Summer: a season of vacancies, interviews, interview questions, and hiring practices

Screening before Interviews

Education, like nature, has seasons, clear divisions within the year, and in education, the summer is the hiring season. An administrator’s job requires a variety of skills, and at the top of the list is hiring the right people. One common challenge is an abundance of applicants for a single position. Although, a school may hire ten new teachers, each may teach a different content or grade level, so finding the “right” applicant to fit the needs of the school requires an interview process that informs the interviewers so they know why one candidate is superior over the rest.

Very often, several of the candidates for a single position are stellar. Their GPA is high, their practicum experience is solid, and they have an incredible portfolio filled with great recommendations. So how does the principal know how to find the right teacher to replace the 35-year veteran rock star English teacher who decided to retire, leaving a huge vacancy and a lot of opportunity? In a pool of applicants, how do you even know who to call in for interviews? We suggest two, very different, but equally effective strategies:

1. Strategy #1: With a pool of over 100 applicants for one job, and we’ve both experienced this, the first job of the interview panel is to screen applicants. Your interview panel should consist of the people with “skin in the game” for this new hire—supervisor, department chair, grade level leader, other department members, teaching partner, counselor, behavioral interventionists, etc. Instead of just having this team interview several candidates, have them screen applicants. A team approach to determining which sets of paperwork equal face-to-face interviews is better than you at your desk doing this alone.

2. Strategy #2: Conduct a group interview. If you can’t narrow down the number of applicants to a reasonable number for individual interviews, conduct a large group interview as a first level before individuals are called back. This way, you get to see as many candidates as possible before narrowing the playing field. If you’re like us, you’re nervous that you might miss the needle in the haystack. Fix that problem by calling in all or most of the people who applied for the job. Say you post a band director’s position and 30 people apply, call them all in for a group interview.

But the problem with hiring is not just getting the right person for the teaching position, it’s finding the next great leader in your school.

Hiring Leaders

It would be easier if you were just hiring a teacher. But a school’s success is not limited to the classroom; it extends to the culture of the school that this new teacher will contribute to. Circumstance is important. Often, your rock star English teacher did more than teach English. Maybe he ran the yearbook, drama program, or another important after school activity whereby the success of the program hinged on the person in charge. That’s an incredible void to fill in a school. We often have current teachers waiting in the wings to step into the vacant roll; truth be told, we often do not. Regardless of the circumstances, the key is to clearly identify the attributes and skills you are looking for in your candidates, as well as their future potential.

In our current climate, when we have vacancies to fill in our schools, we’re not just looking for great teachers, we’re looking for teacher leaders.

For more information on how to identify the right candidates and future leaders, watch this quick video from hiring expert Claudio Fernando Araoz.

Even leadership might not be enough, schools need teachers that are a “best fit” for the position and the culture. A new principal just recently told us that he wanted teachers who were good for the school, not just good at their job.

The Right Person for the Position

A common mistake we make in education is having too narrow of a view of the vacancy we are looking to fill. Content is one thing, but we typically focus on that, especially in the secondary arena. The truth is that many of the applicants are skilled and know their content very well. Your screening process should allow you to select and interview the most qualified applicants based on grades, recommendations, work history, etc. Next, the interview process should be set up so that you can find the right person. Let’s focus on three areas to improve your interviewing practices:

1. First, setting the right environment and tone for the candidate is your first opportunity to establish the culture of excellence of your school and to determine who will best meet your needs. How you conduct the interview is critical. Even something as simple as establishing who on the panel will ask each interview question can be a game changer. Creating an environment that allows for conversation and dialogue provides the interviewee an opportunity to expand on their responses, giving the committee the chance to know the candidates better. Matching the panelist to the question that aligns to an interest they bring to the table means you’ve determined the most critical ear for each question. Reflect on the following questions to determine if you are creating the right environment to gauge the best candidate for the job.

  • How do you conduct your interviews?
  • Who is on your interview committee?
  • Have you created a welcoming environment?

2. Second, there’s a great deal of information to gather without questions. An interview is a performance of sorts. This is not to say that you rule out those who are nervous or may stumble. But, we suggest that you also focus on the non-verbal attributes that speak to the candidates’ work ethic, talent, and possibilities within your organization.

  • How prepared is the candidate? Did they know the school?
  • How did the candidate greet the interview committee?
  • Did the candidate have good body language, such as eye contact?
  • Did they have a portfolio? How well was it organized? Did it have student samples or just teacher created materials?
  • What was their level of confidence?
  • What vibe did they bring to the table?

3. Third, how good are the questions that you do ask? The unfortunate truth is that most interviews ask the same common questions similar to every other educational interview rather than asking more thoughtful questions that actually allow the panel to distinguish between good and great candidates. The example is in starting the interview in the same boring way with: “please tell us about yourself?” or “Please describe your educational and professional experiences that qualify you for this position.” Rarely can the candidate tell you anything more than you can find on their resume. That’s wasted time in the short time frame you have with them.

Too often we trap ourselves by asking questions that sound good, but don’t inform us. Once you establish what you are looking for in the teacher, then create your questions, designed specifically to find the right candidate. Asking question and knowing what you are listening for will allow you to discern the best candidate for your individual vacancies. If you’re asking the same questions no matter what the position is for hire, think differently. In developing questions, use the following general areas for guidance:

  • Instructional questions.
  • Classroom climate questions.
  • Student rapport questions.
  • Assessment questions.
  • Problem solving questions.
  • School culture questions.
  • Teacher leadership questions.

Avoid asking questions that don’t inform you but could likely influence your decision, such as “are you willing to work extracurricular activities?” At the interview table, what do you think the answer is going to be?

For more information on asking the right questions, visit this article found on the Forbes site.

Innovate

The last tip we like to give is to be innovative with your hiring process. Group interviews is one way to spice things up—it gives you a chance to see how candidates interact within a larger setting, it allows you to pose questions that get people to respond to peers, and it deepens the pool before individual interviews. But, it’s not the only way to conduct better more innovative and informative interviews. Another innovative practice is to create performance tasks. Since hiring season generally occurs in the summer, teaching a lesson is out of the question if you want authenticity. We don’t suggest having your candidates teach a lesson to the panel; that’s too canned. That said, they can create a lesson and describe it, critique a prepared lesson plan that you give them, read an IEP coupled with a lesson to discuss how they might accommodate the student, or any other performance indicator that gives you some insight into their thinking about teaching and learning. Even providing scenarios can be more informative than just asking a set of questions. In any event, we encourage you to think outside-the-box about finding the right people for your school.

Arguably hiring the right people is the most important job of the principal. It’s complex and time consuming, but we think some simple strategies can help. Let us know how your hiring season goes.

Joe & T.J.

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