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Questions I Wish I'd Asked When Interviewing for the Principalship

As you prepare to interview for your next school leadership position, Education World's Principal Files team offers advice about questions you might ask when the interviewers invite your participation. Included: Ten principals offer the questions they wished they'd asked.

In order to earn your current position, many of you interviewed for more than one school leadership job. As part of that interview process, you were asked dozens of questions. And during those interviews, you might even have been invited to pose questions you wanted to ask. Did you take advantage of that opportunity? Or do you wish you had?

Those are the questions we posed this month to Education World's Principal Files team. Ten team members shared their thoughts.

BE PREPARED TO ASK QUESTIONS


Posing no questions sends a message that a job candidate knows everything, has nothing to say, is bored, or just doesn't care enough.
 

In the past, when Principal Les Potter interviewed for school leadership positions, he always went prepared with a handful of questions to ask his interviewers. That way, when offered the opportunity to pose a question, he would have at least one question that was not covered during the interview itself.

I never prepared questions I should know or could learn from the school's Web page, said Potter, who is principal at Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida. I might ask about how the school prepares students for state assessment tests, what particular challenges the job presents, the skills the district is looking for in the principal they hire, but certainly I asked nothing to do with salary or vacation days, since those questions would send wrong signals in an initial interview.

Not coming prepared with questions would send a bad message to interviewers for any job, Potter added. The way he sees it, posing no questions sends a message that a job candidate knows everything, has nothing to say, is bored, or just doesn't care enough.

I am amazed how many of the candidates I interview for teaching positions will just shrug their shoulders and say I don't have any questions when they're given the opportunity, he said.

Potter thinks that's a big mistake.

FOCUS ON A PRINCIPAL'S SKILLS

What are you looking for in a principal?

A simple, straightforward question such as that is one that many wannabe principals might ask in an interview setting.

Carol Zent, principal at Aurora Elementary School in West Fargo, North Dakota, has asked that question before, and it always went over well and gave me some information I could use later.

Brett Denhalter, principal at Maxwell (California) Elementary School, always goes to interviews fully prepared to ask questions too. And "What are you looking for?" is one of the questions he has posed in the interview setting.


Do Your
Homework

Before an interview, Brett Denhalter makes sure he has done his homework.

I look extensively at the school's School Accountability Report Card (SARC) -- every school in California is required to have one, says Denhalter.

I also look at information about the school on the Great Schools Web site, especially the parent comments. By doing that, I am sensitive to the make-up of the student population, areas where the school needs to grow, and the parent-school relationship. I will target my answers to those points.

I will also often phrase a question based on an area of concern so that they know I care enough about their issues to have done my homework.
 

Asking that question forces the interviewers to consider my answers to their previous questions as they respond. And, after they answer the question, I use the opportunity to restate my qualifications in terms of their answers.

I find that whenever I ask a question, the interview often becomes less formal and more successful, added Denhalter.

Another principal, who asked for anonymity in this article, suggested asking interviewers about the leadership strengths and needs they see for the school. Do they want someone to walk in gently and keep a good thing going? Do they want someone to shake things up? Do they expect big change or status quo?

As I answered questions during one interview, I focused a great deal on my past successes with parents, the principal told Education World. So, when I got the job, I assumed that was the reason I got it. That must have been what they were looking for.

I wish I had known they saw another characteristic in me and were excited to have me for that reason. The result is that we got off on a misstep from the very start, which would have been easily cleared up if I'd only asked what skills they were looking for.

OTHER DUTIES AS ASSIGNED

Teri Stokes, the principal at Weatherly Heights Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, would inquire about the responsibility that appears at the end of almost every job description: other duties as assigned.

Stokes would ask that question because every job has other duties as assigned, and sometimes the performance of those duties weighs just as heavily as the stated job description. When it comes to the principalship, those other duties could be anything from adding warmth and personality to a school to cutting out everything except that which supports good test scores, said Stokes, who would make an effort to uncover important other expectations that might not be clear.

INVESTIGATING A SCHOOL'S CHALLENGES

A school's challenges, and its professional development priorities and programs, are other areas where some candidates would focus their questioning during an interview.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the school? is the one question that I always asked in interviews, and it always generated a lot of response, said Joan Pinkerton, who is principal at Kent Primary School in Carmel, New York. Each group that participates in the interview -- teachers, parents, board members -- gets a chance to answer that question, and their responses give me a good sense of what the school is all about and whether or not people see things the same way.

Asking that question also allows each group to have input, which makes them feel heard and part of the process.

There was one time when that question took longer than the rest of the interview, Pinkerton added. And in another case, the superintendent thanked me afterward for asking the question. He said it was an eye-opening experience for him to hear the responses the question generated.


I have learned you can't be the gardener without the seeds (children), tools and soil (staff), and laughter (rain and sunshine).
 

Principal Lolli Haws would ask what the school's current professional development initiatives were and what sort of learning formats -- outside speakers, study groups, Professional Learning Communities -- are typically used.

I would also want to know the level of commitment to integrating technology into the curriculum and about the district and PTA commitments to making resources available to that end, added Haws, who is principal at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia.

MORE QUESTIONS WORTH ASKING

Teri Stokes would inquire about the kinds of support a district offers its principals. Do you encourage or allow principals to attend conferences and workshops? Do you provide money for professional growth? Those are two of the questions she might ask.

Principal Karen Fitzimmons would ask about professional growth opportunities, too. In addition, she would ask questions to help her ascertain whether her and the district's philosophies mesh. And she would also try to get a feel for the people with whom, and the tools with which, she would be working.

I have learned you can't be the gardener without the seeds (children), tools and soil (staff), and laughter (rain and sunshine), so I would try to get a feel for those things, said Fitzsimmons, who is principal at Memorial Elementary School in East Hampton, Connecticut.

Lolli Haws would ask about the staff's commitment to elimination of achievement gaps. And she would want to know what the parents' short- and long-term hopes and dreams are for the school.

Principal Marcia Wright would inquire about the school-level activities that district administrators want to know about and when they want to know. For example, when a parent complains and the principal is unable to reach a resolution, what is the protocol for sharing that information with district supervisors?

Another principal, who chooses to remain anonymous in this article, advises, "I would ask how the superintendent would assess whether or not I am successful after six months, one year, and five years. If you're an internal candidate for a job, you might know the superintendent and have a good read on that. But if you're applying from outside, this is a good question to ask. Some superintendents want all the parents to be happy, some want achievement to rise dramatically, and some want you to fire a few teachers."

Principal Lee Yeager of S & S Middle School in Sadler, Texas, would ask, "Where do you want this school to be in five years? And how will you communicate with me that I am or am not meeting your expectations?"

Finally, when given the opportunity to ask a question at the end of a job interview, Principal Teri Stokes says she would ask directly, "When can I start?" just to show she is really interested in the job.


Principal Contributors to This Article

The following members of Education Worlds Principal Files team (and another principal who chose to remain anonymous) shared their thoughts about questions they might ask their interviewers during an interview.
  • Brett Denhalter, principal, Maxwell (California) Elementary School
  • Dr. Karen L. Fitzsimmons, principal, Memorial Elementary School, East Hampton, Connecticut
  • Dr. Lolli Haws, principal, Oakridge Elementary School, Arlington Virginia
  • Joan Pinkerton, principal, Kent Primary School, Carmel, New York
  • Dr. Les Potter, principal, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida
  • Teri Stokes, principal, Weatherly Heights Elementary School, Huntsville, Alabama
  • Marcia Wright, principal, Clinton (Michigan) Elementary School
  • Dr. Lee Yeager, principal, S & S Middle School, Sadler, Texas
  • Carol Zent, principal, Aurora Elementary School, West Fargo, North Dakota
To explore other practical articles from the Principal Files series, go to our Principal Files Archive.
Click here to learn how you might contribute to a future "Principal Files" article.
 

Updated 05/07/2012

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