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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why We Shouldn’t Hire From the Gut

By Michael McDowell — March 12, 2016 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Michael McDowell, Ed.D., a Superintendent in Northern California.

Learning is an immensely social enterprise composed of relationships, guidance, and support. As such, people are the fundamental building block of education. One teacher can make a substantial impact on a student; multiple teachers can arguably solidify someone’s trajectory in life.

As a district superintendent, the main questions that continue to focus my thoughts and actions are: whom are we putting in front of our young, captive audience? Do these individuals have the beliefs and actions to ensure all children learn at high levels? And, are we using the best means for ensuring that those who are working with our children have the beliefs, knowledge, and skills to enable children to become what they are capable of becoming?

Research has shown that we are heavily biased in our hiring practices; As Block comments in his 2015 Work Rules book, “we often hire with our gut.” Block, the head of people relations at Google (aka Human Resources) infers that hiring committees are naturally “hooked on a feeling” before an interview even starts. People believe they are using rational processes in their decision-making when often they are using intuition and instincts. The hiring process may best be compared to a round of speed dating as our infatuations (or lack thereof) of people are determined within the first few seconds of an interview.

As Gladwell states,

For most of us, hiring someone is essentially a romantic process, in which the job interview functions as a desexualized version of a date. We are looking for someone with whom we have a certain chemistry, even if the coupling that results ends in tears and the pursuer and the pursued turn out to have nothing in common. We want the unlimited promise of a love affair. - Gladwell (2000)

We need dry logic when we hire. This begins with the idea that we need educators who have “the will"; they believe it is their responsibility and that of their colleagues to ensure all children learn to high levels. They seek progress through their impact. Second, we need educators who have a repertoire of assessment and instructional “skills” to provide the right intervention at the right time for their students. Third, we need someone with passion to engage learners in challenging preconceived notions, engaging in relevant problems, and integrating with people outside the school. Teachers need the will, the skill, and thrill.

In Professor John Hattie’s (2009) landmark book, Visible Learning, an analysis of studies that reviewed variables that impacted student learning and covered a quarter of a billion students found that almost everything we do in education makes an impact; in essence, everything works.

However, Professor Hattie found that certain variables have a substantial effect (above .40) and when employed could effectively yield substantial growth in learning. Substantial growth is equal to or above a standard level of learning obtained in one year’s time. Practices above the hinge point produce gains that equal growth above what is expected in one year’s time.

In this study, the variables that had the greatest impact were those related to the actions of teachers in the classroom. Beyond this finding, Hattie posited that teachers who consistently utilized these actions in the classroom had a set of beliefs or mindframes about children (read here) and the role teachers played in educating children (Hattie, 2009).

Our job is to ensure that the right beliefs and actions are in place and that as a hiring committee we are mindful of the blue swede lurking in our amygdala. This is easier said than done. For example, Muhammad (2009) found that those individuals who viewed learning as the sole responsibility of children and did not have a belief that all children could succeed also loved being around kids. A hiring committee must decipher how specific beliefs are expressed in certain situations so that the “will” is aligned with thrill and the skill.

So, how do we hire for the will, the skill, and the thrill and keep our emotions in check? Here are five steps to consider:

1. Filter candidates through screeners that categorize beliefs about children. Screeners help answer the questions- do these candidates believe all children can learn at high levels and it is the collective responsibility of the school to make it happen? Do teachers believe that they make a substantial impact on learning? Do they see education as a team sport?

2. Select candidates for consideration through structured interviews. Structured interviews hone in on how candidates display their beliefs and values in specific situations or scenarios. The interview requires candidates to articulate how they would handle typical situations in the classroom providing enables school hiring committees the ability to pinpoint whether impactful actions and beliefs are aligned. Questions that may be asked include: What does this candidate do when a student cheats? Or doesn’t turn in homework? Or aces the pre-assessment? Or the parent disagrees with their homework policy?

3. Explore candidate expertise via general interviews that occur on campus- candidates are tasked with discussing how they use assessment and instruction to impact students in their learning. Furthermore, candidates have an opportunity to discuss the classroom environment, their interaction with other adults (in and out of the school), their interests regarding improving their work, and their interest in working in the school/district.

4. Demonstrate candidate expertise through real-life scenarios or via classroom instruction.

Step 1-2 are associated with aligning beliefs and behaviors about children and relate strongly to the 10 mindframes of John Hattie and the work of Schwarz, Schon, and Argryis Step 3-4 are associated with the level of alignment between the articulation of high impact practices (see Marzano and Knight) and the actual use of those strategies in the field. These steps are heavily anchored in assessment and teacher collaboration.

Throughout Step 3-4 there is plenty of time to get to know the candidate and find out more about them as a person. This is an essential part of the process.

5. Embrace the teacher for their commitment to children, to colleagues, and the community. This includes providing support for them to seek their passion through autonomous decision making, providing resources and time to measure their impact and work with others to impact children, and orient and align professional development to meet the school/districts (and their) purpose- to impact kids!

This dry logic approach will keep you from being hooked on a feeling that won’t positively and substantially impact kids.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.