Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Recruiting Strategies

In uncertain economic times the quality of a school's faculty matters more than ever, and the conditions of 2009 should occasion that smartest, most intentional hiring season ever. Whether the school is looking for one teacher or many, thoughtful recruiting--based on the hiring self-study recommended in a previous post as well as on the specific need--will increase the probability of bringing in appropriate candidates who, as teacher, will be able to deliver to students the programs on whose quality the school's reputation and well-being will depend.

Smart recruiting is mission-driven. The qualities of prospective teachers should match the stated and lived values and purposes of the school. Therefore, schools ought to think carefully about where they begin to post positions and cast their nets in search of candidates who will be good matches. No school should rely exclusively on agencies and hiring fairs to meet their needs, although these can be great sources of outstanding candidates; neither should schools automatically table applications that come in "out of the blue." Agencies, incidentally, are more than willing to work very closely with schools to match candidates, and whoever is in charge of a school's hiring should not be afraid to push agency contacts in search of the best people.

In recent years most independent schools have expressed a desire to make diversity an important part of their recruiting efforts, but too often the challenges of a what is often described as a "small pool" force schools to abandon this goal. This is an unfortunate situation that at its worst can breed some cynicism in the school community among those committed to diversity, but any school can make the extra effort needed to expand the reach of its recruiting efforts. At the least, organizations like StrateGenius and NEMNET, which both offer minority placement services, should be consulted at the outset of the hiring season.

To begin with, schools should explore local recruiting resources. Job listings for teaching positions can be posted in local newspapers, and such listings increasingly show up on sites such as Craig's List--it's not crazy to recruit where more and more people actually go looking. If there are local or regional publications where an inexpensive small display ad about "working at St. Basalt's" would attract attention, consider using such an ad as a conduit for contact with the school; this will be most cost-effective in cases where the school is making multiple hires.

In communities or regions with newspapers or on-line publications focused on traditionally underserved populations, want-ads for teaching jobs--even translated into languages other than English, if appropriate--are likely to reach potential candidates who might not be "hooked into" the agency or job fair scene or who might not know about school "jobs" webpages or regional association listing sites. Additionally, such ads are signals to that community that the school is thoughtful about its desire to participate in a multicultural world and sincere in its desire to have a diverse faculty, and such signals can attract new student applicants, as well. (In fact, all teacher-recruiting materials should be considered as having a role in student recruitment, as well.)

The content of the school's position listings is important. Some ads make schools sound so august and formal as to be potentially off-putting, while others supply so little information about either the position or the school as to be practically useless. Boilerplate language about the school should be concise but as warm as possible, and job descriptions should leave enough room for flexibility so that qualified candidates who do not fit a precise description are not discouraged. Visual content should be inviting; it is possible that the school seal and Latin motto are better left out or replaced simply by the school name in its official font.

I posted earlier on "employment at" websites, which should be made as comprehensively informative and as attractive as possible. If the school creates its own print materials for teacher recruiting, these should obviously be good-looking and focused on why it's great to teach at St. Basalt's--professional development opportunities, community, programs--and try to differentiate or at least be very specific about the professional and social culture of the school; good photographs showing actual teaching will help. Schools need to remember that the recruiting season is about attracting and energizing smart, committed teachers and not about impressing them with the school's past glories; these matter, but the teacher will be starting work in 2009 and needs to have a sense of what the school is like as a place to work, grow, and live.

Other places to look for potential teachers include such usual suspects as college and university placement offices but also employment fairs with a public/charter school focus (look around or check with your local public school system), industrial employment fairs (there might be some potentially terrific STEM teachers who could be curious to sit down with a school at such a fair in times when job pickings are slim), and even local teacher union newsletters. The U.S. government's Troops to Teachers program "helps eligible military personnel begin a new career as teachers," and teachers ending their stints with Teach for America may be good bets and can be reached at the TFA outplacement site.

Although some school administrators detest the hiring process and work to complete it as soon as possible, its importance to the vitality and even viability of the school should inspire creativity, serious effort, and patience. It may take time to bring in a "ideal" candidates, but they are out there: expert, diverse, enthusiastic, and excited by the mission of your school. Work thoughtfully to find them and to let them know as much as possible about the school even before beginning to interview and hire, and the next year will go even more smoothly because the new hires will understand and be committed to the school and its mission.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

What makes great teachers--and what attracts them to schools?

What seems like a long month ago a piece by Malcolm Gladwell appeared in the New Yorker under the title "Most Likely to Succeed." As is usual for Gladwell's work, the piece is briliantly written, creatively constructed, and provocative; he loves being the gadfly. In this case, the conventional wisdom he is questioning has to do with teacher hiring, curiously mirrored against the process pro football uses to vet prospective recruits. The subtitle of the article is "How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?" And that is his point.

I'm not going to offer up a critique of Gladwell's approach, although lately I've found his thinking on education to be surprisingly reactionary, but the article seems to have sparked yet another round of the "What's wrong with teachers?" discussion, this time among what is perhaps a more elevated crowd than that stirred up by campaigning politicians. I was interested to note a few days later a blog post on the Wall Street Journal "The Juggle" site entitled "What Makes a Good Teacher?"--the post made reference to the Gladwell piece and was clearly inspired by it. Interested, I followed the commentary on this post, which revealed to me a great deal about how the kinds of Americans who read the Journal and the New Yorker think about teachers and schools.

Predictably, a fair number of the Journal commentarists let loose on teacher unions, tenure, and contemporary approaches to the teaching of spelling and grammar--the usual shibboleths of conservative educational critics. There was a biting and thus entertaining exchange over the proper use of the apostrophe, as in "it's" versus "its," and a couple of writers just thought the U.S. should adopt whatever methods are used to teach math and science in countries whose students outscore their American peers on the TIMMS assessment. A few people sneered at what they assume to be the poor intellectual quality of those who enter teacher training programs. One respondent even dragged out his (alleged?) SAT score as proof of his own intellectual worth.

But there was also a great deal of thoughtful commentary on the nature of schools and the qualities of excellent teachers and the kinds of conditions under which teachers can thrive, and it was heartening in the end to see how many of the writers (and a few of them are teachers, I'll have to admit) seem to understand the challenges of teaching.

Stepping way back, I will go so far as to generalize that a deep concern for children and their success was, by consensus, the signal characteristic of good teachers. Those who have this quality are seen as willing to make some sacrifices, even Herculean efforts, to make sure their students learn and grow.

Excellent teaching happens, the writers tended to agree, where teachers had the time to prepare adequately and administrative support to be innovative in their pedagogy. A few even acknowledged that Journal readers are likely to live in communities where affluence and high expectations around education are pretty much a guarantee of satisfactory educational outcomes; one writer even pointed out that socioeconomic filters blunt the effects of the problems with teacher hiring that Gladwell writes about.

None of the Journal commentarists nor Gladwell himself explicitly mentioned what I believe to be another factor in teacher success: clarity of purpose. (I even dashed off a letter to the editor of the New Yorker, but I'm not expecting it to appear.)

Schools with strong, clear and easily understood missions and the will to put these missions at the center of everything they do--generally independent schools, most religious private schools, and many charter schools--are likely to attract teachers who will be willing to "go the extra mile" with students to enact and teach values and ideals in which they believe. Within this group, independent schools have both the historical and financial advantages to capture the attention of prospective teachers with especially strong qualifications, to evaluate candidates carefully and fully (and expensively), and to offer contracts that, even if salaries are less than those of some charter schools, do not generally equate to vows of poverty.

Not every independent school teacher is a great teacher or even a good one, but schools that are exceptionally clear about who they need as teachers and who can communicate their educational and cultural values well in the hiring process are likely to attract and retain particularly strong faculties. Independent schools have another advantage here, in that longevity and established governance structures add a layer of mission and program stability that is not to be found in every charter school or newly founded faith-based school.

What Malcolm Gladwell may not have considered, and what the Journal writers seem to have missed, is that the kinds of teachers who will establish the success-oriented relationships with their students and who will spend hours perfecting their curriculum and pedagogy are most likely to be found in schools that educate their students and nurture their teachers in a context of shared meaning and purpose, supported from every quarter in the school and its community. (One suspects that the TIMMS poster-child countries are ones in which cultural homogeneity and a longstanding sense of teachers as figures of respect create this context on a national level, at least within the education system.)

It would be a wonderful world if our politicians would create more conditions for public schools in which meaning, purpose, and reward structures commensurate with the importance of the enterprise were the rule and not the exception, but in the meantime private schools, and in particular independent schools, should continue to work hard to enunciate and live positive, distinctive missions and values. This should ensure a continual flow of great, and potentially great, teachers toward their classrooms.