Finding Exemplary Teachers
Teacher quality is the most crucial component in promoting student learning. For all the controversy about No Child Left Behind, one underlying emphasis of the federal law that is irrefutable is the importance placed on teacher quality. Therefore, a school organization committed to excellence must recruit and select outstanding teachers. The Obama administration also recognizes the importance of teacher quality. Teacher excellence is a foundation of the Race to the Top funds, competitive grants available to states as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). The Race to the Top program seeks to reward states that take innovative approaches to teacher quality and selection.
However, too often the process of teacher selection is left to chance as districts fail to align their expectations for teaching excellence with the teacher selection process in a systematic way. Furthermore, many administrators have blind spots when it comes to hiring and may make repeated mistakes in selecting teachers that can have ongoing consequences. Once you hire a teacher, in many cases you are making a 20- to 30-year commitment.
Far too often, principals select teachers based on criteria that are ill-defined or contradictory. For example, a teacher may be hired based on past evidence that he or she had few complaints from parents without digging deeper to see if a lack of rigor was the reason for so much contentment. Many choose a teacher based on his or her past experience without adequately evaluating if that experience matches the needs of that teacher’s particular students. Many districts don’t adequately examine a candidate’s motivation, orientation to student learning, or work style: Is the teacher a sole practitioner or a team player?
If they are honest, all principals will admit that they have made mistakes in selecting teachers. Many correct those mistakes by releasing teachers who don’t meet expectations before they achieve permanent status or tenure. This is often an unpleasant process, and some don’t make the tough call to release mediocre or bad teachers. Students can suffer the consequences for many years to follow. Even those administrators who fix their mistakes subject their students to at least one year of mediocre learning and unrealized potential. One year of a student’s academic life is a year that he or she cannot get back, and it is too high a price to pay for poor selection and placement of teachers.
Re-evaluating Your Policy
Most school districts, of course, have a teacher selection policy that is clearly defined and follows a prescribed process. However, how many have built their process from a fundamental understanding, based on research and student outcomes, of what makes an excellent teacher? How many then align a process for screening, interviewing and selecting teacher candidates based on this commonly articulated understanding of the type of teacher that best meets the needs of their students?
In 2005, North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, Ill., was faced with a high number of looming teacher retirements. District administrators realized that they faced a huge challenge to replace these teachers. The school district serves 4,400 students and is located on Lake Michigan about 25 miles north of Chicago in an affluent area highly attractive to prospective teaching candidates. Being an attractive school system to teacher candidates is a nice problem to have, but it creates logistical problems for school leaders, who can become so swamped with applications that the selection process can hamper their goal of placing the best possible teachers.
North Shore administrators recognized the opportunity they had to bring excellent teachers into their classrooms, but realized that strong candidates could become lost in the process: North Shore can have as many as 3,000 active applications on file even when there are no openings.
Mike Lubelfeld is the assistant superintendent of personnel services in the district. He and his team identified a threefold problem: They had a large number of retirees to replace, they wanted to improve the retention rate of new teachers, and they wanted to identify a process to handle the anticipated flood of teacher applications.
North Shore contracted with Ventures for Excellence, a talent selection and development firm with a primary focus in education, to implement a selection process that was research-based and structured to be consistent, predictable and aligned with district goals. Fundamentally, this process seeks to help administrators acquire an understanding of the attitudes, skills and behaviors of teachers who strive for excellence. A four-day training and a variety of screening and interview/selection tools equipped North Shore school administrators to identify a teacher’s sense of purpose, beliefs and attitudes about education and students, and human relations skills. The idea is that if you can get the teacher with the right purpose and orientation, you help that teacher to acquire the skills and knowledge to achieve positive learning outcomes for students. In essence, attitude is everything.
North Shore used a profile builder, called the Style Profile, an online screening tool, to select teachers similar to the district’s best teachers. This Web-based questionnaire contains 32 questions that pose real-life scenarios to uncover an individual’s innate qualities and work style. Lubelfeld sees the practical application in that the tool helps his team select the top 15 percent of applicants that match their district goals. For example, North Shore uses the Style Profiler to screen 300 applications in order to select about 45. A candidate essay is used to further narrow the pool of 45 to eight or so candidates, who are called for a structured interview. The Style Profiler saves administrators from wading through piles of paper, and it leads them to make consistent decisions based on the goals of the district.
School administrators use a structured interview with 22 questions in 11 areas of teacher excellence (attitude, skills, interpersonal relations, etc.) to select a small number of finalists. A further structured interview is then used to select the teacher candidate. This tool has 30 questions in 15 areas of excellence. Lubelfeld also uses a background check developed by Ventures for Excellence so that the whole process is consistent and predictable from beginning to end.
Teacher Retention Improved
Lubelfeld reports that as the process was implemented throughout the district, administrators were more consistent in their selection of teachers and their retention rate improved from 80 percent of newly hired teachers in 2005-2006 to 94 percent of new teachers in 2008-2009. The district has hired 221 teachers in the past four years.
According to Lubelfeld, this process enabled administrators to more consistently select teacher candidates based on the shared beliefs of the learning community. Teacher candidates are now more likely to match the values of the district, and they are selected based on a clear sense of purpose about student learning, the belief that all students can be successful, and a commitment to the value and worth of all people in the learning process.
Teacher selection deserves rigorous examination to make sure that core school values, best practice in pedagogy, and student outcomes are aligned. This foundation is critical to implement a selection process that identifies the teachers with the best likelihood to improve student learning in the classroom. Of course, the systematic exploration of what makes an exemplary teacher that is inherent in this process can also inform subsequent staff development and teacher evaluation throughout the entire organization.
Eamonn O’Donovan is assistant superintendent of human resources in Los Alamitos Unified School District in California.