Interview with T.J. Lawrence


This is an interview with Mr. T. J. Lawrence a retired principal at the Portsmouth Public Schools.

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Q: Mr. Lawrence, how many years were you in education as a teacher?

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

A: As a teacher, I was in the field for five years.

Q: As a principal, how many years were you active or in the field?

A: 37 Years.

Q: That's very good. Can you give us a setting of your school as it was when you started as a principal?

A: The first school where I worked, I was a teacher and principal in the City of Galax. It was a 2-room school with 7 grades. There were 2 teachers and a principal with an enrollment of 300 children.

Q: Three hundred students? That was a good size school during those days. Was that a high school or an elementary school?

A: That was an elementary school.

Q: We know that many of us become principals for various reasons. Could you tell us why you became a principal or why you decided to become a principal?

A: I like children. I think that was the motivating factor for me. Once I became a teaching principal, that love for children tended to grow on me. From there I felt that I could make teaching my livelihood because it was something that I enjoyed doing. Consequently, my pursuant was in the area of principalship.

Q: Did you have a particular philosophy, or a set of goals that you worked towards in your school?

A: Well, at the beginning I can imagine I was sort of new to the whole setup. Consequently, I didn't think of the philosophy as such. But as I grew into the field, my philosophy was to try to help children to learn. Basically, I was concerned with all children. We had, in my first teaching position, many children who, in my opinion at that time, didn't have a goal and they had been neglected by their teachers. I was very much concerned and thereon, I said if I ever became a principal, I would make certain that all children have a chance to learn.

Q: Can we go back a moment and recall or determine the year that you started being a full principal, especially here in Portsmouth Public Schools?

A: I began as a principal in 1936, at the Jarrat Elementary School in Southhampton County. I moved from Southhampton County, where I became an Assistant Principal of a high school for two years. When I came out of the military service, I went back into the teaching profession, in Southhampton County, for two years. I moved from Southhampton County to Nasemond County, Suffolk, Virginia for a year and a half. The remainder of those teaching years were in the City of Portsmouth.

Q: Do you remember the number of years you were at Douglas Park School as principal?

A: Twenty-nine (29) years at Douglas Park School.

Q: Twenty-nine years! That is quite impressive. How did you create a climate for learning in other words, how did you allow your teachers to teach? Did they have to be prodded or did you allow them the freedom they needed?

A: I was a firm believer of teachers having freedom in the classroom. One of my main reasons is because of the fact that I first started teaching. At one of the systems in which I taught, teachers did not seem to love to teach because of the pressure being brought from the administrative office, I decided from there with that timely experience if I ever became a principal, I would make certain that the teacher would have input in whatever we do in a school situation, particularly in faculty meetings. The faculty meetings were made up of committee groups, where teachers were given the opportunity to decide on the types of problems we should discuss, rather than giving all the problems to the administrative office.

Q: That's great! You seem to have allowed the teachers to have input which made you humanistic. You must have felt the human element important.

A: It was very important and in fact I know from experience that we had cooperation from the group at large.

Q: Can you tell us about the role you played in the public, outside the school.

A: Well, I liked to be in the teaching profession, and whatever community I resided, I had to be a participant in community affairs. One thing that I think helped me a great deal was, I became connected with the Scouts and during the time, I was associated with the scouts, our director left us for 2-3 years, and I became the district manager of the scout group and remained that way until we got a director and that within was a community effort in which I was very proud of. I was associated with the YMCA as a board member. Our faculty PTA, a very responsible group whereby we got a chance to exchange ideas that existed in communities and in schools. Naturally, the church was our old standby. I've always been connected with the church because of the philosophy of my parents and I'm still connected. I, also at the present time, am working with the STOP Organization, and have been doing that for the last 10-12 years, the Urban League and several other social groups.

Q: You were quite involved. What do you think teachers expect principals to be? What type of individual makes a good principal?

A: I think they want the principal who is fair; a principal who is not partial; a principal who is qualified; a principal who has a sense of humor; a principal who allows for freedom of atmosphere in the classroom and within the school, and basically, a principal they can trust.

Q: While we are at that point, did you ever go through one of the Standards of Quality evaluation of Self-Study?

A: No. We didn't get to that. I think we were on the roster to do that type of thing.

Q: How did you evaluate teachers? What techniques did you use to make teachers feel important? Some of this may have been in some of your previous statements.

A: When I attempted to evaluate teachers, we would always sit down and talk about the problem any teacher had in a conference. We tried to allow the teacher every opportunity to explain the situation and then, after having done that, my role was to give advice as to how we might improve in a given situation. I think this type of technique allowed the teacher to have confidence in herself; to express herself as she sees it, and govern herself accordingly. That method, I think, is one of the best methods any person could use to evaluate a person. That is, allowing the teacher to have input in whatever evaluation the principal might be using.

Q: What is your philosophy of education?

A: I wanted to make certain in an educational setup, particularly in teaching, that there is an atmosphere of freedom for all persons and personnel of the school which included the janitorial staff, cafeteria staff, the librarian staff, and all others, also the children. The fact that we always had weekly assemblies, gave the children a good chance to participate in programs, within the schools. In our weekly faculty meetings the teachers were responsible for setting up the topics for discussion. This allowed the principal to come in with information that he had to share from the central office. But basically, the teachers were the ones who made the plans for the faculty meeting. I can recall an instance when we were trying to decide when to have our faculty meetings. The teachers had gotten tired of meeting in the afternoons after school and they made a suggestion, that if they could meet earlier before school it would be helpful. We accepted that suggestion and t went over very well. Our faculty meetings changed from afternoons to early mornings, and for that reason the teachers were fresher in the morning because a lot of times they were tired and ready to go home in the afternoons. There were also some clock watchers in the afternoon meetings.

Q: While we are at that point, do you feel that all children can learn or that they have the right to learn?

A: Very definitely so. Very definitely. Let me cite a situation that happened in the Douglas Park School. A long time before the administration (that is the superintendent) changed, we had in our school those children who were slow to learn, somewhat of separated within the school along with those children who couldn't learn at all or could learn only a little. They were all in the same complex. We had had no problems, but after the head of the central office changed, he separated all of the retarded children and the slow learners (throughout the city) and put them all in one building. To me that was one of the worst things that could have happened. When we had those children within our own school, we had no problems, and the children felt that they were part of the entire school. They participated in practically everything that all other children participated in, and that to me helped a great deal, and of course it inspired those children who were slow learners to do better in many situations.

Q: So, you had mainstreaming before it became popular.

A: Yes, very much so.

Q: What does it take to be an effective administrator? I know you have mentioned a lot of things lending themselves to a good administrator.

A: Being fair; being qualified; having a sense of humor and to allow full participation from everyone within the school and having an open mind at all times. Whether we agree with the problems or not, listen to them and maybe we can reach the solution.

Q: What pressures did you face as a principal? How did you handle them? I know it's hard to recall them all, but throughout your entire principalship you probably had some pressures more outstanding than others. Would you tell a little bit about them?

A: You know, it's really different for me to consider pressure being brought to bear. A lot of times people had pressure that I didn't consider pressure. For instance, disciplinary problems in the school, I can cite you out of the 29 years as principal of Douglas Park School, I can name or give you the number of children dismissed from school on two hands through the 29 years. My philosophy was not to put children out of school or on the streets, but keep them at school and work with them and try to do the best you can in addition to involving the parents in situations like this. This philosophy changed to a degree when we had integration. Sad as it may seem, it did change. We had to abide by the rules and regulations in the central office. Our disciplinary problems were nil in comparison with all the other schools. Now I understand all the other schools had problems because I know it to be a fact. We didn't have the suspensions, and we didn't have the expulsions at school. I just attributed that to the fact that people enjoyed coming there. People enjoyed because they had some type of freedom. If children were out of line they were reprimanded. They were not abused, and, consequently we just, in my opinion, got along pretty good. Now, I'm not saying that we were an ideal set-up. But, we didn't have the kind of pressures that you mentioned and I'm sure there were a lot of pressures that did take place.

Q: Ah. . .

A: May I cite an example of the pressure I did have when we first had integration. I was told, as a black principal, I could not fire or recommend suspension of my white teachers. But it did happen where I had to recommend suspension or recommend firing and it happen overnight. It was a situation whereby we had worked with this particular teacher on several occasions and the supervisors had done the same thing. We had given certain instructions about this particular incident. The teacher had left the classroom, just before dismissal time and two children got into a fight, one black and one white, and as a result of the fight, a tooth was knocked out of one of the children's mouth and we had to recommend suspension on the spot. Strange as it may seem, to our surprise, the superintendent went along with our recommendation and that teacher was fired on the spot and that was the kind of pressure you may consider a bit outstanding.

Q: Did you ever have many teachers file grievances during your tenure?

A: Well, basically no. Not to a large extent. I had some teachers who were assigned certain grade levels who complained because they didn't want a particular grade or something to that effect. Is that what you had in mind?

Q: Yes, on certain issues.

A: This may sound as if this was an ideal setting. It wasn't. I, just didn't have or maybe I just didn't look for it (grievances).

Q: In other words, you developed a climate that was conducive for people who wanted to come to work.

A: I felt that way.

Q: If you had to do it again (become a principal) what would you do to better prepare yourself for principalship or if you were to give advice to a person now aspiring to be a principal, what advice would you give?

A: Number one. . .I would say, make sure that he's taken enough basic courses in education that have to deal with leadership, responsibility, (courses of that nature). That person must have a love for children and a love for people. That person must be willing to make sacrifices at all times.

Q: Well, I think that is good advice. How did you handle the Civil Rights issue? Now, may there be something where you may had several incidents, but overall how did you handle that issue- especially busing and you mentioned something about discipline.

A: Oh, yes! We had the situation on the bus. On one occasion whereby a child was put off the bus at the wrong station. We had monitors to see that the children got on the bus, but no monitors rode the bus. When that particular incident happened, I received a call from Central Office explaining what had happened. The very next day I rode the bus myself to give instructions to children on that particular bus, to the bus driver, and to the parent involved. That, basically, was the only problem I encountered with the bus. I don't recall--but I did have some dislikes among our faculty group when we first started. . .ah.

Q: When we first started desegration?

A: Yes! When we first started desegregation, we had several that resented coming to the school and this was natural to expect and I felt that after they were there a time they would fall right in line. They soon considered our school to be one of the better schools in the city. but it did take some time for them to establish confidence in me as a leader.

Q: How can we improve education and improve teachers, from your point of view?

A: Well, I think teachers ought to be selected. That criteria still holds true with principals. We should be selective in appointing principals and teachers. I think, if they have no desire or the love for children, they should not go into the teaching profession. There are other qualities also that a teacher should have--being cooperative and loyal and willing to go beyond the call of duty to serve in the teaching position. They should be academically qualified, and willing to work with the administrative staff.

Q: Do you think our textbooks are adequate? Do you think we have lost something through our textbooks or do you think textbooks are better?

A: Well, I think the textbooks are better now than they were twenty years ago. I think the mere fact that there has been more attention paid to the selectivity of textbooks, that we put in various systems, indicates to me that there is an improvement. As for their content, I can't say that they are lacking in any particular area. They might be, but for me I'm not able to tell.

Q: What procedure should be used before a person is selected to become a principal? When you became a principal the selection was certainly a lot different than it is now.

A: When I became a principal, I simply filled out an application and because of that application, I was selected as principal. I think that is not sufficient. I think the person who takes a principalship position should be examined very thoroughly in many areas to find out whether or not that person is a potentially good principal. Academically, he should be qualified and there are other areas, other qualities and other characteristics that a principal should possess. And, as I have indicated before, there are many different things that make a good principal. He creates an atmosphere within the school situation where all persons and all personnel within the school feel confident, feel at home, and feel at ease to do their job.

Q: Do you think the principal should go through a training process within the school system before becoming a principal?

A: I do. I think that's necessary. I think it is essential.

Q: Did you have an assistant principal?

A: My last six years, I had an assistant principal.

Q: How did you work with that individual or handle that person's position?

A: We sat down together with the assistant principal with the knowledge that I had, and together we wrote the job description. We did this together. There were some things I felt she should do. Basically, she suggested to me some of the things she wanted to do and on the basis of her qualifications and knowledge, she had in certain area, this was the way we set up our job description--and it worked well.

Q: Did you give this person some authority to make some decisions in your absence?

A: She was in full charge. What she did in my absence, I would support it.

Q: As a principal, what was your biggest concern? Now, that may have been mentioned in some previous statements or you may have answered that already, but if you can make one blanket statement here about your biggest concerns, feel free to do so.

A: My biggest concern was to be able to do a good job as a principal, as a leader in the school and in the community.

Q: Well, what was your biggest headache? This may be similar to a previous question, but this can be answered differently.

A: The biggest headache, if I can recall correctly, was with the substitute teachers. When teachers became ill and we were not able to get the kind of substitute teacher that I would have loved to have had to substitute for my regular teachers. In many instances we had to accept what we could get. And, in many instances they were not qualified and were simply in their (classroom) as baby sitters. They, lots of times, did more damage than they did good. In situations whereby teachers had made plans, children began to go forward, the teacher became ill and the substitute came in and stopped the whole movement. So I would consider the hiring of substitute teachers, in place of teachers who had to be out because of various reasons, was my biggest headache.

Q: What do you think of career ladders for teachers? What about merit pay? I don't want to ask you too many questions at once, but an example is that some teachers are better in the classroom than becoming an administrator.

A: Well, I am in favor of teachers going up the ladder. I am in favor of merit pay. Now, I can't say that for everybody. The reason I'm saying that I'm in favor is because I would be fair in recommending a teacher for merit pay. I wouldn't, under any circumstances, use one teacher against another. I would have studied very carefully and closely all the ramification for merit pay, and I would be fair. I couldn't say that would work in an overall situation, because I know persons who would not be fair. I mean I know them very well, they would show partiality; they would allow personality to enter into a situation, and this to me is not good. But, I'm certainly in favor of it (merit pay).

Q: Could you give us one aspect or one criteria for the evaluation of a teacher for merit pay?

A: That person to me would be a master teacher. That person would have all the good qualities that any person should possess in order to rate this merit pay. That person would be willing to go the last mile; that person would be willing to make sacrifices; that person would be willing to work with people; that person would actually offer suggestions when suggestions are needed. That person would offer advice to the Central Office. The person, who indicates to me, that they will do the best thing for a total school situation, would be the person I'd recommend for merit pay.

Q: What do you think of the Standards of Quality established by the state?

A: I don't think too much of the Standards of Quality. We should always have standards. They might have changed, but I can recall very vividly some of the changes that were requested to be made, but the school system and individual! Schools did not have the finance to carry out the mandate for the Standards of Quality. To me, for the state to have those things thrusted upon the schools that weren't able to carry them out, that caused me not to think too much of them. (Standards of Quality) If the state has the finance to back up the things they requested to do, it may have been ideal.

Q: Before the Standards of Quality were implemented, do you think our schools had the standards that were representative of good education?

A: Some. That's why I'm saying we should always have standards. There are some schools that represent good standard education. I think our school did, and I'm sure there were others who surpassed our school. But I think all schools must have standards mandated by the state and also by the school system associated.

Q: What are the characteristics with effective schools?

A: Effective schools are schools where teachers love to come to, children love to come to, and parents love to participate in. The school which represents the family type situation is an effective school.

Q: Do you think test scores represent an effective school?

A: No, I think test scores is one type of measurement that a parent can use to evaluate students. I don't think you can take one test, two tests, or three tests and decide that this represents the achievement of this particular person. I think there are other means of measuring abilities and achievement rather than the test itself.

Q: Would you consider yourself a manager of a building or an instructional leader? In other words, you in fact were the principal and of course in many cases you were the instructional leader before becoming an assistant principal. What was your key to your success as a principal from an instructional point of view?

A: Going into a classroom at the request of the teacher, basically. Sitting down with them, making recommendations for improvement, looking at the weak points, discussing those weak points, and suggesting how they could improve their teaching situation.

Q: Did you have a code of ethics as a principal, written or unwritten?

A: I didn't have special codes but we always had rules and regulations, which were revised each year. We expected our teachers to come to school on time and do the job that they had been assigned to do; to work and participate in community affairs where possible; to work with the total school population in sponsoring any projects within the school, for the benefit of the school. Basically, if the teacher carried out those rules and regulations to me those were the most important, as I see it.

Q: What are your feelings about the responsibility of the principal for identifying and developing future school administrators? In other words, what is the principal's role in identifying and developing future school administration?

A: I would say that within a school situation, there are three experiences: be able to detect a person within the schoolthat would be a potential principal and recommend that person for a principal. That person should be encouraged to go into a principalship position. A principal, who is a good principal, will (without hesitation) pick up the good qualities that a person has and will need for principalship.

Q: Describe your typical work day in terms of how you spent your time.

A: I am connected with several organizations where I meet. There are several committees where I'm assigned to take charge of. I go to the Health Spa three times a week. My time is occupied. Frankly, I feel as if I could go back to the school system, but I don't want to. My day has past and I'm enjoying every bit of it.

Q: Very Good. If we go back just a little to the school building, what occupied most of your time or how did you spend most of your time in your school building?

A: When I first became a principal, most of my time was spent with administrative work and frankly speaking, that occured most of the time, except the time that I received an assistant principal. I didn't have time to do what I really wanted to do. I loved to work with teachers within the classroom. I didn't have that opportunity because of the size of the school and no assistant to help with administrative work. Consequently, the administrative work had to be done by the principal and the clerk. So, I missed that part. The times that I did get the chances to visit the classroom, I had a "good time" and I think the teachers had a good time- particularly those teachers who were concerned and interested in teaching, because we felt that we gave them some help with the classroom.

Q: How do you account for your success as an administrator? This may have been alluded to that in previous statements.

A: I think I was successful because I was fair in my dealings, with not only the teachers, but with every person that I came in contact with. I think success came when my faculty and total school staff developed confidence in me as a leader. Once that rapport was established, I think that was important, and a good principal would not have any problem. or the problems would be minimal with a school situation.

Q: What caused you to choose retirement when you did?

A: Age! The law said you had to retire at 65.

Q: I guess that is as clear and concise as you can get. Do you think there is something that perhaps you would want to make a statement about that I didn't ask you? What have I not asked that I should have asked?

A: I think you have fully covered the entire situation. I didn't think it was going to be like this. Ha. Ha.

Q: Well, I certainly appreciate your time and all of the statements, because this is going to make a great contribution to the achives at Virginia Tech. These archives consist of oral history. Again, I would like to thank you, Mr. Lawrence.

A: And, I thank you.

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