George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Turning Around a Tough Hiring Process

If your school is having trouble hiring and keeping teachers, these strategies can help attract the right candidates—and make sure they want to stay.

May 14, 2024
Tempura / iStock

January 3, 2024, was the first day of this school year that my elementary school was fully staffed. By coincidence, this was also the day Newsday published an article naming my district as one of the top 10 districts for teacher turnover in Long Island. For the first four months of the year, the aspects of my job as principal that I have historically considered the most important (curriculum leadership, supervision, professional development) have taken a back seat to the hiring and retention of educators as I struggled with a wave of unanticipated resignations.  

Why do teachers leave?

As I tried to understand the resignation problem, I realized that my most recent hires were the ones with the greatest rates of resignation. In 2023, my building underwent a fairly large expansion, adding 15 pre-K classes in addition to teacher turnover in other grades. If I am completely honest, my response to the substantial number of vacancies erroneously prioritized efficiency in my hiring practices. 

With 19 years of building leadership under my belt, I entered this hiring spree with confidence that I could identify the best folks quickly. I let myself believe I did not need (and could not afford) to spend extensive amounts of time with a multistep interview process that would require hundreds of hours from my volunteer committees. Instead, I used brief virtual screenings, I delegated aspects of the hiring process to my administrative assistant, and, when facing 40+ new hires in one summer, I intentionally eliminated aspects of the hiring process that consumed extensive time (tours of the building, 40-minute demo lessons, visiting classes with each new hire).  

The result was a cohort of new hires who objectively had no sense of belonging when they walked in for their first day. And although I find this terribly embarrassing, these new hires did not feel valued or appreciated by their new principal. So when the district next door offered $2 more per hour, the financial incentive was the resounding factor in their leaving midyear.  

What kind of reform does this call for?  

As I began to think about broader school culture problems in relationship to staff resignations, I sought professional development related to Floyd Cobb and John Krownapple’s concept of belonging and dignity. Meeting the dignity needs of staff members by creating a culture of belonging is consistently a far more impactful (and sustainable) way of approaching the problem of turnover.  

If I wanted to learn anything that could be used to slow the exodus, I needed focus through the lens of dignity. As I worked with Dr. Nathanael Hostetler as an implementation coach, I started to ask questions specific to feelings of appreciation, validation, acceptance, and fair treatment. Patterns began to emerge: When staff members feel they belong to a school culture, when they feel they are a part of something greater than themselves, when they know their contribution matters, they do not leave for another job that is offering a few bucks more.  

If you are like most building educational leaders, you have little control over the salary that educators receive or the hours they work, since these factors are negotiated between the district-level administration and union. But, as building leaders, we have control over creating a work environment that makes people feel like they have a sense of belonging. And that begins with the hiring process.

Revamping our Hiring Practices

Speed-dating interviews: Instead of a committee of teachers, aides, secretaries, custodians, and administrators meeting with candidates, we have created a process by which different groups of staff members sit together and candidates circulate to meet with each group for three minutes. I oversee the project table, where candidates are scheduled two at a time to work on an assignment together. For example, we ask social workers and special education instructors to make behavioral intervention plans based on a case study, and we ask recess and lunch aides to create a list of rules.

By the end of this process, we have efficiently learned a great deal about candidates. Their performance at the project table tells me (1) whether they are collaborative, and (2) whether they approach rules through the lens of empowering and educating students. In addition, reviewing the rubric from each group of candidates allows me to clearly see which positions they may be best suited for. This allows us to select candidates for our next round.

Teacher tryouts: Instead of a 40-minute demo lesson for each teacher candidate, we use “tryouts.” Following screening interviews, we invite successful candidates to do a 15-minute demo lesson in a classroom on a Monday. I personally explain to the candidates that the goal of a 15-minute demo is not necessarily to see the highest quality of lesson design, instruction, or learning. It is, instead, to see how they connect with the learners, foster curiosity, and create a climate of enthusiasm about learning.

After the demo lesson, the host teacher and I, along with other committee members, meet with the candidate and give them feedback, containing both positive reinforcement and suggestions. I immediately learn if a candidate is defensive or if they are reflective and open to feedback. 

I then invite successful candidates back on Friday to the same classroom for another 15-minute demo, and the host teacher provides her contact information in case the candidate has any questions or wants to collaborate. This is how we learn three critical factors: (1) whether the candidate is collaborative and pleasant to work with, (2) whether they are capable of using feedback effectively and reflecting backward in order to plan forward, and (3) how the candidate uses what they learned about the students to plan their next lesson. By the time we offer a candidate the position, we have trimmed down the demo lesson by 10 minutes, learned more about them than we could have in the one-shot demo, and set into motion a partnership with the host teacher.

As leaders, we can improve job satisfaction, morale, and school climate, hopefully creating a sense of belonging on the first day—and this begins with the hiring process. We owe it to the field of education to answer this call for reform with collaboration, sharing of effective hiring and retention practices, and working in unison to re-create a system to which the very best humans want to belong.

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