Interview with Dr. Jerry Smith


Today is July 28, 1988; this is an interview with Dr. Jerry Smith a retired administrator from Adams County School District Number Twelve.

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Q: Good Morning Jerry.

A: Hi, Jim, how are you?

Q: Very good. Thank you for allowing me to ask you a few questions this morning. Why don't we begin with you outlining your career in education.

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

A: Very briefly Jim, I graduated from Colorado State College, now UNC and had one year of teaching experience in Merino, Colorado in a junior/senior high school. Then two years in military service. Following military, master degree back at UNC. Then teaching position in a junior/senior high school here in Thornton, Colorado. I had the wanderlust and went to the Department of Defense and was a teacher and an administrator in England and in Germany for four years, five years actually. Then I returned to Adams District Twelve Northglenn, Thornton as a principal, elementary principal in three different schools. I finished my work in 1987 as Director of Staff Development for Adams District Twelve.

Q: Very good. Could you describe for me the process that you went through in hiring staff members?

A: That process had been revised over the years and when I left the building principalship I thought it was really quite well done. The district would select a pool of prospective teachers through an interview process and screening of records and so forth. If I had a vacancy I would so indicate and would be sent a pool of prospective applicants, three to five applicants. I would interview them with a fairly structured interview, would of course do reference checks and this sort of thing. I utilized my staff a great deal. I had a philosophy of strong participative management and the teachers on my staff would also have an opportunity to meet and interview prospective teachers, because after all they would be working very closely with these people. While they would not make the final decision, many times I was influenced by recommendations from my staff. I felt that the staff had a very strong commitment to help a new teacher be successful if they had an opportunity to be involved in selecting that teacher.

Q: Did you ever feel at times that you were restricted in any way, or that your hands were tied by any district policies or Civil Rights guidelines that you couldn't choose the person you wanted or you were forced to choose a different person?

A: No, I really don't think so, Jim, of course we had the federal guidelines for minorities and so forth and that never really bothered me although we were in a, certainly a low minority clientele. I felt very strongly that minorities should be involved in the teaching staff. We constantly tried to recruit more minorities but the pools were very limited. In terms of guidelines as far as salary, background credentials, teaching experience, I never really felt that there were any undue restrictions placed on me as a building administrator. In a metropolitan area we were very selective and usually had a very strong pool of applicants. It worked out pretty well.

Q: Can you tell me a little more about the role that the teachers played, did they volunteer to be involved in the selection process or did you have to recruit them?

A: Well, take for example, if I had a fourth grade vacancy in my school. We usually had three or four forth grade teachers on the staff, a three or four round school. They were very anxious; I never really had to overly encourage people. The wanted to be involved, and were involved in many, many other aspects of the building operation. And as a result, they felt they had a very strong influence on the curriculum, the staff, on the management of the building. It was really a team effort in terms of staff selection in this case. I would interview the prospective candidates and then they would each, in a group, have an opportunity to interview each of these prospective candidates. They would merely give me their perceptions. It was not a black ball situation; they outlined the strengths and weaknesses as they saw each of the candidates. As I said earlier, on several occasions I had leaned more toward one candidate was swayed to a different candidate and interestingly enough those candidates became very successful. So they grew to be very perceptive in teacher selection and were very effective at it.

Q: You've already touched on this a little bit but after you have hired a teacher, especially a first year teacher, what steps would you go through to help that teacher to fit in with the existing staff and district procedures?

A: Well, as I mentioned, the comraderie of a grade level and in the case of a specialist, other teachers on the staff, while it was not a formal buddy system there was a strong commitment to helping and insuring that that new teacher be successful. And we did a lot of staff development activities on a formal and an informal basis in the school and it worked out really well because new teachers very quickly became a part of the staff, and felt comfortable with the staff, and were willing to say, "I'm not very successful at this; help me!" And when one can ask another for help and receive it, genuinely so, it makes for a stronger staff all the way around.

Q: Could you describe for me your process of staff evaluation?

A: Staff evaluation was prescribed by the district. There, over the years, have been modifications and changes in it and toward the end the staff evaluation process I thought was very effective. There was a preliminary interview to more or less outline the kinds of expectations, the kinds of things we would be looking for, and it centered primarily on the instructional act, the behavior of the teacher as he related to the behavior of the students in concert with what was expected to be taught and what was expected to be learned. So the primary measure really dealt with the impact on the student and what the student learned. Marginal kinds of things, in terms of getting along with other staff members, participation in non-instructional kinds of activities, naturally were a part of it, but the major part of the staff evaluation dealt with teacher behavior as it related to the teaching act.

Q: Did you feel that you had an opportunity to see enough teachers, or was your time filled with just those first year teachers or younger teachers?

A: Well, being a building administrator it seems to be that there are so many demands on your time and quite frankly there probably was not enough time allocated, set aside, or earmarked for staff observation, interviews, and so forth. Teacher time is limited. You can only conference with them effectively before or after school. Then if you have 30 people on your staff and you're trying to do a number of observations and feedback conferences you just run out of time. If you do it every day, you and of course can't designate conference time every day before and after school, because of teachers priorities and my own. So, time is limited. It is an important function of management or administration, probably less time is devoted to it than should be, either because of the strengths and weaknesses of the administrator himself, or the time available by the teacher, and just teaching in general. So I felt there was not enough time to really do the pre-conference and post conference meeting with the classroom teacher. It wasn't as difficult to do the observation, but an observation is absolutely useless unless you provide the feedback to the classroom teacher. That's where the change occurs.

Q: Over the number of years that you were evaluating people how did you see the evaluation process change? For example, now in the district a first teacher is observed three times the first semester, three times the second. How has that changed through the years?

A: Before, I think it was an arbitrary number of observations and quite frankly in the early years we were less concerned with the teaching act and the teaching behavior and planing skills and that sort of thing, and more with what it appeared to be like. What was the classroom like? Was the ventilation all right? Which is important, but certainly not as important as the actual teaching behavior. I think there has been an effect to present more information to the beginning teacher and tenured, highly experienced, successful teachers, there is less need for feedback on an improvement basis; more in terms of support and professional growth, and so the major changes I saw was greater emphasis on the beginning, first, second, third year teacher; less emphasis in terms of observation and conferences with the experienced, tenured teacher, and more with the self-development for the older teachers. So I think basically prioritizing the greatest need for the new and beginning teacher.

Q: While you were evaluating, or going through this process, and you'd come across a teacher that you felt needed to improve in some way how would you go about doing that? How would you set the wheels in motion?

A: I think probably the first thing is to establish some credibility with the teacher and that it was not just an arbitrary kind of thing where the administrator had something against the new teacher and as a result he or she was being zeroed in on and that sort of thing. The credibility, the willingness of the teacher to recognize some shortcomings, and to work on them. Arbitrary standards are really not very easy to live with. For my part, the biggest thing was to help the teacher recognize that things can be done differently, and that there are a lot of different avenues to bring about change. The willingness of the teacher, number one, the opportunity for the teacher to change that behavior a lot of different ways, whether it be modeling, staff development courses, additional work at the university, a willingness to look at things differently. You can only do that with a certain degree of trust, willingness to be open, fair; that's a difficult part of administration. Invariably it centers on, "well he didn't like me," and you have to try to avoid that at all cost.

Q: Did you find, at times, it was difficult to remain objective in the that case? If you were more friendly with one member of the staff than another, I would assume you would be, constantly be trying to avoid that. It must be inevitable.

A: I think there is a professional atmosphere that needs to be maintained in being friendly, being concerned, without compromising the student and the needs of the students and what's right for students. If the focus is on the student, and to get the best instruction possible for the student, and the personality involvement between the administrator and the teacher, left to a minimal degree, I think that it can be done. I think one can be very professional, and certainly be friendly with the teaching staff, and still maintain a high degree of credibility and objectivity in terms of staff evaluation.

Q: As you become more and more involved with staff development were you any longer affected by helping teachers to improve or in what way did that change for you?

A: Clarify that for me; you mean as I changed positions in the district?

Q: Yes, yes.

A: Well, my position as a building principal was that staff development was very important. Not only for teachers, but myself as well. And I projected myself to the extent that teachers could help me grow professionally. As a matter of fact, I selected teachers who were willing to help me grow professionally. And I, in turn, could help them. I felt that staff development was most effective when it was conducted at the building site, and preferably when the building staff members, for their own colleagues. The visiting expert, so to speak, whether it's the college professor, or the district trainer, or some outside consultant, while they can provide effective information and training, I think it is probably not as effective as working with co-workers and conducting the staff development kinds of activities in the school building. School is the place for change, if it's going to truly affect instruction for the classroom teacher.

Q: Staff development, I see, is more of an enrichment type of activity. Were there time when it was also used, specifically, to improve teachers that might be lacking skills?

A: Oh, of course. And there's a difference between formative growth and summative growth. Formative is certainly the most effective; but the bottom line in terms of summative evaluation is, will the teacher stay, if the teacher makes enough changes in their behavior? Or, will the teacher be released because of the ineffective teaching? The most effective that I have found is the formative development and if that can be handled effectively, there is generally not a need for the summative, forced-on, kind of growth. It's rarely effective when it's there, and as a result, and if it can be handled properly, I think the formative development probably is the most effective and probably rarely needed to get into the summative situation.

Q: Which leads me to my next question. Were you ever in a position to discipline or dismiss a teacher?

A: Yes. Occasionally you find a teacher who, for some reason or another, is in need of a career change. Either because of personal family situation, sometimes their health, sometimes their interest in children, instruction, in teaching in general. While it's not an enjoyable endeavor, and it doesn't happen that often, occasionally you get into a situation where a teacher must be released and that is where the summative evaluation must come in. You're forced to document certain behavior, or lack of behavior, certain lack of instructional skills, and demand that there be a change or a possible release.

Q: You've touched on a few of them, but can you outline the steps you would need to go through and the different check points that that teacher had chances to improve?

A: I think chances to improve is key to the whole thing and a genuine concern. More often than not, I find, a teacher who is not performing well based on evaluations is not very happy anyway. They are not pleased with lack of performance of students, or lack of proper behavior in students in their presence. Many times, while it's not an overt behavior, they really are not as accepted by staff members. You perhaps, in your own experience, would know that it's difficult to teach next to a classroom where the children are just running wild and the student control is very limited. And yet you're not going to go to that teacher and say, "you ought to be fired because you can't control your kids." But you expect a building administrator, and that's the function of a building administrator, to assist in that particular kinds of thing. So in terms of releasing a teacher, it does happen occasionally; I think it needs to be very clear, very objective, and this is best handled in the pre-conference. "What do I expect when I come in and do an observation? What are the actual behaviors of students or the teacher that I expect to see in place?" And if I don't see them then I need to be very objective and very concise as I provide the feedback conference for the classroom teacher. And generally it is most effective with the teacher saying, "Yes and I understand that and you're right; that happened. And the next time you come in I'll try to do this, this, this, and this." and then you go back in and see if that happens. The more objective the observation can be the more effective the feedback conference can be and then you just take it from there.

Q: It sounds that, when you made the comment, that most teachers who were ineffective were basically unhappy in their jobs, too because they realize they were not doing the job. Did you usually get a lot of cooperation from the teacher? I can understand that that is a very emotional issue. Were you ever challenged very strongly by the teacher?

A: Yes, yes.

Q: How did you deal with that?

A: Sometimes it comes into play, "Well you don't really like me," or they try to draw it into a personal kind of thing and all you can do is try to be as objective as you can and try to refute those kinds of things. The more effective you can be in relating the actual behavior of the teacher, to the teaching act, and the reaction of students as it relates to instruction and student learning, the more effective you're going to be. And I'm not for a minute saying that you release a teacher because students don't achieve; that's not my point. The point is the teaching act and the best opportunity for students to learn whether in fact that's measured on test results or student attitude, or volume of homework, or whatever. There are times when a prospective, or a teacher who is possibly being released, would challenge that and I think that's the professional obligation of an administrator to be as fair as possible and go from there.

Q: Let's move into a little different area. Could you give me some of your views on career ladders for teachers?

A: I assume you mean career ladders in terms of salary opportunities, for a master teacher as opposed to an apprentice teacher, and this type of thing?

Q: Yes.

A: In my view, classroom teachers are probably grossly underpaid. Grossly under recognized for the contribution they make. The opportunity for teachers to improve their professional status, and improve their financial situation can come through professional career ladders. The real difficulty is to have an objective measure and how to determine teacher A versus teacher B to receive that additional compensation or opportunity -- and that gets to be in terms of evaluation. So, while I think that it's important teachers improved their status financially and professionally, I think that the career ladder is a difficult thing to implement. If it were less involved with finance, more with opportunity, it might be more effective. For example, you're an outstanding teacher in my building and I recognize that and others recognize that too. Rather than providing you with additional salary compensation because of your outstanding ability, perhaps it might be best implemented if you had an opportunity to do additional kinds of things. For example, if you were that good, maybe you could, on a one year in building, what do I want to say, in building leave or professional leave if you could coach other teachers to help them grow it would provide a change of pace for you, provide an exciting kind of opportunity. While it didn't provide you will additional funds, finance, or salary, it might help you in terms of your own professional growth and certainly enhance the professional growth of others. To write curriculum. Perhaps some people would be interested in summer work to write curriculum or other kinds of work that could stimulate you beyond the opportunities that you have in the existing classroom.

Q: That's interesting. Continuing with the second half of our interview. How do you view teacher tenure? Do you think it's an adequate system?

A: I think it's probably a necessary evil. Unfortunately, because of past practices, short comings of administrators, or the system itself, there needed to be some protection for classroom teachers. I would think that need is probably diminishing. The more we focus on instruction, teacher behavior, and related student learning the less need there is for tenure. I would probably be happy if there were no tenure laws because sometimes it tends to protect the less competent; however, we are getting better at it, at reducing that sort of thing.

Q: Were you ever in a position, maybe this goes back to our question about releasing a teacher, to where those tenure laws got so, it protected the teacher so much, that you were unable to do what you thought was right for the students, without getting rid of the teacher?

A: I think that's diminishing also, because of improved observation techniques, counseling techniques, conferencing. And the more objective we can be in terms of teacher evaluation. The objectivity of it probably tends to reduce the need for tenure. I'll just let it go at that.

Q: Thinking back on the multitude of decisions you obviously have made in your career, what would you say, is there any one that sticks out as a very difficult situation you had to make or maybe a type of decision you had to make?

A: The decisions that came to me relative to student safety, child abuse, child neglect, legal issues, the courts, were always very difficult, and very stressful. I can recall some situations where there was suspected child abuse and the resulting decisions I had to make to go to court to protect the child against his own parents. Those are probably the most stressful kinds of things.

Q: What's your process for making a decision? How do you go about making a decision? Maybe one that effects the staff.

A: Well that's a very broad question. In terms of how I can respond to that. Narrow it a little bit.

Q: How about delegating authority in allowing people to make decisions?

A: OK. My philosophical view there is that a decision should be made as close to the delivery as possible. Many decisions I can delegate to classroom teachers, who in turn could delegate to the students themselves, the more effective the process will become I have a strong view of participative management which says decisions should be made at the lowest level possible. You can delegate that but you must also delegate the responsibility of the authority. Without the authority to make a decision that process is not effective. So, I don't really know if I have answered your question or not.

Q: I think so. It was along the lines of how would you go about delegating authority especially authority to make decisions, so I think you covered it.

A: OK.

Q: Did you consider yourself a manager of a building or an instructional leader?

A: When I first became a principal it seemed as though I was a manager. As I grew in experience I had the opportunity to involve people more and still maintain the authority necessary to be an effective administrator. At the end of my career I felt that I was the closest to being an instructional leader. There are certain logistical kinds of things that require you to be manager as it deals with logisticA: building operations, maintenance, in some cases budget. However, if you can always keep the focus of the student in mind and what impacts a student the most is instruction and if you can focus your behavior as an administrator on that particular aspect of administration, then I think you can genuinely classify yourself as an instructional leader. Instructional leadership has to do a great deal more than just dealing with teacher observation, the curriculum, so forth. You can be an instructional leader and be working away from the building bringing resources in to allow greater flexibility, greater opportunity for your teaching staff. And sometimes classroom teachers are a little short sighted in terms of the real impact of an effective administrator who is in fact an instructional leader. Some of the things that influence the classroom teacher, those decisions are occurring away from the school. Sometimes it's with the school board, sometimes it's with the superintendent, or central office administrator, sometimes it's in the community itself. They tend sometimes to be a little short sighted and the impact of my time would be more effective if I'm really dealing with those decision areas where they occur. Sometimes it's away from the building.

Q: I have a thought now. Not really a question, just wondering if you could respond a little bit to it. It sounds, but you're telling me that as your career progressed you moved away from the manager and more into the instructional leader. How much of that was a change in maybe the way the principal was observed during that time? And how much of that would have been your professional growth, which I think would have been natural to grow that way?

A: I think school, public school administration, changed over that period of some 25 years and early in my career the training I received dealt more with being a manager than being an instructional leader. For example, in my administrative training I had very little, the early training master's degree, the early training, I had very little instruction on teacher observation and conferencing. I had more on budget, and building maintenance, and building construction, and a little work on curriculum. So I think the whole concept of building administration has evolved to become more of a concept of an instructional leader rather than a manager. And the other is experience, and confidence, and growing professionally on the job.

Q: What procedures do you think should be followed in order to select a good solid principal for a job?

A: Well, strong emphasis on effective classroom instruction. I think, to be a good administrator you need to have some experience as a classroom teacher. I can say unequivocally that I was probably, a better school administrator than I ever was a teacher. An maybe that gave me the opportunity to select better teachers than I was. Maybe that gave me an opportunity to say to classroom teachers, "You're a better teacher than I was." That gave them some confidence in that regard. I think a broad base experience is very helpful in terms of becoming a building administrator. I think functioning as an assistant would be helpful to become a building principal. Certainly an effective administrative training program; internships as very effective in terms of becoming an effective administrator. There are a lot of things a prospective administrator can do as a classroom teacher. Ability to organize a given project. An ability to work with other people. Working with people is probably the most important aspect of being a building administrator. The political aspect of school administration is very very important and sometimes not dealt with as effectively as it should be.

Q: OK. In the past few years in District Twelve there has been a change from MBO approach with the advent of school improvement. Could you back up a number of years and give me some background into the MBO idea, or maybe even farther back if you'd like to? And tell me how it's changed now and maybe your feelings on effectiveness.

A: I can say, not only in District Twelve but education in general, as I viewed it, there became a need to become more objective in terms of instruction, education in general. The outgrowth of that came with the MBO, management by objective, instruction by objectives, that sort of thing so that measures could be made that determined the degree of success. Whether it be for administration, instruction, the total effectiveness of education. That was a natural outgrowth as resources became limited that there needed to be, politically there needed to be, more objectivity. The MBO process began to fall down when there became an overemphasis on the measure of the evaluation. Too much emphasis on the tests. Success of testing, or lack of success in testing, became the end rather than the means to the end. We began to break down the act of instruction to minute little pieces and we forgot that we were dealing with human beings and they needed to learn the whole. You could learn all kinds of work attack skills and couldn't read. So to speak, in general terms. That then moved into a broader sense away from the MBO still using the evaluation that needs to be there. We got into a little more of the general instruction, more latitude for the classroom teacher. That evolved into participative management, site based management, where the decisions were made at the lowest level possible. And I think there is a strong move now for site based management, unfortunately we haven't moved as far in that as we needed to. And quite frankly I don't believe classroom teachers have taken the responsibility for "site based management" in their classroom to the extent that they could. And there's still too much top down from the building administration to the classroom teacher. That's kind of an evolutionary process in a nutshell.

Q: It sounds then that you are very supportive of that and that you think that that's good.

A: Absolutely.

Q: Where do you think it's going to be going, maybe in the next five to ten years?

A: Well it wasn't moving quite as far in site base management at I would have liked. In my tenure of a building administrator, I exercised, sometimes to my own disadvantage, a little more desire for site based authority than was willing to be relinquished from central office. I think that's changing. I would hope there would be more participation, involvement, from classroom teachers. Until we see more opportunity and time available by classroom teachers to do that kind of participation, I think we're going to be limited. So we've kind of hit against a stumbling block in terms of maybe some willingness on the part of the classroom teachers but certainly not enough time to be involved in assuming the leadership and the decision making capacity at the classroom level that needs to be.

Q: OK. Could you talk a little about your relationship with the school board throughout your career, and in what ways they have influenced the way that you were able to do your job? Or the way they helped you do your job?

A: The majority of my career was involved with Adams County District Twelve. It's, generally had a very strong school board and a very good relationship with administrators relative to the school board. In terms of encouragement, professional direction, probably was less from the school board than there was from the professional superintendent, assistant superintendents. And naturally so, these are lay people. The best opportunity was for the school board to support a superintendent who then encouraged professional growth and development. The involvement with a building administrator with a school board is limited at best, unless you get into some specific kinds of projects. And I was to a degree, and it's generally been a very positive relationship, supportive relationship.

Q: You mentioned though that the working, everyday, relationship, or the support, came more from the superintendent. When that job turned over, what kind of stress did that cause you, or in what ways were you able to deal with that?

A: A change-over in superintendents?

Q: Yes.

A: Well there's naturally different philosophies. And there needs to be some transition time. It's probably no different for a building administrator with a new superintendent coming in and a new operation philosophy than it would be for a classroom teacher with a change in building principalship. Very similar and parallel.

Q: Did you, throughout your career, ever have trouble with that? I would assume that you didn't whole-heartedly agree with the direction that the superintendent was going.

A: Well I think there certainly, if you're on the team, you need to wear the uniform. And to be honest with yourself if the change in direction or operational philosophy is not in concert with your own and you can't feel comfortable in that relationship, then I think it's probably time to move. I don't think, in my experienced, it's ever been to a point where you couldn't accommodate and find a satisfactory ground. In some cases probably there are cases where a new superintendent comes in and certain district or building administrators are etched in a different philosophical base and you know that's the change that's necessary.

Q: As a final question, and you can take this anywhere you'd like to go. What advise would you give to a person that's considering an administrative position?

A: Well number one, I would certainly be the best classroom teacher that I could be. I would look for every opportunity to broaden my experience base that I could. Whether it be local curriculum work, projects in the school, opportunities to organize a given project, or activity conducted, from start to finish. I would seek a teaching position where I could, as a classroom teacher, make as many decisions as possible. Certainly an adequate teaching, well not teaching but, administrative training program is essential. I would start early. I would encourage patience because administrative positions are becoming increasingly more difficult to come by because of the impact of limiting resources, the first place they look is for administrative overhead. And so there are fewer and fewer opportunities for assistant principalships, special assignment kinds of things. The resources aren't there. Try to get formal or informal internships where possible. I would look for an administrator to work under that had something to offer me as a classroom teacher in terms of training and modeling. I would look for varied experiences. There is always a tendency to teach in a place and stay there, "I like it, it's great," and you limit yourself to exposure to different administrative and management styles. And so I would not stay in one place too long. Other than that, might be willing to move to a smaller location for some administrative opportunity. It's very difficult to move up in a single school district, you might have to move around a little bit to do it.

Q: Do you find yourself fortunate then in that you were able to spend so much time in District Twelve or were you, did you, get involved at just the right time?

A: We were in a period of rapid growth, but you remember I actually started in administration outside of District Twelve. I started in Europe and I had some administrative opportunities there. Coaching -- there were a number of administrative opportunities in coaching, to conduct and be responsible for a total program, budgeting, and that sort of thing. But yes, there is an opportune situation in rapid growth, a number of retiring administrators might provide an additional opportunity, it just depends on the situation and circumstance.

Q: Well very good, that concludes our interview and I'd like to thank you very much for your time.

A: My pleasure. I hope it's helpful and I hope my comments will help you in your class discussion and whatever activities you're working on. It's a interesting concept for prospective administrators to have this, I never had this opportunity. Maybe it will help. Good luck.

Q: Thank you very much.

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