Hiring the Right Teacher
by Henry Contant, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
One of the Most Important Responsibilities of a Principal
I’ve been told that the greatest legacy principals leave behind them is the staff they have hired and molded into a cohesive, visionary team. After almost thirty years in Christian school administration, I couldn’t agree more. Of all the decisions that principals make, determining who to hire or not hire is among their most important responsibilities.
I was blessed to serve as principal in a school system that grew rapidly and required the hiring of several new teachers each year for over a decade. Amid the countless decisions I made during those years, some of the most satisfying and rewarding were the hiring of terrific teachers, administrators, and support staff. Conversely, among the most painful obligations of school administration has been having to deal with the aftermath of poor hiring.
Admittedly, even though I’d invest as much as twenty to thirty hours into the hiring of a specific teacher and worked closely with an education committee that shared in the responsibility, we still didn’t always get it right. Sometimes even the most prayerful and careful hiring decisions did not work out in the long term.
A board member once questioned my recommendation to the school board with regards to the extension of a contract to a new teacher. He said, “Are you sure this is the best candidate possible, because we may be making a million dollar decision tonight?” What he meant was that any teacher who works at the school for twenty years will likely earn over one million dollars. In fact, given today’s salaries and benefits, it may be closer to a two million dollar investment if the teacher hired remains on your staff for their entire teaching career.
Todd Whitaker, in his book What Great Principals Do Differently -18 Things that Matter Most (2012), focuses on two basic ways to improve your school. First, improve the teachers you have, and second, hire better teachers. He suggests that “a principal’s single most precious commodity is an opening in the teaching staff. The quickest way to improve your school is to hire great teachers at every opportunity.”1
It has been my observation that some principals look for candidates who are deemed a good match, teachers who will fit in and become like their school. Whitaker goes on to say that “great principals have a different goal: to have the school become more like the new teacher”.2 Do you hire a teacher simply for today’s classroom vacancy or for tomorrow’s vision of where you believe Christian education needs to be going?
Although previous teaching experience in a Christian school and having an advanced degree may be important hiring considerations, we all know that experience alone is not an indicator of the better teacher. A ten-year teacher might really only have one year of experience simply repeated ten times, whereas another truly has ten years of teaching experience. Based on arbitrary HR qualifications, an outstanding teacher who is a few courses short of a Master’s degree may not show up as the strongest candidate, but yet may be by far the best candidate. I believe the essential variable in hiring is the teacher’s talent.
I define teacher talent broadly. To me, talent means the total package: love of God, love of students, bright and discerning mind, servant heart, positive attitude, teachable spirit, life-long learner, understanding of how to integrate a biblical worldview, great work ethic, a deep passion for the difference a Christian education can make, congenial personality, insightful leadership skills, and seeing the use of technology as a means to enhance student learning.
Often the best predictor of future performance is past performance. Therefore, it perplexes me that some schools still hire experienced teachers and principals without running careful reference checks. (At the end of this article is a link to a sample reference check form that you can download and use.)
Once a dynamic new teacher has been hired, it’s tempting to wonder how to spread their insight, energy, perspective and excitement to the other teachers. However, a principal’s first challenge may well be to keep newly hired teachers enthusiastic. Most teachers are full of energy when they first start out. If all of them could sustain that drive, principals wouldn’t be working so hard to improve the teachers they have. Effective principals have learned that although maintaining a new teacher’s level of energy is a challenge, at least momentum is on their side. By contrast, restoring the enthusiasm of a jaded teacher can be like pushing stones uphill. Great principals hire dynamic teachers and strive to keep them that way. 3
Exceptional principals consistently value teachers because they do the right thing for the students and the school, not merely because of seniority or other arbitrary factors. Naturally, we ought to recognize and value our senior teachers. If we fail to do this, we can quickly lose credibility. But effective leaders base their decisions on each individual teacher’s effectiveness and contribution. If we have to wait for teachers to become veterans before making full use of their talents and gifts, they may well let their efforts flag, confine their energies to their classrooms, or go somewhere else where they can make a difference. There must be no pecking order in our schools. 4
In my many visits to Christian schools throughout the province, it remains an absolute joy and inspiration to see so many dedicated principals, teachers, and support staff pour their lives and energy into making our Christian schools outstanding learning environments for our children and teenagers. Their modeling of Christian character, integrity, behaviour, and perspective affirms that every dollar spent on Christian school tuition is well worth it. Thousands of parents are grateful to God for Christian school teachers who teach, coach, and counsel their children and teenagers on a daily basis.
Yet, imagine how quickly your teachers and school will improve if each new teacher you hire is your school’s best teacher.
Who will you issue a new contract to this coming school year?
To assist you with your hiring process, here are editable forms for reference checks and interview questions.
Teacher Reference Check Form
Teacher Interview Questions Form
1 Whitaker- page 49
2 Ibid. page 49
3 Ibid. page 50
4 Ibid. page 54
How Should They Be Used?
Many SCSBC school boards institute the practice of issuing intention forms to current staff members (teachers and support staff) each January. These forms ask staff members to indicate their employment intentions for the following school year, so that the principal and school board can plan and advertise accordingly. Staff members are typically asked to indicate one of the following:
__ I am planning to continue my employment at ______________ Christian School next year.
(Position will not be advertised for the 2014-15 school year.)
__ I am uncertain if I will continue my employment at ______________ Christian School next year.
(Position will be advertised as a possible opening until April 15, 2014.)
__ I definitely am not planning to continue my employment at _____ Christian School next year.
(I will provide the Board with a letter of resignation no later than April 15, 2014, so that the Board will be able to advertise the position, and extend a new employment contract any time after April 15, 2014.)
__ I would like to consider a change to my current teaching assignment next school year.
(I would like to discuss this further with my principal)
Intention forms serve a useful purpose in that they provide school boards and principals with helpful information as they prepare to post their employment opportunities for the upcoming school year. They also provide teachers and support staff the opportunity to express their employment preferences early in the planning process for the new school year.