The 20-Minute Hiring Assessment

How to ensure you’re hiring the best by gauging educator dispositions by M. Mark Wasicsko

“Tell me how you used your sense of humor to defuse a difficult situation or teach an important lesson.”

Queries of this sort can be used in an interview to increase the likelihood of hiring high-quality teachers and administrators. Spending time and effort to ensure we hire only people-centered educators who, in addition to possessing significant knowledge and skills, have the attitudes to be effective with students is probably the single most important thing we can do to raise educational performance.

Here is a strategy for a 20-minute interview that can provide insight into an applicant’s dispositions — a personal characteristic difficult to quickly assess yet possibly the most important factor in long-term success.

Experience suggests few teachers fail because of lack of knowledge of their subject or inadequate teaching skills (classroom management being the most common exception). Most teachers who do not succeed fail because they do not have the right dispositions. When we hire a teacher who turns out to be a “dispositional misfit,” our time gets gobbled up, our stress level increases and we worry about the educational and legal ramifications of the teacher’s poor performance. It is difficult, if not impossible, to change an adult’s disposition.

Conversely, when we hire a teacher with the right disposition, students learn and grow, parents are happier and district administrators can attend to the business of education.

A Research Base

The pioneering work of the late Arthur W. Combs, editor of the ASCD Yearbook Perceiving, Behaving, Becoming, and The Schools We Need, shows that effective and ineffective educators differ significantly in their dispositions toward self, students and teaching. These findings can be used during the hiring process to dramatically increase the odds of identifying potentially successful teachers and rejecting the negative few who burden the system with time- and energy-zapping personnel issues.

In a nutshell, this is what research by Combs tells us about dispositions:

  • Disposition toward self.
    Effective teachers have an innate ability to identify with students with diverse abilities and backgrounds. When it comes to identifying with students, what one 10-year-old girl said about her favorite teacher sums it up: “She can see what the world looks like through my shoes.”

    These teachers also have positive yet realistic self-perceptions exhibited by their “can-do” attitudes, usually expressed by a belief they can help virtually any student. Not surprisingly, ineffective teachers show difficulty identifying with and teaching some students, frequently have doubts about their ability to deal with situations they encounter and tend to be less optimistic and upbeat.

  • Disposition toward students.
    When people are asked what they remember about the one teacher who had the greatest positive impact on their lives, their first recollections are typically about the teacher’s dispositions. “She liked me,” “She cared about me,” “He made me feel worthwhile and important” and “She maintained high expectations of me” are common refrains. The best teachers have positive dispositions about students.

    Research indicates that effective teachers think their students are able, worthy and valuable and believe all students are capable of learning. Conversely, the worst performers have low expectations of students and find many excuses for why they fail. My own 4th-grade teacher confided in my mother at a parent-teacher conference: “I was really cut out to teach gifted students, but they keep sending me kids like your son.” Sadly, this teacher continued to teach for more than 20 years.

  • Disposition toward teaching.
    Research tells us that effective teachers are people-oriented rather than thing-oriented, These teachers expend a good deal of effort building positive relationships with students, colleagues and the community, and they maintain a service orientation. They see the larger issues rather than the more immediate and less important ones and seem to constantly ask themselves, “How will my students be better 10 years from now because of what we are doing today?”

    Ineffective teachers tend to focus on the mundane, short-range, non-personal aspects of teaching. I remember my high school math teacher completing his daily nine math problems on the blackboard even after the PA announcement that President Kennedy had been assassinated. He clearly didn’t see the larger implications for young, impressionable and traumatized minds.

Crafted Questions

We can apply these research findings through the use of carefully crafted interview questions that will significantly enhance the prospect of hiring the best candidate. The most effective questions are unconventional and unanticipated and get people off their prepared scripts. The goal is to engage applicants in conversation about things that interest and enliven them and then gauge their dispositions by listening carefully to their responses.

These are six of my favorite interview questions.

  • How would your students describe you to others?
    The best candidates will quickly recognize that this is a question within a question. To answer it well, applicants will have to have some idea about what students think of them and will identify their own strengths and weaknesses without having to be asked that question directly. Answers to this question will provide insights into how candidates see students and themselves.

  • Tell about a situation in which you helped a person or taught a significant lesson.
    This is one of my favorite questions mainly because it is so open-ended. The candidate can take it anywhere and it gets at the root of his or her educational philosophy. When I use this question I look for evidence the applicant can see the world through the student’s eyes rather than just talk mechanically about what actions were taken by the teacher. If the focus of the answer is on the applicant and not on the one being helped, you may infer that the person is more self-centered and might have a difficult time identifying with some students.

  • Describe your perfect day.
    I had an applicant tell me he would sleep until noon, then lie in bed the rest of the day watching TV and eating snack foods. I didn’t hire him. From the answers to this question, inferences can be made about applicants’ priorities (did they mention anything about teaching or learning something new?), about whether they are people-centered (did they talk about interacting with others?), and about their energy and motivational levels.

  • What kinds of problems do people bring to you?
    Through answers to this question, we can find out not only if others have confidence in the person but also can gain insight into the candidate’s helping style. A good follow-up question is to ask what advice was given and how the person responded. This question is especially good for gaining insight into the candidate’s dispositions regarding teaching and learning.

  • If your life works out the best you can imagine, what will you be doing in 5 years?
    I like this question for two reasons. First, it tells whether a candidate is forward-looking and whether he or she can think beyond the immediate. Second, I am always on the lookout for talent. I have found some of the best lead teachers, department heads and future administrators by listening to what people aspire to. I also have had applicants tell me that they only planned to teach until they could find a better job.

  • How do you maintain balance in your life? What do you do for fun?
    The research about educators who maintain positive mental health indicates they have found a way to balance work and play. They realize that being a teacher is more than a job but less than a life. Without this balance, people burn out and leave the profession. This is usually the best question for getting people to engage and open up. I look for answers that indicate the person knows how to have responsible fun.

When I asked this question to a candidate who had been sent to me for final approval after receiving glowing marks from the search committee, he told me he enjoyed martial arts. As I showed interest, he confided in me about his participation in a type of martial arts that had a small, cult-like following with some rather bizarre rituals. It wasn’t long before I was convinced he was not someone I wanted teaching children. It further convinced me that people tell the truth about themselves if we can just hear beyond what they say to get to what they mean.

Between Lines

When using these questions, keep the following guidelines in mind. First, none of the questions has a right or wrong answer. You gain the best insights by listening to the applicants’ answers and then reading between the lines to infer their dispositions.

Second, you must treat the answers as you would any other self-reported information, knowing that the applicants will attempt to present themselves in the best possible light.

Third, the typical candidate prepares for an interview by anticipating the job expectations and preparing a series of memorized, socially desirable answers that align with the expected criteria. To learn about their dispositions, you must get beyond the prepared remarks.

Fourth, start the interview with a common question — “Why are you a good fit for this position at this time?” or “What is it about this position that interests you?” — before you move into the questions I’ve suggested.

Finally, always offer applicants an opportunity to ask you questions. The type and quality of their questions provide significant insight into what the candidates see as important.

Gleaning Inferences

The art of inferring dispositions is significantly enhanced through practice and by using research-based rubrics. More information on tools to infer dispositions can be found at www.teacherdispositions.org, a website maintained by the National Network for the Study of Educator Dispositions at Eastern Kentucky University.

Within the next decade our nation’s schools will require more than 2.4 million new teachers. Recruiting and selecting these new educators offer monumental challenges as well as the greatest opportunity for improving the quality of education. Those responsible for personnel decisions have an ethical responsibility to hire candidates with dispositions that will have a positive impact on students.

Mark Wasicsko, a former department head, is dean of the college of education at Eastern Kentucky University, 420 Bert Combs Building, 521 Lancaster Ave., Richmond, KY 40475. E-mail: mark.wasicsko@eku.edu