Professional Learning

Peggy Bryan: A View on New Teacher Recruitment

October 1, 2000

Since this interview was held in 2000, founding principal Peggy Bryan has moved on from Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, but current principal Irene Preciado carries on the school's original vision.

Peggy Bryan, principal of Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, talks about support for new and experienced teachers, professional development opportunities, how she assesses teachers, and the importance of providing for her teachers freedom from outside impositions.

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1. Has the current teacher shortage impeded your ability to recruit and retain qualified teachers at Sherman Oaks?

Well, the applicant pool in the state of California -- particularly the county of Santa Clara, where it's almost impossible for people to get housing -- is getting more and more shallow. We have managed to get an excellent candidate pool any time we've gone out, but I kind of hold my breath every year to see what might be happening. But there will always be people that want to go into education. They're not always going to be siphoned off into the IPO get-rich startups. There are always going to be people that want to influence the life of children.

What you do is you make sure your name is out there and your reputation is out there so it attracts the type of people you want. And in this day and age, that's who you want. You have to have guerrrilla fighters. You have to have people that are smart and quick and sensitive and compassionate and Renaissance folks. Renaissance people. They're the ones that come into education. So if you can set yourself up as an environment that's attractive to the risk takers of the world who still go into education, then they'll come. Build it and they'll come. I think that was a movie!

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2. Are there specific skills or qualities that you look for in new recruits?

Part of what we're looking for in our interview process -- the big piece is what I call "who-ness." It's who you bring to the school that's more important. And you can't really change that too much in people. Who you are is that spirit of adventure, that can-do attitude, that kid-first attitude.

I do look for the ability to actually make things happen in the classroom so what we hone in on is reading. The candidate will need to let us know what kind of reading pedagogy they were educated in, how close they are to understanding what we believe is important -- they can't just come to us with a blank slate. They do have to come prepared and equipped to go into a classroom and bring our kids up to speed.

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3. Please describe your selection process. Is there a certain strategy or methodology that you use to screen potential candidates?

The key element to this adventure, of course, are the people that show up every day and either go to war with you or go to work with you or go play with you. We have a nice blend of that, so it's really the staff that make this happen.

We have a process for hiring staff that looks different from other places, I expect. At least, in any of the places I've been. First of all, you have some questions. You have to be screened through. As I mentioned before, one of those questions is, "What's your technology experience?" If you don't have the solid baseline, then this probably isn't a good starting place for you. Maybe you would wind up here, but it wouldn't be a good starting place. "Are you comfortable presenting to audiences?" "Are you comfortable with public speaking?" "Are you comfortable training teachers?" We try to embed into these interview questions as much about us as we can elicit from them. We mirror for them what we expect and then they let us know how close or far they are from that. And there's been more than one interview that ends blissfully and peacefully with, "Well this doesn't look like it's a school that would be a good match for me."

That's the easy part. In the next phase, they are given a problem-solving situation. They're working in a group and usually it's a number of people that are interviewing at the same time. We put them in a fish bowl and give them an authentic question to wrangle with -- one that we're wrangling with so we can learn something from what they go through as well as, perhaps, get some new teachers.

We give them a problem-solving prompt and turn them loose. And they do that. They work through that for an hour and a team of current staff will be outside the fish bowl assessing each of the participants on several different levels, including the ability to problem-solve. How creative are they? What ideas are they coming up with? Are they creative? Are they different? How are they working on a team? Are they good listeners? Are they dominating? What can we learn from their interpersonal skills from this authentic process?

Part of every problem is they have to present. So they have to culminate what they've come to and present it to us. And we become different audiences. Sometimes we're an audience of administrators, other times parents. That way we can see how confident they are in presenting their findings. When that's all through, then they have a one-on-one interview where we try to get to know them better. We give them a tour of the school. We ask them to come and spend a day here. We go and visit them if they are currently teaching, and then we put everything into the pot and see what it looks like.

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4. What kinds of problems do you give them to solve?

Well, often the problem that we give them will have a technology slant to it. Even if it doesn't, we'll look for their ideas spinning off into how they might access resources. And they always get high points if they can come up on their own with some technology feature. Other than that, we'll take their word for it on their written round where they have to detail what their technology knowledge is.

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5. With the current emphasis on new technologies in teaching, are there any components of the interviewing process designed to assess a recruit's level of technological expertise?

In terms of the recruiting process, we accept generally what they tell us. If you can detail the software programs that you're familiar with, if you're able to work your way through multimedia, if you know how to scan, import sound and data, and if you e-mail me and let me know you're interested in my school, that's a nice starting point, too. Essentially, we'll take their word for it.

Use of e-mail hasn't taken the place of talking, but it's taken the place of talking about minutiae. There isn't a time, except once when our server crashed, that my staff comes together to work and has to talk about logistical details of some sort or another. We work out everything that we possibly can, firing e-mails back and forth throughout the day. And if you don't check your e-mail at least two or three times a day, you're liable to be left out of some development that happened just in the last hour or two. Most teachers have their screens up with a feature that alerts them to e-mail coming in. A couple of teachers have set up a chat room environment so they can actually chat back and forth as they're working through a lesson together, and they're not close by in proximity. But they can chat back and forth as the kids are working to kind of coach each other back and forth. We haven't gone too far on that, but I can see that as the next step.

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