Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Get The Right People On The Bus"

In Jim Collins classic book Good To Great, he urges that managers 'get the right people on the bus' and stresses that 'who' is more important than 'what.' It's generally been my belief that far too many administrators are far too lazy about what I consider their most important duty- hiring staff.  It seems that far too many principals and central office leaders don't have the patience to endure sometimes endless interviewing in search of 'the one.'

This astonishes me.  With all the recent and ongoing efforts and reforms in the areas of teacher evaluation, elevation of test scores, and how to improve instructional practices, let's all (hopefully) agree to a few things:

  1. Hiring a great teacher up front will get you more bang for your buck than evaluations, coaching, professional development, etc. can do.
  2. Hiring great teachers makes your life significantly easier in all areas.
  3. It's way easier to say 'no thank you' after an interview than it is after you award someone a job.
The time spent up front is worth it!  While certain positions like bilingual psychologists or physics teachers you may have a smaller pool than others, but with planning and focus, quality (often times amazing) hires can be found.  It's tougher if you school district doesn't pay as well as neighboring school districts, but never impossible.  

Besides general laziness, hiring administrators frequently make other mistakes.  Interviewing isn't a science.  People can beat an interview and no person who holds the responsibility of hiring can boast of perfect record.  But if we employ a systemic approach, we can minimize the likelihood we inadvertently hire a turd.

  • Hire people for what they can become- not what they currently are.   
Sure, it's nice if you find a candidate that already knows how to use a Smartboard, has familiarity with AIMSweb software, and came from a school that used PBIS.  Not to diminish the value of those fine skills, but those things are easily taught (and learned).  Instead, look for the intangibles.  Are their responses to questions student centered?  Can they provide concrete examples as they speak or only offer theory and buzz terms? Are they creative? Do they have a sense of humor?  Do they smile? These things are harder/impossible to teach.  Do they always come out in an interview?  No.  But they might, and if we're not looking for them and instead focusing on what they've already done, we may miss them.  I've been forced to co-interview (which I HATE) with other principals who will pass on a strong candidate for second grade position because they student taught 5th grade and candidate B who was average has student taught 2nd grade already.  Curriculum can be taught and learned.  Intangibles can't.  
  • Be critical.
I often see administrators make excuses for candidates or attempt to clarify statements on their own.  "She was nervous, I think what she was trying to say was...."  Don't do this! While nerves may play a part in a candidates interview performance, it isn't our obligation to take that into consideration.  Work with what's been presented.  If your gut tells you that you had a potentially great teacher in front of you who wasn't getting at the depth of response you hoped for because of nerves, bring them back for a second interview.  Sometimes candidates will say things that should be red flags, and sometimes my colleagues tell me I'm being to 'nitpicky.'  Remember- in an interview you hold 100% of the cards.  It costs nothing to bring them in, and nothing to tell them 'no thank you.'  Once you offer them a job, the balance begins to shift.  They join a union.   They get rights.  They form political friendships and maybe even friendships with you.  It's emotionally draining and professionally messy to not bring a teacher back.  Calling someone and politely saying, "you were great but..." is much easier.  If your 'spidey sense' tells you somethings off with a potential hire- listen to it.

  • Avoid interviewing connections.
When jobs open up, it's natural for people to want to help friends & relatives, and push for new teammates they are familiar with.  Avoid this (if possible).  When the superintendent 'asks' you to interview the mayor's daughter, you better do it, but in most other instances you have wiggle room.  Rarely do these recommendations come with qualification.  Teachers and parents offer up people relatives, neighbors, and friends who are looking for jobs.  Obviously, just because they are looking, that doesn't mean they're any good.  By opening this door, you create an issue where if you interview Mrs. Walker's neighbor, but not Mr. Porter's daughter you could be accused of favoritism and/or hurt feelings.  If you do hire one of these recommendations, you could again be accused of favoritism (even if just in lounge scuttlebutt).  If you interview and don't hire an acquaintance, you could upset a valued teacher.

I say avoid, because there may be circumstances where you'd want to break this rule.  But it must come with a professional rational.  "My neighbor's son is finishing his student teaching" doesn't cut it.  "My neighbors son is a National Board Certified teacher who moving back to the area and looking for a new job" is different.

My staff know not to bring me names when job openings are posted, and they know if they do that I will intentionally not interview those people if they do.  I've politely explained why and I hope they understand or at least respect that.  If their friends want a job, they should apply like everyone else and let their credentials speak for them.  Getting a job should be about your ability or aptitude- not who you know as is so often the case.  

  • Hire for your building and need.
Someone may interview well and posses the skills you're looking for, but if they appear to be a bad fit for your staff, team, or situation, think twice.  I had a opening for a teaching position a few years ago.  The grade level partner was a great teacher but she had a wild side away from school I knew about.  She partied in bars and used drugs recreationally.  She liked to tell crude jokes with her friends on staff and swore like a sailor in the lounge.  I interview a strong candidate who had graduated from a small baptist college, listed various church efforts under the volunteer section of her resume, and referenced Christ a couple times in the interview as a major guiding influence.  While I thought the candidate had the potential to be a great teacher, I recognized that the particular opening I had could be a recipe for big problems.  Perhaps I'm being presumptive (sometimes opposites attract) they would clash, but I don't have to take that risk.  I still hold all the cards!  I can likely find someone else whose personality appears to be a better for for the tenured teacher I already have. 

  • Think with your head (not that head).   
I've never met a male administrator who didn't have a little pervert tucked away somewhere.  If you can find a gorgeous teacher who meets your criteria, more power to ya'.  The teaching field has lot of beautiful women working in it, and many of them are rock stars.  I would never recommend passing on one because they're attractive.  Unfortunately, it's the other side of this coin that gets management in trouble too often.  Recognize that if you hire a highly attractive person of the opposite sex that you've already opened yourself up to potential criticism from your (maybe jealous?) staff.  Your bosses (who may be of the opposite sex) may privately question your judgement (do you ever want that?).  This goes away if the individual produces. But if you reached because in your subconscious you wanted to look at this person everyday, you're putting your reputation out there more so than normal circumstances.  People connect dots (even dots that may not exist).  I know many obese people who are kick ass teachers.  Be smart here.  Ladies- this goes for you too.

I recently read that in Finland's prized education, where teachers are are held in the same regard as doctors, that it is much, much more difficult to get into the profession.  In the United States, we have little control over who acquires licenses to teach.  We most definitely control who teacher in our buildings.  Let's not screw it up.