Years ago, during my educational leadership studies at Georgia State University, my classmates and I had a rather contentious debate around the idea of “fit.” The term, as we used it, meant whether or not any teacher had the knowledge, skills, and most importantly, disposition to work at any school. Fit isn’t about gender, religion, sexual orientation, race, or socio-economic status (although those things inform a person’s world view and can directly contribute to whether or not they would be a good fit for a given school or position), rather, fit is more about what a person believes is his or her responsibility with regard to ensuring that each and every child he or she comes across gains (or deserves) access to a free and quality public education.
I was (and still am) in favor of using a person’s perceived “fit” as a determining factor in whether or not I would hire or retain them for my staff. One of my classmates fell on the other side of the argument. His reasoning was that any “true”educator would be self-reflective enough to adjust his or her style to the needs of the community he or she has chosen to serve. While I agree with this on some level, I also understand that educators are people first and sometimes people are stubborn, not reflective, and often refuse to change even in the face of information that suggests they should. This little preamble brings me to the point of this post which is that the most important thing a school leader can do is to put the right people in front of the students he or she has the duty to serve. This is particularly true for those of us who work in inner city schools who serve children of color who live at or near the poverty level.
All children require patience, consistency, fairness, empathy, and openness from their teachers, but I think the children I serve require their teachers to understand that in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, we are arming our children with the skills they need to survive the world outside, today. Once upon a time, some might have considered it hyperbolic to suggest that teaching young students how to move around authority figures could literally be the difference between life or death…but that was before Tamir Rice. And even before police assaults of Black children became de rigeour (has it really ever been any other way in America for Black boys and girls?) we have to consider that fact that sometimes our students have to fight their way home, fight for their right to ride their bikes, or simply fight for their right to exist. Not everyone is emotionally or culturally equipped to work where I choose to work. So, I think carefully about the kind of person I want to hire.
With regard to hiring, I consider the following:
- Does the applicant have personal, professional, or volunteer experiences that required them to work directly with children or adults who survived and/or transcended poverty?
- Does the applicant understand how poverty impacts students’ readiness for learning?
- How does the applicant approach student discipline?
- Does the applicant purport to be color-blind or class-blind? Do they pretend that all students are the same and that all students have the same needs?
- How long has the applicant been teaching? Has the applicant been successful in inner city or rural schools in the past?
I am able to determine whether or not a person has the “right” answer to my questions by requiring them to do several or all of the following:
- Explain to me three times that you’ve failed in your work. Everyone puts on their game face for an interview, but forcing someone to think about their failures helps to move them from a place of trying to impress the panel, to a place of honest conversation.
- I’ll ask an applicant to walk me through his or her worst day on the job.
- Explain to me how you used relationships with the parents of challenging students and the students themselves to address classroom disruptions. Our work requires us to use flexible disciplinary policies, with leanings toward restorative justice. Restorative justice or not. If a student does something that intentionally impedes the learning of others or creates an unsafe space, I take that very seriously.
- Take them on a walking tour of the building and of the community. If they seem afraid or shocked or overly saddened by what they see, I’m less likely to move forward with hiring them. These reactions are necessarily immediate deal-breakers, but they do make me wonder whether or not the applicant will be empathetic or sympathetic toward our students. Our students do not need educators who feel sorry for them. They need educators who recognize the challenges that come along with their living situations and who provide experiences (inclusive and exclusive of the prescribed curriculum) that will arm our students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to survive, and eventually thrive in the world, today.
- Make them teach a model lesson to a mixed class of students. This one is a given, but I need to see you do your thing with real kids in real time.
What I’m trying to get at with my process is to determine whether or not a potential staff member has the things (intrinsic motivation, leanings toward social justice, anti-racist attitudes, a desire to work with and not on students and their families) that I don’t necessarily have the time to teach them. People can develop new pedagogical skills and learn to implement different research based programs on the job. What I (and my students) don’t have time for is for a new teammate to have to learn to respect the students and their families. That particular set of skills has to be included before they sign a contract. So, that’s what I look for when trying to determine is a person has the right fit for my team. I’ve been lucky in that more often than not, I meet people who get what our work requires of them. I suppose that’s the joy of living and working in metro Atlanta.
How do you think about hiring? What’s your process? Do you consider fit or do you just go with the person who has the most experience? I’m curious to know if I’m overthinking this or if there is a more efficient way to find the right people for my team in the future. Leave a comment or send me a tweet.
As always, thanks for reading. Thanks for giving me the space to reflect on my work. And if you comment, thanks for engaging me and holding me accountable for my words. Pardon the typos.
Until next time.