Interview with John Pleacher
Q: Good morning Mr. Pleacher, How are you today?
A: I'm fine. I just hope we can get finished before the snow starts today.
Q: Oh, Gee. I do, too. I'm really delighted that you said I could interview you for this project. It is an important project to collect the oral history of educators who have been successful in the field, and it will help us who are going through this right now come up with some ideas and ways to improve what we are doing. Experience is golden as far as I'm concerned. We can have the ability, but we get better and better for our experience. If we can get some ideas from people who have been through this before, it's very helpful to us to think about some things and consider in more depth. I really appreciate you saying that you would let me do this interview. I understand that Dr. Carlton was a former student of yours or teacher actually - but that's a student, too - when you were a principal. When was this?
A: That was back in the 60's. He was a science teacher who impressed me enough that I remember who he was. Favorably, of course.
Q: That's wonderful. Now, how long were you in education? When did you start as a teacher?
A: I started as a teacher in 1949. I graduate from George Washington University. Actually, I started before I graduated. I was working at George Washington University, and in Arlington they had a teacher just walked out in April and they needed someone to finish the year. They called, asked me, I went over, finally agreed to do it - just really to finish out the year - and I left them five years later.
Q: That's great. Well, that was a long year you finished out. How did you feel about taking over someone's classroom in April?
A: Well, I was naive enough not to think I would have any problems or anything like that. Actually, it turned out to be the best thing I could have possibly done, because that time from April, May and June qualified me that September as an old teacher. When the kids came in, I was an old teacher and I had gotten through my first year of teaching in just over two months. And that was great!
Q: Did you feel uncomfortable about giving the children a grade at the end of the grading period as their final grade?
A: Not too badly becuase I had a lot of help from one of the teachers who was chairman of the math department. He really gave me a lot of help and a lot of guidance. Again, being brand new, I thought gee, no problem, I can do this. My biggest concern was going in that first day. My wife talked about it...how will I do, will I be funny, will I be strictly business, or what? And, I'll never forget. I walked in and the first thing one of the kids said, "Well, we got rid of two other teachers before you; we'll get rid of you, too." And I looked up and said, "Well, one of us is going, but it's not going to be me." But I was not sure of that for about the next month.
Q: Did they know how young you were?
A: No. I had one thing in my favor. As you can see my hair is white. My father was white-haired at age 16 and my hair had already started to turn white. So the kids never really were sure how old I was. They weren't sure if I was a beginning teacher or not and, obviously, I never told them.
Q: So you taught math that year. Did you continue to teach math throughout your career?
Q: Why did you choose that area?
A: I just liked it. I can remember from the time I was in the 9th grade thinking what I would like to do was to teach math to the point that I copied down ways that my 9th grade algebra teacher would show us how to do algebra because I thought some day I would be able to use that. I lost that information before I started teaching, but that's how long ago I knew I wanted to teach.
Q: Did you find it unusual in that your peers, many of them, had not decided what they wanted to do at that young age?
A: I was in a rural community where most of the kids came from farms and so knew what they were going to do was go back to the farms. In fact, we had an academic and a vocational course, and there were only two boys in the academic course myself and a friend of mine - and he dropped out.
Q: How did that work as far as being in the classroom then if you were the only one?
A: I was the only boy. There were eleven girls.
Q: So did the teacher...were you in a small class or...So that made up the total class.
A: That made up the total class and we moved in all our classes like that. You took foreign language and you took .... We were together as it was an entire group for English and History and so forth...science, chemistry...
Q: That was wonderful. You almost had private tutoring, didn't you. How do you think they would be able to handle that today?
A: The schools would not be quite that small. That's one of the problems with a small school. But at that point they had to have an academic and a vocational. I was lucky that I was in that small academic group, but of course the teachers were interested in working with us.
Q: To kind of jump ahead just in the beginning, when did you become a principal?
A: I became a principal in 1953 ... an assistant principal. I taught from 1949 to 1953 in a junior high school - Thomas Jefferson Junior High. In that time I taught in summer school also, and met the only lady principal, really a principal, in the county; and we happened to hit it off, and she told me I was going to be the next assistant principal. Her assistant principal resigned in '53 and she chose me to be the assistant principal of Swanson Junior High and was with her unti1'56 when I became principal of Brandon, which was really an opportunity that very few people had. What happened was I went as principal of Brandon. Brandon was an old junior high school which they were getting rid of, but they were using until a brand new school which was to be called Gunston.....was being built. So we started with just 7th grade and teachers to staff a 7th grade program. That year they realized that the school was going to be a year late so they sent those students on to one of the high schools so the high school ended up with 8 - 12 and gave us a new 7th grade which meant all that we had learned that first year - the mistakes didn't count against us because those kids were gone and we had a new group of kids. The next year we added 8th grade so we had those kids in 8th grade and added a new 7th grade and I had enough new teachers to staff 7th and 8th. The next year we moved into a brand new school with 7th, 8th, and 9th. We had trained the kids to exactly what we wanted, working with a small enough group that really it was one of the most delightful experiences we had. It was unique..not like something that would happen today.
Q: Now what did that lady principal tell you about why she was going to select you if she had the opportunity?
A: We just worked well together. During the summer time I volunteered to do a number of things. The summer school happened to be held in the school that I was in so I was familiar with the building, and I was able to take care of all the financial things. I would be there early and I would stay late because I enjoyed the school atmosphere, and she liked this and we talked a lot, and I liked the way she operated and I guess she liked the way I operated. At that time, you could do this sort of thing; today you wouldn't be able to do it. Now you have to go through boards, etc., to make the decisions.
Q: Do you feel that the way it happened with you was better than it is now?
A: Not necessarily. It could be because things were more personal..things were smaller. The whole situation was much smaller then. They did open it for applications. There was only one other person that applied...maybe two others. And, two of which were in her old school, but it was strictly that the principal had the full say...that's nice, but I won't say that's always necessarily the best. But it was nice as far as I was concerned.
Q: After you were at the junior high school, did you continue on to other schools as principal.
A: I was at Gunston for 14 years and then moved from Gunston to Kenmore Junior High as principal and stayed there for 3 years as principal, and after that went back to teaching the last 8 years.
Q: Why did you decide to go back to teaching?
A: It was something I always had in the back of my mind. The reason I went into administration in the first place was basically economic. My principal had called me and he said, you need to think about (I did not have my masters) getting your masters degree so you can get in as an assistant principal, and I said I'm just not interested. I enjoy teaching - that's what I want to do. He said, you have two boys...you're going to find out you're not going to be able to afford to send them to school on a teacher's salary. You're going to have to go into administration in order to make it. He was right; so that was why a couple of years later I started on my masters. But I did not actually have my masters when I went in. At that time, again, they made allowances and said that if I would conclude my masters within 3 years, I could have the job. But I had a great big salary jump. I got $100 more as an assistant principal that I would have gotten as a teacher.
Q: That doesn't sound like a lot now, but actually I guess then it was worth more than it is now.
A: I asked him about it and he said it comes down to this - do you want the job? If you do, take it at that. At that time, they could do that. They had different ways of calculating your salary.
Q: What was the year that you retired from education?
Q: Was that up in the Fairfax area?
A: Yes, in Arlington. All of my 35 years were in Arlington County.
Q: How did you end up in Williamsburg?
A: Every time we were out a few days, we would jump in the car and come down to Williamsburg. We just liked it. My wife fell in love with it the first time we came down here. She came with me on a field trip one time. So we would just keep coming back. When we came to retire, I really thought I would like to get by the ocean and we went over and looked at Virginia Beach and decided that was more congested than Northern Virginia (or just as bad) and we didn't want that. We had enjoyed Williamsburg so much, we looked around there and really liked it. We found a builder that would build a house in the range that we wanted and I've never been sorry.
Q: The junior high you told me you went into as a principal - the first school you went into as a principal - can you describe that school for me.
A: The very first one was just 7th grade. It was an older building. It was located along a 4-1ane highway, Shirley Highway, which goes through Fairfax County. A very busy road that's the reason they were abandoning the school. You had to keep the windows shut on the side of the highway or the teachers simply couldn't hear what was going on. Yet it got awfully warm in the spring and fall and the teachers would have to open them. However, the building was built for probably about 600 kids and we had only 200, so it meant we had plenty of room to move around when we had just the 7th grade. As we added the 8th grade we became a little bit closer to the capacity of the building. It was nice because we had a fence where the kids couldn't go out on the main road; we had a tunnel underneath to a hospital which was right across the street - that was convenient in case we had any accidents. And we did use the tunnel sometimes to transport kids to the hospital. But we were kind of back in a little area all by ourselves - right next to a golf course on the other side. We had no place for kids to run out and go to. The other side was a large black area, and so the kids were not tempted to take off and be truant because there wasn't a whole lot for them to do. There was no store - no Seven Eleven on the corner.
Q: The tunnel that you spoke of, was that a tunnel that cars could go through or just for walking?
A: Just walk through.
Q: Was that made specifically for the school?
A: Specifically for the school, yes. When they put the highway in, they did that so people could go back and forth. It was either that or they would have to transport every kid that lived right across this highway by bus. By putting the tunnel there, the kids could walk under. However, we had to add gates to that tunnel because it became at nighttime not a good place to be. So had gates that were locked every night and every weekend.
Q: That's interesting. You told me somewhat about why you decided to become a principal - partially you mentioned because the principal suggested that you would do a good job and the economic factors; were there any other factors?
A: Well, of course, when I looked at the whole thing, I thought it would not be bad. I've always liked working with people. Teaching means working with people. As a principal you still work with people. I was concerned whether I would work this close with students. That was I think my biggest concern. Because I like kids, and I did not want to get myself too far away. And I felt I would still be working with kids, both good and bad. So this is why I went ahead and tried it. And then I like it although I would not admit it. If you would ask what's the number one thing I enjoyed most, I would have to say teaching. But if asked if I would rather have taught all the time and not been an administrator, I would have to say "No," because I enjoyed my years as an administrator equally as well basically as I did teaching.
Q: Did you teach any when you were an administrator? Did you take any classes?
A: I taught at night. I taught at the University of Virginia - some at night and some in the summer - and I taught also in the Arlington adult education program. Ft. Myer had a program for the students there - some had not finished high school, and so I taught reading and basic math and basic English to young recruits that had been taken into the service but didn't have the basic high school education that they should have. That was because of the area in which we were located that I had those opportunities.
Q: Did you find that your night teaching had any impact on your principalship in any way?
A: I don't know.
Q: Do you feel like it helped you see what the kids were in for later on if they didn't have an education?
A: From that standpoint, because most of my night teaching was with the adult education and these other young men, and I was able to use this as examples to kids and say, "Hey, look; I work with these people and I know this is what's going to happen if you don't have the preparation you need to have."
Q: What was your school's philosophy when you were principal?
A: We worked on philosophy very carefully as a staff. We had to have a philosophy, but I can't tell you exactly what it was at this point. Mainly it was that we were there to serve the interest of the children and the community and that was to be done by educating the kids, providing experiences which were valid and progressive, try to emphasize the fact that we had students of different abilities, and that we were to provide experiences appropriate to each of those objectives for the kids. And to do this, we worked on tracking - not complete tracking, but it was ... we had different sections for the better students and we did not do the best on the bottom. We did average and above average and average and below average. So that you never had a group of students all at the very bottom. That was not the most conducive for learning. That seemed to work pretty well. We were criticized because in DC they got really hit with the term tracking because they had four tracks. If a student got on one track, he basically had a hard time getting out of it because of the integration, etc. The tracking was taken to court, so we were told to be extremely careful; to do nothing to be considered as tracking. By explaining that to me, we never had any.
Q: Your philosophy ... was it developed before you became a principal or was it already there? Did you change it?
A: There was nothing there when we started because the school was organized by us. We sat down as a staff and developed it. There was a committee that worked with me and we worked together and we sat down and wrote it. And, it wasn't too many years after we got started that we went through Southern Association accreditation and we had to have a philosophy at that time in place and had to review it, etc. But we started out in the very beginning. We had a handbook - one of the first things we did - in fact my thesis for my masters when I was an assistant principal was developing a handbook for the teachers. And what I did was about lOO-page handbook for teachers which was great for a project, but practical for teachers? No, because teachers don't want 100 pages of something they have to look at in the beginning of the year. It was a good start for me as a principal - I could use it. But I revised it very quickly and made it a lot smaller.
Q: Did you find that it was difficult to develop the philosophy - to put into words what the philosophy was?
A: No, because I had a lot of good people to work with. And, I guess one of the things that I always tried to develop and encourage was openness among the staff, and a feeling of freedom to express themselves. Whether they agreed with me didn't make a whole lot of difference, as long as they would say what they felt and why they felt that way. They also understood that they had that opportunity if I said this is basically - I just can't agree with you - you'll never convince me - this is the way we'll do it. Then they would expect that this is the way we will do it. I guess that's a benign dictator. I did not operate democratically, but at the same time I wasn't that autocratic. We worked it out together, and had an opportunity to make changes at any time. They could discuss anything they wanted to.
Q: Would you call that participatory management, with you having the final say? Input coming from the people and you followed up?
A: I think we did a workshop one time that could place leaders in four different categories and I came out as a benign dictator.
Q: How did you create a climate for learning in the school?
A: I tried to get across as we worked with the teachers, we were fortunate when we started each year to have several days with the teachers before we get the students, that we existed for one thing...that was for the students that were coming in. They weren't coming in to help our existence, we were there to help the student. This was what the whole thing was about. I tried to get across to teachers that I was there to help them, and I tried to use a leadership role, but at the same time leadership in terms of encouraging each one of them to do everything they could. I did not say you have to do this, this, and this. Tried to do as little of that as possible except for basic organization. There are certain things that you must do to make decisions that start at this time such as bells, etc. We even went through a period where we decided not to have bells.
Q: How did that work?
A: Not too badly. But enough wanted to go back to bells that we went back to bells. If fact that last school I was at, we did away with bells and never did go back to them. But, I did try to encourage them also to set up a climate and let them know I would help them in every way I could and I would back them in so far as their actions were reasonable, but not to expect me to back them if they did something that was obviously very foolish. Not to say that I wouldn't help them out - I'd do everything I could - but I would never tell them they were right in front of a parent if they had been really stupid. And, basically, while we allow corporal punishment in Virginia and I always emphasized this to the students who were usually surprised. When I would say they can hit you, the kids would say, "No you can't." I would then pull out the school law and read it to them. I would tell the teachers that the county says you don't touch. If you slap a student, don't come expecting sympathy from me when a parent gets all upset or wants to take you to court. I'll do what I can, but I'm not necessarily going to say you were right. We did have problems later on because we did have teachers who would slap students, etc., and again you handle it differently according to the person. One of the best teachers I've ever had came over to me one day and she was as white as a sheet. She said she had just slapped a student. I said, "I know you well enough that you are the type of teacher that the student had it coming. She said, "Yes, he did." Then I told her she didn't have anything to worry about. She was worried about the parent, and I said "I will bet you that the student will never mention it to his parents, because he will know that that parent will turn him around and slap him on the other side when they find out what happened. I can help you out with this. I can back you. Don't worry about it." She never heard a thing from the parent. Then I had another one that slapped a student and the kid came to tell me. See the other kid never did come in to see me. That tells me something when the kid comes instead of the teacher. I always felt if you can get home before the student does, you're way ahead of the game. So when the student came into complain about this teacher hitting him, I worked that through right away; got the teacher in and found out the situation; gave the teacher what was coming to him, because they had no business doing it in that particular situation, and not in front of the other students; called the parents to come in before the student every got home; told the parent exactly what happened - that I had told the teacher he was wrong in doing it - and again it was not a problem. The parent had heard it from me; the kid could not go home and make it five times as bad as it was. One of the reasons I was successful in this type of approach was I think the parents appreciated the fact of getting to know it from me right away and knowing that I didn't try to cover up something. The worse thing in the world would be to try to cover it up. If they came in and said something happened, I always listened to them. I tried to conduct an open door for parents, teachers, or students. Any one of them knew that they could come in and talk to me about anything.
Q: You mentioned the open door technique, and that sounds like some of the way that you worked with teachers - with the open door policy. Are there any other leadership techniques that you used - successful or unsuccessful?
A: Basically, I would tell teachers that I expected them to be in charge of their classroom and that I did not intend to tell them how to run it or how to teach. I had felt that they had gone to school in order to learn how to teach and there was no point in me trying to tell them how to teach. If they wanted help from me, I would do what I could to help. I would try to get around and visit the teachers at the beginning to make sure things were going OK and throughout the year go back to check. I tried to put the teachers in positions of leadership as much as possible. If something needed to be done or if a big question came up, I didn't try to be the person in charge all of the time; I'd try to put one of the teachers in charge. Ask them to come up with solutions. Maybe put students and teachers together and let them work on a particular problem. In fact, we got to the point that we would require that the philosophy of the school be worked out by a student, and a teacher, and a parent and myself. This became county policy. Of course, those things change often.
Q: What do you think teachers expect principals to be?
A: I think they basically expect a principal to be a leader, to back them in their situations, to provide them with materials they need to do the job. I don't think those are wrong expectations.
Q: What role did you play in the public community relation?
A: I felt that was probably my biggest position community relations. It was up to me to interpret the school to the community. I attended many different meetings for that purpose. First of all the PTA was organized with involvement of the parents as much as we possibly could. We would have curriculum committees, we would have all kinds of meetings, we would have them during the day and in the evening for those parents who wanted particular meetings held in the evening. We tried to make the PTA programs where they would see what was going on in the school. We traditionally had back-to-school night, and supplemented that in the second half by a demonstration night where they could come in and we would have most every classroom open and every teacher would be involved. But I would choose one period a teacher had and she would have a demonstration with those students for the night. Some did actual classes, some did special situations, some did plays, all types of things would be going on. The parents could know what was actually going on in here. Many times, as I say, it would just be a regular class and the kids would come back for it (there was never any problem getting kids to come back). In fact, our county was affluent enough that if I wanted buses, I could get buses run at night, which I did once or twice. At one point we even had a bus just for our school. I had two teachers trained as bus drivers and we could take that bus anywhere we wanted. They let us have that two years, and then the other schools wanted a bus, and they couldn't do it for everybody. But we had two years that were just absolutely fantastic. But back to community relations - I made myself available to every situation. I was involved with the church and parents knew I was involved in church. I didn't like to be out of my building much, which meant I couldn't be in the Lions' Club or things like that because of dinner meetings. But I would be invited by a number of churches to come and speak and I lived in the general community. We went shopping in the area and would see parents and kids all the time almost everywhere you go. I was down here at Tabb High School (as a BTAP observer) observing a teacher about 3 months ago and this kid comes in that knows me and calls me Mr. Preacher. I said, "Where do I know you from?" He said, "You taught me in Arlington." So you always see somebody you know from other times. The building was open at night for community recreation such as basketball. We had science fairs - as many things going on as possible. We were big on having dances every month. These were live bands we had and parents were involved as chaperones. Teachers could be asked, but it was the parents' responsibility to ask the teachers to be involved. Later, I set up a program involving the police with the school. I can't remember the exact name of the program - Youth Resource Officer was the policeman's title. We worked with another junior high school. He would come and spend a part of each day at our school. This was basically after we had gone through integration and we started to have more problems that would appear in the community - not necessarily school-related problems. But the kids would be involved, and so we needed to keep more ties as far as the courts were concerned. So we set up that type of program and tried to interpret the police through the community and vice versa.
Q: You mentioned BTAP and, for clarity on the tape, that's the Beginning Teachers Assistance Program that just started in Virginia last year. How do you enjoy working with that program?
A: Very much. It's very interesting and keeps me involved with schools. I get out to visit schools and see the things that are going on, get to observe new teachers and what they are doing. I make no evaluations or judgements. As a BTAP observer, I am simply that. I observe and record what I observe. Whether what I have recorded is good or bad, I honestly don't know. That's good from the standpoint that I can't fake it one way or the other, but it's bad for example in that when I look at a teacher, I can't say whether I think a teacher is good or bad. And I would like to say so, but I'm not allowed to. But it's an interesting program and has a lot going for it.
Q: How do you feel about the 14 competencies that they are looking at? Do you feel comfortable with those?
A: I think they are all things that teachers should know and should be able to do. The idea of being with 3 different observers at 3 different times on 21 different observations that we actually record, they should be able to show these particular competencies. When I come out of there I know whether that is a good teacher or not; and I have checked on those that I felt were good teachers, and they were.
Q: We're talking about philosophy again. This time I would like for you to elaborate a little bit more on your philosophy on education and your philosophy on teaching and your personal leadership philosophy.
A: I don't know if you are aware that in 1984 I was selected as Virginia State Teacher of the Year.
Q: Yes, I heard. That's wonderful.
A: And as such, I had to develop a philosophy of teaching. I will just read it to you. It really is what I believe and I sat down and worked it out. This is a copy and something that I strictly spent time thinking through. I was recommended for that and in sending in my application I had to record this and I really believe that as a teacher I have an opportunity to influence young people that I work with. Coupled with this opportunity is a responsibility to willingly share information, ideas, and beliefs, in a way that will allow them to meet the many challenges they encounter as they seek their rightful leadership roles in our community. To be successful I must speak to the following assertions: First, I must love young people. To love young people I must first have faith in myself and the basic institutions of my state and community and nation. I must believe in the intrinsic good of all men. I must know my strengths, accept my limitations, and yet encourage my students to explore all possible avenues when considering a direction for their lives. I must perceive potential and aid in its translation to success. I must love students enough to be honest since young people are adept and direct in detecting deception. I must be able to communicate with them. I must be enthusiastic because enthusiasm is contagious. If I want my students to be excited, I must be excited. I must be structured and still remain flexible enough not to stifle the individual creativity of my students. My sense of humor must include myself. I must be willing to risk making mistakes and be able to laugh at myself and with others. I must reassure my students that they may express themselves freely without fear of ridicule. The atmosphere of working must be one of mutual respect and consideration based on mutual trust. I must interpret my program to parents in a way that will elicit the support of the community. And third, I must have something to communicate. The knowledge of my subject will assist me in gaining the confidence of my students. I must make clear and concise explanations to truly inspire my students to the fascination and thrill of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. And I must encourage my students to strip themselves of all prejudice because people of all races, colors, and creeds contribute to the improvement of our society. And I must remember that my example will be read more carefully than my words. If I can accomplish these goals, I can look forward to unlimited satisfactions laced only with sufficient frustrations to keep me alert to pursue methods to gain more knowledge so that I can continue to challenge traditional students. I feel basically that's what it's all about. You've got to like the kids - you've got to really love them - but that's not enough. I've gone into classes with teachers who say...but I really love young people...and I will say to them "love them enough to teach them something". Just loving them is not enough. The other thing that I think is important is the example. I think my example is going to be looked at far more carefully that what I say to those students. I may say that this is what we should do or shouldn't do, but if I say 'do this' and I go out and do something that is not reflective of that, they are going to say I don't really mean what I say. I think that's important. And that's why I go to church. I go to church, and I'm not ashamed of it, and I don't hesitate to tell kids. I don't preach to them as far as that's concerned, but I don't shy away if they ask me.
A: It takes the ability to listen. As a principal you must listen to teachers, to what their problems are. I think you must listen to students as to what they perceive their problems in school and I think you must be able to listen to parents. Then I think you've got to be able to put the three together. But I think that ability to really listen and not feel that you've got to talk or give an answer right away or tell people what to do, that's not it. It's to listen and to guide.
Q: What pressures did you face as a principal and how did you handle them?
A: First pressure I felt as I started out as a principal and got into our new building was showers. For elementary kids coming into intermediate school, it was their first time that they faced having to take showers for physical education classes. And at that time, for some reason, this became a problem. I had a lot of parents coming in objecting to their son/daughter taking 'gang showers'. For the girls we did have a few individual showers, but for the boys it was strictly 'gang showers'. A mother would come in complaining, and they wanted this to be a big PTA problem and I worked very hard to keep it from becoming a big PTA problem and worked with the individuals concerned, because the building was built at that point and I knew we weren't going to get anything changed. I involved the supervisor of physical education and we met with the parents and tried to satisfy them and after we got the students started - we found out it was not the students who were complaining, it was strictly 'Mama' who was complaining in most cases. The kid could care less - a few girls were maybe a little bit shy, but they had an opportunity to take a private shower so that wasn't a problem. The boys did not have an opportunity for a private shower, but most of them realized finally that it was no big deal to the kids. That was our first big thing.
Q: If you had to do it again, what would you do to better prepare yourself for the principalship?
A: I think I would have sought even more contact. I found that as I went along, the more times I would pick a course more an exchange of views of people, attend as many conferences as possible to discuss common situations and listen to what other people had based on what you were saying. Experience is really pretty good. It teaches us a lot. If I can find out what someone else's experience was in something, I may not copy it but it may alert me to think this is a way to go or a way not to go. I think I would avail myself of even more opportunities.
Q: How did you handle teacher grievances, and did you ever fire a teacher?
A: Very carefully. Yes I did. At the beginning of my tenure as principal, it was not quite as difficult to get a teacher removed as it became later on. At the very beginning, you could use various methods, one of which was a certain amount of "harassment" (and I'm not proud of this) would seem to work with some teachers. By harrassment I mean I would simply appear in their classes more often and when I didn't like it, I would require lesson plans daily on my desk. When I came to the point that I was going to have to get rid of this teacher, I would do things that I felt were degenerate and yet I knew at the same time that they were not like doing it and many times it would make them take the initiative to leave before I had to get rid of them. But I did have one teacher that I was told by the administration that I would have to basically just fire. This was a teacher...I was in a position that I guess about 90% of the teachers I had, I hired myself, so I had no one to blame but myself. There were about 2% that had been transferred as they closed other school situations or because of falling enrollment, and I got one of the teachers that way. At that time a very popular term in the county became 'deadwood'. That they wouldn't mind giving the teachers raises, but there was too much 'deadwood' in the schools. And I was identified as having one teacher in this category and I was instructed that I would have to fire this teacher. So it was through conferences, etc., that this was accomplished.
Q: What was the teacher's reaction to it?
A: Because this was not a first, second, or third year teacher - this teacher had been in the county for about 15 years, and nobody had ever told her she was not doing a good job except me. I was the first. One of the last years I was a principal, I had the same thing to happen. I had a teacher that no one would tell was not; she was very vocal and she would not hesitate to say what she thought about me as a principal or whatever or that they had done this to her incorrectly, etc. Entering a course with the education associations becoming more involved she would try to involve them. I learned very early on that you've got to consider everything from day one. Good as well as bad. Through that I was able to get rid of some teachers. Some I was able to transfer to another school. But I was able to get them to accept the fact that I would not want that teacher back in my building. What happened to them was up to the administration, whether they wanted to fire them or move them. In some cases they moved them. If a teacher applied to another school, and again I would never lie to a fellow principal because I'd like the truth from them and they would know what they were getting, but sometimes the administration would say you've got to take the teacher.
Q: How can we improve education and teachers as well?
A: I think teacher training should come after...I think the teacher should go through almost a four-year college situation, have a major, and show themselves well in that major, and then the fifth year learn teaching and be involved at least a full year in a learning situation as a student teacher or even more than a student teacher - being assigned to a master teacher and maybe a couple of teachers being assigned to a master teacher to work with them. Letting them get really hands-on experience and letting them benefit right away from what other teachers have learned. Yes, they each have to learn certain basic things for themselves, but let them be in a situation where they can try and fail and get it over with before they go out on their own. Because there is nothing worse than a teacher coming into you in the fall enthusiastic, all ready to go, and tries out some of these ideas and have the teacher fall flat on their face. Its demoralizing to them and they find it much more difficult to pick up the pieces at that time. If they have a year to do this, and have some help in picking up the pieces and get it back together, then I think they'll be more ready to go into a teaching situation. I think our teacher training institutions have to recognize this.
Q: How did you handle the civil rights issue and the bussing issue?
A: Very carefully. When Virginia had what was called massive resistance, probably the early '60s. When I started in Virginia we had one black school, and all the blacks went to that one school and the rest of our schools were all white. Virginia developed a massive resistance program. Arlington County at that time had an elected school board - the only elected school board in the state of Virginia. And they had special permission to have this through the General Assembly. The school board in Arlington was very progressive in that way and they elected to go ahead and start integration in Arlington County, when Richmond was pushing a massive resistance program. Because of that, the General Assembly took away Arlington's elected school board and put it back as an appointed school board and did not allow them to go ahead with integration at that point. That did not help feelings within the county, obviously. And then a couple of years later, of course, the Supreme Court said you've got to do it. So we went through with it. It was one of the most difficult times that I went through. But we planned for it very carefully. We knew for example in the spring that we would start in the fall. We didn't find out exactly until the middle of August for sure, but we went on with the idea that we were going to. Well, it so happened that the school I was in would go from 100% white to I think it was somewhere close to 35% black which was quite a difference - my school and one other junior high. The rest would have just token integration, 20-25 kids at the most that were black. I'm talking about a school the size 1000 to 1200. We took our student council - we had an active student council program - and took them over to the black school and met with the black kids; brought those kids over to our school and met with them. Moved around in the classes, etc. We did the same with the teachers. We met with the black teachers. We divided the black teachers among the different junior high schools so there would be black teachers as well as black students in the schools. We did as much preparation as we possibly could with the feeling that we would not have any problem, we will simply go ahead. When we started school that fall, I don't think I have ever felt tension - you could cut it with a knife - just the kids walking. Everything was fine for about 2 weeks, but you could just feel the tension. Finally, we started to relax. I guess I credit it to some of our kids. I'll never forget I had two kids, and they came and they said, "Mr. Pleacher, just two kids fighting...that's all. It doesn't mean anything (these were two black kids). And those two kids were leaders in the black community...they were not the best students, but they were leaders and they were willing to work with us. They were athletes and therefore had achieved a certain status with the other students, and because of that we were able to work with the kids and work through it. We never really had any problems, not to say we never had any incidents, but we never had anything that hit the papers. We had wrestling matches where it got a little heated because again it was one on one and if one was white and one was black, there would be certain feelings. I can remember one school had all white wrestlers and we had black and white. And the tension got pretty high and I can remember having to have police officers and teachers lined up to make a path for that other school to go out and get on their bus because we knew not that our kids were going to jump them but the brothers and sisters of those kids that we didn't know that we couldn't work with. We found out that we had no basic problem with our kids. We could work with our kids, but we couldn't work with the brothers and sisters of the kids from outside. So we got to the point that we discouraged anyone except our own kids being in the building. I guess that's when we started this sort of thing that all visitors had to come through the office, but it was really one of the most satisfying things that I have ever worked through. I became known in the black community, I was very at ease with the black community. I could go over and when people asked if I was afraid to go, I would say 'no'. The people know me and nothing is going to happen to me. Obviously, there were people there who wouldn't care who I was, but I was also smart enough that I didn't just walk the streets. I went over many times at the invitation of leaders of the community to discuss problems. I involved them in the school. I brought them into the school. I even ran buses at one point to get the parents in one night to PTA because I knew the parents had no way to get over. We ran buses for the whole community, not for just one group. As a result we had, I think, a very successful integration experience. This was one of the reasons that led to my leaving that school because the school that I went to...I went from Gunston to Kenmore...Kenmore had not had the success, positive success, that we had; so I was asked to go to this other school. So I went there as a principal for 3 years. It was after that that I said I would like to go back into teaching. And that was an interesting experience, because I went over to the superintendent and I said I would like to go back...I had checked with my wife...and as I told you earlier, I had always hoped to go back to teaching, and so after both my boys were through college and had good jobs, I asked my wife may I go back to teaching (because this meant a $10,000 cut right away) and she said yes. So I went to the superintendent and said I would like to go back to teaching. He said you don't know what its like...you don't know what you're doing, you don't know what it's like being there every day. He finally realized I was serious and he helped me explore very thoroughly that this was what I want to do. And it was on the basis that I was going back for a year in case I didn't like it or it didn't work out I really could have come back. Then he asked where I wanted to teach and I told him the same school where I was principal. He said nobody does that. And I said the only way I can convince people that this was my decision and not yours was for me to stay in the same school because obviously if it was your decision, you wouldn't let me in the same school because I could ruin it for whoever came in there; I would have enough influence among the teachers and staff, kids, parents, etc. But if I stay there, they'll know it was my decision. I'll make one exception. If the person coming in after me is not comfortable with me being in the building, I will go somewhere else. So I stayed on during the summer (they selected a woman to follow me-I had no problem). Everyone told me not to stay in the same school. I worked with her up until I was ready to leave. Two days beforehand I went in and told her I had a job at another school and she said she would like for me to stay. We talked about our roles. I told her what I would do as a teacher, what I would expect of her as a principal and she told me exactly the same thing. When we were finished, it meshed very nicely. I told her I wouldn't do her reports but on the other hand I'll glad to help. I was a member of the Southern Association, Virginia Committee, and when I told them I would no longer be able to be on it because I had gone back to teaching, they said fine, we have decided we need a teacher on our staff, so I was the first teacher on the Virginia Secondary Committee. That became national policy. So it all worked out very well. It was her school and I supported everything she did. As a result, I had a tremendous 8 years; in fact, she was the one responsible for putting my name in recommending me for teacher of the year.
Q: What procedures should be used before a person is selected to be principal?
A: I think there should be interviews by the people they're going to work with. I think teachers should be involved in interviewing. We did this in Arlington. We would have a committee made up of personnel from the school system. Teachers within the school that they were going to work with would interview propective candidates and then they would make recommendations to the superintendent who was not bound to their recommendations. They did not necessarily say this is number one, two, and three; they said we think these three people could do the best job. Again, he was not bound to select one of the three, but usually he did. And, I think that is good. I don't think students are mature enough to make these decisions, but might be an advisor.
Q: How did you handle assistant principals?
A: I gave them a job to do; then I let them do it. In other words, one had to do substitute teachers, one had custodians, each had certain things. Then that was up to them. If there was a problem with custodians, I didn't try to solve it. If they wanted my help, they would come to me for my ideas. If a custodian came complaining to me, I would send him to the assistant principal who was in charge. They also helped with observations. If the teacher didn't like that, he/she had better learn to get along with everybody. I would basically give them the job they were supposed to be doing; if they had been with me for a while, we would change responsibilities - particularly for those who were interested in going on as principals. I had one who was not interested in going on as principal, so it didn't make any difference. She just picked what she liked to do, and she did it well. I expected them to do the job.
Q: As principal, what was your biggest concern?
A: My biggest concern was that those kids would be really learning something, so when they left, they were better off for being there.
Q: What was your biggest headache?
A: Biggest headache - I guess probably discipline.
Q: What do you think of career ladders for teachers and what about merit pay?
A: Career ladders, as I understand it, are all right if that's what teachers want. To me a career ladder is not very fair. A career ladder means that you go up here and you have these responsibilities and get paid more because you have these responsibilities. That's fine if that's what a teacher wants; I have no problem with it. The merit pay - I guess I differ a little bit from some others. I really don't have a lot of trouble with merit pay if we can get a system of evaluation that people can be happy with. I guess I felt this more going back to teaching after having been a principal than maybe I would have before. I would look at someone and think, "That person is getting paid almost as much as I am, but I'm doing a lot better job than they are; I ought to be getting more money." And I don't think there's anything wrong with that, because every place else in American society this is the way we are...if you do a better job, you get more money. If we could get that worked out, I wouldn't have any problem with it. I know that's not the most popular answer these days.
Q: What do you think about the Standards of Quality as established by the state school board?
A: I think it's good because, even though low to a certain extent, but at least it is a positive progression which you don't get if you don't have something. There are certain objectives there that the legislature is almost forced to work up. They can't ignore it, so you will see improvement as a result.
Q: What are the characteristics associated with effective schools?
A: These schools basically provide positive programs for its students. They have things going on. They are effective in as much as the students aren't all "A" students, but the students are all making some sort of progress within the area. In most schools you have learning impaired, retarded, etc., they have to have programs to allow them to progress at the rate they are able to. At the same time you have kids with high ability - they ought to be challenged so that they are working to the highest note they can possibly get.
Q: What do you think of testing procedures and the mentioned SAT is one example?
A: I think if you don't have testing, you don't really know what you are doing. There's got to be some sort of basic test by which you can determine how you're doing compared with other areas. I think you've got to be very careful. It doesn't mean because a school gets an average of 900 in a SAT test that it's not a good school. If the ability of those kids is average and they're achieving that, then the school's doing great...doing what they should be doing. I went through it because the school I had in the early years, we were usually number one or number two. It went back and forth. Later on that school became number five and six which was a lot of difference. However, as number five we were doing as good or a better job than the number one school because based on the ability of our students at that particular time, they were exceeding what we could be expecting. Whereas those that had real high ability kids were not coming out as they should be. As long as people are understanding and see that - and I think you cannot give just scores, you have to give interpretations.
Q: What was the toughest decision you had to make as a principal, and why was it difficult?
A: One of the toughest decisions I had to make was getting police involved at different school activities. It was difficult because this was not easily understood by the community at that particular time. We found that after a game with spirits running high, situations could develop either at the activity or going home, and we decided that in our situation we should pay a policeman to be there every single game. This was after we had been in a situation when we didn't have one. It was voluntary some schools did and some schools didn't. It was hard because parents would complain, but eventually it was accepted. It was not a popular thing to do when first started, but it seemed to be a necessary thing to do for the good of the school. If a school develops a bad name, that's almost impossible to get rid of. You've got to keep a positive image in everything that you do. So we brought the policeman in during the day to keep it from looking like we used him only for discipline. In fact, we used the policeman in the school for social studies classes, gym classes to explain the operation of the police department. They would act as resource people for the kids. If kids had a problem, they could talk with them about drug problems, problems at home, etc. And this was a new approach at that time.
Q: Were you a manager of a building or an instructional leader.
A: I felt the principal was to be an instructional leader. We managed the building because it was part of our job, but my idea was to see that the instruction was there. That was done basically by telling the teachers 'this is what I expect,' but not telling them what to have...just to have instruction that I could identify as good. I felt teachers were hired to do this job, and if they didn't do it, then I was on them.
Q: Do you feel like you were able to spend most of your time with instructional procedures?
A: Not nearly as much as I would have liked. A principal ought to be able to spend at least 70% of their time in instruction and I just couldn't do it. There wasn't enough time. We got more toward that later on because we got more assistant principals to do some of the management, but I never got to the point where I felt I spent as much time with instruction as I should.
Q: What was your key to success as a principal?
A: Having time available to listen to people students, teachers, and parents. Being able to sit down and work with them, listen, not get all excited because a problem came up.
Q: What was your code of ethics as a principal?
A: I did not think things should be talked about outside of the situation where they happened. If something happened in school with a teacher, it was not broadcast. If it got known, then it was explained to the group. But if a teacher had a problem, as far as I was concerned, it was that teacher's problem and if they wanted to tell anyone that was OK but it was never up to me to discuss these things. The exception is of course if teacher 'A' is a department chairman and they are responsible for helping teacher 'B', there is discussion. Personal things that happened in my building to this day, no one ever knew. A teacher who was homosexual was picked up for soliciting, the staff never knew why that teacher left. I felt that was personal to him. I was surprised that the word didn't get around, but it didn't. I had a teacher that was accused of spending the night at a motel with a student. The teacher and I worked through it very carefully. It was not, I believe, true; but it had the possibility of being explosive. I worked very carefully with the teacher and the parent trying to be as open as we possibly could with each other. At the same time, the staff was never involved and I don't believe the staff was ever aware of the situation. Confidentiallity is important, and it's important for students. If the student had a problem at home, it was handled on a 'need to know' basis. We handled it that way before it came out legally. If it was something that affected the child in classwork, then we talked with those teachers to tell them what they were faced with. But we also encouraged them not to make it common gossip.
Q: What are your feelings about the responsibility of the principal for identifying and developing future school administrators and how did you go about doing this?
A: I think its important, for example the guy I had as a principal who said 'I think you should think in terms of this.' These days a lot of the teachers are interested in administration, and I have encouraged teachers to work on their masters to make sure they had all things necessary when the changes would come. I tried to keep those people aware of new requirements (so many hours in drug education, etc.) that I felt were identified as future school administrators - as much as I hated to lose them as teachers. I did have some that went on as assistant principals and principals. I do think that's part of the job as principal, to identify those and to inform the people in the central office that these people should be looked at.
Q: Describe your typical work day in terms of how you spent your time.
A: I got to school before anyone else. I would be there no later than 6:30 a.m. (custodian at 6:00) I wanted to know the building was ready and to be available in case anyone came in. Between 6:30 and 7:30 I got most of my work done because there were very few people in the building and no interruptions. Once people started coming in, my door was open and I was available. If a parent wanted to come in or a teacher, I was available. Of course, parents were encouraged to call ahead. When students began to come in (I believed in high visibility) I would be in the hall and different parts of the building. I knew what was going on, talking to students and teachers. During lunch, I would be in at least one of the lunch periods...sometimes all three lunch blocks. Again, these were opportunities to meet with kids and teachers. I did feel that when teachers had a non-teaching period, that was basically their time to be planning. I didn't interrupt or usurp that time unless there was something very important, and then it was planned with mutual understanding. I was always around the building, in classrooms, to know what was going on. The kids left at 3:10 and the late bus was at 4:00 for those who stayed late for activities. Then I would leave about 4:30 or 4:45.
Q: How do you account for your success as an administrator?
A: I think my ability to sit and listen to problems and not fly off the handle or be caustic in my remarks. I tried not to embarrass people - kids or teachers. I appreciate not being embarrassed, so I try not to embarrass others.
Q: What caused you to choose retirement when you did?
A: One of the reasons I retired when I did, as a principal I had some really top-notch teachers that I had right up to the time of my retirement. And in three cases in particular, I can remember that the strongest teachers, the last year or two, were saying the kids aren't as good as they used to be. I can't do certain things with the kids. What I realized was that they really did not belong in that classroom. They should have left a couple of years before, and I resolved when I saw that happen that I would never let that happen to me. I was going to go while I was still enjoying it, while I could get out saying it was great - I'd go back tomorrow....and I feel that right now. I could go in a classroom and teach and be 100% with it. I do enjoy getting up in the morning and not having to go every day, but I really have the same excitement and enthusiasm for it right now as I did when I left. I didn't want people to say they were glad I left. I wanted to leave when it was my time and so I left when I was 59 rather than waiting 'til I was 60. In Arlington, we could make a retirement proposal. I said I would come back and work two summers in summer school, which I did. I set it up and was there to run the summer school, not as a teacher or a principal, but to be someone who knew what was going on. There was a principal and an assistant principal; I was simply the coordinator doing the things they didn't have time to do. I did it for the last three years (two on my contract and one as a consultant).
Q: Is there anything that I haven't asked you that I should have, or are there any comments you would like to make that you feel would be important to this interview?
A: I think it's been pretty thorough in the questions that you've asked. I do think it's important that a principal stay in touch with their staff and student body. I think that can cause as many problems as anything - if they get to the point of thinking that they're doing it and not realizing that the whole thing has got to be a team effort. Any praise should be given to the whole staff, not to the individual person. I would never use the term 'my school'. It was always 'our'. I learned that very early from the lady who was my principal. She said, "We don't say I; we say we." In fact I do that with my kids to the point that they say, "Dad, not we - you!"
Q: I certainly do appreciate you allowing me to interview you for the archives. I agree with Dr. Carlton that you certainly sound like you were a superior principal and that you have a humanistic approach to leadership which is very important. I'm glad that I was able to conduct this interview, and I certainly wish you luck in your retirement. If you do go back to summer school this summer, I hope you have another good experience.
A: I have enjoyed the interview and have looked forward to seeing Dr. Carlton again. It's remembering things like that, I think, that's kind of a unique career and one that I've thoroughly enjoyed and have no regrets over any part of. I'm still going on with my BTAP and will be working with the juvenile court in a special program for Williamsburg-James City County.