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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Interviewing for "Best Fit"

Interviewing for “Best Fit”

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

You want your school to become more like your new teachers; you don’t want your new teachers to become more like your school.

– Dr.’s Beth and Todd Whitaker, Indiana State University

‘Tis nearly the season to improve our schools for next year and beyond, and as Professors Whitaker shared recently at a Principal Intern seminar in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University, there are two ways to do it:  (1) Improve your existing teachers, or (2) Hire better ones. 

The latter is the quickest and the fastest.

Preparing to hire new teachers in K-12 involves a landscape analysis of our schools’ current and future needs, as well as arduous effort in recruiting.  A well-crafted screening process also helps winnow the field of potential candidates, yet as we all know, the real work begins shortly thereafter. 

This week’s five-minute short read involves “that next step” beyond the aforementioned: The Interview Process.

Advice shared herein is presented with the intent of offering a “Loose/Tight” framework for bringing on board the best candidates for our teaching positions.  It begins with consideration of the goals of the interview process.

In K-12 leadership, we must accomplish the following in interviewing:

1.     Ensuring “due diligence” as talent scouts.
2.     Showcasing our school’s mission and “appeal.”
3.     Orchestrating an eventual influence upon our own school’s culture.
4.     Generating ideas for solutions on immediate and longer-term problems.
5.     Adding immediate value to “where we are,” instructionally and professionally.

To accomplish the goals above, the process itself has discernable phases through which it moves.  To keep these in mind and to ensure maximum attentiveness to each stage maximize the probability that we will reap dividends on our hiring investments.

Due Diligence Phase

This is the phase of the process where we ensure that we understand our school’s organizational culture and our community’s norms and demographic.  As well, we must gauge the identity of our school as it represents a learning community and an applicant’s “fit” as one who would take us from where we are to a better place.  We also need to project our school as the optimal place to spend one’s career. 

In other words, we must “do our homework” on the one hand and “sell our school” on the other.

Of the many possible activities that could take place in this phase, I’ll mention the following:

Asking all viable candidates to attend a large group meeting regarding our school, with staff members’ making a presentation about how we have an excellent place to work and are experiencing success on behalf of students and community.

At the conclusion of this presentation, assigning a writing prompt to candidates with data analysis as a component, as well as school/home/community partnerships as a topic.

Once the writing is complete and we collect their responses for review, asking candidates to select from among staff members sitting in interview stations for a “meet and greet,” conducting speed interviews to gauge first impressions, as well as a first read of our candidates’ communication and their abilities to think on their feet.  It is interesting whom they select for a conversation.

[It is critical to garner input from those involved in the Due Diligence Phase, in order to select candidates for the next round, the Dialogue Phase]

Dialogue Phase

This is the phase of the process where we ensure that our professional conversations with candidates discern whether or not appropriate skills are present to do the professional jobs assigned.  This phase also helps gauge in more detail the intangible aspects of candidate personality.  In a sense, this is the traditional interview.

In this phase, it may be helpful to keep in mind the following:

The use of an interview team often allows for more information gathering and a deeper read on the skills that candidates project.  Teams also help to mollify biases that may occur in some who are involved in hiring.

Individualized questions (for each position and possibly each candidate) can work well to gauge candidate “fit.” Canned questions can at times be constricting, as the goal is more to hire for talent than it is for skill. With this in mind, rater forms and scoring rubrics are helpful, as long as they are flexible. In the midst of our malleability, however, we must keep things legal, so a smart degree of standardization is needed to form the basis upon which we make decisions.

Interview teams are valuable in evaluating what candidates say and do, and HOW they say and do it.  For example, with whom does the candidate direct most responses?  Where is the eye contact? With whom is one connecting? Do the “coach-types” play more toward the other coach-types on the interview committee? If so, this may indicate a perspective. Does the candidate more frequently make eye contact with the principal, no matter who asks the questions?  Is there a gender preference?  These may indicate paradigms.

[It is critical to garner input from those involved in the Dialogue, in order to select candidates for the next round, the Demonstration Phase]

Demonstration Phase

This is the phase where candidates demonstrate that they can “walk the talk.”  Here, school officials take a back seat and gauge the efficacy of the candidate in a real, lifelike forum where “It’s on them.”

Helpful ideas during this phase of the interview may include the following:

Asking candidates to demonstrate a lesson in their content areas with a student audience.

Encouraging candidates to deliver a presentation, such as they would deliver for professional development in a staff meeting to colleagues.

Requesting that candidates grade or assess student work, as it provides a barometric reading and a norming indicator of job-specific performance and congruence with faculty expectations.

[It is critical to garner input from those involved in the Demonstration Phase, in order to select candidates for the next round, the Design Phase]

Design Phase

This is the phase of the process where candidates demonstrate that they can contribute to the future well being of the school.

During this phase, helpful activities may include the following:

Asking candidates to report the strengths and growth areas of the school, as well as to provide suggestions on how the school can turn growth areas into strengths.

Requesting that candidates provide ideas to increase school/family partnerships.

Giving candidates the opportunities to share their own creativity with faculty who have been working on school improvement initiatives.

[It would be critical to garner input from those involved in the Design Phase, in order to select candidates for the next round, the Decision Phase]

Decision Phase

This is the phase where it is incumbent upon leaders to “own” the responsibility for hiring the appropriate candidate.

Things to keep in mind during this phase may include the following:

Reflecting carefully about the events and circumstances surrounding our interaction with candidates.  In particular, we could ask ourselves the following questions:

Was the candidate prepared?  Did he or she know much about the school system and community? Did they present themselves professionally (dress, appearance, etc.)? What evidence do we have of this, beyond what anyone could get from our school’s website?

Did the candidate ask strong questions? Examples of better questions may include, “Where would you like a new faculty member to contribute outside of the classroom?” “Would the school encourage and support action research in classroom instruction?” and “Would the school’s perspective on technology support the development of my on-line, professional learning community?”

Was the candidate too worried about money?  Those extrinsically motivated may never be satisfied on any teacher’s salary and may leave us if offered a more lucrative position later in the hiring season.

A final question that we may ask ourselves could be, “What questions do we still have as unanswered, and whose fault is that?”

Other things to keep in mind during the Decision Phase can include:

Ensuring that all involved in the interviewing process know and understand what type of decision will be used to bring a new teacher on board.  Will the decision be advisory (committee recommending and principal or another in leadership making the decision), democratic (selection decided upon by vote), or by consensus (all candidates being able to live with the decision that is made)? This is particularly important in garnering participation among faculty and staff in the future.

Taking care and consideration to communicate directly with the top two or three candidates by telephone after the decision is made, especially those who are not selected.  After all, if our number one candidate accepts yet in the weeks following takes another position, we do not want to burn our bridges with those who might very much appreciate another call.

Handling requests for feedback with great care:  A school does not want to put itself into a sensitive position by being “too up front” about the reasons that some candidates might have been chosen and others were not. It always pays to ask our school attorney what can be said, if folks inquire.

As soon as the decision is made, please make no mistake about it: The professional induction and mentoring program has already begun. It started the moment the candidate contacted our school or viewed our website.  

Our best leaders will utilize this reality as a springboard toward professional investment, a candidate’s commitment, and lasting contribution.


Related to Induction:  Few downsides exist in hiring better teachers, yet what if a variable presents its ugly head during our processes – “The prior firing of a teacher” [a nasty, personal, sensitive necessity, yet one that jumpstarted our process and this great opportunity to add to our ranks].

This may invite an elephant into the room: “Why was that teacher fired?”

Does this come into the next person’s dialogue as they interview? 

It shouldn’t, but how can we be sure the new hire will not become indoctrinated into the role of the person leaving (as the organizational culture will try to make it so)?

It would be naïve to believe that the new person will not be curious as to why the person replaced was let go, and to ponder, “Was it fair?” 

In such, our best candidate may be thinking, “Do I want THEM?”


Dr. Ryan Donlan is fortunate to work alongside Dr.’s Beth and Todd Whitaker in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University, as well as Dr. Linda Marrs-Morford of the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute who provided input into this article and Dr. Steve Gruenert who offered thoughts on this postscript.  If you have any information that can help expand ISU’s horizon on the K-12 interviewing process, please consider giving Dr. Ryan Donlan a call at (812) 237-8624 or by writing him at

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