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Changing Schools: Six Questions to Ask

changing schools

Many years ago, I accepted a job at a school without even seeing the inside of the building. While I do not regret this decision in hindsight, I had some less-than-wonderful surprises to contend with in my first few months of work. Most teachers do not spend an entire career at one school, particularly in tumultuous times like these. Even when transferring within a system, going to a new place can be an almost completely unknown quantity. How can we learn more about a potential work environment before accepting a position? The six questions below elicit useful information and should ideally be asked (and answered) before making any commitment to a new and unfamiliar school. 

Question 1: Is there school climate data I can look at?

Many school districts (or even individual schools themselves) gather information about how staff, students and families perceive the school climate from a variety of perspectives. Questions can range on topics anywhere from the physical conditions of the building and materials contained within to how people relate to one another in the hallways, or what kinds of student performance metrics are available to determine the effectiveness of teaching and learning. Looking at climate data provides a lot of information, sometimes too much. It can also be a red flag when a prospective teacher asks to see climate data and it simply doesn’t exist. That makes it more likely a school is either hiding something, or that leaders do not care to know what multiple stakeholders think and feel. 

Question 2: May I talk to a teacher who works here about the school? 

The best sources of information about how a school treats its teaching staff are the experts who work there. If a school offers a position to someone who feels in the dark about a lot of important details, it doesn’t hurt to ask whether a current staff member would be willing to answer some questions. It is possible to learn most of what we need to know just by talking to someone with inside knowledge. And once again, if the school does not help with this request, that already tells any prospective teacher quite a bit about what kind of working environment they might encounter upon accepting the job. 

Question 3: What is your turnover rate?

This question might be tough to ask, but it is a completely reasonable one. Schools with high rates of turnover are not necessarily terrible places to work, especially in a day and age when teachers are quitting right and left even under more ideal circumstances. However, getting a sense of teacher attrition over time, perhaps within a three-year period, can be helpful in looking at the bigger picture of who leaves, and who stays. Looking at specifics, such as which departments have more turnover or what the veterans who have put in many years at a school teach, is fairly telling. If a teaching candidate asks about shifts in staffing and the response is bristly or uninformative, that school might not be the most ideal place to build a career.

Question 4: What are some defining characteristics of a successful teacher at this school?

More effective school leaders have a vision that includes clear messaging around learning. As part of that, schools often look for certain characteristics when they hire teachers, such as a belief that all students can learn at high levels or the desire to increase equitable classroom strategies during instruction. Sometimes a hiring panel shares what they are looking for as part of the interview, but that is by no means a given. Usually, potential hires are invited to ask questions at the close of an interview, and taking advantage of what we can learn from such an opportunity is important. Asking point-blank what the school looks for in a teacher helps any prospective hire determine whether they will be a good fit for the school, and whether they want to accept a job offer if the school makes one.

Question 5: What are the instructional priorities at this school, and what role do teachers play in ensuring these priorities are met?

Instructional priorities specifically identify where a school is putting energy into improving learning outcomes for students. Functional schools delineate what they are working to improve, from initiatives such as increasing literacy across all content areas to incorporating stronger language production into math courses. Depending on schoolwide goals for teaching and learning, the role of instructional staff can be a vital part of how goals are met. Again, the interview is a perfect place to ask about instructional priorities, and the question is often received with warmth and excitement from school leaders who truly care about working to create the most ideal state possible in their buildings. 

Question 6: How often are teachers evaluated, and what does the process look like? 

It often feels like a relief to ask a question that has a quick, factual response. Regardless of the school, all leaders should be able to explain how evaluation systems work, how frequently teachers receive feedback, and what observers are looking for when they see instruction in action. If administrators cannot readily provide that information, that signals a much larger problem. Otherwise, it helps to look at what is shared and get a sense of what kind of support teachers receive and how involved school leaders are with the practice of observing and evaluating teaching. It is hard to grow without regular, skillful feedback, so making sure to have that before accepting a job is key.

It may not be realistic to know everything about a school before committing to a position, but it is possible for teachers to gather a lot more information than schools offer voluntarily. Deciding where to work is a pretty big deal. Why go in blind? With the six questions above, anyone looking to work in a new school can feel a lot more confident about the place they decide to call home. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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