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'If things are going to happen, the person at the top makes them'

Elsie Lewis Bailey, 54, has been head of Booker T Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee, for seven years. The school has 700 African-American pupils. Ninety per cent receive free school meals.

Did you always want to be a head?

Yes, it has been my ultimate goal. When I was young, being a teacher was very respectable here in my community and I grew up playing school. I was a student at this school, went on to local college and then university where I got my bachelor's and master's degrees. This is the community I grew up in - although it has now become virtually abandoned leaving thepoorest of poor families. I thought it was time to give something back. I think principals make the difference in a school. If things are going to happen the person at the top makes them. I started teaching in 1964 but waited till my four children were in high school before I went for promotion because of the time commit-ments in the job. I'm involved at least three or four nights a week at meetings or games events.

How would you describe your style of headship?

Shared leadership, although I always keep in mind that if anything goes wrong the buck stops here. I make teachers take part in the decisions. People buy into something when they have had a part in decision-making. We don't mind trying anything that might help our children although we evaluate everything.

What do you gain from your school district?

A lot of support; our superintendent makes a lot of demands from us but always supports us with staff development. We have site management (LMS) which I found frightening at first but now I love it. I take every opportunity I get to work on district committees because it is important to understand the big picture.

What are the most important aspects of a head's job?

Being a true instructional leader, the teacher of teachers. Making sure we stay abreast of what's happening.

What do you enjoy about your job?

The children - there's never a dull day. Most of the students don't go outside the area because their families don't have cars and it's dangerous being out on the streets at night. I enjoy making them feel special.

What don't you enjoy?

The amount of athletics events I have to attend. I spend a lot of my evenings watching basketball, football, volleyball, tennis, baseball athletics and softball. It's important to let the students know I support them. Also the paperwork.

What are the most difficult things you do?

Making the changes that will show improvement in test scores. I sit up a lot of nights doing things to try to make improvements in student achievement.

Who or what most influenced you in your approach?

A composite. There are a lot of people I admire and I've taken a little from each. In particular, my former high school principal from when I was student and my high school history teacher who made me proud I am black. I try to be like my own English teacher. All our students are African American and we constantly tell them we come from greatness.

What was different from what you expected?

I did not think I'd spend all my mornings seeing parents. We believe that parents must share responsibility for poor behaviour. We have no corporal punishment but we do have order. If a kid misbehaves the parents must come in - even if it inconveniences them.

Who are your heroes?

People who forge ahead despite the obstacles they find in their path. My parents because they had eight children and managed to feed, clothe and educate us all, as well as teaching us values. All of us have turned out to be good people. Harriet Tubman(the former black slave who helped others to escape) for having the courage to help those left behind and Booker T Washington the black educator, after whom this school is named.

What keeps you sane?

The children, especially when I see them smile or say thank you.

If you were Secretary for Education...

I'd ensure that every school was equipped with the technology needed for the new century. Smaller classes and improving national standards so that all children's needs are met.

How would you like to be remembered?

For really caring about the children and making sure that in the next five years our achievement levels have risen considerably.

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