School & District Management

6 Things Principals Look for When They Hire Teachers

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 30, 2019 4 min read
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Soiled hands. Boozy social media pics. Trash talking former bosses = Bombed.

Sincere stories about former students. Polite to the custodian. Didn’t fake an answer = Nailed it.

These real-world examples of job candidates who bombed or nailed their interviews come from two veteran principals who shared what matters most to them when hiring teachers.

Our takeaways from a conversation with Jessica Johnson, principal of Dodgeland Middle/High School in Juneau, Wis., and Paul Kelly, principal of Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove, Ill., are from an online discussion for job-seeking teachers hosted recently by EdWeek.

Here’s an edited list of highlights of what Johnson and Kelly had to say.

Be sincere

Both Johnson and Kelly are unequivocal on this point. Of course, no conscientious employer in any field wants to hire someone who doesn’t really want the job and also screens for sincerity in the interview process. But genuine affinity for students is arguably the most important attribute for someone who is going to be successful in teaching children.

Says Kelly: “No question, the thing I need most is a clear love of kids. A candidate who comes alive at the very mention of students and learning. This cannot be faked, as it’s a physical as well as verbal response.”

Kelly says when he interviews teachers with experience, he always asks about their previous students. If they don’t have much to say, “it’s a real red flag. Do you know their names? Do you know their stories? Can you articulate the ways they are unique? This shows that you care deeply about the people you serve.”

Says Johnson: “While certification and experience [are] important, I care most about hiring an individual that evidently cares about kids, believes in all learners, is committed to learning and growing as a professional and collaborate[s] with a team to contribute to our collective work.”

Even if a candidate isn’t expressly asked why they want to teach, Johnson advises strongly that they make their case. “I think it’s important to communicate your purpose of going into teaching when asked that question ‘tell me about yourself’ in case there’s not a question that asks that specifically,” she says.

If you’re a first-time teacher, be honest about what you don’t know yet

Says Kelly: “We (principals) know you haven’t done this before, so don’t try to be more than you are right now. It is completely fine to be new and inexperienced yet hungry and passionate about teaching.

“We were in your shoes before, and we know you’re nervous and antsy about that first opportunity,” Kelly continues. “Your biggest hurdle is getting us to believe that your long-term upside and growth potential will outweigh your inevitable early hiccups. The only way to do that is to be yourself.”

You must impress everyone in the school, not just the principal

Johnson always asks for her secretary’s opinion about job candidates and how they interacted with her while checking in and waiting.

“Strong impressions need to be made to all on the hiring committee, along with any individuals you encounter on your way to the interview, whether it is an opportunity to interact with a student, a custodian, the secretary, etc.,” she says. “I once had an interview in which we ended up having to shelter in a tornado and the candidate helped calm children....she was hired!!”

Bad-mouthing your former school, students, or bosses is a deal breaker

This should go without saying, but it’s a fatal move to talk trash about your current or previous teaching job, says Johnson. Other missteps are dressing unprofessionally, or in one memorable experience Johnson had with a candidate, coming to the interview direct from working in the garden with dirt-covered hands. Did she shake hands with said candidate? Alas, in an out-of-practice reporter move, I didn’t ask.

If you don’t have an answer to a question, don’t fake it

It’s a “killer mistake,” Kelly says. “One thing I deeply respect in a candidate is the honesty to admit areas of struggle and/or confusion.”

He elaborates on this point: “Candidates should remember that administrators would MUCH rather have staff with humility, reflectiveness, and a desire to grow than staff who artificially pontificate on matters that are over their heads. It is OK not to know everything. Principals want teachers who model the kind of lifelong learning they seek to inspire in students.”

Beware what you post on social media

Hard to believe that this could still be a blind spot for teachers looking for job. Johnson says she does extensive online research of candidates she might hire. And this is widespread practice among all employers—a 2018 Career Builder survey found that 70 percent of employers scour social media to research job candidates. And of those that scan social media, 57 percent have found content that caused them not to hire candidates.

“I am super turned off by someone with a Facebook profile pic with a beer in their hand!” Johnson says. “I love social media and use it heavily, but you have to make sure that what you are posting is not unprofessional.”

And yes, if you want to be a kindergarten teacher, it’s definitely unprofessional to have boozy social media pics posted everywhere. At the very least, keep your social media settings private.

Photos from top: Jessica Johnson, principal of Dodgeland Middle/High School. Paul Kelly, principal of Elk Grove High School.

Related Reading

Districts Struggle to Hire Black Teachers. Is the Solution More Black Principals?

‘Be Authentic’ in Teacher Job Interviews

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.