Good job interviews strengthen teacher recruitment.

Building a process for innovative interviews will boost your school culture and your teacher recruitment strategy.

By Marie Kressin Last Updated: January 31, 2023

According to school leaders, there was a time when teacher recruitment was no big deal. Just about any open position would pull a good number of candidates. Now, many of those same school leaders say they’re lucky to get two or three applicants per vacancy; sometimes, they get none at all. It’s clear that we’re living in a teacher’s market—and your interview process is a key component of your teacher recruitment strategy.

While you as the superintendent may not be in the room for every interview, it’s critical that you and your staff work together to create a cohesive and effective interview process for your district. The last thing you want is to hire a candidate who’s a great educator but a poor fit for your schools.

So, as an employer, how can you ensure your district’s interviewing process is finding candidates who will be effective educators and who will thrive—and stay—in your schools? We think it has to do with digging deeper and thinking differently.

Digging Deeper

Have you ever interviewed a candidate and thought they were amazing, only to realize a few weeks into their employment that they weren’t a great fit at all? The truth is, interviewing is a skill that can be honed with practice. But you aren’t just looking for someone who’s good at being interviewed; you’re hiring teachers who are good for your schools. So how do you find those perfect candidates?

Think differently about your questions.

Nowadays, online forums are full of questions that prospective teachers should expect during interviews—and the “best” answers to give in response. In fact, some articles offer word-for-word answers that interviewees can memorize. It’s natural for job seekers to use every resource available to them—and, of course, thorough preparation is a good sign from a prospective hire. But it’s important to remember that if you’re using canned questions, you’re likely to get canned responses.

If you want honest answers from your prospective candidates, try asking unexpected questions. We’re not saying you should intentionally throw your interviewee off or make them uncomfortable. Rather, try spinning archetypal interview questions into something that will encourage applicants to take their answers deeper. For example, instead of asking a candidate to tell you about themselves, ask them what they wish more people understood about them. Instead of asking them to describe their greatest weakness, try, If you could wake up tomorrow having gained a new ability, what would it be and why?

Another great way to think differently about your interview questions is to move beyond the basic question-and-answer model. Dr. Courtney Van Cleve, the State Director of Educator Talent Acquisition and Effectiveness at the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), says one way to do this is with performance tasks—anything that requires candidates to complete an in-person activity or solve a real-world problem.

For example, let’s say your district is focusing on learning environment issues. Why not ask your candidates to conduct a mock lesson to demonstrate how they’d establish behavior norms in their classrooms? If you don’t have the time or space for a demo lesson, consider taking a different approach. Let’s say 70% of your office referrals this year have been coded as “off-task behavior.” Why not show that data to your interviewees and ask them to brainstorm causes and solutions? Remind your candidates that there are no wrong answers; this is simply an opportunity for them to show off their collaborative problem-solving skills.

Interestingly, a recent survey conducted by the MDE showed that only 3% of teacher respondents reported conducting a demo lesson during their interviews. Only 2% reported doing an activity with student data. For Van Cleve, that’s an obvious opportunity for growth. After all, performance tasks are a great way to gain insight into how candidates will manage the specific challenges your schools face.

According to Van Cleve, role-playing can also give you authentic insight into a candidate’s personality and approach to problem-solving. For example, maybe your district has been fielding phone calls from parents with concerns about curriculum. Pretend to be one of those parents and ask the candidate to role-play as the teacher handling that conversation. “But then, give them feedback on their response and have them do it again,” Van Cleve suggests. Not only will this clue you into how a candidate will manage engaging with families, but it will also show you how they handle and respond to feedback. “Coachability is huge,” she says. “It’s your ability to respond to a given situation. We all have to be able to learn.”

Think differently about school culture.

Study after study shows that organizations with healthy, positive cultures enjoy heightened levels of productivity and retention. However, using cultural fit as a hiring requirement can be a bit sticky.

Patty McCord was the chief talent officer at Netflix for 14 years. In an opinion piece for Harvard Business Review, she writes: “What most people really mean when they say someone is a good fit culturally is that he or she is someone they’d like to have a beer with.” According to McCord, that’s a real problem. After all, personality isn’t always a good indicator of how successful someone will be in your organization. “This misguided hiring strategy can also contribute to a company’s lack of diversity,” McCord writes, “since very often the people we enjoy hanging out with have backgrounds much like our own.”

To be clear, we aren’t saying that it doesn’t matter if an employee buys into your school culture. We’re saying you have to be careful about how you screen for cultural fit during interviews. So how do you do that? It starts with being very clear about your district’s values. “Culture is the surface-level piece,” Van Cleve tells us. “Values are how you break culture down into discrete components and aligned actions.”

But identifying your core values is only the first step; you also have to determine how you will identify candidates who align with your values. In an interview with Forbes, Emily Tetto, vice president of talent and culture at marketing agency Acceleration Partners, says making decisions based on a gut feeling can derail your hiring process. She believes that in order to prevent your hiring process from being skewed by implicit biases, there must be a careful focus on facts throughout every interview. “We have to dig in and ask why. What are the facts? What did you see? What did you hear?” Tetto explains. “Your gut is biased, hire on facts.”

In other words, once you’ve identified your core values, define explicitly what those values look like in a potential hire. Van Cleve says one great way to screen for values during interviews is by asking candidates to “Describe a time...” For example, if relationships are one of your core values, ask candidates to describe a time when they saw their relationship with a student improve or to describe how they plan to prioritize relationships in their future classrooms.

The ultimate goal is to prevent culture from turning into an emphasis on likability. You have all kinds of students in your buildings; a staff that is diverse in every sense of the word provides more opportunities for your students to connect. At the end of the day, you want to hire candidates who will promote your fundamental vision and help you become the district you want to be.

Think differently about what it means to thrive.

Most educators are already bought into the mission of education—they’re there for the kids. That means they’ll probably buy into your district’s mission, too. It’s easy to get behind things like student success and excellence. What’s not so easy is recruiting teachers who will thrive in the day-to-day life of your district.

It’s important to remember that hiring the right candidate doesn’t necessarily mean hiring the candidate with the most prestigious degree. Say you have a few prospective teachers applying for the same position. Maybe one candidate is a first-year teacher with less experience, but she’s spent her whole life living in a rural town much like your own. That’s worth considering.

Another way to think about this is to ask yourself who thrives in your district and what attributes they share. Netflix once found that all their best data science employees shared an avid interest in music. They realized this was an indicator of people’s ability to switch between their left and right brains, so their recruiters started looking for a love of music on the resumes of prospective hires. Now, we aren’t saying you should hire folks who love Dr. Pepper because all your best teachers love Dr. Pepper. But maybe you notice that your best teachers are able to find humor in the more challenging moments of their jobs. Keep that in mind during interviews.

Van Cleve says there’s another easy way to identify which prospective candidates will thrive in the day-to-day life of your district. “Whenever humanly possible, make sure you’ve got teachers on your interview panel,” she tells us. No one knows better than your current teachers what it takes to be successful in your district.

Recruiting Teachers by Selling the Job

In every interview your district conducts, you’re trying to determine whether or not a candidate is right for your schools. At the same time, that candidate is trying to decide whether or not your district is right for them. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the interview as a marketing touch point.

McCord says that for Netflix recruiters, the goal “was to have every person who came for an interview walk away wanting the job.” But even as you sell the job, be honest about the work and the struggles prospective hires might face. The right people will see the most difficult parts of the job as exciting challenges.

Plus, even if the person you’re interviewing isn’t a good fit for your current vacancy, you still want them to be impressed by your district. Maybe they’ll be a good fit for another position down the road. Or maybe they’ll tell their teacher friends what a great experience they had with you, and one of those friends will apply in the future.

More often than not, though, the job and the district are only part of what you’re selling to prospective hires. Candidates will also be asking whether or not they could see themselves working with the people interviewing them. In fact, Van Cleve says that of the teachers surveyed by the MDE, 28% said the greatest influence on their decision to apply to their current district was a conversation they had with a school leader. Candidates aren’t just looking for good schools; they’re looking for good bosses and coworkers.

Just like most things in your district, your interviewing process comes down to building relationships. Every candidate is a person with a story to tell about who they are, where they come from, and where they hope to go—just as you have a story to tell about yourself and your district. So when it comes to hiring teachers, don’t be afraid to dig a little deeper. There’s no telling what—or who—you might find.

Originally published as "Interviewing Like a Boss" in the Winter 2023 edition of SchoolCEO Magazine.

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