Choosing great teachers

At the Independent Schools Association Network (ISAnet) meetings this week in Montreal, Roger Martin gave an outstanding presentation on the need to stop strategic planning. He argues that to win, a company must choose to do some things and not others. He put it this way – if the opposite decision is stupid, then it isn’t a choice. For example, a company claims to choose to focus strategically on customer service; but would any company not choose to focus on customer service? That would be stupid, so that’s not a choice. Strategy is all about making choices.

What are the most critical choices for independent schools? If you agree that great schools have great teachers, then recruiting great teachers is the most important choice we make. We are living in a time when there are many more teachers than jobs, so how do we get it right?

At the NAIS Commission on Accreditation meetings this week, I sat between two American Heads who compared notes on how they make that choice. First, they agreed that they must participate in the hiring process. Both of these Heads interview all candidates in the final stage. I find this investment of time extraordinary considering all of the demands on Heads’ time, like running a multi-million dollar business, fundraising, and knowing all students personally. Couldn’t department heads and HR directors manage the process? But both also agreed that the Head’s role is not so much to ask questions, but to deliver three important messages:

i. Great teachers are kid magnets.

It is not enough for teachers to have knowledge expertise and to motivate students. It is not even enough to know their students and share their passion! The best teachers have that added quality that is tough to articulate. One Head called it “kid magnet,” and I’ve used the term “Pied Piper;” but whatever the phrase, great teachers attract kids to them and learning.

ii. Great teachers live the culture.

Some may think of independent schools as demanding places to work, as the expectations are higher. But great teachers love the unique components that make our schools special. One Head noted: We are an Episcopal school and we go to chapel everyday. If you don’t want to be part of a community like this, then this isn’t the place for you. The other Head put it this way: We need teachers who support our community. I don’t want to have to ask anyone to come to assembly. Our teachers want to be there.

iii. Great teachers want to reinvent school

Education is changing and great independent schools want to be leaders in that change process. So great teachers need to have a growth-mindset. One Head put it this way: We need teachers who are open to trying new things and creating a school that is not like the one they attended.

Both Heads make a choice to invest their time in choosing teachers. I wish I could capture their passion as they described the importance of this decision and how they approach it. I could tell – they are great Heads who run great schools and they don’t want anyone less than great to get in their way! Two words come to mind when I think about their whole hiring process: lucky kids.

p.s. Thanks to Dave Monaco, Head of Parish Episcopal School in Dallas and David Mahler from The Out-of-Door Academy in Florida for their inspiration.