Sign we left on the door of the office as candidates arrived for their interview

It has been four years since I have had the privilege to hire staff to a school. We are often told, as school principals, that hiring is the most important job we do! There are many important parts of our job but who we hire and how we hire says a lot about what we believe.

As principals, we have reputations among educators and after some time, we begin to attract people to our schools because of that reputation. They want to work with us and so when our beliefs are clear, and if we have been well placed by our board’s senior team, we begin to attract the best people for the school where we serve.

Why are you hiring in this climate?

The hiring process this year was collapsed due to funding model changes from the Ontario PC party and we had little time to make very important decisions for our schools. People ask me, How can you be hiring when there are so many job losses? So the initial hiring that takes place at schools is not hiring new staff to the board. We hire if our schools are allocated additional funding and this is purely based on enrolment numbers as well as the class size ratio established at the provincial level. So some schools lose staff because they indicate lower enrolment whereas others gain staff because their enrolment is higher. This is readjusted again at the end of September when we have actual numbers and not just planning projected numbers in our schools. That is why many elementary schools reorganize at the end of September — sometimes losing staff, sometimes gaining staff and sometimes just a change in classes to better accommodate the numbers — either changing from a combined grade to a straight grade.

Establishing the What Is the Need

When we create questions for the interviews, it is important that they are determined based on school improvement needs. The improvement is always tied to a deep analysis of data from multiple sources — yes, we consider EQAO and other sources of academic performance such as report card data and reading assessments but we also must consider other factors such our school climate data, critically analyzing many factors from day-to-day schooling such as:

  • Who gets sent to the office? Why are these children sent to the office?
  • How is behaviour managed in the school? How is it portrayed and understood?
  • How do staff engage with families? How are families talked about in the school?
  • What social identities are represented on staff? Are they reflective of the school community and broader community?
  • How are the needs of students with special needs met? Are Individual Education Plans (IEPs) co-created and followed by classroom teachers, specialist teachers such as French or Physical Education? Are teaching assistants, who work most directly with these students involved in the co-creation of IEPs? What are the relationships like with support staff and teaching staff?
  • What is the level of service provided to English Language Learners? Is there a thorough understanding of language development?
  • What languages do students, staff and families speak? Do we need to hire staff who share a language with our students and families?
  • What evidence is there of culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy? Is instruction reflective of the students in the school and the broader global community?
  • What evidence is there that staff are engaging students in practices associated with modern learning embedding technology, real world applications and social justice issues to making meaning relevant?

There are more aspects to the explicit, hidden and null curriculum that must be considered when you have the opportunity to hire someone to respond to a need in your school. Depending on the trajectory of your school’s improvement you may want to hire to reinforce the team already in place or perhaps disrupt some of the practices. At the same time, we cannot hire with the idea that this one person will be the champion for all things equitable and inclusive but, over time, one can hire so that there is a tipping point in practice and once you have hired enough staff that this is the culture that becomes pervasive throughout the school.

Establishing the Questions

Once the needs for the school are determined, you have to review the applicants based on those needs. What in their application package resonates based on the criteria you have set? We are hiring for positions such as homeroom teachers, French teachers, music teachers, yes, but we are also hiring to balance our team, bring new insights, and re-energize the team. The questions should reflect this.

Often there is an equity question. I would suggest, that all questions are equity-focused questions. If you are asking about literacy, you must also be asking about culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. If you are hiring for physical education, you have to also ask about accessibility, universal design, and their understanding of curriculum accommodations for the health curriculum. If you are asking about special education, you must also ask about how they work with families to establish goals and how they design Individual Education Plans that are co-created with all staff involved, the families and the students when/if they are able to self-advocate. If you are asking about numeracy, you may also ask about their understanding of inclusive practices in mathematics and a keen understanding that math was never neutral.

Co-creating these questions and intended responses is of the utmost importance. As a single administrator, I have to find another administrator to join me as there must always be two present for any interview. By co-creating the questions together, the interview partner has a sense of what is needed at the school and expected of the candidate. It is also an important check for quality control. What else can we add here? What have I missed? Is this question fair? Have I asked the question in a way that is clearly understood? Are my look-fors reasonable?

The first question I always ask is drawn from their package. This means that I have carefully reviewed each candidate’s full package and determined which aspect of their package will provide me with insight into who they are as an educator. It will also provide the candidate with a question that highlights both their work as well as a beginning place of comfort.

Communication and Interviewing

When you reach out to prospective candidates, the way you reach out is so important. Have you asked in your invitation if there is a need for an accessibility, faith or family reason? For example, the latest round of interviews have occurred during the Holy Month of Ramadan. An interview earlier in the day would likely be better than later in the day prior to breaking fast and after the candidate has been fasting all day.

Having the questions for review prior to the interview makes a world of difference. Often we will see the first question ahead of time but not all of them. So, in the invitation, candidates are encouraged to arrive 20–30 minutes prior to their interview time so that they have an opportunity to makes notes about their responses. This has only happened once for me in an interview and it allowed me to give my best possible answers because I had time to think, frame my responses and then be more focused in my response in the interview. When candidates arrive, clipboards are set up with their questions, as well as a pen and any paperwork they have to complete prior to the interview so that when they come into the actual interview, they have had time to think and reflect on their responses.

When you welcome the candidate into the interview, it is so important to be compassionate. Interviews are often high stress situations so coming in with a welcoming tone makes all the difference. Just as an assessment is a measure of the educator as much as it is of the student, so too are interviews a measure of the interviewer as much as the interviewee. I had a friend who once attended a vice-principal interview. There was a water bottle out for her and when she leaned to shake the hands of the interview team, she knocked over the bottle and spilled water all over the table. She told me that the interview team just sat there as she cleaned it up. She went into a full panic and wasn’t successful. So much so that she refused to apply to the process again. She was an amazing educator who would have been fantastic as a school administrator. When we are on the hiring side of the table, we have huge positional power. As always, we must use it to empower, empathize, and nurture the person on the other side of the table to be as successful as possible. That means establishing rapport and safety. If we want candidates to share their best selves, we have to create a space where that can happen.

After the Interview and Feedback

Working with the interview partner, you must review the responses from each candidate based on the clearly articulated criteria or “look-fors” that were established in prior to the interview. Together, we determine who was most successful and if there is debate, we have to give the time to that debate out of respect for the candidate. At times, there is also reflection about the questions and whether or not they were reasonable or worded clearly which is much more apparent after an interview. In addition, sometimes candidates share a response that gives further depth to the question itself and that can be added to the look-fors in subsequent interviews.

Feedback is so important — not just for the candidate but for the interviewer as well. Offering feedback to both successful and unsuccessful candidates allows both to grow. Asking for feedback on the experience of the interview, as the interviewer is something we rarely do. People who I have hired have given me feedback when I have asked but I hired them so what would they say? I am their supervisor at this point so it isn’t authentic. I think this is something I will add for the next round — a quick anonymous questionnaire for feedback and then, once the decisions are made, sending out another survey asking if the candidates would like feedback following the process. That way, I can grow and perhaps, through my honest feedback, they can as well.

So often we receive feedback that isn’t helpful. I recall many telling me, in their vice-principal process that they were told that they either said “I” too much or “we” too much. The former indicating that they were not a team player and the latter that they did not actually lead anything personally. In one case, the person was told they said “I” too much one year so went in and said “we” more to show they were collaborative and received the feedback that they said “we” too much and were unsuccessful again. This is not helpful feedback. When I provide feedback, I will take out the responses and review each question and where the candidate could have offered a stronger response.

One time I received feedback when I was unsuccessful and in the feedback the person said, “Why didn’t you sound like this in the interview?” I explained that I had gone into the interview with laryngitis and a 104 degree fever which was quite obvious as I had no voice by the second half of the interview. The conversation was positive but it was not based on what I was capable of in an interview. It was based on an interview when I walked in already in deficit.

Welcoming New Staff Into The School

There is a lot of speculation when someone new joins a team and with speculation often comes rumours and assumptions that aren’t always the most flattering. This year, joining a new board, I was told that it was shared with my future colleagues that I was “coming from the ministry, had a PhD, and was on the Superintendent shortlist”. Let’s just say the team of administrators had MANY assumptions of me and none were true to my character. Now that we have been together almost a full year, and I have had the opportunity to lead some professional learning in our Family of Schools meetings, several principals and vice-principals have told me that I am so different than what they thought I would be. They have said how I am so down to earth, funny and humble. I simply wasn’t what they were expecting.

So we have to ask ourselves, as leaders in our schools, what can we do so that people can enter with their whole selves — accomplishments as well as character? And what can we do to change the culture where we have influence over how those who are already part of the culture, respond to newcomers? Think about when a new child comes into our classes. Do we highlight that which keeps them separate and apart or do we do our best to make them feel included, welcome and a part of our classroom community? Adults are no different. Change can be hard and it can definitely be lonely.

Brené Brown reminds us that we are “wired for connection” and she draws attention to the difference between belonging and fitting in. Don’t we want to make spaces in our schools and organizations where we belong rather than force fitting people to be compliant and maintain status quo? Don’t we want schools and organizations where we can nurture, value and learn from each person’s authentic self? If we wait until those who join us “fit in” then how will we ever grow? How will we ever learn? How will we ever allow ourselves to be challenged?

This week I gave a talk at a conference and my pledge was this:
So that is what I have committed to…despite the fear, despite the inner critic, despite what could be career limiting moves, if I can say that I am standing in my integrity and I am doing what is best for students, then I present my most authentic and completely imperfect self to you in the hope that, at the end of it, you will see a glimmer of hope in this path.

Imagine a workplace like that… 

Written By: Dr Deb Donsky