Interview with Donna Sutton


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Q: How many years were you in education?

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

A: Let's see, 1 always have to go back and count. 1 taught 2 years overseas, I taught 2-1/2 years in Austin, I taught 4 years in Houston and then I was in education 9 years in Virginia, so 1 guess thats what 15 or so. Something like that.

Q: Can you give me a brief history of your experience in education, variety of types of teaching, 1 know you did work with Special Education and in the Title I area. Were there any other differnt programs that you worked with?

A: Yes 1 did. I worked in a wide variety of settings in education. The first 2 years out of college I taught in New Guinea and that was at a Lutheran Mission school and 1 was in 2 differnt settings, 1-1/2 years in one place and 6 months in another place, so obviously that was a unique experience. And then when I returned to the states, 1 taught 4th grade in Austin, Texas and that was in a large, very, very large school and we had like 40-42 children in a class. And in 4th grade we had like 12 classes of 4th graders so there were thousands of kids in this particular elementary school. Then I moved to Clear Lake City, which is South of Houston, and I taught in a very suburban community school. The school in Austin was across from an Air Force base so it was very transient so you had a wide variety of kids and you seldom had the same group for very long. And as I said the one in Clear Lake City was a neighorhood school, a middle to upper middle class families, educated families, and there 1 taught 3rd grade for 1 year and then 1 went into an open concept classroom and it was in 4th grade and we had 3 teachers and a fulltime aide and we had enough children for 4 classrooms and we ability grouped and the children moved from one area to another and that was fun. That was a good experience and yet to work in a situation like that you have to have people who have the same techniques and philosophies of education to make an open concept type classroom work. But in my situation it did, and that was good experience. Then in Virginia 1 taught Chapter I for one year which is now Title 1 obviously, and 1 taught 5th grade for 2 years, and the Reading Resource Program for 2 years so 1 had a wide variety of experiences and I think that was good. I enjoyed that.

Q: What from your experiences led you to decide to become an Administrator?

A: Well, 1 think it was encouragement from other people primarily. The of the principals that I worked with out at Waterford encouraged me to take an administrative class and so I did. And then 1 became interested in that and she kind of kept after me to look into administration seriously and so 1 put my name on the roster and ended up being called and interviewed and eventually received a job in administration.

Q: You obviously have personal traits that you think lend itself to administration. What would you say those traits are that helped you be successful?

A: Well, 1 think you have got to be flexible. 1 think an administrator in order to be successful has to be able to be flexible and maintain their cool in adversity. 1 think you have got to have the ability to listen to people even when you maybe don't agree with them, but you have to listen and listen to their side and you have to have patience. You have to like people, that is real important. You have to enjoy working with people and to be able to get along with them. But 1 think patience and flexibility are important.

Q: When you were an administrator at your school, what was that school like? Can you describe first physically the school and then perhaps the makeup of the types of staff that you had there?

A: O.K. When I was an Assistant Principal in a school of little over 500 students and this was diverse, it was a new school, it had only been built 4 years prior, so it was a very attractive modern building. The community that the school was in was quite diverse. We had a low income housing project and we had a large number of students that came from this housing project and then we had a rather fluent middle class neighborhood that children came from so there were children from a wide spectrum of life styles and 1 enjoyed working in a situation like that because 1 think that is the way life is and 1 think it is good for children to go to school in a situation like that so they can learn to live and work with a variety of people. We also had 10 self-contained Special Education classes in that school and so obviously 1 spent alot of my time working with the Special Education Program. We had 3 ED classes and those were childr# with extreme needs and so 1 spent alot of time working with them; but 1 enjoyed that school. We had a very, very professional staff that was very dedicated to what they were doing and to the kids and parents that they worked with. This made the job much easier. It was a difficult community and with Special Educations classes it was a difficult school to work in, but because of the quality of teachers that were there, it was much easier than it could have been. Th next school that 1 was a principal in, there was a smaller, more rural community, ev# though it is changing rapidly from rural to suburbia. We had around 200 students and we had 4 self-contained Special Education classes, which was a considerable amount for a school that size. It was a #mmunity in change. When 1 taught at that school 9 years ago, it was a rural school with alot of farm children and minority children. It is not that way anymore. There are alot of professional people that are moving into the area so the complexion of the school has changed a great deal. A lot of parents were very interested in the school and what their children were doing and were very vocal in their dealings with the school.

Q: I know that at the schools you had the ability to work with parents of children in special programs both ED, LD, or gifted, and in all those areas you have had parents who have wanted more or who have demanded a lot from you. What do you think is the best way of working with parents who want more, but also having them realize that; yes we are going to try our best, but there are limits and also getting the teachers to see the parents point of view?

A: That is not easy. That is not easy, but it has to be done. I think the main thing is listening to parents. Just being honest with them. First of all, 1 always let them tell me. Let them do the talking. Listen to their concerns, and what their needs or their problems are and that you can kind of see the direction you want to go by listening to them. And I found it was just by being honest and up front. You know, if it was a service that we could provide their children, letting them know that and how we would do that . If it was something that we could not do, let them know that and why, in as tactful terms as you could. But I think trying to understand, listening to that parent and trying to understand where they were coming from and what their motivation was and then responding accordingly as honestly as you could.

Q: What would you do to help the teachers see that? 1 see that teachers are often very dedicated, that they see education as a vocation, rather than a job, and often times when you put yourself in a vocation, your heart and soul are in it and feelings get hurt. How do you go about helping a teacher realize that what the parent requests because the parent is so involved with their child; the teacher is so involved with their program, that there can be a mesh there?

A: Well I think in addressing both of them you have to look each. The teacher and the parent ultimately have the same goal in mind and that is to aid the child. And 1 think that is what you need to address. You must make each realize, and there again just trying to be as honest, to recognize what the teacher is doing and give them credit for that, but if you know the strategies they are using are not working or they can't see the parents point of view, talking with them, trying to help them to understand, recognizing what they are doing and giving them credit for that and yet then understand what else needs to be done.

Q: How did you, within your school, when you had a large and a smaller school, create a climate for 1earning for the students but also for the teachers. How did you create an atmosphere where it was easy and fun to learn?

A: That is a big job. And that again is important to do. I won't say that 1 was totally successful at that time, but it was something that I was very aware of. 1 think it is an attitude and I think it is an attitude that starts with the principal. If the principal's attitude is one where learning is what's important and putting that as a priority and you can do that or demonstrate that in alot of different ways, which may not seem all that important, but they gave a message. Each of them is protecting class time. Don't allow interruptions in the class. Try to protect that teachers time from outside interruptions and that lets the teachers know right there that learning is important. The time that 1 spend with my kids is important. Taking an interest in what the teachers are doing, knowing what's going on in the classroom, and letting them know that you know, visiting in the classroom, visiting outside of the classroom, talking with them about their kids, letting them know that you think what they are doing with their children is important. I think that carries over there and they will tend to feel that way too.

Q: How in coming up on this point, how did you help parents realize or how did you include parents in the climate of learning? What did you do to encourage that?

A: Well, 1 think it is important to get parents in schools as much as possible. 1 think the more they are in schools, the more they understand what goes on there, and they are more supportive of it. So I think getting them involved if it's PTO meetings at night or Halloween Carnival or whatever it is, and then trying to expand that to get them into the classrooms. I think that is what's really important. To get them in to send school letters and invitations to parents to come. Just keeping the parents informed as much as possible as to what's going on.

Q: In going in a slightly different direction or perhaps not really different, you said that you tried to get your teachers to understand each other and the parents in order to create a climate for learning. In regards to that, what about your philosophy of management as far as managing those teachers?

A: 1 think 1 would like or 1 would like for teachers to take responsibility for themselves. 1 was not an autocratic, I don't believe so some people may disagree, but 1 think the way I feel is most effective is to get people that are working with you to feel they are working with you and that you all are working for a common goal, and that is for the children obviously in schools and for people to feel a part of the decisions that are being made. Should feel a part of what's happening in the school and therefore, I think people become more self-motivated and more interested in their jobs and what they are doing if they feel more a part of the decisions being made. 1 think that is important.

Q: In looking at management again, what do you think your management style was?

A: Again, I think of a fairly low key manager. If you want to use that sort of a term. 1 thought I was a fairly thorough, but again going back to what 1 said before, 1 like to involve other people in what was going on, so 1 guess it was sort of a low key shared type of an approach.

Q: My understanding is that. teachers or parents make as much of the decisions as was possible, that even though you had final control tben but in being low key you would allow them to make some decisions in order to feel that they honestly belonged either in school or that the curriculum was theirs?

A: Well, 1 think it is important too because that is the people you know be it, the parents or the teachers who are carrying out the jobs. You need to hear how they feel and what they feel are important and yes in some situations you do have to make the decisions and that is fine too. That needs to be done too, but not a totally autocratic situation.

Q: Were there any specific techniques, administration techniques or leadership techniques that you found most successful with working with teachers?

A: I think listening. 1 think listening is very, very important. Having an open door policy, 1 think was a very good strategy that I used and it was also because I wanted to be that way. I think people need to feel that they can come in and talk with you at any time about anything and then 1 think they will tend to do that therefore, you will be in a better position to know what's going on in your school with your faculty and staff and therefore, may be able to circumvent problems before they occur or take care of some problems before they get too large. And maybe help people out, so 1 think it is important to listen and to be available for people.

Q: Were there any techniques that you found totally unsatisfactory?

A: Probably alot of them. 1 don't know, I guess if it didn't work, I didn't hang onto it long. Nothing comes to mind.

Q: In looking at personnel functions that administrators serve, there are several. How or in what ways were you involved with the selection in the recruitment of teachers?

A: O.K. In the county that we worked in there is a central personnel office and so teachers who are interested in working in the county all apply to that personnel office and then the personnel office assesses the needs in the different schools and the personnel director then sends 1, 2, 5 or however many are available people to the school to interview for a position. And so, at the school level you don't have alot of choice, except to interview the people that the personnel director is sending to you. Then when you interview and you have 3 people to interview for a particular job, you give the personnel director feedback and a rating so to speak of how you would rate those people and that was about the extent of it. You certainly didn't get to make the final decision. You may get your first choice and then you may not get your first choice. You had input into the personnel in your school, but you didn't have the final say.

Q: What if there was somebody you knew wanted to work with you and you wanted them to work with you and that person wasn't sent. Would you request to have that person sent or could you make that known prior. to having people sent out?

A: I don't know, 1 never encountered that situation. 1 suppose you certainly could request whether it would be honored or not, I don't know. I never encountered that situation or heard of anyone that did. There are pros and cons in this type of a situation. 1 know in some counties the principal does the hiring for their school and that the total responsibility is with that principal. However, I also see advantages to the system where the personnel director does it because they have a better idea of the school system as a whole, and a certian type of teacher may fit a certain situation in one school better than another school and one school may have a stronger need for a really good teacher and of course everybody is going to want that good teacher, but that good teacher may be needed more in one school. And when you have a centralized personnel system, they are able to do that a little bit better. So there are pros and cons.

Q: When you selected someone for your staff or you looked at possible candidates for a position, what things did you consider before hiring that person. Did you look at how they would fit with yourwhole staff, if it would balance your staff?

A: Yes, 1 looked at alot of things. That was a big responsibility and 1 considered that very seriously in interviewing people. Yes, I think you need to look at how they would fit in with your staff, but the main thingk 1 just tried to get a feel for that person and 1 think it is the old gut reaction of a feeling, but 1 think that is important and very seldom did that go wrong on me. 1 think also, you listened very carefully to the answers to the questions that 1 ask. There were certain types of answers that 1 was looking for. And if a person was able to give me the type of answer that I was looking for, that obviously 1 was more interested in that person. 1 was interested in people who number 1, cared about kids and who seemed to have some enthusiasm and interested in what they were doing and I would look at that more than references or grades, or college degrees or even experience. But 1 think it is a sense of that person, their sincerity, their interest, and their enthusiasm, for what they are doing.

Q: Another aspect of the personnel function is staff development, and I know the county places alot of emphasis on that and principals are required to have many inservices for their teachers. How did you go about selecting the types of things to be included for your staff development?

A: 1 must admit that was a very weak area. That was not one that I felt really strong about, not that it wasn't important, but that was one area that didn't get as much attention as it should have. Well one thing obviously is the new programs that were coming into the county that year. You needed to try to share with the staff as much knowledge and information as you could about new programs be it Search Program or whatever. Also the Biennial plan. You tried to have, and that is where most of mine that 1 actually did came from was from the Biennial plan. Trying to share with teachers strategies and techniques for implementing some of the things in the Biennial plan. And in just areas of interest. You listening to the teachers and talking with them and seeing what types of inservices they might be interested in and just be on the lookout for things. If you had attended one at a convention or at another school or something that was quite good, then having that one at your school.

Q: If you were to do it again, what, if anything, would you do differently to better prepare yourself to become an administrator? To prepare yourself? Before you do, you have a certain concept of what it will be like, it certainly isn't. You get the picture of that but once you are in the "hot" seat, I think you see things that perhaps you didn't see or you see it from a different viewpoint. What would you do if you had to prepare yourself again?

A: Well, ultimately there is no way of knowing what it is like until you are there (you can't prepare yourself) just like teaching you know you take all the courses and do all that, but there is nothing like the real thing. You know 1 think in some ways you could be more prepared for the actual duties like running the cafeteria, managing the custodians, and all that sort of thing. That takes alot of time and you aren't really trained to do that sort of thing. You kinda have to learn that on the job. So if 1 don't know how, but if a school system could give you more information prior to going into that job about those sort of things that you haven't dealt with before.

Q: Do you think, prior to being an administrator and assistant you go through some sort of evaluation or assessment to see if they truly have the ability to go on into a more strenuous position?

A: Prior to going into being an assistant?

Well, either a written or just a mental assessment.

A: I guess my reaction would be no. Because 1 am not sure what you would do. I think obviously a person who goes into administration has some background, and some background experience in schools and classrooms and people get a feel for the type of person and how you handle situations and 1 think that is probably the most telling and best predictor of how you would handle the job too.

Q: Evaluation was and is a very important issue in the county and when you were a principal it was an up and coming issue and really in its testing phase. In what ways, if any, did it affect your leadership style? Or the way you interacted with those teachers?

A: Well, I think with the increased emphasis on evaluation, it definitely had an effect on your relationship with teachers. Prior to the new evaluation system, it was the new system, the old system was much looser and less formal and not as thorough, or as encompassing and teachers were not under so much, for lack of a better work, scrutiny. The new system gave everything a more formal air because it was formal. It was a very structured process, a very time consuming process and I think it couldn't help but change a little bit of the relationship between teachers and principals. Not totally negatively, but the relationship could not be quite as casual 1 think, as it was before.

Q: How do you feel or how did you feel about the evaluation process? Benefits or negative aspects?

A: Well, 1 think a new system was warranted. 1 think it is important for people to be evaluated be thee teachers or whatever. In a profession, I think it is important. 1 think it is important for 2 reasons. The people who are doing a good job need to be recognized and they need to know and be given credit that they are doing a good job. For too long teachers worked hard in their classrooms and received very little recognition. Self-satisfaction, yes from working with the kids and possibly the parents. But 1 think it is important that the good teachers be recognized, and equally important 1 think that there are some teachers whose skills could be honed a little bit more. They need to push up and I think most of us when we know we are going to be evaluated or observed no matter what we are doing, we are going to try a little bit harder maybe put in a little more effort and 1 think that is probably good too. 1 think maybe it puts the teachers who are not quite as effective as they could be on notice that they need to shape up.

Q: The evaluation process is pretty much set. What it went through in the first year it is pretty much staying that. What would you like to see, if anything could be changed or included. What would you like to see included into it to improve it?

A: Well for one thing, 1 personally think it would be good to share the evaluation process. 1 think rather than the building principal being the sole person responsible for evaluation, 1 think it would be good if there were elementary supervisors whose responsibility was coming in the building and working with teachers, observing, and working with principals. It was just totally, the process is so time consuming that it kinda overwhelmed many other things, and 1 think in that aspect it could be changed. 1 think also, that you know that if a teacher received an acceptable rating whatever that acceptable rating was to be decided upon to be the next year or the next half of the year maybe their number of observations would be cut down, so that everyday didn't have the same number all the time that if you received an acceptable rating maybe you would have less observations.

Q: How did you try to improve teachers who had tenure and who did not see themselves as needing change?

A: That is a toughie too. That is not easy and there again I'm not sure 1 was ever totally successful at that. That is one way that the new evaluation system was very helpful is because there were very specific objectives or standards that teachers were to meet in order to be categorized as a good teacher and they were very basic standards and 1 think this, the new evaluation system, made it easier to work with marginal teachers because you had something very black and white you could discuss with them. They were all observable behaviors and if you did not observe these behaviors in the classroom then you could discuss it with the teacher and work with he/she on strategies for developing that skill if they didn't have it. So 1 think the new evaluation system makes it easier to work with marginal teachers because of the standards.

Q: What techniques did you use to make teachers feel important? Or needed?

A: Well, I'm not sure. 1 tried to make them feel appreciated and 1 guess by trying to make them feel appreciated, therefore, needed and important. 1 liked to do things for them. Obviously little things for the beginning of school, treats, treats at faculty meetings or that sort of thing or if they needed an extra hand to let them know that I would be there to help them out. To notice what they were doing, to recognize what they were doing and let them know that 1 felt that it was important, because 1 did. The little things they did as well as the big showy things they did.

Q: How did you handle grievances if there were any?

A: Fortunately, 1 didn't have to deal with that.

Q: The superintendent places a great deal of emphasis on public relations. How did you or what role did you see yourself in playing in the public relations aspect?

A: That is a big, big part of a principals job. Very large part of the principals job. In fact, that is one thing colleges could probably do to give you a public relations course in the administration certification requirement. You spend a great deal of your time doing public relations. Listening to parents who are irate and unhappy about something and working with them and trying to get them to come around and see the realistic side whatever that happens to be. Working with new families in the community trying to make them feel a part of the community and that the school is their school and that they feel at home and comfortable there. Showing new people around the building and taking the time to do that when you don't really have the time. 1 think it is important. Public relations is a big, big part of the job.

Q: What issue or issues do you think caused you the most pressure?

A: I think the most pressure just came from just so much to do. So much to do, so many varied things to be responsible for, and while that is a positive part of the job, there are alot of different aspects to it. I think it can also get overwhelming. There are just so many, many varied things to do and not enough time to feel that you could devote to them adequately. Like staff development that sort of thing. There are just alot of important issues or important things that you couldn't deal with. Parents, sometimes parents are unreasonable and yet that didn't take its toll on me as much 1 think as just so many things to do.

Q: How do you or how did you, what did do for yourself to handle pressure? What personal techniques did you use while while you were at school to handle that pressure?

A: Well 1 tried to get just a few timeout minutes to yourself, but that wasn't always easy to do. In order to do that, you would have to close the door and that wasn't something I liked to do. As soon as you closed the door, somebody would need something. Still a few minutes to yourself or work with a child that was always, I think, a good diversion and it kinda helped you get some perspective too when you would sit down and work with a group or a child a little bit and that to me was a moment of timeout or regrouping or getting some perspective on the job.

Q: What do you think was your key to success? You were a successful principal and many people enjoyed working with you. What do you think was your key?

A: 1 don't know. I guess I enjoyed it. 1 don't know, you probably should ask them, if that be true. 1 guess 1 enjoyed the kids and 1 took it seriously. 1 put in alot of time and I put alot of effort into it and I think if you are going to do something well, it takes that. So 1 think enjoying it as well as trying to do your best.

Q: What advice would you give to a person who is considering an administrative position. Is there any self examination they should look at? Someone they should see before they do this job?

A: There again, it is one of those things that I don't think you know until you get into it. You have to be willing to spend alot of time. What are the important things in their life at this particular time and an administrative position requires a great deal of time and a great deal of energy and I think it has to be pretty much a priority. In order to be able to devote the time and energy to it. 1 think you also need to get some perspective and not let the job, sounds like I'm saying the opposite sort of thing, you can't let the job consume you either. You have to take some time for yourself and get some perspective. You can't do everything. You can't take care of everybody's problems and solve everybody's problems. And you have to be able to accept that and do the best you can, but leave it at that. Any try not to let the job consume you. It's not really advice.

Q: What is your opinion as far as the opportunities for women in the county?

A: Well, 1 think they are increasing. 1 see an increasing number of women in building level of administrative positions. 1 don't see an increase in the central office positions. Maybe with time that will hopefully change too, but 1 think the opportunities are there.

Q: What message would you give to women (there are about 75% women in the class that I'm in now) who would like to be administrators?

A: Go for it! Unfortunately, the number of men in the classroom is not a large number, so I think more and more women will be the administrators simply because of the numbers. In the past, I think any man would be an administrator jsut because they happen to be male, but that is not the case anymore, 1 don't believe. It's the qualifications are more important than whether you are male or female, thank goodness.

Q: What do you think the county looks for in an administrator? You said earlier the administrator really doesn't get to select the person they want. What do you think the central office is looking for in an assistant or an administrator?

A: I think they are probably looking for somebody who can handle situations. Who are fairly level headed and can handle a variety of situations, who have shown that they can deal with a variety of people, which you have to do.

Q: Do you think a variety of experience is a plus?

A: Oh yes. Absolutely, absolutely. That is a definite plus.

Q: Did you finish - A variety of experience a plus?

A: Oh yes. I think a variety of positions is definitely a plus. 1 think that is something that the central office would look for and 1 think it is definitely to your advantage in administration because you can understand the different programs. Obviously, if you have worked with them, you know them, you better, and therefore, you will be better able to manage them. So yes, 1 would encourage anybody to get as many varied experiences in the system as they could. Different schools. 1 think it is important to work under different principals because each principal has their own unique style. And 1 think you gain something from every person you work with. I encourage people to work under as many different principals as they could and to learn as much as they can from each one.

Q: Did you enjoy your experience?

A: Yes I did. 1 honestly did.

Q: And do you miss it?

A: Honestly not that much. It was time for me to make the change.

Q: But you were successful.

A: 1 think so. I felt good about what I did. I did I felt good about it. Obviously there were many, many things I would have liked to have done more, but I couldn't and didn't but it was time for me to make a change and that is just kind of my personality. I made changes just as 1 was talking about in the school system; alot of different positions, alot of different jobs, but they had always been within the school, in the school setting, and it was just time for me to take a look at something else.

Q: Do you ever think you will go back to being involved in schools in some form?

A: Maybe, maybe. 1 never say never. 1 don't know what the future will bring, because I very may might. You know when 1 talk about it, sure it brings back pleasant memories because it is my profession, and that you kinda miss. I miss the feeling of this is my profession because when you're out of the area that you trained in and received your education in, it is kinda not yours until you have developed some creditability in that area or expertise. But no, you know I'm having fun learning and doing something different.

Q: If you had to think of an adjective to describe yourself in the teaching experience from beginning to end, what would it be?

A: Understanding 1 guess. That is the one thing I always tried to be is understanding of the kids. When I talked, I tried to be understanding of the students, the parents and the teachers as an administrator. So 1 guess that is the word that would come up with.

Q: Thank you very much!

A: My pleasure.

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