The specialness of being un-special: a reflection on hiring

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The Hiring Process

It’s July and we’re hiring teachers for the next school year. 

I’ve learned something odd about hiring: the more I feel I “need” a potential candidate, the more problematic that candidate might be in the long-term.   If I am thinking a lot about how special and brilliant the person is– that we must hire them, no matter what– it’s actually the sign of a problem.  Why?  That person often turns out to be dramatic, or hard to please, or to create distractions from our main purpose, which is to teach kids. 

The other day, I felt excitement around a teaching candidate.  As we interviewed him, he answered questions with passion.  I was picturing him advocating for the kids, keeping his team on-task.  I was also comparing him with the other teachers. 

I thought, “We need him.” 

Then I did what I do in every interview: I gave him feedback to see how he’d take it.  People can say they value feedback, but there’s only one way to prove it. 

“In our interviewing process,” I explained, “we like to make sure that regardless of the final outcome, we’re helping you strengthen your own interviewing skills.  We like to tell you about strengths and areas to improve, in real time.  Can I give you some feedback?”

He got very quiet.  “Sure.”

“I loved your answer about the struggling student’s writing.  It showed that you can find strengths in student work.  However, when you said you’d work 1:1 with the student to help him, I wondered how’d you’d manage the rest of the class. I suggest thinking about grouping the student so he could also get support from classmates, and free you up to manage the class.  Make sense?”

His eyes were wide.  “Yeah.  OK.” Then he smiled and relaxed.  “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.  Thank you.”

I was still excited about this teacher.  In my mind, we had practically made a hire, and so I called him to do a demonstration lesson (a “demo”), where he would teach a short lesson to a real group of students.

When I called, he didn’t pick up, so I left a voicemail. 

When I didn’t hear back for a few hours, I also sent an email.  I kept thinking about the candidate, and wondering: had I been I too harsh in my feedback? 

A few days later, he sent me an email.  He said he was “withdrawing” his resume from our application process and thanked me for my “critical feedback.”

Whoa.  I was disappointed but couldn’t help but see we had avoided a major problem. “It’s great that he withdrew,” said a friend.  

She was right. And my excitement and over-thinking about this teacher had actually been a bad sign. 

When I think back to great hires, here’s what I was feeling when we hired them: not much. 

Really.  I was engaged in the interview, and then it ended.  I debriefed the interview with my team, we agreed on next steps for follow-up, and then I moved on to other tasks: the next interview, or 12th grade data, or attendance, or even, what I was going to cook for dinner.   

In other words, the interview was just the interview, part of the work day, fully engaging, yet when it was over, it was over.  This simple, un-dramatic engagement was a sign that this teacher wanted to work and to be with kids.   That was their only focus, and yet, the simplicity of their focus was special.  And—exactly what our school, and the kids, needed most. 

Photo credit: Marco Verch, Creative Commons License