As we plan for the beginning of another school year, filling vacancies becomes a priority for principals. Like many others, my team and I had developed elaborate sets of questions, authentic role-play and teaching scenarios, and other methods to identify top candidates. Our interview process probed candidates’ experience with curriculum, instruction, and student management.
And just as we worked from a script of questions, it seemed candidates had memorized prepared answers. Although the responses were adequate, they didn’t give us good insights into candidates’ capacity to deal with the realities of the classroom or to interact effectively with adults in the school.
I eventually realized that we valued candidates who displayed mature levels of personal character more than the ability to recite prepared answers. As we changed our approach to interviewing and questioning, we focused on 10 virtues that provided better descriptions of what a candidate thought about their self-performance, accountability, and capacity for collaboration. We asked candidates to tell us how they thought they stood out from others.
Obviously, we sought candidates who had advanced knowledge and competencies in their content area. But over time, we realized that skills got people hired and behaviors could get them fired.
Asking productive questions
Our questions and interview practices focused on uncovering authenticity about willingness to work on the virtues we value. We were especially interested in connecting the five competencies of social and emotional learning—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making—to personal and professional work habits.
You could easily modify your prepared questions and add inquiries about the following virtues or character traits.
Attitude: Ask about their sense of humor, empathy, mindset (fixed versus growth), people skills. How a candidate enters a room, maintains eye contact, and projects positivity about teaching provides insights into their attitude.
Common sense: To show wisdom, practicality, tact, decision-making, ask about the types of trouble the candidate has experienced and how they handled it.
Competence: Ask your traditional content-specific and people management questions to probe for the candidate’s level of specific competencies.
Gratitude: What does the candidate appreciate about work in general, children, and teaching? Ask about sources of goodness. Flesh this one out, because gratitude is considered one of the most important character strengths.
Initiative: For those candidates right out of college, inquire about situations in which they volunteered, led an initiative, accepted a leadership role, and stood out when others hesitated or chose otherwise. Ask them how they assume their professors would rank and describe their work habits and character. For experienced candidates, inquire about their level of energy and what they’ve done, without being asked, that has improved their classroom or school’s performance.
Integrity: Those with true integrity are honest, even when it’s hard to be. Search for experience helping others, being kind, and displaying humility.
Perseverance: Every teaching candidate should be able to tell a personal grit story, such as how they kept doing something in spite of obstacles. According to psychologist and author Angela Duckworth, grit is passion and steadfastness in doing something important, despite how hard it is or how long it takes.
Grit is a virtue more important than talent. Teachers with a sense of grit won’t quit when things get tough.
Professionalism: Ask to see social media posts, or request photos or videos of the candidates in a classroom setting. Media vignettes provide illustrations of their sense of attire, language habits, interactions with kids, and much more.
Reliability: Inquire about their personal record with punctuality, timeliness, attendance or absence, and dependability; ask them to cite an example of what it means to “do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it.” Those who can respond effectively understand the danger of frequently dropping the ball.
Respect: Who and what does the candidate admire? Do they follow rules? Do they have a command presence with kids? Do they easily work with diverse groups of people?
Ultimately, an interview at our school became a conversation about finding, accepting, and nurturing individuals who wanted to join a professional staff where work was valued, appreciated, and rewarded. We were determined to find people who would make our team better and would want to stick around. If candidates didn’t already have a pattern of work habits that aligned with that vision, they often chose to go elsewhere.
Favorable responses, however, reflected the values of trustworthiness, reliability, responsibility, initiative, punctuality, perseverance, integrity, and attitude. When we found a candidate whose personal mantra reflected those values, we hired them.