• TL Zempel

Is there some way schools can weed out bad teachers and not hire them?

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

If we can find a way to weed out bad teachers, more students would enjoy learning and do better in school.  Wouldn't this be better for society as a whole?

Yes, it would be better for society as a whole. But given that school districts (and individual schools) are run by humans who all have their own views of what makes a teacher successful, there are plenty of hurdles to what you propose.

There’s also the master teacher contract in a public school district that governs HOW teachers are recruited, vetted, and interviewed, in an attempt to make the system fair.

Here’s what has to happen during the interview process, according to the union contract in my district:

  • The principal recruits a hiring committee, usually composed of teachers on the same grade-level team who will work with the new hiree.

  • Everyone is given a script of questions that will be asked the candidate during the half-hour interview. All in attendance are encouraged to write notes on their script while the candidate is answering the questions. These scripts are collected at the end of the hiring session and kept or destroyed by the principal.

  • The candidate, himself, is given the script 15 minutes prior to the interview. You can probably guess what he does during this time as he waits in the outer office for his turn with the committee.

Samples of questions I’ve seen (as a committee member) on interview scripts over many years:

  • Why do you want to work at [ABC School] and what unique talents do you think you bring to the table?

  • How do you see yourself fitting into a team environment?

  • What are your views on the Common Core, and how have you seen it implemented successfully?

  • How have you brought your unique vision for student success to your own classrooms? (alternatively, for new teachers: How will you bring your unique vision, etc….)

  • What do you see as the biggest hurdles facing student achievement today?

  • What math/reading/writing programs do you consider to be the most successful, and why?

It’s not hard to imagine that the candidate who does the best job of selling himself during this process is the one who gets the job. But are we really sure we are getting a quality teacher who cares about kids and the tremendous job of reaching them over someone who just happens to be good at bullshit? In fact, I worked with two hirees in the last few years of my career who turned out to be vastly different in practice than the candidate they purported to be in interview. (It was not a happy difference, either, mind you.)


When I was interviewed for my present teaching position (more than 20 years ago), there was no script. There was the principal, who asked all the questions without giving me access to them ahead of time, and 2 teachers who would work with me on the middle school team for which I was being interviewed.


Here are the kinds of questions I was asked:

  • What experience have you had with teaching both Spanish and English? (These are the two subjects I was being interviewed to teach.)

  • How would you grade an essay? (Thinking it was a trick question, but not able to discover what the trick could possibly be, I decided to answer at face value: I would grade any essay for content, meaning substance, and mechanics, meaning accuracy of language use and grammar. Apparently, it was a great answer, but to me, it was just common sense.)

  • What is your idea of a worthwhile research project?

  • What electives do you feel qualified to teach? We need you to offer something as an elective during the last hour of the day.

  • How would you handle the student who decides to mess around during your instruction rather than take notes?

​Apparently, I answered all questions successfully, because I received a job offer within two hours of my interview. I was told later that they interviewed five people, with me being in the exact middle, and that after I left, the principal and her two teachers on the committee were so sure about me that they didn’t even want to complete the two final interviews. (Although, of course, they did!)

On a final note: I participated in three other interviews previously that summer, all of them using the scripted technique I described at the beginning of this column. I was terrible in all three interviews, even given that I could prepare ahead of time with the actual questions. I can only conclude that I am not good at pie-in-the-sky bullshit, but when it comes to the real down-in-the-trenches work of teaching and discussing it authentically, I can actually hold my own.


By the way, the principal who interviewed and hired me for this job has since retired, but had such an impact on my growth as a teacher that I dedicated my book Finishing School to her.




T.L. Zempel, teacher and author
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copyright 2020 by TL Zempel