Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hiring Mission

                Fortunately, this year we have little hiring to do. There is not much turnover, and those leaving are doing so for family reasons. People stay here a long time, which is a tremendous tribute to them and to the school. Having received resumes from many strong applicants, I feel certain that we will find wonderful additions to the staff.
                For those few open positions, we’ve had many, many more applicants than I anticipated. People want to work in this community. Many applications have been unsolicited and general, the person simply hopeful  that we might have any opening in which he or she person could fit. This means we have a wealth of options. At the same time, I feel a tinge a touch of sadness. Several applicants have either been affected by budget cuts or grown totally disenchanted with their roles in the public system. Some people are making a career change, and I wonder if it was really by choice. Many seem to be fleeing a situation more than moving towards something. Also, teachers looking for their first position have it particularly tough.
                Hiring in a school is more complex than many people realize. The annual cycle imposes restraints. It’s not simply a matter of finding, for example, a sixth grade math teacher. Of course, basics exist: degree, experience, love of kids, et cetera. But then it becomes like fitting a tile into a mosaic. What are the person’s relative strengths and weaknesses? How would he fit into the team? The division? The vertical team? The school culture? What would she bring outside the classroom? Can he help advance a larger vision of where the school needs to go? What is the potential, good and bad? Does she add a missing ingredient? Does he have “it”?
                Risk always exists in hiring, no matter how much you try to calculate and minimize it. So much of what comprises a quality teacher defies objective quantification. Plus effective teaching is much easier to spout expertise about than it is to achieve.  I remember one case from many years ago. A woman impressed everyone with her vision for teaching writing and a great lesson to which she kept referring. In her demo she used something similar. We were blown away. Unfortunately, she turned out to be a two-trick pony.  (Yes, we checked her references. I could write another long post on reference checks.)
                In some ways the entire interview process has flaws. The end goal is to hire the best possible teacher for kids…yet most of the day is spent talking with adults. The teaching demo can prove revealing, but even that has inherent limitations. In some key ways the candidate is in an unfair position. She doesn’t know the kids, the curriculum, the progress, the gaps, the lingo. She and the students haven’t negotiated the implicit contract of expectations.
                Despite those issues, to me the classroom demo is key. In the classroom, the candidate can’t fake it. I can gauge the comfort, the instincts, the rapport. And just as I do when watching any teacher, I focus much of my attention on the kids. Very quickly I can sense the kids’ gut reaction. Also, what really matters in a class is student activity. Even in a demo lesson, the most impressive candidates create a student-centered experience. This kind of teacher focuses on student growth, on setting up kids for an engaging activity and guiding them towards successful understanding. It suggests how he enacts his philosophy. It also demonstrates courage.
                And therein lies the key. In Good to Great, Jim Collins emphasizes getting the right people on the bus and moving them to the right seats. In schools, I link this notion to the common saying “You learn by the company you keep.”  Similarly, much of what directs learning is a conception of whom a student imagines becoming. So it’s about much more than hiring the best possible classroom teacher for the job. It’s about hiring an adult who embodies the ideals of our mission.

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