Wrong Focus

The big education focus these days is on getting rid of poor teachers. There certainly are some, likely at least one in every school. But as a focus for improving education, it misses the key point. It's not how we fire that determines the quality of our schools, it's how we hire. We aren't doing that well, not in education and not in most other organizations either. We hire for all the wrong reasons. Here are a few.


How many times have I heard that an administrator passed up an exceptional candidate because he "wouldn't be a good fit" for our school. What exactly does that mean? Go along to get along? If the rest of the staff is lackadaisical, then new hires should be also? Someone who won't rock the boat? I find it hard to imagine how anyone could justify "fit" as a key factor in hiring a teacher.

I've hired many teachers. In every case, I look for the one most likely to provide the kind of instruction that maximizes student learning. I've hired teachers who were rough around the edges interpersonally and were some of the finest educators I'd known. I've selected teachers who were quiet introverts but who time after time created powerful learning experiences. I've also hired abrasive teachers who placed heavier demands on my time as a principal but who also delivered exceptionally for their students. Personality is a factor, but only to the extent it impacts student learning.

When I hear about hiring "good fits", I think of two things. Either this is a person who will cause no ripples for the boss or is someone who will become the boss' friend. Don't hire like you're selecting prospective friends. Hire for the kids, not the adults.


The cloning factor in hiring has been observed and commented on extensively. I mention it here only to acknowledge its unfortunate existence in education. If all administrators were gods, choosing the godlike teachers might make some sense. Sadly not the case.


This is primarily a high school phenomenon and, of all the mistakes we make in hiring, the most foolish. High schools have dozens of coaching positions as well as teaching positions to fill. In a particular year, a school may be looking for a physics teacher, an English teacher and soccer and baseball coaches. Most high schools therefore post and hire according to the narrow combination of needs for this one year.

Imagine there are 100 potential English teachers available for interview. You can imagine that 5 of these are excellent and 1 is outstanding. The principal's job is to find the outstanding 1 and convince him or her to accept the position. But how do we do that? First, we screen the 100 looking for the one who can coach baseball (or whatever extracurricular need we have). Let's say there are 10 of those. We have a 50-50 chance that one of those will be among the excellent ones. We have almost no statistical chance the outstanding one will be there. We look at our 10 baseball English candidates and choose 5 to interview. We select one who seems okay and will do both jobs. Three years later, the English teacher decides he no longer cares to coach baseball. For the next 30 years, he teaches English to about 6,000 students.

The error in this process is compounded by the fact that most of our coaching teachers are assigned to coach right away, their first year in the classroom. Trying to cope with the heavy demands of two intense jobs requires short-cutting instruction at the expense of coaching. These habits become ingrained.


Yes, this is a serious reason why excellent candidates are passed over. It's symptomatic of our short-term focus at the expense of long-term effectiveness. It may also be symptomatic of a lazy principal. Wouldn't it be better to invest the time into a green but potentially outstanding teacher than to settle for experienced mediocrity?


How many times have I heard that the best teachers are those who struggled themselves and understand kids who struggle? Those who make the claim have not checked their own data. Look at any school and line up your teachers based on college GPAs. You'll find the weakest teachers -- the laziest ones -- were predictable from their effort in college. Strong academic performance tells us two things: first, that this person is willing to work hard and second, that s/he has the ability to meet targets. Why wouldn't we want those qualities in a teacher? I am amazed that so many education leaders dismiss academic performance as insignificant.


These are some of the errors in thinking school administrators -- and others -- make. Were we to fix just this one thing -- the selection of our next generation of educators -- schools would immediately begin to improve. Nothing else we do will have as great an impact.

Naturally, we also need to be willing to invest the time into our selection process. How many applications are we willing to read? Do we allow interview performance alone to determine our hiring decisions? Or do we have a process that makes sure that quality of application, experience, recommendations and reference checks, college performance and other factors are weighed appropriately by interview teams?

90% of what high school principals do is reactive. There is so much going on and so many demands on our time. But 10% needs to be proactive, dedicated to carrying out the goals we have. First among those should be finding the 1 outstanding candidate to fill any opening we have. Hire for the kids, not the adults.


  1. I think I'm guilty of just one of these -"good fit",it's even a rating criteria on my interview scoring guide, but I'm not sure I should feel guilty... At least on my end of things (preschool special education), what happens in a classroom is not the sole domain of a teacher, it's about teaming -with assistants, with therapists, with the teacher in the classroom next door , with parents, and those with "abrasive personalities" or who are "rough around the edges interpersonally" tend not to function well as team members. Relationships are key in my field, and while I wouldn't use "good fit" as my first criteria, it certainly plays into the decision.

  2. Great advice and it doesn't just apply to education. The business world should use this advice as well.

  3. As a former teacher and department chair who used to sit on the hiring panel, I have to say that you have hit it on the head. Teacher hiring is the real problem--it's not too difficult to see what you're getting on the front end and either hire the person or move to the next candidate as the case may be. "Fit" is something that needs to be assessed in reference to the ability to do the job, not the ability to show up to happy hour on Fridays.

    I remember that when I was hired to my second position the district sent a small team of people to come watch me teach for a day and to interview my students to get their impressions of how typical or atypical what I was doing that day was of my teaching. It was a smart move, and one that principals should replicate as an additional metric for deciding whom to hire.

  4. Excellent suggestion, Sean. Watching a teaching session is fairly common. Interviewing students about what's typical in the classroom is not.


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