again, it goes back to that democratic atmosphere. They want a leader who is knowledgeable and is human.

Q: Can you describe the expectations, both professional and personal that were placed upon the principals by their employers and the community during your period of employment?

A: Here in Lexington, you need to understand our administrative setup. We had a superintendent and for most of those years, the twenty-nine (29) years that I was in the Lexington school system, we had the superintendent and principals. There were a few of those years that we had a director of instruction. And I served, myself, for three (3) years in that position. The principal with that background was expected to run a good school. We did not have the resources of other administrators to fall back on. It was the principal and the superintendent and from the day I was hired here in Lexington I had the opportunity to pretty much run the school the way I saw fit. And I never lost site of the fact that the school board, the superintendent and the people, the citizens of Lexington, wanted a good school, a safe environment, they wanted good learning to take place. The principal was the one that everyone looked to see that this was carried out and so….

Q: Do you think those expectations differ today?

A: I would hope so. I think that probably there is more emphasis today on the word "safe". This safe environment and in the six (6) years that I have been retired I realize that schools have changed a lot in this area. And I think there is more of an expectation that the school must be a safe place. Basically I think that the other expectations are still in place.

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

A: Okay, I certainly enjoyed what I was doing over those years and I feel that I was a positive spirit in the school. My approach was certainly a democratic one, as I have stated. Teachers had a lot of input in the decision-making process so it wasn’t a situation where I made all of the decisions. When we had a problem, as a faculty, we would brainstorm ideas and come up with a plan. An example of this is the way I did the scheduling. In the spring, about this time of the year, I would begin having special planning sessions with the faculty at large. And thinking specifically in terms of what we were doing presently and looking toward the next school year, we would evaluate what we were doing this year and then I would say to the teachers, "Give me your wish list for next year. What’s good about this year, what’s bad and what would you really like to see next year." And then my job was to see if I could make a schedule to reflect what the common goals were of the faculty and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. However, when it didn’t work, when I did not meet all of the expectations of the teachers from the spring planning sessions, I could stand before them at the opening of school in good faith and say, "This is what you asked for, this is what I was able to do and here are the reasons why. " It either worked, can work or cant’ work. And with that planning process I always knew that I had one hundred percent support of the faculty because they knew they had been listened to. And I think that’s most important.

Q: Cultural diversity is an interest and concern at this point and time. Would you discuss the nature of your student body and comment on the problems, challenges and triumphs in which you participated while serving as principal?

A: Well, here in Lexington, we don’t…well, I’ll back up. We didn’t have as much cultural diversity as one might find now within the school system because there’s absolutely more mobility these days. But I will say that my administrative career began here at Lexington High School during the first year of full school integration and I am most happy to report that there were never any major problems in relation to that. Any cultural diversity that might have been evidenced at that point….you might want to ask the next part of that question…or is there another part,…okay, let me continue. The school population then and basically now, in the Lexington City Schools is around 85% Caucasian and 15% African American with very little….of any other minorities. About a fourth of our student body at any given time would qualify for the free lunch program. There might be an occasion, or an argument or fight between students but I never saw this as result of cultural diversity; just normal student interaction. So I guess overall in my situation we were all pretty much alike.

Q: It’s been said that curriculum has become much more complex in recent years. Would you comment on the nature of the curriculum during the time you were principal and compare it in today’s schools, citing any positive and negative aspects of the situation then and now?

A: Well it certainly has changed. I remember the days when the curriculum was the basics. And we had Music, Phys. Ed. and Art. And scheduling was very simple and I am going back to my first full time principalship which was in an elementary school. When I moved to the intermediate grades and we became a middle school, during that phase of my administrative experience, we added Exploratory courses and a variety of subjects and we added languages. Just a couple of years before my retirement in ’94, the computer world had come to us and I was even, when I retired, I was doing a little scheduling by computer. So I was beginning to see that the curriculum was changing. It was the year after my retirement that the SOLs became such a big thing as far as the testing that went along with them. We had had standard of learning for many years but it was not the pressure that’s on schools at this time. Changes that took place within the basics during those years had to do with minimum standards and in the Lexington schools we were always striving to far exceed those basic minimum standards. We were an innovative school division. I remember back in the late 60’s, early 70’s, we implemented an individualized mathematics program called the IMS program. The Lexington schools went through a phase of writing their own curriculum and we had individual units. They were excellent from the stand-point of individualizing instruction that they were absolutely awful from the stand-point of teachers trying to grade and keep up with every student’s individual program because again, we didn’t have all the resources we should have had to back up such a challenging program but nonetheless we were eager to try new things in the curriculum. The positive side of this was the emphasis on the individual child and his needs. The negative, as I just mentioned, was the tremendous amount of work that it placed on the teacher. I think the biggest difference between the curriculum then and now is this thing that I mentioned of pressure on the teachers to more or less, teach to the test, to make sure that the school passes. And I would say again that teachers need time to teach and they need the freedom to carry out that assignment without all of these external pressures that are being placed on them.

Q: You mentioned standardized testing in your prior question, or answer to your prior question. There are those that argue that standardized testing can provide a way to improve instruction. Can you discuss with me your experience with the testing and provide us with views on its effect on the quality of instruction?

A: Again, back to our small Lexington school division, historically the Lexington schools have done very well on standardized tests. Just about every year our students would place somewhere in the top three (3) school divisions in the state in one or more subjects. And we were always above the norm in all the subjects. I think this is because we strived for that strong curriculum without giving a lot of thought to how students were going to do on testing. We had a strong curriculum, we taught it, we did the best we could to individualize. When test time came, students did well. Again it was a day when class time was spent teaching and we were definitely on the right target as a school division. The present SOLs with the passing standards came in the year that I retired so I am not completely familiar with the system. But I think there is definitely a place for standardized testing. We have to know how our students are doing in relationship to the total picture. We know that Lexington graduates are not going to stay right here. They are going to go on out and compete with students from schools from all over the country and even the world and from that stand point, we can’t lose sight of how important the standardized tests are, but we can’t let them control the curriculum.

Q: Would you tell me your key to success as a principal?

A: Well, I had a twenty-nine (29) year career in the Lexington schools and I certainly, without sounding too much like I am bragging; I certainly characterize my career as a success story. The day I walked out of the school and turned my keys over to my successor, I never looked back with a single regret, and I still don’t. I think the longer I served as an administrator, and noticed I used the word "served", I think we’re servants, the better I got to know the community and the people. I think it is important for an administrator to stay in one place long enough to do some good and in my case, I came and I stayed. This became home to me. But each year I strived to make the year better than the one before. I tried to learn from all the mistakes, the faculty and other nonprofessional staff members had a lot of input into what worked and what didn’t work for us. I think that had a lot to do with maintaining a core, stable faculty. Seldom did I have a teacher who would just come for a year or two. Most of them came and they stayed. And part of this success story goes back to advisory committees, before advisory committees got to be a big thing I was using them…faculty advisory committees, parent advisory committees. And the day we organized the middle school, students became members of the advisory committees and I am a good listener and always listened to all parties and then my job was to take the advise given and decide from the administrative point of view what was best for everyone. Again, it was a family atmosphere with me being the facilitator. Growing up in that large family of nine (9) children, I got to see my Dad and Mom be the facilitators lots of times and that had a lot to do with the way I managed. In closing on this question, I will say something that is most important for any would-be administrator, don’t ask any school employee to do anything that you aren’t willing to do yourself. I would teach, I would mop floors, I would clean up spills in the cafeteria, I would talk sick children home, make home visits, I did it all. And I even had a superintendent, once upon a time, who came into the building and caught me with a mop in my hand in the cafeteria and I got chastised for it. And I very quickly said that I could have the mess in the cafeteria cleaned up myself by the time I could go get the custodian and get him to come and do it. And that is just my philosophy, don’t ask anyone to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself. It goes back to that servant role.

Q: Describing your professional training, which best prepared you for the principalship and which do you feel was the least fulfilling, or the least useful?

A: I think the first thing that ever happened to me in graduate school, at the University of Virginia was my advisor. I had a professor that I not only took classes under him, but he served as my advisor for me to become a principal. he had been a principal, he knew what was out there, he showed a lot of personal interest in me within his advice sessions he would just use a lot of common sense. During the real core administrative courses, which again he taught, we did a lot of simulated activities and I just thought they were great. That’s when I really learned to do a school schedule. And he took an actual school, an actual faculty and subjects and gave us all the information and we had to come up with a workable schedule and it was in sessions like that also, school finance. He taught that. He taught me about three (3) subjects, three courses and in each one we had simulated activities, which was the next best thing to being in the school first hand. And I think those two (2) things together gave me the preparation I needed to become a successful principal.

Q: Did you find anything that was the least useful?

A: I guess some of the courses, I could have done without. They were not helpful at all. I think some college professors forget, if they were ever there, they have forgotten what it was like to be on the firing line with public education. And I had some of those professors who had been out of the mainstream of public education too long and they just didn’t know what it was all about.

Q: What suggestions would you offer universities in the way of helping better prepare candidates for an administrative position?

A: If I was out there getting trained to be a principal, I think one thing that would be very helpful would be some sessions with real, live, active principals. A round table type discussions in small-groups. Those simulated activities that I referred to, I think we all need as many of those as we can get. And as I said, those doing the training shouldn’t be too far removed from the world of public education.

Q: Are there some weaknesses in the traditional programs that you would cite?

A: I think those weaknesses would most likely relate to a principal being trained just by courses and not having any hands-on. But I think I understand now that there is a five (5) year program, so hopefully, the program I went through that could have been full of pitfalls for the beginning administrator, hopefully that’s being taken care of through the more practical help that are out there for principals. And hopefully there is more mentoring and opportunities for students to get in to work directly with a principal. During my years of being an administrator I never had a college student to come in to work with me. I had student teachers in the building but no one ever asked if an upcoming administrator could come and even spend the day with me, which I would have welcomed and I would have laid it all out on the table for them.

Q: Was there a mentor in your life?

A: I guess I can think of two (2): the principal I had for twelve (12) years which at the time I did not know he was a mentor but as I became a principal, I, over the years I would think, golly I am becoming just like that man. So he was definitely a mentor. And the other person was my advisor for the master’s degree at UVA. He was certainly a mentor and one that I relied heavily upon. Even after I became a principal I would call him at times and ask him for advice.

Q: There are those that argue that principals should be instructional leaders and those that suggest, realistically, this person must be, above all, a good manager. What are your views on the issues and what is your style that you used when you were a principal?

A: This is really a good question. The principal should certainly be an instructional leader, first of all. And I think I can answer this by saying that because of the caring principal that I had and I became more like him, and the advisor…I think that probably would answer this…I am losing my train of thought here…I’m going to be honest with you. Well, Michelle, I had gotten a little lost, I was daydreaming. The principal has to be an excellent manager in order to manage his time and to guide those with whom he is working. We all need help in managing our times and I never got upset when a superintendent would suggest ways to me to become a better manager and in turn, I never hesitated to sit down with a teacher and come up with ways to become a better manager. I arrived at school early and stayed late and I think, to be a successful principal, that’s a must. There’s no such thing as punching a clock. I tried to reserve the school day to be available to students, teachers and parents. And it was after most folks left in the afternoon, that I would retreat to my office and do my paper work, record things that I needed to make sure I didn’t lose sight of and to make notes as to what I wanted to do early the next morning or to gather up things to take home to do. There’s no doubt about it, the principal must be an excellent manager of his own time and resources and to help those with whom he works.

Q: Most people say that the principal should be active in community affairs. Could you please discuss your community involvement and participation in the civic groups in the community.

A: Okay, I am not a joiner. When I die, and my obituary is written in the newspaper, I don’t, I never wanted to have just a long list of things listed saying that I did this and I did that. So I am not a joiner. Anything that I was active in as a principal and it holds true for my retirement years, has to be something that is a direct service to people. I am an active church member, have been since childhood. I do a lot of community work through the church. I have been active in the Rockbridge Area Relief Association that gives aid directly to people. I served as treasurer there and I was on the board and I still support it in other ways as just a citizen. I am involved with the free medical clinic and I got involved volunteering there before I retired. I, right now am doing tax work through the AARP volunteer tax program….last week I spent two (2) days with it, this week one (1) day with it so normally it’s one day a week during tax season….so anything that my expertise can lend a hand to give direct services to people I will do. For those principals who can join a civic organization and feel good about it and be effective in some way, that’s fine. It was never for me.

Q: Is there any one-community organization that has the greatest influence in your life?

A: The church.

Q: It’s been said concerning home schooling that the gap between home schooling and public school needs to be developed. Can you give your views on the issues and describe how you interacted with parents and with citizens who were important to the well-being of the school?

A: Along with all of the principals, constantly fought the battle of trying to get parents more involved in their child’s education. Long after most principals had stopped making home visits, I was still making them. In fact I made home visits in the spring of 1994, prior to my retirement. For me to function the way I wanted to function as a principal I had to do that. I had mentioned that I organized parent advisory committees and then at the middle school level we got students involved…in fact at the middle school we organized a PTSA, a parent/teacher/student association. We also had an advisory committee of community leaders. We did that in connection with our Southern Association Accreditation and we would have about a dozen key leaders from the community on that advisory committee. It would meet a couple of times a year. I had a monthly newsletter that I started early on in my middle school career and I didn’t take a chance on handing it to students to take home. We mailed it. It was expensive at times but I wanted to make sure that every home got the newsletter and knew what was going on. I did anything I could to keep the school program before the parents. We would have open houses for each grade; we would have open houses for the entire school, just anything that would keep the education of the child before the parents. And I always maintained an open door policy and parents never seemed to hesitate to take advantage of that.

Q: Mr. Keen, would you describe your approach to teacher evaluations and give your philosophy of evaluations that you have used?

A: Okay, first of all, evaluation is definitely a tool for improvement. If it’s note used for improvement, then it should be thrown out. The way I did it, I met with each teacher at the beginning of the school year to set goals and I would give them six (6) weeks or so to… once I met with them to come up with their goals and we would meet together and decide how these goals could be met. And by the same token I got the faculty to set goals for me. And so it was a two way street and no one likes to sit down and be evaluated. I never particularly enjoyed sitting down with the faculty and for that evaluation session or sessions but I realized how important it was and I also realized if I was going to be effective in evaluating them that I also was working toward goals. So it was a mutual kind of thing. If there were problems along the way during the course of the school year with anything going on with a teacher and a student or a teacher and a parent, I would always get together with the teacher and any other key people and discuss it and try to deal with it at that time. By the time the spring evaluation rolled around there had been enough communication that it was really no big deal and I never had any problem doing evaluations. It was my least favorite chore but I did it and looking back I think we had a good system. I made, I did everything I could to help teachers in this evaluation process. And I think that at the end of each year we all came out of it stronger than we had started the year with and there were some years I would just have to say to a veteran teacher, I really don’t know of anything you need to be working on. Just keep doing what you’re doing. And I think that point can be reached in a career that, you know, we have reached the mountaintop and we can stay there. We don’t have to slide back down into the valley, so to speak.

Q: A good deal is said about teacher grievances. Would you give your views on desirability of such procedures and describe your approach in handling teacher dissatisfaction?

A: Okay, there definitely is a place for a teacher grievance process. The way I did it, and again, with a small faculty of twenty (20) or twenty-five (25) folks, it was much easier than if I had been principal of a school with a hundred (100) staff members. But teachers and the non-professional staff always knew that anything that they were dissatisfied with, that they could come to me with it. And again, this goes back to my philosophy of sort of being a father figure, not someone who knows it all standing up there. And I wasn’t always happy when teachers would come and say, any teacher would come in and say, "Mr. Keen, I really don’t like the way this is being done.", or it might have been something personally directed at me or it might have been something directed at another staff member but the important thing was the person would come and tell me. And I think that open door policy, that being easily accessible will go a long way towards solving grievances. And the administrator should encourage teachers to not let a problem build up. That’s when we get big problems, when little problems aren’t dealt with. Again, once a problem was on the table it can be solved with putting heads together.

Q: Could you discuss teacher dismissals and tell me if you have been involved in any of those activities?

A: I really wish I could sit here and say that never happened to me but I can’t. I dismissal of three (3) teachers and I guess in a thirty-three (33) year career that I guess that may not be so bad. But I wish it was zero (0). But in each case the teacher was given many months and in one case comes to mind right a A teacher was given two (2) years with almost weekly and biweekly, monthly meetings and because I didn’t want to lose that person from the teaching profession, but in the long run, I could not help that person. And I think we have to, we have our standards. Everyone has to know what they are. And through all of this I developed a personnel handbook so everything was laid out. There were no surprises for evaluation anything. But in each of those dismissal cases, when I had done all that I could, and the person just could not get his or her act together, I took the recommendation to the superintendent who took it to the school board and there was no question about it. And in all three (3) cases the individual involved left with not blaming me and I still have good relations with those people, I might add. So it can work to dismiss teachers and if it is done right it doesn’t have to be something that shatters the person’s life.

Q: What, in your view, is the role of the assistant principal?

A: Okay, from what I know of the assistant principal, I did it right here in this building for two (2) years, because I never had an assistant principal because schools were so small…I think the assistant principal should be allowed to experience every aspect of administration. And I was blessed to work under two (2) principals here and both of them did not hesitate to, from day one, say, "This is your responsibility." and it was in every area; supervision, evaluation, scheduling, I did it all. And the nice thing was, the principal (superintendent) was always there to support me, to let me know what I was doing wrong and that sort of thing. So that was my experience with an assistant. With assistant principalships, and since I never had one, I would only say that I would have given the assistant principal every responsibility that I could.      

Q: Given the presence of administrative complexity, if there were three (3) areas you could change in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of educational administration, what would they be?

A: I think the staff and I had direct control of most of the staff development in our school. I had almost full responsibility for making recommendations for hiring new personnel and my discipline decisions were always supported by the superintendent and school board. So I would say that the three (3) areas that I would mention would be that the principal must be given a lot of control and support in the hiring process, those people he is going to responsible for, for staff development and for discipline.

Q: In reference to the previous question, if you could change any three (3) areas in the curriculum or overall operations of the American school, what would they be?

A: That’s hard for me to answer simply because of the ideal situation I had in the Lexington City schools and it truly was an ideal situation. So I just don’t have the background to answer that.    

Q: Would you discuss your style of personal management, that is, what approaches you employed that contributed to your effectiveness as a manager?

A: I think it just goes back to the good training that I had, the support I always had from the school superintendent and the school board. At every school board meeting the Lexington principals, we were expected to be at the meetings, we were expected to talk directly to the board to let them know exactly what was going in our buildings and there was just never any surprises. And I think all of this goes together to answer that question. Just being, having the best intern-type program that one could have and mine was more or less on-the-job training, I guess.

Q: It’s been said that good personal 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 principal and what degree did it improve moral in organizational effectiveness?

A: That’s a good question and that is one I loved. I loved to have celebrations and my schools had lots of celebrations. Any time we could come up with a good excuse to get together, we did it. And my wife and I often entertained the faculty in our home. Every, I’d say in my last fifteen (15) years of being a principal, every Friday, the teacher and the non-professional staff, everyone had a mailbox in the office and in everyone’s mailbox every Friday morning they would not only find a, what I called a Friday memo, and it was always a positive memo, nothing negative found it’s way there, I hope that’s completely true. Along with that Friday memo there was always a sweet treat, it might be a bar of candy, it might be a pack of homemade cookies, that sort of thing. It was one of those things that teachers could not wait to get into the office on Friday morning to see what the treat was. And if for any reason the treat was delayed and didn’t get in right at the beginning, every time the teacher would get a chance they would come to the office and they’d just say, "Where’s my treat for the day?". So that was something we had a lot of fun with. Birthdays were celebrated, baby showers, wedding announcements, those kinds of things, every faculty meeting had refreshments and 99% of the time they were homemade things that I had made. I love to cook. So we celebrated and I think it went a long way to helping with the overall climate of the school.

Q: Some principals believe that teachers and other staff members are, in general, are 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: I always like to think that I knew what I was doing. The school board, the superintendent had faith in me that I could do my job and I in-turn passed this philosophy on to all of my co-workers. I had faith in them, I knew they had been trained to do what they had been hired to do and I never lost sight of the fact that teachers are professionals and they must be treated professionally and must be respected and if one wants to have respect they must respect others in return. I looked upon the non-professional staff members as vital people within the school and that they were treated the same way and they were, in my school, the non-professional staff were always included in all of the celebrations. If we had a dinner or a party at school or in our home, invitations went out to everybody, not just the professional staff. And so I think people are well-motivated and we must cultivate that and let people know they’re important and the more important and good that a person feels about themselves, the better job they’re going to do. So in all, it reinforces each other. And the more teachers let me know that they liked what I was doing then I became more determined that I was going to do even better. And I think teachers, in turn, reacted the same way.

Q: Did your non-professional staff feel that it built moral for them when they were included in things in school?

A: Absolutely, they were important, key members of the family. And I always called it a family, I didn’t, just didn’t say….in talking with teachers I would say in a faculty meeting or an overall staff meeting, I would talk about our family relationship not just you know, we’re a school staff, we’re a faculty. But I used the word family a lot and they in turn treated each other like family and there’s not a family that doesn’t have its ups and downs and we had ours. But we dealt with them without running anyone off, so to speak.

Q: Would describe your feelings, knowing what you know now, about entering the principalship yourself if given the opportunity to start anew?

A: I have said many times Michelle that I was born to be a teacher. I had great career and as I’ve said, I have no regrets and if I was starting out again today, I would have to go the same path. I know that it would not be as easy. I know it would be more challenging. And I say that and it may not be any more challenging because when I entered the classroom in the fall of 1962, well forgetting about that two room school, when I entered that high school classroom for the first time, I had absolutely nothing to work with, textbooks, and that was it. And any extra materials I wanted to use with students came out of my pocket and this went on all three (3) years that I taught so it was challenging back then but I didn’t know any better. I just thought that was the way it was. And I guess that made me want to make sure my teachers had everything they needed to work with. And I didn’t want teachers spending out of their pocket. I had a little school fund that I would say if you buy some construction paper or something, just because we don’t have the colors you want here at school, you bring the receipt here to me and I will give you your money back. And this happened and there are just lots of things that entered into it. But I would do it again and would hope that I would just end up in a good place like Lexington.  

Q: In closing, if you had to do it again, what kinds of things would you do better to prepare yourself for the principalship?

A: Well, knowing what I know now, I would want to, at every opportunity, be into a school where there was a good, positive role model principal. I would want to observe and be mentored by someone like that at every possible chance. I think that so much of it is on-the-job training and you’ve got to just…it’s like going in swimming, you just have to dive off of the diving board and get wet all at once. And I think that happens to a principal. There are so many things that nobody can tell you until you get into it. And that, the first time you have to deal with that real difficult discipline case, and there’s nobody there that can say, this is right, this is wrong and you make the decision knowing that what ever decision you make, you know it’s on your shoulders. And it’s that kind of a feeling so I would say that you know you just…in spite of all of the preparation, the reading, everything you can do, you just jump into it and go for it and hopefully, every principal is in the job not wanting to do anything else. They’re in that school because they feel that’s where they want to be more than anywhere else on earth.        

Q: Finally, I have one question that I would like to ask. What would be one key advice that you would give to a young professional who is entering administration, what is one thing that you would always want them to remember, foremost and above all?

A: Love. Love for every student, regardless of how different they are, how difficult they might be, but see them as someone who is someday, in your old age, going to be out there and maybe taking care of you. If nothing else, paying taxes to support your social security check or whatever. Love for every person you work with. Love for everyone who walks through the door, that difficult parent. And it’s not easy to do. There are times when all of us are unlovable, so to speak. But I would say that loving, positive attitude, enjoying what you’re doing, going to the school every day saying, today I have a chance to start all over again. And being willing to say I made a mistake. And I’m going to do something different. I’ve stood up before faculty members many times and saying "Folks, I blew it." . I would call a special faculty meeting at the end of the day I’d say, "Please meet me in the library in ten minutes" and I would say, "Folks, today I had to deal with this student and this is what I did. Tell me, did I do right? I suspended this kid, should I have?". So I had a sounding board there. And I didn’t always get, "Mr. Keen, you did it right.". You know there would be those sides and we would discuss it. We have cried together, we have prayed together, we have laughed together and I think that’s what it takes.

Q: And I know this was the final question but I have one more since you brought that up. You said we prayed together. Today, you know, there is no prayer in school…

A: You can’t do that. Well, we can pray silently but without the verbalizing the prayer, that loving positive attitude, just that caring and everyone senses that. They know whether a person is there just because it’s a job and a paycheck. And they know if it’s because the person really does care. When I got to school, I didn’t have to be at school until 8:00 in the morning. If I ever got to school past 7:15 I was late in my book, because I wanted to get there, get the doors open along with the custodian and be there right in the beginning of the action. And I wanted to be the last person to leave the building. This was just my, again, my personal philosophy of it all and there were many times I would go in a teacher’s classroom late in the afternoon and I would say, you know, "Let’s close it up so you can go home and I can go home." I mean, you know, every teacher had a key to the building so they could go and come as they wanted to but I just, I felt, I did not feel good leaving, if there was only one (1) teacher left in the building. So I think it’s all, Michelle, just these little things that they all come together to make the total program. And it’s difficult to pinpoint one (1) thing or ten (10) things that it’s the principal bringing his or her total philosophy to bare on the total school program. And people just know that this is the way it is. I mentioned the plants. If you went to our home right now, you know, you entered the glassed-in porch, there are a hundred or so plants. That’s just me, a part of me. In my old age when I’m in some nursing home, I hope, you know, friends will bring me these plants, because I can’t live without my plants. And I think just a touch like that, whether it’s art work, a dish of candy somewhere, it’s those little things that make a house a home, so to speak. And makes that school a very special place. Sometimes I would pull up in my car early in the morning to school and I would see this kid or kids waiting at the front door to get in. And I’ll have to admit, you know, there were times I’d think, "Oh, do they have to be here that early again?". And then from the car to the door, my thought process would say "That child wants to be here more than he or she wants to be home." The school is a better place right now for that person so I would unlock the door, talking to the kid, feeling real good that I had helped create a place that the child wanted to be.  

Q: Thank you very much.

A: You’re welcome, I’ve enjoyed it. And my blessings and best wishes go with you and I know you’re going to be a good one.

Q: Thank you.

A: ‘Cause you’ve had good training.

Q: You’re right.  

| Back to "K" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |