ACSA Leadership Magazine: Recruiting a Better Teacher – Unexpected Candidate Qualities

This post by associates William Sprankles and Kara Backman was featured in the Association of California School Administrators’ January/February 2017 issue of Leadership magazine.

William Sprankles is a CT3 associate who recently collaborated with Kara Backman on a professional development initiative for the staff of the Denair Unified School District. Kara is a CT3 consultant (and former associate) who led the organization’s work in the Oakland Unified School District. As peers and partners in empowering the educators of California, William and Kara share observations on the qualities every school leader should seek when interviewing and hiring highly effective educators.

At CT3, we spend a lot of time coaching teachers to help them perform at their highest level. We have worked with school and district leaders that think the ability to be a great teacher is something “you either have or you don’t.” In our experience, even a teacher with low student achievement and poor classroom structure can learn to be a great teacher. We have seen it happen in one school system after another.

The qualities principals and school leaders have historically sought in their teachers include likeability, authority and charisma. As fellow educators, we tend to think teachers are exceptional when they teach with a classroom style similar to ours, or who teach in a way we ourselves like to learn. What we have observed over the years is that people with these seemingly desirable skills may not always preside over classrooms that are optimally managed or highly engaged. Similarly, just because a teacher is “nice” to his or her students doesn’t mean that teacher has earned their students’ respect. In CT3’s No-Nonsense Nurturer® philosophy, we call these educators “Unintended Enablers.”

Instead, we have seen that the most effective teachers possess three critical qualities: coachability for a growth mindset, the ability to build life-altering relationships, and a willingness to approach difficult subjects in the classroom. Let’s take an in-depth look at each quality, why it might seem hard to find, and how to look for it during the interview process.

Coachability for a Growth Mindset

What is it?
In her book, Mindset, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck writes: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success – without effort. They’re wrong. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

In our experience with Real Time Teacher Coaching®, if teachers feel they have all the answers and are resistant to change, they will never grow at the same rate as a teacher who is willing to receive feedback openly, and who listens to what they can do to get better. Great teachers must not only want to get better, they must understand what they must do to get better, and then be willing to do it.

Why is this quality hard to find?
“Growth mindset” is a buzz term that is often overused and underachieved in the education world. We have seen teachers who claimed to have a growth mindset, only to say in a coaching session, “I’ll take your feedback if I think it will work.” A teacher who is truly coachable for a growth mindset will say, “Okay, I will try this because I trust you and I want to get better.”

How do you interview for it?
Put this concept in motion during the interview, and shift the focus from “what” the candidate says to “how” she responds when there is pushback:

  • Provide the candidate with feedback about any answers that are not optimal. Give him opportunity to think and change his responses. Notice the non-verbal cues you observe when you provide feedback. What difference did you hear in the second attempt? Receiving feedback and adjusting in the moment are critical.
  • At the end of the interview, leave five minutes to ask the candidate to reflect upon her three strongest responses and her one area of weakness during the interview. The candidate’s responses (if accurate) will inform you that regular reflection is part of her professional identity. If candidates struggle to recall answers and information they shared during an interview, chances are they may struggle to reflect when they interact daily with hundreds of students and parents.

The Ability to Build Life-Altering Relationships

What is it?
It’s easy for each of us to think we’re good at building relationships. We all have strong relationships with our spouses, children and friends. It’s a tall order, however, to build a relationship with someone with whom you don’t live or have much in common. It’s even more challenging when you only see a child for an hour or two a day, or when he or she struggles to open up to you. The key to building a life-altering relationship with students is to discern what they need emotionally, and then deliver that in a genuine and trustworthy way. Our CT3 team works with one teacher who has memorized and practiced a different handshake for each of his students. Yet another goes to football practice to ensure her student-athletes see and hear her cheer them on. The secret to building life-altering relationships is intentionality.

Why is this quality hard to find?
Many teachers have the desire to form these quality relationships with their students, but they struggle with prioritizing their time. Building a life-altering relationship does take a significant period of time, but it doesn’t have to take a large quantity of time. Knowing how to build such a relationship is about a long-term commitment, and understanding what it takes to meet a student’s needs. The student might need tutoring after school twice a week, or he or she just might need a hug each morning.

The students in the greatest need of a close relationship are often the ones who act out the most and disrupt class. In the No-Nonsense Nurturer philosophy, we call them “the kids we love the most.” Language is very important in such interactions, and this is something to look for in interviews. If a teacher refers to “that child” or “those kids,” be sure to call that phrasing to their attention. Ask them why they feel this way, and if they are willing to change their thinking.

If a teacher says, “My students love me,” don’t hesitate to ask their students if this is true. Teachers who have life-altering relationships with their students understand what is going on with them on a deeply personal level. Knowing your teacher likes you is not the same as knowing that he or she genuinely cares about you.

How do you interview for it?
Most candidates will talk about the importance of relationships on a conceptual level, but the key to their effectiveness is how they get the job done. To determine if a candidate is authentic, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the candidate specifically use the names of students from past experiences when sharing her narratives? Personalizing conversations with the use of names is important in any setting. If the candidate begins to use the names of the people on the interview committee during the interview process, that’s typically a positive sign.
  • Did he talk about himself, or about developing or supporting other people?
  • Does she establish eye contact, lean in or “break the plane” when delivering answers?

The ability of the candidate to build a relationship during the interview is a prediction of how he or she will navigate in their own space with students. A great teacher will model the importance of building relationships during the interview, versus just giving lip service to it.

Willingness to Approach Difficult Subjects

What is it?
At CT3 Education, we believe education is the civil rights issue of our time. Statistics show great disparity between the education that middle- or upper-class majority students receive, versus that of low-income, minority children. Regardless of which category describes your school, we as educators must find a way to address attitudes toward race, poverty and cultural relevancy. We must be willing to involve students in the discussion. In our schoolwide culture planning work, we see teachers who have built classrooms that are safe spaces. Because they have strong relationships with their students, they know the experience will deepen their level of trust and respect, even if the conversation becomes challenging or tense.

Why is this quality hard to find?
Being willing to talk about race and culture is scary. It’s not something we as a society have ever been comfortable doing. As educators, we want to believe that every student is treated with equal respect, and has the same access to the great education we provide. However, even the most dedicated students spend only a third of their school-aged lives in a classroom. We can no longer ignore the impact of racism and classism that exists in the outside world. At the same time, protecting our students of privilege from these conversations is a disservice, because they need to knowledgeable about the shifting demographics of our country and the importance employers place on diversity. The world is changing rapidly; more than a valuable job skill, being culturally competent is necessary for the next generation to advance our democracy.

How do you interview for it?
School leaders can no longer afford to ignore these tough topics in interviews. We must push the envelope to ensure we are hiring teachers who have a strong awareness of their own journey toward creating culturally relevant classrooms:

  • Listen to language. Does the candidate use micro-aggressions and say things like “these kids” versus “my students”?
  • Ask the candidate specific questions about getting 100 percent of her students to achieve. Probe to discover how she will push and support students who may have significant challenges at home. Listen carefully during her responses. Does she try to justify a reason why some students cannot achieve?
  • Ask open-ended questions about how culture, poverty and race have impacted the candidate’s mindset toward teaching. Is his answer about himself, or does he make direct connections to how he effectively supports and empower youth?

Don’t let the conversation stop there. Make a commitment to allow for this deeper level of conversation. If your schools are not safe spaces for this level of discourse, ask for help. Your teachers deserve it and your students desperately need it.

School leaders spend hundreds of hours investing in the right people. It’s critical that schools find the right educators to give students the best chance for an exceptional education that will prepare them for work life and world life. Push beyond content and standards, and seek more than creative lesson planning and enthusiasm. Search for educators committed to true growth, who model and demonstrate relationships, and who aren’t afraid to teach more than a textbook.

William Sprankles and Kara Backman recently collaborated on a professional development initiative for the staff of Denair USD. Sprankles is a CT3 associate who has served as teacher, coach and administrator in Ohio. Backman is principal at Denair High School. She is a CT3 consultant who led the organization’s work in Oakland USD.
Check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, classroom management strategies, and building relationships with students and their families, and properly addressing important issues in the classroom and school.
Category: Leadership