How We Stopped Guessing and Hired Smart

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There's a lot of guesswork in hiring teachers because it's hard to tell on paper who's going to be good in the classroom.  The following post by a middle school mathematics specialist  describes how his school has tried to make better decisions on intake -- and how often it finds newly graduated teachers unprepared for the work.
"We're not going to have a formal interview," my principal explained to a candidate for a middle school math teaching position, "since we've already seen you teach."  After a brief greeting, those were the first words he spoke to one candidate in the process of filling two math teacher positions in May 2012.  The principal, assistant principal, one other teacher and I had watched her 30-minute lesson, and soon after convened in the principal's office with the nervous candidate.

Nervous as she was, she had done a great job, as had two other candidates, one of whom was also able to explain to my principal "why we need a common denominator to add fractions" using an example and diagram that were very impressive.  Unfortunately, the remaining five applicants had left me depressed at the state of teacher preparation programs and their graduates.

What characteristics separated the two types of teacher candidates? The former group used "discourse moves" to increase student academic verbal output, and higher-order thinking tasks -- analysis, synthesis, and evaluation -- to develop critical thinking skills. (These are the same skills on which I've been coaching teachers in my school for the past year.) The latter group just didn't know how to do this. Instead, for example, one spent 30 minutes telling the students about the properties of quadrilaterals while students copied what the candidate wrote on the board. 

We were encouraged when we saw student-centered critical thinking generated by some candidates, but too often we saw pretty uninspired instruction. We wondered why teacher preparation was leaving candidates unprepared and so needy for the professional development I or other coaches would have to offer them as soon as they were hired. 

One moment is especially memorable because it demonstrates how clearly my school's leadership knows what it wants to see in teaching:  I reported to my principal after one particular candidate's demonstration lesson: "Students completed an open sort, she (the teacher candidate) used two discourse moves, and students summarized using a compare and contrast graphic organizer." There was no need to translate any of this -- his eyes nearly popped with excitement. Within days, the candidate was recommended for hire.

The two teachers we hired showed us effective teaching in their demonstration lessons.  Today these new teachers are adjusting to their first year in the classroom.  They are smart and optimistic and learning quickly. They are challenging our students to perform high-level mathematics and our students are challenging them to be even better teachers.  My principal and I are not surprised.  We saw what they could do last May.

I also sometimes wonder about the other candidates we didn't hire, all but one of whom was simply not up to our instructional standards. Where are they now and how are their students doing?