Tough Questions

August 01, 1992 5 min read
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Considering his position as a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Haberman’s solution to the nation’s chronic shortage of qualified urban school teachers is rather unusual.

How would he solve the problem? First of all, he would break what he calls education schools’ “cartel’’ on the preparation of teachers and open the profession up to all college graduates. But that alone is not enough because there is no guarantee that artsand-sciences graduates will make good teachers.

That’s where Haberman’s “urban-teacher selection interview’’ comes in. In three decades of using it to select candidates for various nontraditional teacher preparation programs that emphasize practical, on-the-job training, Haberman claims that the interview has proved almost flawless at predicting would-be teachers’ professional potential in the classroom.

By interviewing hundreds of “star’’ teachers around the county, Haberman has come up with what he considers to be the central attributes of good urban teaching. And to get a better idea of what not to look for in a teacher, he has talked to many self-described “quitters’’ who have left the profession for good.

The result is an interview process that looks more like a doctoral candidate’s defense of a dissertation than a search for a teaching job. The questions most other interviewers ask “don’t have any answers,’' Haberman complains. “For example, ‘When did you decide to become a teacher?’ That’s like asking someone what their favorite color is. What are you going to do about the answer and what does the answer mean?’'

In contrast, Haberman and his colleagues--the interview usually is conducted by two people-- start by asking the candidates what they would do if one of their students was not doing his or her homework.

The interview subject might suggest talking to the student. But the questioners do not just accept the answer and move on. They repeat the scenario, saying that the suggestion worked for a time, but the student has reverted to not doing the homework. “So what do you do then?’' they ask. It is a relentless process that forces candidates to keep coming up with suggestions.

The point of the persistent questioning is to test just that--the person’s persistence in handling a tough problem.

Other questions in the 30minute interview are just as pointed and just as impossible to study for. Candidates are asked how they would deal with an authoritarian principal who wants them to discontinue an activity the children clearly love. They also are questioned about at-risk students, teacher burnout, and mistakes they might make in the classroom.

Perhaps the most unusual series of questions gets at a person’s personal orientation toward teaching. “Is it possible to teach children you don’t love?’' the interviewer asks. And the converse, “Is it possible for children to learn from teachers they don’t love?’'

On each question or series of questions, Haberman has developed a continuum, with answers a star teacher would provide on one end and quitters’ responses on the other. If the respondent provides the answer of a quitter on any question, he or she fails the interview. Successful candidates tend to provide answers that fall somewhere along the spectrum.

And what is he looking for? A persistent, flexible, intelligent, resourceful, energetic person willing to admit his or her own fallibility. (And no, Haberman is not looking for people who think they have to love all children and be loved by them in return.)

“We get what a person thinks a teacher in a school serving poor kids is supposed to be doing and why, and also the behaviors they would engage in,’' he notes.

After the interview, Haberman and the other interviewer classify the candidate as a “star,’' “high potential,’' “average potential,’' or “no potential.’'

“We don’t miss ‘no potentials’ and we don’t miss ‘stars,’ he asserts. Some teachers that he predicted would be great turn out to be merely good, and vice versa, but all the teachers he picks, he says, turn out to be successful in the classroom.

Haberman is currently interviewing Milwaukee paraprofessionals in fields outside of education for a program that will train them to become elementary or middle school teachers for the city’s schools. On this particular spring day, all three candidates interviewed express some surprise after they leave the room. “I expected the interview to focus a little bit more on me,’' Robert Tilden says. “But I guess that’s what they’re getting at by nailing you with difficult questions and seeing what you come up with.’'

Tilden, who graduated from college almost 20 years ago with a degree in mechanical engineering, typifies the sort of older candidates with diverse experiences attracted to Haberman’s training programs over the years. Since college, Tilden has worked as an industrial designer, a hotel manager, and served two years as a missionary in Argentina.

Joel Koeper, another paraprofessional trying to get into the program, calls the process “a good technique’’ for selecting teachers. “Usually in an interview, you answer a question and they leave it alone, and you’re pretty much finished,’' he says. “They were trying to dig a little bit deeper and see if there’s anything there.’'

Word of the urban-teacher interview is beginning to spread. Haberman has trained administrators of several alternativeroute training programs--most notably in Texas--to use his interview, and he has recently been working with the Chicago Teachers’ Union because teachers and principals there now have the authority to select teachers for their own schools.

Despite his claims of success, however, people are not scrambling to get their hands on the interview form. Part of the problem, Haberman maintains, is that many urban systems do not want to screen out any potential teachers. “There are a lot of cities that would like to use this, but they can’t,’' he says, because they need everybody who shows up.

And Haberman acknowledges that some people do not believe the interview works as well as he says it does. Part of that skepticism may be a product of his blunt criticism of the education establishment, which has not endeared him to many of his colleagues.

Some teacher educators, in particular, have said the interview eliminates candidates who could develop into good teachers, even if they fail to show that during the interview. Other critics have said that good teaching is a personal, subjective matter that cannot be distilled into essential elements and tested in a half-hour interview.

“I can’t describe 100 percent of what good teachers do,’' Haberman responds. “But I can describe 60 percent, and I’m happy with that.’' --Daniel Gursky

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Tough Questions

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