A Sure Way To Select Less-than-the-Best Principals

by Bob Turner

As the central-office administrator responsible for personnel, you have been charged with hiring a new principal for your school district. Protocol requires you to work with a committee of teachers and parents from the building with the vacancy, community representatives and district-level employees to identify your top candidate(s).

Your first executive decision: do you want the best candidates available? These probably would be those principals who are highly successful where they are now. These are site administrators whose work tends to score high marks from the school board, the superintendent, faculty members, students and the community. Typically, they are content to stay where they are unless something better presents itself.

If this is the principal you want, skip the next section.

Negative Impressions

If any principal will do—if you’re inclined to fill a vacancy with a warm body—let me offer a surefire way to attract a mediocre principal to your district’s administrative team.

When it’s time to start building your committee, bring in the staff’s No. 1 "bell cow," or negative opinion leader. You’ll recognize this faculty member as the one whom the positive teachers tiptoe around, so as not to upset him. (Your rationale goes something like this: "Let’s allow him input, so he’ll be behind our choice from the get-go.")

Next, add other faculty members who will negatively impress your prospects. Include a teacher who looks like he needs a Geritol I.V. to sit upright. Select one who is still wearing double-knit polyester pants suit or who doesn’t own a tie, let alone a coordinated suit.

Then, instruct your committee members to scowl during the interviews, or at least look like they have a headache. Hopefully, none will connect with the candidate; you don’t want the candidate to think, "Wow! I can’t wait to work with these people. They are so vivacious and stimulating!"

Ensure that no time is allotted to a candidate to warm up a little, to build rapport with the committee. Don’t bother to offer the candidate a drink before the interview begins. Keep the interview to an hour or less so that no important "rabbits" can be chased and no in-depth answers can be formulated and discussed.

Remember, you are trying to attract just "any" principal—someone who’s just about to be run out of his or her current position.

Energetic Ambassadors

Alternatively, if you want the best principal for your vacancy, start by re-reading the quotation at the beginning: If you’ve got good faculty, you’ll get more good faculty! Therefore, when you assemble your screening panel, bring out your best teachers to be committee members for interviews. Draft positive, energetic teachers who want the best for their school and its students and, contrary to the negative leaders, not what is best for them.

A principal’s job is about fostering relationships so the candidate is looking for exciting people to work with. Your best teachers undoubtedly make good eye contact, smile and nod and, better yet, laugh once in a while. They dress professionally and they connect with candidates.

Follow the same advice when adding your parent and community members: Pick the best representatives you have available.

Professional Probing

During the interview, allow ample time to put the candidate at ease and build rapport with your committee members. Offer a soda or cup of coffee. Ask about personal interests, such as family and hobbies.

Avoid round-robin questioning. Instead, allow questions to logically take off and build on one another. Ninety minutes is a good minimum for an interview, which should allow time for good questions, good answers and thorough probing of those answers.

Of course, the candidate is attempting to attract you to him or her, but the reverse is also true: you and your organization are trying to attract the candidate to you. In the same way that the applicant has only one opportunity to make a good impression on you, you have one shot at making a good impression. You want to attract a candidate who has no reason for leaving a current position, other than the fact your position is more attractive!

How does your district stack up against these two divergent scenarios? Is your top candidate going to want to begin working with you?

Bob Turner is co-principal of Clifton Elementary School, 706 W. 11th St., Clifton, Texas 76634. E-mail: