Teacher applicant pool
by Susan Timble
Hiring teachers is a challenging task and an enormous responsibility. Administrators must develop strategies to look beyond the surface and discern the potential in teacher applicants.
Hiring quality teachers can be difficult because of teacher shortages and the complexity of teaching in today's schools. Experienced administrators, however, know the importance of hiring, nurturing, and keeping quality personnel and recognize the dangers of hiring the wrong candidate. They also have developed strategies and techniques for evaluating applicants' potential that goes beyond surface answers and observations.
The Challenge Administrators face two major obstacles to hiring the best applicants. First, the teacher applicant pool may lack the two qualifications associated with high student achievement: full teaching certification and the equivalent of a major in the subject to be taught (Darling-Hammond 1999; NCTAF 1996). Some state teaching standards are not as vigorous as others, and although most states have adopted NCATE standards for their teacher preparation programs, not all states have middle level certification or adequate content knowledge requirements to help ensure a quality teaching force.
Second, the applicant pool often lacks teachers who are experienced in classroom situations that require a range of instructional, managerial, cultural, ethical, and interpersonal skills, often in time-sensitive situations. The quality teachers that administrators seek usually do not arrive at schools as experienced educators who can work with young adolescents or older teens. They often lack the desirable classroom skills and attitudes that research has shown to increase student achievement.
The Solution: Recognize Potential Faced with an applicant pool that may lack both credentials and classroom skills, administrators do well to spot the potential of teacher applicants. They are able to discern those individuals who will likely blossom into effective teachers-and their actions show the importance of choosing and cultivating quality in their teaching force. For example, Gregory Hodge, principal of Frederick Douglass Academy in New York City, a high-performing, high-poverty school, spends about seven months a year recruiting, often interviewing 100 to 150 teachers before hiring. "You don't just hire a teacher," Hodge commented. "You hire a particular skill set that you're looking for" (Carter 2000, 20). Vivian Dillihunt, principal of Rozelle Elementary School in Memphis, Tenn., 88 percent of whose students come from low-income families, stated, "We don't always get the best teachers . . . we take what we get and turn them into the best teachers through training, teamwork, and mentoring" (Carter 2000, 21).
These administrators succeed in building a schoolwide quality faculty and staff How do such principals approach hiring new teachers? What qualities do they look for? How do they discern one special future teacher among the applicants?
I asked these questions of five veteran principals of highpoverty, high-performing middle schools in southeastern Georgia. All five administrators attributed the success of their school to one key factor: quality teachers. And their comments revealed three common elements beyond the credentials and credit hours: they wanted teachers with a strong work ethic, people skills, and communication skills.
Strong Work Ethic "I certainly don't want a lazy teacher," said Principal AI Freeland, shaking his head. Principal Virginia Dixon agreed. "I look for energy. How do they sit? How do they look at you?" Both of these principals want energetic teachers with a strong conviction that students can learn, and they look for indicators during the selection process. These principals have schools where teachers put in extra hours and try innovative strategies; they want new faculty members who would likely contribute the hours and risk-taking behaviors to provide the variety of instruction that works with young adolescents.
People Skills The best teachers can interact with all types of people of various ages and occupations. People skills involve the openness and positive attitude to greet colleagues, students, and parents in the halls, outside the school building, and in group meetings. They include the thoughtfulness to listen to the ideas of others in team meetings, parent conferences, and classroom discussions, and to express appreciation for the efforts of team members, students, and staff members.
As these principals interview candidates, they wonder, "Will this individual fit in with the rest of my staff? Will he or she be a team player?" These principals look for new teachers who have experience working on teams and who show respect for students and adults at the school. They do not want teachers with personal gripes or negative spirits, both of which can come through during an interview. When principals ask themselves if an applicant will be a legal problem-or any kind of a problem, for that matter-they want a strong intuitive assurance. Students also appreciate teachers with people skills. As a seventh grade teacher, I asked my students to write about their views of a good teacher. They universally described good teachers as "nice and easy to talk to."
Communication Skills Well-developed communication skills are the core and lifeblood of an educator who wishes to bring about a change in his or her students. They encompass correct grammar, voice quality, and listening skills. Principals of high-performing schools seek teachers with mastery of standard English and the ability to express ideas coherently. They want teachers who can explain ideas well in the classroom, who can speak to parents about their children's progress, and who can contribute to team and schoolwide meetings. Teachers must model these skills for students. Incorrect language, then, can take a candidate who is strong on paper out of the running.
The Interviewing During an interview, top administrators pay attention to job seekers' expressions, choice of words and topics, and attitude. They look beyond the manner of expression to the candidate's judgment in knowing what is appropriate in dress, comments, and behavior. As the interview proceeds, principals consider:
* Did the candidate arrive on time?
* Is he of she experienced in cooperative learning groups?
* Is he or she willing to take on cocurricular activities?
* Does the candidate appear happy to be here?
* Does the candidate respond in a manner that focuses on the needs of students?
* Is he or she interested in and enthusiastic about teaching?.
* Does he or she listen and know when to speak?
The Hidden Meanings Behind Applicants' Questions
The questions applicants ask often reveal as much as or more than their answers. Their questions reveal attitudes and priorities. If an applicant asks, "Are the classes tracked in this school?" the principal might detect the applicant's knowledge of strategies to help heterogeneously grouped students learn. Or the applicant might be focused on teaching only grouped students. At the very least, the question opens the door to a discussion of grouping, and it presents an opportunity to see if the applicant's education-at philosophy is consistent with the school's (see sidebar).
New teachers will mature in their jobs. Experiences with students and parents, consultations with mentors, workshops, and teaming activities all provide support for new teachers to grow and improve. Administrators who run effective schools know that if they hire teachers with a strong foundation of "raw material," they can provide the support and training for them to become quality teachers. Without such a foundation, it is difficult to promote the hard work that is the backbone of reforming schools.
The teacher applicant pool available to administrators who seek to raise achievement may not be overflowing. However, administrators are in a position during the interviewing process to discern the seeds of quality in teacher applicants and during the beginning years of practice to help nurture their growth.
Carter, S. C. 2000. No excuses: Lessons ftom 21 high-performing high-poverty schools. Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation.
Darling-Hammond, L. 1999. Teacher quality and student achievement: A review of state policy evidence (Document R99-1). Seattle: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy.
National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. 1996. What matters most: Teaching for Americas fiture. New York Author.
Susan Trimble (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University. She also has 13 years experience as a middle level and high school teacher. PL