In this tight labor market, many principals have to review hundreds of quality candidates. Separating the good from the bad can be a question of, well, asking the right questions.
We asked our "Principal Files" principals to share their favorite questions to ask as they screen potential candidates for an opening. The questions they provided get to the heart of an applicant's skills and passion. Included: Thirty great questions for future teachers.
This hiring season, principals everywhere are sharpening their questioning techniques and taking another look at the questions they ask job candidates as they ready for the interviewing marathon.
So what kinds of questions are principals preparing? Interview questions cover a wide range of topics. "I'm looking for many things when I hire a teacher," said Patricia Green, principal at Cedar Heights Junior High School in Port Orchard, Washington. "I seek a candidate who can truly communicate with students, parents, peers, and our community. I'm looking for someone who understands human growth and development, knows how to respond in age-appropriate ways to students, and realizes that the behaviors we teach our students are oftentimes equally as important as the subjects they learn.
"I also seek someone who has chosen teaching as a passion rather than as a job; if I find people who truly love teaching, then I know I have found folks who see each day as an opportunity to help others learn and grow instead of people who think about coming to 'work.'
"Finally, I seek team players who are able to relate their subject areas to the world around them in order to help students understand the why's behind the what's they are learning."
But how do principals discern whether candidates for teaching positions possess those qualities they seek? They ask thoughtful and challenging questions, such as the ones Education World's Principal Files team members have been polishing as they get set to schedule interviews. We asked our "P-Files" team members to share some of their personal favorite questions with us so we might offer you...
Once the meeting-and-greeting is done and everybody is settled in, the first questions in an interview usually fall under the category of "tell me more." Tell-me-more questions give everybody a chance to relax a little as they provide job candidates an opportunity to put their best feet forward.
I've read your application and resume, but what are the most important things I should know about you, your life, your experiences? Who is the real [insert applicant's name]?
"What I'm looking for when I ask that question is whatever the person really wants to share with me," principal Tim Messick told Education World. Besides the basic responses, "I'm looking for candidates to get away from the 'canned' responses. I'm interested in hearing what the candidates feel is most important. I'm looking to learn how they see themselves and what they value about themselves."
"I have found that folks are often very candid and straightforward -- very insightful -- in their responses," added Messick, who is principal at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"This question generates a wide range of responses," added Bridget Braney, principal at Orchard Hill Elementary School in South Windsor, Connecticut. "There are no right or wrong answers, but the answers can be very revealing."
"Although much of what they have accomplished is listed on the applications, this opportunity to share tells me a little about them and makes them feel welcome," said Betty Peltier, principal at Southdown Elementary School in Houma, Louisiana. "It's good for me to know about their background and interests when I am introducing them to teachers on the staff. Additionally, this informal chatter gives me insight into how the candidates present themselves. I am looking more for their composure than for any particular answers."
The typical introduce-yourself and give-your-qualifications questions lead to answers focused on what the interviewers might want to hear, but Patricia Green likes to add a little twist to the traditional question by asking
You have been hired as the newest member of our teaching team. In fewer than five minutes, how would you introduce yourself to a group of parents, students, and teachers from our school? The only thing you want to be sure to do is to indicate how your education, training, and work experiences have qualified you for your new role.
"That question adds a new twist; it challenges candidates to address their qualifications to the parents, students, and their peers," explained principal Patricia Green.
Green is looking for candidates to share their specific qualifications for the job, but she also is looking for other things. "Often, their passion for this career, as well as their ability to build rapport with others, is evident in their responses," she said. "I also get a chance to see how the candidate acts in an impromptu situation and how well he or she communicates under pressure."
At Irving Elementary School in Kewanee, Illinois, principal Ellin Lotspeich uses her opening interview questions to try to get to see what is in a teacher's heart. One of her favorite questions to ask is
Who has most influenced you to become an educator, and how did they influence you?
"I believe that personal life experiences in education relate directly to the type of teacher someone will be," Lotspeich told Education World. "The candidate's response to that question should come from the heart, and it will give me insight into the 'heart' the candidate will draw on as he or she relates to students."
With the background information out of the way, it's time to dig a little deeper. It's time to get a sense of what kind of teacher the applicant will make. Some principals, like Les Potter, prefer to interview candidates who have teaching experience. "I am fortunate I can get experienced applicants," said Potter, principal at Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida. "I can get a better read on them because I can check references. I will probably need to spend less time working with them one-on-one, plus experienced candidates know what they are getting into."
Whether the candidate is experienced or not, Potter always asks one question:
Describe for me a lesson you taught that went very well. Why did the lesson work so well?
"That question helps me get a sense for how the teacher plans, thinks, and reacts," Potter explained.
Don Finelli, principal at Catskill (New York) High School, also wants to get a read on a candidate's lesson-planning abilities. "I feel the most important times in class are the first moments and the closure of a lesson," Finelli told Education World. So he poses a specific situation and topic. "I say, 'You are going to teach this topic this period, and the bell has just rung to begin class. Describe what the next 15 minutes are like. What are you doing? What are your students doing?'"
That question helps Finelli see if the candidate can think quickly. "I look for knowledge, confidence, and passion," said Finelli. "Does the candidate visualize what a classroom should be like, and already know what he or she is doing?"
Principal Jim DeGenova likes to see a potential new-hire present a lesson. He lets candidates know in advance that teaching a lesson will be part of the interview, but he doesn't get more specific than that. "'Wing-it' lessons are a part of life," explained DeGenova, who is an elementary school principal and an assistant high school principal in Pennsylvania's Slippery Rock Area School District. "Those of us who live in the real world know that things go wrong and unexpected interruptions occur. So I ask for a no-prep-time lesson to be taught on a topic in the applicant's certification area. Some lessons are only five or ten minutes in length, but they give me a better idea of what I might see when I do observations."
Principal Marguerite McNeely wants to learn during an interview that a candidate is more than a one-note teacher. She asks
What methods of teaching, besides lecture, would you use to present material to your students?
"Since that is what I am looking for, I make certain to screen for it during the interview," said McNeely, principal at Alexandria Middle Magnet School for Math and Science.
Chris Vail, assistant principal at Groveport Madison Middle School South in Groveport, Ohio, is interested in getting a handle on the ability of teachers to structure a good lesson, but one of the questions he asks is intent on getting a read on whether or not a teacher knows what to do if a lesson is not working. Vail often asks candidates
What if your students don't "get it"? In other words, if a lesson is not working for all your students, do you have a plan for remediation? How do you carry out that plan?
"All good teachers are effective when the students 'get it,'" said Vail. "I am looking for those teachers who have several alternate plans in mind when kids don't understand the material."
A Teacher in the Making
Some people believe teachers are born. But most principals think it takes more than that. Even the best teachers are always searching for ways to improve themselves, they say. In an interview setting, principals are often looking for candidates who recognize that they have a long way to go to become the teacher they want to be. In order to discern a new teacher's attitude toward professional development, principals pose questions such as...
What would your previous employer or college advisor say were your greatest strengths for teaching, and what areas would they suggest were areas that need growth? And do you agree with those assessments?
That's a question principal Teri Stokes often asks. "The question helps me gauge the applicant's understanding of where they are in the developmental process to becoming a great teacher," explained Stokes. "Then I always ask what plan the applicant has to grow in those areas. I want to see if they plan to do some reading, attend workshops, observe a specific teacher who has fine-tuned those needed skills"
Principal Larry Davis also asks candidates to focus on areas in greatest need for professional development. "This lets me know where weaknesses may be without being negative or making the candidate feel uncomfortable," said Davis, principal at Doctors Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida.
Brian Hazeltine, principal at Airdrie Koininia Christian School in Airdrie, Alberta (Canada), asks a similar question. "I want to see how honest the candidate is about his or her skills and how self-aware they are."
Patricia Green gets candidates to tackle the traditional strengths-and-weaknesses question from a little different perspective. She asks:
If your greatest supporter was in the room with us today, what five words would he or she use to describe you as a person, a teacher, or a colleague?
"That question shows whether candidates can think on their feet -- and if they can truly sum up themselves using just five words!" said Green. "The question allows us to see if the person is self-confident and whether or not he or she is willing to share some depth in a single-word set of answers."
Another way to learn whether or not a candidate might be proactive in the professional development area is to ask a question Deborah Harbin often asks:
What have you read lately that led you to change the way you teach?
"That question helps me set a tone," explained Harbin, principal at Duryea Elementary School in Houston, Texas. "I expect my teachers to be lifelong learners, and to want to take some responsibility for their own professional development."
Andy Wood -- who is college head (equivalent to a U.S. principal) at Seaforth College, a birth-through-high-school school in Ballito, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa -- is another who likes to ask about reading habits. He always asks what book is at a candidate's bedside table at the time of the interview. "The response gives me insight into a candidate's personal and academic values," said Wood.
Many principals recognize the importance of a teacher's writing skills. Principals want to know that communications between school and home -- whether a class newsletter, report card comments, or responses to parents' emailed questions -- are going to be clearly and correctly written.
In order to get an idea of a candidate's writing skills, principal Betty Peltier sets aside time to get a writing sample from a candidate. She poses a question that any applicant for a teaching position should be able to answer:
Explain -- in writing -- in 100 words or fewer your philosophy of teaching.
Marguerite McNeely presents a similar assignment. "I check for writing ability and cohesive thoughts," said McNeely.
Most principals hope that candidates for teaching positions have a vision of the physical layout and appearance of their classroom and of what learning will look like there. To discern a teacher's classroom vision, Lucie Boyadjian, principal at Glen Oaks School in Hickory Hills, Illinois, always poses a question that goes something like
If I were to visit your classroom and take a Polaroid photo, what would I see in that photo?
Tim Messick asks a similar question. "I want to know what I would see if I was a fly on the wall in the candidate's classroom," Messick told Education World. "I'm interested in 'seeing' whatever visual picture they want to paint for me. What I'm looking for is a sense of how they seat or group students, how they decorate their rooms, what is posted or hanging in the classroom, if there are learning centers or stations scattered around, if the room is bright and cheerful
"Basically, I am looking to see if their room is student-centered."
Bridget Braney asks the same question, because "it reveals a candidate's vision of what education should be as well as their vision of the educator they would like to be. If they are relaxed enough, they can give us a good picture of their teaching style and professional knowledge."
Other principals are just as interested in a candidate's approach to classroom management:
What is your approach to classroom management and student discipline?
"We firmly believe that teachers get the classroom behaviors they teach to their students," said principal Patricia Green. "I'm looking for a person who has a clear plan for his or her classroom management and who can articulate that plan. I'm also looking for an answer that will reflect some developmentally appropriate understanding of the students who are being taught. Among the things I look for are candidates who teach clearly articulated expectations and consequences. I look for their proactive and reactive strategies, and for them to involves parents and staff -- for example, a dean or assistant principal -- when appropriate."
Jim DeGenova gets at teachers' classroom management skills by presenting the scenario of a misbehaving student. "After the initial response, I escalate the scenario to a more serious level," he explained. "I keep escalating the scenario until the applicant responds 'at this point, I need some help' Too often teachers don't seek assistance until after a problem has grown bigger than anyone can handle. I seek someone who will admit they don't have all the answers."
Brian Hazeltine wants teacher-candidates to tell him about a specific problem they handled well:
Tell me about a difficult circumstance you handled. What action did you take? What were the results?
This CAR approach -- an acronym for Circumstance, Action, Results -- is effective, said Hazeltine. "How a person handled situations in the past is often a good indicator of how he or she will handle them in the future."
The closing minutes of an interview offer an opportunity for candidates to summarize their skills and make a case for hiring them. It's the time when many principals pose a question that goes something like this:
Is there anything you want us to know that we haven't asked that might help us as we make our hiring decision?
"Our purpose in including this question is to give the candidates an opportunity to really sell themselves," explained Diane Petty, principal at BCLUW Elementary School in Conrad, Iowa. "It also provides insight about what they may think is really important about teaching. They may end up showing items in their portfolios that address an additional area of teaching that was not asked about during the interview. They may expand on a topic that was asked earlier Usually teachers give additional information that helps us see their skills more clearly or helps us make a decision about whether or not they will fit into our district."
Another question that often accompanies that one is
Why should I hire you over all the other applicants who have the same educational background, attitude, and experience?
Asking applicants why they should be chosen helps principal Teri Stokes get a sense for how they feel about themselves and their abilities and strengths and how eager they are to become a great teacher.
"One of the key points I always like to hear is something about tenacity, or a stick-to-it-despite-difficulty attitude," said Stokes. On the other hand, one of the things she often hears is 'Well I just love children'
That's nice, Stokes says, but "I usually respond 'Well, I love my beagle too, but that doesn't mean I've been able to do a good job of teaching him.'
"I want to hear more than just a standard pat answer. Believe it or not, I have had numerous applicants say they don't know why I should hire them over someone else."
"I ask this question to try to determine a candidate's personality and its characteristics," said principal Maria Bernardi of Our Lady of Lourdes South School in Toronto, Ontario (Canada). "Teaching is about relationships. Teachers need to make connections with the students, parents, and other staff. If a potential candidate is telling me that they know it all and that they don't need help, that tells me a lot about them. However, if a candidate tells me about their willingness to learn or that they are willing to ask for help, that tells me they are courageous and eager to do what needs to be done to help children or parents."
"I want to hear things about responsibility, integrity, kindness and, most of all, about a love for children and wanting to make a difference in their lives," added Bernardi.
Bernardi also wants to get a sense of professionalism and she wants to hear what is in a teacher's heart. "I think the pressures of teaching are always offset when there is a joy for teaching," she said. "And a sense of humor also helps."
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