Saturday, February 11, 2012

What do Principals Look for When They Hire?

As a principal, I liked having student teachers in the building. They are predominantly bright and keen and excited, and they bring an influx of positive energy to the school. They also remind me that teaching and learning is fun and sometimes a little bit scary, and as much as the universities are doing a better job than ever before preparing students for this work, there is still an awful lot to know about working with kids and working within an organization that cannot be learned by coursework alone. The kids like having student teachers because they are usually young and relatable and have some fun lessons they've been saving up for their practicum. The teachers like having them because it is great to have another adult in the room, it is enjoyable to be a mentor, and some have even told me it reminds them to get "on their game" and be just that much more prepared and self-aware about their own practice so their pre-service teacher gets the best experience possible. However, as engaging as this process may be for everybody, practice teaching is about the candidate moving along a continuum of knowledge and comfort and credentials so that they are ready to become a professional working teacher. To be blunt, this means getting a job.

The first thing I want to clarify is that I never have seen teaching as a job. You can call it a profession or a career if you like. I don't like to use the term "calling" because that has other connotations, but it is much more akin to that. You need to love working with young people, love working in a system, love your subject matter, love both being on stage and sitting along side, love learning and constant change, and know this is what you want to do. You need to be sure.  Just like the wands in Harry Potter (this is for you, Dani), you don't choose teaching; it chooses you. Assuming you have worked hard in your coursework, you have now developed your own style, you are keen to keep developing and moving forward, you have found that teaching an engaging lesson is a little addictive, you are already certain this is what you want to do, your time at the university is wrapping up and it is now time to start the application process, here are some things I and some others look for when hiring:
  • You need exact or very good credentials. For most jobs you should have course work or experience or both in the posted teaching areas to even get a look. This may not be the case for some more esoteric postings or as you apply to more remote areas; however, for most positions in the public school system, if we hire someone who is not qualified we may end up in grievance meetings, which is like a detention hall for principals. So, please be qualified or don't expect much.
  • I'm more likely to notice a resume that isn't exactly like everyone else's. If I have a big pile to go through, having a generic format doesn't help you get to the small pile. Make sure it is neat, properly proofread, looks professional, and has a collection of activities and experiences on there that might help you in your teaching career. Other teaching jobs (or similar jobs) clearly help, especially if your previous principal/supervisor has supported your work with a nice reference letter. 
  • It seems obvious, but if you mention an experience in your cover letter, there should be some specific mention of it in your resume.  
  • This is my own bias, but I hate folders or plastic covers. Also, submissions to district offices often need to be photocopied and/or faxed so please just take that thing off, and then be cautious with your colour choices as well. (My district has recently gone to an online process through Make a Future, eliminating the use of hardcopies.)
  • Some people like transcripts attached. If they show course work that supports the posting, that helps. Some people love high grades, too. I have mixed opinions on that one. While I certainly respect keenness and knowledge, I have also found that people who do too well in school sometimes have trouble relating to kids who don’t. Either way, we are probably not over-thinking this one and you shouldn't either.
  • References matter. Having someone with some credibility who I can contact who is willing to go to bat for you with first hand or close knowledge of your teaching is very helpful. Effusive people are nice to have as references, and if they call back within the hour because they are excited about you getting a job, it makes a positive impression. If I happen to know them myself, this is even better. Hiring is a high trust endeavour. 
  • Don't make me work too hard. I'm not lazy, but I may have a lot of applicants for this job and I may be on a very tight timeline. My wife (who works in another field) likes the "reference available by request" piece, but we disagree on this. I say put the information on there the first time.
  • If you call or drop by and introduce yourself, it shows you are interested and have a little gumption. It also helps me connect the resume to an actual person. It might not help you this time, but it might help you later. 
 Congrats, you made the short list and are going to be interviewed. What is next?
  • Know something about the school where you are applying. A quick trip to the website and a look through the school plan will give you some key pieces of information. Calling a staff member you know or one of the principals to find out more is only going to help you.
  • We are looking for great instructors first, great colleagues second, and great supporters of school culture third. This hasn't always been the case.  When we ask a question about the third piece, you can start talking about the team you want to coach or activity you want to sponsor. We still love that stuff, but it doesn't get you the job to the extent that it used to.
  • New teachers should not only have some solid working knowledge of formative assessment anyway, but should also have some tangible experience using these (and other!) strategies in a classroom. I am even more impressed when someone has a strategy or two that they are working on, and one they are planning to try next, and can speak to clearly to that. We are not looking for mastery - we are looking for people who are interested in learning themselves - hopefully for the rest of their careers. Real anecdotes go farther than theoretical knowledge.
  • You want to know what is going on in education. Having some opinions on technology in (and out of) the classroom should help you, as would knowledge of the BCED Plan and new curriculum, assuming you are in BC. Interviewers are going to start asking about collaboration and inquiry-based learning projects and all things PL and PBL, so you might want to have some ideas about what you would like to do in your subject areas.
  • When I am interviewing you, I am imagining you in a room full of students as you speak. If you are confident, clear, thoughtful, and engaging, I can see this working out for you. You don't know everything, but you should be genuinely interested in almost everything. If you can smile and laugh in an interview, you are more likely to enjoy yourself in a classroom, and be successful working with kids. 
  • That being said, we know this is nerve-wracking and it isn't going to be perfect. In one of my own interviews, I went blank for several seconds, and I mean total flat-line. Relax. We get it. If you make a mistake, shrug it off and move on. It's not like every moment in the classroom is going to be a gem, either.
  • If you don't get the job, don't take it too hard. [Telling a great candidate that they were not the successful applicant is my least favorite part of this job.] The competition was very tough, you are still a caring and committed professional, and there will be something out there for you. Build on what you learned in the process and use it next time. By the way, more than half of my hires have been on second or third interviews. 
Here are some quotes and contributions from other principals to add to the mix:

Cale Birk, South Kamloops Secondary: “Relationship piece and assessment are key--what do they feel role of assessment is for kids AND for the teacher? How do they discover what kids know?”

Chris Wejr, Kent Elementary: “Evidence of and focus on relationships with kids, and is a LEARNER themselves with evidence of HOW they stay up to date. [Candidates should be] collaborative, reflective, and perhaps even question current common practices. My Pet peeve is when applicants write/talk about all of THEIR accomplishments rather than kids.” Read Chris's blog on teacher training and the importance of technology by clicking here.

Johnny Bevacqua, St. Patrick’s Regional School: “Evidence of recent learning initiatives (innovation), use of technology to engage, sound use of assessment best practices, passion for subject area, and communication skills.” Read his blog on hiring by clicking here.

Aaron Parker, Chilliwack Middle School: “A couple non-researched observations including being able to answer what you did, rather than what you know or believe. Intangibles [also] count.”

Dani Garner, Bench Elementary: “Forward thinking instructional and assessment practices, that "je ne sais quois" that you just know translates to good relationships with kids, and willingness to collaborate and be a team player.“

Jeff Rowan, Frances Kelsey Secondary School: "I want to be convinced that the person in front of me knows how to connect with our most difficult kids and will make them have a successful experience in their class. How do you convince me? Talk about instructional practice, your experiences and show me your enthusiasm for the profession and learning."

Dave Dougan, Bench Elementary (Retired): "Varied experiences in their backgrounds. Hopefully [these] will provide them with common understandings to that they can make positive connections with their students."

Lynn Hilt, Brecknock Elementary, mentions "elaborating": “Please provide concrete examples of how this looks in your classroom, or how it would look. Paint me a picture. Even if I don’t get time to look through your portfolio, ask if I want to see it. One of the candidates actually left her portfolio with us, and included a self-addressed, stamped envelope for us to return it to her. Genius- although, better yet, give me the link to your online portfolio.” Read her entire blog on the topic of teacher interviews Emotions Available by Request by clicking here. If you really want to extend your thinking, spend some time going through the comments, too!

Michael Kee, District Principal, North Vancouver, wrote "the candidates considered must have demonstrated excellent qualities in all areas of the classroom, including instruction, assessment, and connections with students. We also look for the personal and personable qualities the applicant brings to the job. We further consider what the applicant brings and can contribute to the school and community." He describes his district's priorities for hiring here. 

Larry Ferlazzo collected some great responses for a recent Education Week (US) blog post on this same topic. Click here to read them.
Here is recent post giving tips for cover letters written by Deborah Snyder for Education Week (US).
This blog from Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) is more about doing the job than getting the job, but it has great advice either way. 
This article from TheEduEdge offers a pretty comprehensive look at the application and interview process. 
Here is a post that offers some good points on keeping your resume fresh.

Here are some actual questions I've asked in the past:

1. Tell me about your experiences teaching relevant courses.
1. This position has four courses with government exams at the end. Tell me about your relevant background and experiences in courses that have government exams.
1. Tell me about your background and experiences that prepared you for teaching these subjects.
2. How do you like to start a class in these teaching areas?
2. Describe some of the strategies you would use to teach a provincial exam course.
2. Describe your classroom management philosophy and routines.
2. Describe how you keep the learning environment and equipment organized in the gym/foods lab/shop.
2. Identify your greatest area of strength right now, and describe how it has evolved over time.
3. Tell me how you design a lesson.
3. What would it look like when I visit your classroom?
3. What do you think is the key to a high level of student engagement?
3. What assessment practice are you tinkering with currently?
4. Describe your assessment practice as a middle school educator.
4. Describe your assessment practice as a secondary school educator.
4. Tell me about a time you had to deal with a particularly challenging situation, and what you learned from it.
4. Tell me how you would provide feedback to students in regard to their learning. 
4. Describe your classroom management philosophy and routines in a regular classroom.
5. What experience do you have including technology into your educational practice?
5. Describe some ways that you like to check for understanding and how that might shape the instruction in your class.
6. Tell me about some ways you can work with students at different levels in the same class?
6. Tell us about your experience supporting literacy.
6. Tell me about your experience with or understanding of Distributed Learning..
6. Describe some other educational best practices you would incorporate into your teaching.
7. What strategies do you use to engage the most reluctant of learners?
7. Tell us about your specific library experiences.
7. Identify a formative assessment practice you would like to try in your classroom.
8. In what ways do you communicate with parents?
9. How do you help motivate reluctant learners?
9. Tell me some ways in which you would help build school culture.
10. Is there anything else you wanted to share?  Or ask us?

Here are some new questions I would be asking:
1. Tell us about an inquiry project you co-created with your students.
2. Tell us about a time you collaborated with another teacher or group of teachers to improve student learning. (Give an example of co-planning/co-teaching/co-assessing.)
3. Tell us about a time when students in your class were really engaged and what you are planning to do to duplicate that experience.
4. Tell us about a project idea you are developing or have used that allows students personalize their learning experience.
5. Tell us about a project that a student of yours completed that utilized some form of technology to meet learning outcomes.

I encourage principals and teacher candidates to add to the conversation in the box below. Good luck to all of you. Teaching is the greatest job -make that career -in the world!


  1. This is an amazing post. Thanks very much for this great insight. I know my "colleagues"/classmates will appreciate this too!

  2. Thank you Deryck for posting this to UVic's EdSA page. It is great to read a principal's perspective on the interview and hiring process.

  3. Thank you Peter for your insight!

    I have a question regarding references. To my understanding, the majority of districts prefer to have references from those who supervised a student teacher on their practicum. However, if you have a reference from working with young adults, would you (as a principal) like to see it included as supplemental information?

  4. Kate,
    I think when someone is applying for their first teaching position, principals want to see the practicum reports and talk to a couple of supervisors for sure, but because those sessions aren't really that extensive, your previous employment can be relevant, too. Jobs similar to teaching requiring leadership, responsibility, and interpersonal skills would weigh a little higher, and anyone who can speak earnestly to you being a great employee over a long period of time is a start. I recently hired someone whose main onshore reference (someone I know) was for four summers of ESL work. After you have worked as a TOC, and/or maybe had a short term contract or two, previous employment will not be relevant any more. Keep in mind though, supply and demand is a big factor in hiring, so the credentials required will slide up and down depending on the job and location. Good luck! PJ

  5. Peter,
    Thank you so much for your insight! I am currently an education student and have found a lot of general information regarding the interview process but I really appreciated how you included specific questions that may be asked. I will definitely be bookmarking this page to reference in the future :)

  6. Great post! I'm currently updating our district's hiring processes, and recently read this post, along with a number of the posts you identify above.

    As I travel around to our district's schools to meet student-teachers currently doing their practicums, I hope to share your post, along with the others, for them to consider as they prepare their applications.

  7. Thanks so much for this! As a new B.Ed graduate, I often feel like I'm a kid pretending to be an adult when it comes to the application process. This helped immensely.

  8. Thanks for sharing this very informative post, Peter! I'm sure it will definitely help a lot of individuals. The process of hiring someone is very extensive since it is very important to properly check someone's background before you can trust them to work under you. Companies often tend to get professional services to aid them with the screening process.

    Philip Watkins @ USA Fact