High-Stakes Administrative Hiring

Using behavior-based questions when interviewing for principal vacancies can lead to informed decisions by MARY C. CLEMENT

The risks are high when it comes to hiring a new principal. A principal is accountable for the safety, well-being and achievement of all the children in a school, as well as for representing the school to the community.

As any superintendent or school board knows, a wrong hire can have disastrous results, consuming significant time to remediate or ultimately dismiss the employee. When a new principal can’t handle the demands of the job, staff morale plummets and the school’s image can take a beating. With increasing demands on building administrators, the hiring of principals certainly may be considered high stakes.

Mary ClementMary Clement researches hiring and induction of educators as a professor at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga.

For several years I have been promoting the use of behavior-based interviewing to hire new teachers. Simply stated, behavior-based interviewing is built on the premise that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. Long used in the business world, educators are turning to this approach as a better interview model for selecting top candidates.

When I’ve trained administrators in how to create behavior-based interviews for teachers, several have asked, “What would the set of questions look like for an interview to hire a principal?” Behavior-based interviewing can be applied to the hiring of new principals, making the selection process more objective and successful.

What Skills?
The first step in creating a list of questions for behavior-based interviewing is to identify the skills needed to do the job. Principals must know about students, their development and how they learn. Principals must be instructional leaders, knowing the curricula taught in their schools. Today that means having knowledge of state and national standards.

Tied directly to curriculum is assessment, knowing how to assess the achievement of students. The curriculum will not get taught without qualified teachers who know how to provide instruction, so principals must know what effective teaching looks like and how to hire, induct, supervise and retain successful teachers.

Principals need to know about facilities, which can include everything from knowing Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations to knowing how to start the heating system in the fall. School safety begins with the school facilities, but school safety now includes violence-prevention and zero-tolerance practices. The daily operations of the school, including attendance, student transportation and food services, all require principal oversight, and all require a budget, making finance another necessary skill.

A principal needs to be a public relations specialist to meet the needs of the community served by the school. Getting parent involvement can raise student attendance and graduation rates. Knowledge of school law will serve any principal well, as will experience with the school’s accrediting bodies. A principal’s leadership skills are demonstrated by how well he or she communicates with all constituents, defining and redefining the school’s mission. Leadership, vision and communication tie the other necessary skills together.

Creating Questions
With the skills identified, the interviewer can write the questions. Behavior-based interview questions do not include “tell me about yourself” or hypothetical questions. Rather, they are phrased to elicit examples of the candidate’s past experience and expertise. Questions begin with the phrases “Tell me about a time when …,” “How have you …” or “Describe a time when ….”

For example, to ascertain previous background with curriculum standards, the interviewer would ask, “Tell us about your background in meeting the state stand-ards with regard to curriculum.”

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A strong candidate probably would answer that he or she has been a teacher for eight years and has mapped the curriculum for both 2nd and 4th grades. Chairing a curriculum committee or grade-level team also shows leadership experience.

Many teachers assume leadership roles in their schools before serving as administrators. If a candidate is interviewing for a first administrative position, then the experiences cited will refer back to classroom teaching, committee work or an internship completed during the educational leadership coursework and certification process.

Leadership experiences outside of the school setting should not be overlooked. A teacher who has organized the community soccer league for four consecutive summers has much to offer as a school administrator. So does the teacher who has directed after-school programs or a scout camp. Obviously, if candidates have worked as a principal or assistant principal, they can talk about their school-level work as past experiences.

The result is the same. A candidate whose answers indicate experience and skills on the topic of the question may be more likely to perform the necessary action on the job.

While the list of sample questions seems exhaustive (see list, page 28), there may be other issues specific to your school that require more questions. Specific questions about grant writing, the opening of a new school, changes in student demographics, failure to meet state or NCLB standards and teacher morale might be added to the list.

Again, the premise of writing the questions is the same. Your questions should be worded to elicit examples of specific, relevant past experience.

Evaluating Answers
A wise administrator once said, “Never ask an interview question that can’t be evaluated.” The premise of behavior-based interviewing is that the employer writes a set of questions before the interview and then uses the same set of questions with each candidate.

For each question you intend to ask, consider how it will be evaluated. A simple three-category evaluation tool can work well: “unacceptable,” “acceptable” and “target.”

Sample Interview Questions

When conducting a behavior-based interview of candidates for an administrative opening in your school district, you can draw from these sample questions.

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An unacceptable answer indicates the candidate has had no experience with the topic. An acceptable answer indicates that the candidate has had some experience with the topic of the question and can articulate what he or she did. A target answer is right on the mark and demonstrates thorough experience and skill in the area. Other interviewers prefer to use numeric ratings, evaluating the answers on a scale of 1 to 5.

If a school needs to start a teacher induction program, the interviewer asks, “Tell us about your experience mentoring a new teacher.” The candidate responds, “For the research project in my master’s program, I designed a model induction program. After I got the paper back from my professor, I wanted to actually try to implement it so I went to our associate superintendent and outlined the plan. He agreed, and together we took the plan to the board for funding. Starting in the fall of 2006, all of our newly hired teachers participated in the program, which provided seven half-days of release time throughout the year for support seminars. If hired here, I would implement this program and add mentors to the program, if possible.”

This is a target answer and suggests the teacher had experience supporting new teachers, which can be a real plus for a new administrator.

When candidates are trained or coached in interviewing techniques, they typically are advised to pattern their answers around the acronyms of PAR and STAR. PAR represents problem, action and result, and STAR stands for situation, task, action and result. Listening for candidates to explain their experiences with a situation, task or problem, followed by a description of their actions and the outcome, will help you to evaluate the overall answer.

To answer the question “Tell us about successful programs you have used to raise student achievement,” a candidate must be able to explain a program they know from experience. A possible response might be, “In the school where I have taught for the last six years, we have struggled with getting all students’ reading scores up to the passing level. As faculty, we discussed the issue, then four of us visited another school to observe their Drop Everything And Read program. The four of us reported back to our faculty, and eventually we adopted the program. We had better results the second year because we implemented more training for the teachers before school started that year.”

This is a target answer because the candidate has experienced the problem, was part of a successful action and evaluated the result for further improvement.

Better Informed
Interviewing should be more than a gut feeling. Objectivity should replace subjectivity in the administrator selection process, as the stakes are high with regard to student achievement, faculty morale and community support. Taking the time to create a list of questions for behavior-based interviewing and then using that list consistently with each candidate should improve the quality of information you collect.

While some candidates still may be able to talk about leadership and vision without being able to lead a faculty toward improvement, the opposite also is true. A candidate who can’t articulate how he or she has been involved in hiring, budgets or student achievement may not know where to start with these issues when hired, much less be able to lead a faculty toward improvement.

No one has a crystal ball to predict a new administrator’s performance, but assessing the past behavior and relevant experiences of a candidate can lead to better-informed hiring decisions.

Mary Clement is a professor of teacher education at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga. E-mail: DrMaryClem@comcast.net. She is the author of Recruiting and Hiring Effective Teachers: A Behavior-Based Approach.