Focus

Applying Credibility to Teacher Hiring

A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.” by R. Gerard Longo

She was less than 5 feet tall and appeared flustered and hurried. She was dwarfed by the high school students she was assigned to teach. She told the home economics class she was running late and hadn’t eaten. Once she captured their attention with her ruse, she sat and hurriedly ate a small sandwich from her brown lunch bag.

She asked the class to forgive her bad manners as she passed out a brown bag to each student. The bag contained realistic food cutouts and important nutritional facts. With all eyes resting on her, the home economics teacher candidate began her demonstration lesson on the food guide pyramid, a wonderfully imaginative approach to teaching one of the most important lessons of her young career.

A Credible Approach
How can a school district use a hiring policy to improve the quality of its teaching force? Even though a district may have superb facilities and curriculum, student achievement requires skilled and caring teachers. Good teachers promote learning and capture the hearts and minds of students. Perhaps the most important duty a superintendent fulfills is to recommend the best teachers he or she can find.

Over a 10-year period, the Quaker Valley School District in Sewickley, Pa., replaced 70 percent of its teachers. To deal with these substantial employment needs, we created a “Hire the Best” policy, which served as a process for identifying the most qualified teacher candidates. Some of our hiring procedures are fairly common among school districts. We search aggressively, match credentials to needs and screen countless candidates.

Subsequently, our tactics diverge from the norm. Because we want our staff and community to appreciate the importance we place on teaching, we involve teachers and students in the hiring process. Their participation removes the mystique of how and why a teacher is chosen. Involvement makes the hiring process credible.

Teams composed of the principal and three to five teachers from the school with the vacancy interview as many as six top candidates. Interviews are structured but allow for questions that arise.

The team determines which candidates align best with school and district priorities. Once the field is narrowed, semi-finalists teach a 20-minute demonstration lesson to a class of students from the school where the vacancy exists. Candidates are provided the same instructional objective. The team observes the lesson and then reviews the session with the candidate.

Later, the principal questions the students about their observations of the lesson. Feedback from the students to the team is helpful. We have learned that even elementary students have insight into effective teaching. Students praise candidates who allow them to demonstrate prior knowledge or who set aside time to get to know them. While students are sympathetic to the candidates and their difficult task, they understand their responsibility and are critical of poor performance.

The demonstration lesson is the most vital part of our hiring process. When candidates are able to deliver a well-planned and executed lesson to students under close scrutiny and within tight time constraints, they likely have the competence we require.

Once the team reaches consensus, they send two candidates to the superintendent. Prior to this last interview, an administrator uses Gallup’s “Perceiver Interview” to gauge the potential contributions of each candidate. After the superintendent reviews the record and interviews the finalists, he consults with the interview team before recommending a candidate for employment.

School boards and superintendents feel pressure when teaching vacancies need to be filled. Substitutes, community members and district alumni believe they have an entitlement to these positions. Because teacher employment decisions may directly affect the quality of learning in our schools for decades, a superintendent must ensure that a consistent and focused selection process that’s understood by the staff and community is in place.

In our district, the Hire the Best policy is a hallmark program that results in improved student achievement, increased respect for teachers and enhanced public relations. Since its inception, test scores have steadily risen, ranking our district among the best in Pennsylvania. Student participation in challenging curriculum has increased appreciably. The number of coaches and club sponsors who teach in the district has risen. We received National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence awards for each of our four schools, developed an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme and were named one of three award-winning Digital School Districts in our state. In the last two years, 4 percent of our teachers have earned national board certification. In districtwide surveys, parents tend to believe the district “has assembled a high quality staff and utilizes personnel effectively.”

A Rigorous Process
Hiring the best is not easy to do and may be why many school districts do not try. It is time consuming, labor intensive and sometimes politically unpopular. Instead of blaming poor teaching on unions or tenure, our district has chosen a different path and it has made all the difference.

In a time when No Child Left Behind legislation and high-stakes testing have increased accountability for students, teachers and school districts, we cannot ignore the difference made by effective employment practices. School districts employing only the best-qualified candidates as teachers will outperform those that settle for less. You can stake your job on it.

Gerard Longo is superintendent of the Quaker Valley School District, 203 Graham St., Sewickley, PA 15143. E-mail: longoj@qvsd.org.