Recruitment & Retention Opinion

The Nonexistent Secret Sauce in Hiring Good Teachers

By Nancy Flanagan — January 08, 2015 4 min read
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I’ve been on at least a couple dozen teacher hiring committees, in a moderate-sized district and an era where your best bet was asking the right questions in an interview, then hoping the references you called would give you the straight dope on a candidate.

I remember a prospective art teacher whose first-year college transcript was a parade of Ds and Fs. She explained (voluntarily, before we asked, a good sign) how she’d been told in high school that she was a talented artist, then had that ability called into question by the university art department. That also explained the big hole in her college career, where she dropped out to lick her wounds and wait tables. She turned out to be a fine, imaginative teacher with a gift for inspiring and encouraging teenagers who believed they had zero aptitude for creating art. Go figure.

Then there was the elementary music candidate who started weeping in the middle of her interview. She had a stellar resume’ and great references—and when asked, gently, if there was something wrong, confessed that she wanted this job more than anything she’d ever wanted before. She got it (although there was a lot of discussion after her interview—how would she hold up in emotionally distressing classroom situations?)—and is still successfully teaching today, two decades later.

I felt uneasy when another potential teacher started making claims about all the things he could do “for us.” He could double the size of the program, bring in well-known guest artists, win music competitions, and so on—a long string of claims that reminded me of a door-to-door salesman. I could see the board member and principal perking up--the guy was a veritable Harold Hill—but his promises rang hollow to me. And where were the kids in all this bragging about what he could accomplish? You don’t always get to choose the candidate you prefer—that’s why there are committees—but I was right about him: lots of hot air.

But now—there’s science to help us with the task of hiring! There are scientifically-based tests (of course), scientifically-based interview questions and scientifically-based (and reasonably priced) protocols and consultants you can buy, reducing your “mistake” hires. Cost? A mere $5,000 for small districts, up to half a million for a large district.

All of this is based on questionable assumptions: choosing the right teacher matters more than the teaching, teachers should come into the work with a pre-packaged set of well-developed competencies that will never change, a “good” teacher will deliver improved quantitative data under all working conditions. You could do a lot of collaborative professional development, improving teaching across the board, for the money you’d spend trying to get just the “right” person for a handful of jobs.

I just finished reading Jose Vilson’s “This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education,” and I kept thinking of his story as I read the piece on scientific hiring. It took some time for Vilson to connect with a teaching job in New York City public schools, after graduating from Syracuse. He was rejected by the most talked-about and nominally prestigious screening mechanism in public education (an organization that charges districts thousands of dollars per poorly trained teacher, most of whom are extreme short-termers): Teach For America. His path to the classroom was a bumpy one—but oh, what he’s done since he arrived: he’s brilliantly illuminated the dilemmas, joys, and passions of teaching for countless readers through his blog, The Jose Vilson.

The other thing Jose Vilson’s done—through his fine book, his blog, and his social media presence—is serve as a kind of poster educator for the truth about teaching:

  • The qualities essential for good teaching are place-based, deeply personal and rest more on character than quantitative measures.
  • Kids learn more when they trust the person in front of the classroom. A teacher who looks like they do, and can relate to their life experiences, has a better chance of influencing students around the things that really matter.
  • Teachers who don’t reflect, every day, on the intersection of school and real life, don’t deserve to work with children.

One other thing about the book—it is, as the title suggests, a narrative, a collection of essays that appear to be loosely related. At first. The longer you read, the more you understand that all of the things Vilson writes about—his own upbringing and Catholic education, ambivalence about and love for teaching, the strange people and practices you meet in public schools, our national unwillingness to face a hideous legacy of injustice—are deeply connected.

In that way, the book reflects teaching, and public education, perfectly: the most important truths emerge in the dialogue, but it’s a messy and imperfect process.

You can’t test scientifically for an educator like Jose Vilson. Check out his book. Highly recommended.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.