Inquire Intensively When Hiring Staff

by John Reynolds and Harvey Polansky

It’s the middle of the school year and you have determined you will need to hire 10 new elementary teachers for the following September. You place an advertisement in the local paper and a few national publications. The flood gates open. Hundreds of applications flow in. How will you measure the caliber of 500 applicants?

Here’s our solution: Meet every applicant!

Based on a hiring model first developed in our neighboring district of Waterford, we view personnel selection as one our most important jobs. Hiring a teacher is often a decision that can affect learning for 30 years. We want to get to know the candidate in a real-life setting.

Too often, candidates who go through a traditional hiring process are measured by paper screening and how well they sell themselves in a finite period (20- to 30-minute interview). We believe pre-interview paper screening does not provide the breadth of understanding needed to evaluate a candidate. By meeting candidates, we can evaluate not only their vision of education, understanding of pedagogy, and ability to communicate, but we also can measure their excitement, and the light in their eyes.

Research suggests this process consumes the same amount of time as the traditional paper screenings and interviews. However, by pre-screening candidates who meet all certification requirements, we have found a direct correlation to the candidate’s ability to communicate ideas and their performance in the classroom.

Six Steps

We follow a six-step hiring process that begins in January with advertisements and ends in May when we offer the candidate a position.

* Disseminating information. Advertise in January and February and give a closing date of March 1 for positions to be filled the following school year. The number of openings will dictate this calendar. In years when we seek 20 candidates, our advertising placements are more extensive and the time frame is extended. In years when we need to fill few positions, we advertise locally.

We send advertising fliers to more than 20 college and university placement offices throughout our region. In the ad we indicate no one will be interviewed without current state certification or a letter of eligibility from the university. (Connecticut does not have reciprocity for teaching certification with other states.) We do not interview any candidate whose file is incomplete. We make candidates responsible for their own certification issues.

* Creating a database. We develop a database of all applicants. This can be done on a simple database program or on one of the many commercial software packages available. List the person’s name, address, university affiliation, and certification area and indicate whether the application packet is complete. Keep the paperwork separate.

Once all data is compiled, principals can request applicant files based on certification, experience, subject area, and so forth. The database automatically will generate a list of candidates who are not eligible for state certification or whose file is incomplete. The database also sorts applicants geographically so we can generate a list of candidates who live in the immediate vicinity. We start by contacting local candidates to arrange interviews.

* Pre-screening candidates. We set aside from three to six days for pre-screening interviews. We assemble three to five teams, each consisting of two administrators, to pre-screen applicants in 15-minute interviews. Applicants who meet certification requirements are pre-screened.

We ask three questions to give candidates a chance to discuss real-life experiences and their vision of their classroom. The wording changes annually, but the questions focus on three areas:

* description of a classroom setting and teaching strategies,

* how they would deal with a hypothetical parent issue, and

* what added skills they bring to the table.

We use rating sheets. Often if one team wants a second team to meet a candidate, he or she may be interviewed briefly by another team. Consensus comes easily around the top candidates.

By meeting candidates you can see that "light in their eyes."

* Screening candidates on paper. Once the teams have discussed what personal interviews showed of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and considered how candidate’s abilities matched building needs ("Hey we saw a strong math candidate. Isn’t your building looking for a strong 5th grade math teacher?"), the candidates’ resumes and college credentials are screened. This brief pre-screening interview permits you to screen the paperwork on only those applicants who performed favorably during the pre-screening interview. Paper screening can take as much as 40 minutes per candidate when determining whether to invite the candidate for the follow-up full-day interview, so by first meeting the candidate, a cursory, 15-minute review of credentials enables us to determine if the candidate stays in the pool.

In reviewing credentials we focus on academic preparation, previous experience, and those skills that set this candidate apart (travel, hobbies, research interest, specialty). If we find inconsistencies between the pre-screening interview and the paper review, the candidate is removed from the eligibility pool.

* Screening candidates at the building level. Each building follows the same full-day interviewing process. Candidates tell us it is the most thorough—and stressful—experience of their career.

At no time is the candidate left alone, as the schedule gives each candidate maximize exposure to the school’s stakeholders. Prospects are asked to spend the full day (often through late evening) in the school to meet with teachers, students, and parents for formal and informal dialogues. Candidates are asked to take over a class and teach a lesson. Candidates are asked to team teach to measure their ability to work collaboratively.

As part of this highly structured day, candidates meet with a site-based interview team. Each building sets up its own questions and inquiry since schools may be looking for different qualities. Candidates also are exposed to a parent simulation that will require the candidate to meet with parents and solve or reconcile an academic, disciplinary, or social conflict. After the parent simulation, the candidate is asked to follow up the meeting with a letter to the parents. Candidates are escorted to a computer classroom and asked to compose a letter of explanation to the same parent. This provides the team with evidence of the candidate’s writing ability and computer literacy.

The building team has three choices at the end of the data gathering and observation: reject the candidate, bring the prospective teacher back for further discussion, or recommend to the superintendent the hiring of the candidate.

* Superintendent review. The superintendent reserves the right to interview the building’s top choice or all three finalists. Often, other central-office personnel are asked to meet with candidates during this review.

At this level, questions focus on the candidate’s ability to discuss his or her experiences, pedagogy, and potential contribution to the school district. Assuming the candidate passes the superintendent’s inquiry, a letter of employment is developed.

Some Exceptions

We may use a different process for filling positions that require specific certification or for subject areas with a small pool of candidates. Particularly at the secondary level, the volume of applicants for such fields as physics, specialized mathematics, special education, and technology may not require a pre-screening process.

All special education positions are screened at the site level. With a limited candidate pool, some vacancies go through a more traditional pre-screening and paper screening. However, all candidates, regardless of level, go through this elaborate building screening.

John Reynolds is superintendent and Harvey Polansky is assistant superintendent in East Lyme Public Schools, East Lyme, Connecticut