Wednesday, February 18, 2015

AV#127 - Hire your faculty this spring - not next summer

Ask any school leader you admire about the importance of hiring well, and invariably you get the same answer: it is critical.  Among their top two or three priorities.

“Nothing matters more than the decisions the principal makes about whom to hire, how to train, and who to let go. ‘Great vision without great people is irrelevant,’ as Jim Collins wrote in his classic book, Good to Great.” (215)
   Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World
More quotes from Ripley’s book, page 3
In that case, what’s wrong with this picture? Last summer, late July, school vacation was winding down, but all too often we saw principals (and staff) in a series of meetings, interviewing prospective teachers. Even early August.  Scrambling to get someone in front of that class.  Today, here’s the job! – and tomorrow, say hello to your 30 students! Good luck! 
So much for hiring deliberately, opening applications now, here in February and March, in order to get the best candidates to knock on your door … and hiring by (this would be my deadline) April 30. No later.

It seldom happens today.  We hear many reasons why. Principals say they have too much else on their plate just now, and will until … until the kids leave. “I’ll get to it when the building is empty and I can see daylight … maybe June….” In contrast, we read of successful firms where the bosses “spend a disproportionate amount of time on the recruitment process, often putting it before other more immediately lucrative demands on their time.”[1] The rationale for the late hiring by principals makes no sense if you believe that a school and teacher should be a great match, and that preparing for the school year—this grade, these classes, these specific students—cannot be done well some weekend in late July.

Ok, I confess, I was a summer-time hire, twice, so if you want, put me in that category of: teacher hired after no one else wanted him, but under the circumstances, I guess he’s the best we can do. Little prep time, much of the curriculum new to me.  Yes, it can be done, and sometimes it works out fine.  But I fear this last-minute hiring has become too much the norm. It is shabby and unprofessional.  It should stop.

Why hire in the spring? Three reasons: schools should choose the staff they want; teachers should choose the schools where they want to teach—perhaps phrased even better, where they want to be; and the choice should be reciprocal—the hiring process should be a courtship, not a shotgun marriage.
1.      Schools choose: In the belief that who we hire is absolutely critical, schools should get a clear sense from the faculty who will not be returning and post openings in the late winter/early spring. This way, a good number of strong and eager applicants will be knocking on the door.  A school ought to be choosy. But he who hesitates is … losing out on the top candidates.  

2.      Teachers choose: There is much silly talk (offensive to most educators), about “placing” teachers in low-performing schools, equitably “distributing” them, like pawns…[2] (See my “Don’t distribute me” from Nov. 2009 - This job might soon be 50 to 80 hours of our week, it will deeply affect our emotional well-being, so it must be a school community (not just our classroom, not just “the job”) that we choose—rather than “a building we are put in”—or worse, where we’re hired in desperation just days  before the opening bell.

We have taken positive steps of late to make the concept of schools-of-choice—at least in our large school districts—meaningful for parents and students. We must recognize the benefits when teachers, too, choose their schools, their place of work.  The criteria are much the same for both families and educators: Is the school climate and philosophy a good fit?  Do you respect the school leadership and the faculty you meet? And as would-be parents and teachers are likely to hear only positive talk during their visit about recent trends and accomplishments, both ought to then go home and see if the data on the school’s performance supports these claims.

3.      A good hire is a good match; it is a reciprocal choice. Capable teachers should have more than one school interested in hiring them, and they should be able to visit the school, spend time in classrooms and with several teachers, and get a sense if this feels right.  Instead of the speed dating in August, this should be a slow courtship.  Get to know each other! I loved the way one school invited me to come spend a full day, teach a class, have lunch with several teachers, and chat with students so that they could all see if I was the new English teacher they wanted.  (Their voice mattered, as I learned later, in hiring decisions.) At the same time, my time there gave me a chance to see if this school had the values and climate where I would feel at home.  Trust was established—on both sides.  That alone is huge.  Once hired—in April—that day-long visit informed my thinking and planning for my classes over the next four months. (To say nothing of the reading:  the curriculum for junior English included Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and much more.  I had a lot to do to prepare that summer, and was deeply grateful for this time between my hiring and my first class.)

How often we remind (“hassle”?) our students with the old line: Don’t procrastinate.

But when it comes to hiring, far too often, it is we who are guilty. Let’s try to be the adults in the room and get this job done on time.

In the spring, not the summer.

From The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley
Four excerpts on hiring with care, and hiring the best

1. “…as one Korean policymaker famously said, ‘The quality of an educational system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.’” (63)

2. (In the 1970s)“… Finland was desperate to modernize, and the country’s leaders agreed that education was the only thing that could save their country from being left behind. The more I read the history and talked to Finns who understood it, the more I admired the common sense running through the story. The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously. So that’s what they did. It was a radically obvious strategy that few countries have attempted. (89)

It’s a catchy title,
and since it was a bestseller—
on education no less!—
who am I to suggest a better title?
But as “how they got that way” was largely about who teaches,
I will. See –>

(Just not sure it will fit on the cover quite as well!)


the smartest system
in the world
for hiring the best teachers
who – surprise surprise –
offer such an
exceptional quality of instruction
that their classrooms produce
kids in
the world
amanda ripley
3.  Miroslaw Handke pushed a number of reforms in Poland during his four years as the country’s minister of education, 1997-2000.  While studying the education system in Poland for her book, Ripley with Handke in 2012 and asked:
“… what he would do if he could go back and push one last change before he died. He did not hesitate.”
    “The teachers.  Everything is based on the teachers. We need good teachers-well-prepared, well-chosen….” (147)

4.  “ … about one in five applicants made it to the in-person interview. There, she asked the candidates to teach two mock lessons while she watched, something U.S. teachers are rarely asked to do before being hired. That way, she could get a sense of whether they would be able to teach. It was a radically logical hiring strategy.” (172)

[1] Another observation: “Above all, these firms are fanatical about recruiting new employees who are not just the most talented but also the best suited to a particular corporate culture.” From “Simply the best,” The Economist, a review of What It Takes: Seven Secrets of Success from the World’s Greatest Professional Firms, by Charles Ellis, 4/13/14.
[2] Three recent examples: 1) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “in a July 7 letter to the national chief state school officers, called for states to demonstrate how they will put strong teachers in all classrooms—not just in the well-resourced ones.” (Arthur Levine, “15 Ways to Draw Great Teachers to High-Need Schools,” Education Week, (8/1/14);  2) “put systems in place to equally distribute qualified teachers” (; 3) “Miami-Dade was not the only place across the country that has trouble placing top teachers in low-income schools” (, 8/26/14)  (Bold mine)

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the
view of any organization he is associated with.  Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /

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