SmartBlog on Education will highlight summer learning and enrichment for educators during June. ASCD Emerging Leader Barry Saide helps kick off coverage of the topic.
Todd Whitaker states, “Professional development begins with induction.” The crux of his statement is that when we hire someone for their first role in education, we should look at their character first, and their characteristics second. We should visualize where the person being hired adds value to our organization, how that person can support the initiatives we currently have in play, or how their skill set fits the direction we have for our organization.
Now, Todd Whitaker is a very smart man. To draw an analogy, if Todd Whitaker is the golf pro, I’m the equivalent of the golf ball whacker guy. But, on this one point, I think I’m right, and you can tweet this: Professional development shouldn’t begin with induction, because if it does, we’ve skipped the first step. The first step in professional development should begin with the hiring process. And, the hiring process should begin with reflection by those involved in the interview process.
When we hire on a district or building level, we ask questions about working with children, peers, and families. We draw from there whether this person is someone we trust, want to spend time with, and will represent us well. Depending on the role we’re hiring for, we may require additional interviews, writing samples or a demo lesson. One thing we do not require is for us as interviewers to reflect on ourselves prior to the interview even begins. We should begin by interviewing ourselves and asking: Are we holding ourselves accountable to the answers we’re expecting of candidates? Are we measuring up to the mission and vision of the district? Do we even understand and feel part of the mission and vision of our larger organization?
It’s this time we take to critically reflect on ourselves and our purpose in the larger organization in which we serve, which will accurately anchor us when asking the right questions and seeking the best answers to add value to our organization. It’s only when we truly understand ourselves and the needs of our organization at its most basic level that we can provide for its needs. As such, our questions for the interview process should be ever-changing, modified to where we are as learners, teachers and leaders, and what the needs are of our constituencies. If we do not take the time to reflect and revise in order to advance, how can we expect the quality of our choices to improve? Hiring is an inexact science at best, but we can at least shave off the odds to ever be in our favor by expecting more of ourselves, prior to asking more of others.
A second thing we do not consistently ask of candidates is to produce something tangible. We know from research that the highest level of learning is when students can teach skills, strategies and concepts to someone else. This demonstrates mastery. When we hire, we’re looking for master teachers and leaders. Shouldn’t our hiring process look for mastery, too?
The closest thing we have to a performance task in the hiring process is a writing sample or demo lesson. Writing a response to a question or statement does not accurately measure true mastery of what’s being judged. It does measure the ability for someone to write on demand. A demo lesson provides a window into what may be seen when a candidate teaches a lesson in their own classroom, if given enough lead time to prepare something with bells and whistles. But, isn’t what we’re looking for from teachers long-term is what teaching looks like without the bells and whistles? What everyday best practice looks like? What will keep the students engaged, long after the bells have lost their chime, and the fireworks fizzle out?
I wonder what it would look like if we ask a candidate to identify something they’re most passionate about that our organization would benefit from. What if a candidate has 30 minutes to develop a basic framework and outline to lead professional development on her passion-based project. The candidate pitches their idea, the validity for it, how to implement it on a small scale and the potential positive long-term effects. Wouldn’t a window into the soul of a potential new hire, how they view themselves adding to our organization, and having them create their own PD plan to accomplish that, be the best possible indicator of whether someone is a best fit? And, wouldn’t this PD plan guide us in creating future professional development opportunities for our current staff while building leadership capacity within our new hire? How good would a new hire feel if we made it clear that we have a plan in place to invest in them from the day she is hired, and that her passions and skill set play a primary role in the process?
When we talk about professional and personal development from within, we highlight our best people doing their best work. As we move forward into the summer, where it is prime time for PD work and hiring new staff, it is so important that we revisit to our hiring processes and look for the following:
- When we hired current staff members and identified how they added value to us, what did they bring that we did not have? Did we hold them accountable for this?
- Does our professional and personal development opportunities reflect the current needs of our organization as we envisioned during our previous hiring process?
- Do we have the right staff to meet the needs of our organization at all levels, including in personal and professional development?
The answer to these questions is less important than our willingness to ask them. If we are willing to ask the hard question and accept the hard truths that come with them, we will continue to point the needle upwards and move onwards in our never ending quest to be best for children.
Barry Saide is an elementary-school teacher in Flemingon, N.J., and an ASCD emerging leader.
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