Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 2: Start Asking Better Interview Questions

About a month ago, I was working with a buddy who is a principal. 

He was frustrated by the levels of meaningful collaboration happening between teachers in his school and had reached out because he knew that I do a ton of consulting around the notion of professional learning communities.

“We are set up to function like a professional learning community,” he said, “but you’d hardly know it.  Our teachers aren’t studying their practice together.  They might share a few ideas with one another every now and then, but even that doesn’t impact instruction in our building.  How do you get people to buy into the idea that collaboration matters?”

Daniel McCullough

I surprised him by asking to see the questions that he uses in interviews for open positions.

He dug out his laptop and pulled up a list of pretty typical questions.  Things like:

  1. Give me an example of how you incorporate technology into your lessons.
  2. Can you tell me about a differentiated lesson that you taught last year?
  3. What are your “go to” classroom management strategies?
  4. How do you communicate with the parents of your students?
  5. What three adjectives best describe you?

“And I double check with references to see if candidates are telling the truth about the answers that are giving in interviews,” he said.  “If a candidate tells us something that references don’t support, I move on to someone else.  I’m not just hiring anyone.  I only hire the best.”

Can you see the problem here, all y’all?

My buddy is trying to build a collaborative culture, but he’s not asking a single question during interviews that can help him spot people who are open to the notion that studying practice with peers is worth embracing.  Instead, he’s asking questions that will help him to spot teachers who are successful individuals — and hiring a ton of successful individuals can cripple professional learning communities.

For my buddy, leading smarter, not harder means asking better interview questions.

The goal for interviews in a professional learning community ISN’T to spot candidates who already have “all the answers” to questions about technology use or differentiation or classroom management.

The goal for interviews in a professional learning community is to spot candidates who are reflective, who have a growth mindset about their own practice, and who realize that personal growth is a function of collective study with capable peers.

That means if we really ARE trying to create buildings where teacher collaboration is the engine driving instructional change, we need to be asking questions like these in interviews:

Tell me about a lesson that you have tinkered with.  What did that lesson originally look like? What changes have you made to it over time?  How did those changes impact your students? Your peers? Which changes were the most successful? Which changes failed miserably?

How do YOU learn?  More importantly, who are the people that you currently learn with? How did you meet them? How do you connect with them?  What have they taught you? What have you taught them?

What well-established professional practice are you skeptical about?  What is it about this practice that leaves you doubting? Can you give tangible examples of places where this practice has let you—or your students—down?

How do you determine whether or not a lesson has been successful?  Is a successful lesson one that leaves your students energized?  Is it one that students are still talking about weeks later? Is it one that results in really high marks on classroom or district assessments?

Describe a time when your instruction was deeply influenced by a colleague.*  Who was that person?  How did you come to work together?  How did they change your practice? Did their practice change while working with you?

If candidates struggle to answer these questions, move on — no matter how good their resumes and references look.

Here’s why:  Candidates that struggle to answer these questions don’t have the right mental makeup to invest in the collaborative study of practice that is the hallmark of a professional learning community.

And every time you hire someone who doesn’t have a predisposition to learning from their peers, you make it harder for collaboration to become the social norm in your building.  Sooner or later, you become a collection of individuals instead of a community of learners.

Jim Collins called this “getting the right people on the bus.”

The truth is that many principals trying to strengthen their professional learning communities are forgetting that “getting the right people on the bus” doesn’t mean finding folks with a stack of individual accomplishments.  “Getting the right people on the bus” means finding folks who see the potential in learning alongside their peers.

Does this resonate with you?  

If so, then you might dig this handout that I made that can be used to track candidate responses to collaborative questions in interviews.

Hope it helps.


*This interview question can only be used with a candidate that has teaching experience.  Teachers new to the profession might struggle to answer it.


Related Radical Reads:

The Most Important Interview Question I Bet You Never Asked.

Out of this World Hiring Lessons for the Principals of PLCs

Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers

Simple Truth:  Collective Strength Matters More than Individual Talent

5 thoughts on “Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 2: Start Asking Better Interview Questions

  1. Pingback: Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 3: Start Building Social Capital with Everyone. | THE TEMPERED RADICAL

  2. Julie Graber

    Thanks Bill for asking these deeper questions to really find out the levels of collaboration that they currently are engaged in. As I read through them again, it made me think of potential entry points for instructional coaches and/or principals to use with their existing teachers on staff.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      You got it, Julie — these questions can be used to assess/evaluate the collaborative readiness of everyone, not just new hires.

      And seriously: People NEED to be able to answer these questions. Otherwise, there’s no chance that you are going to see meaningful collaboration happen in your building. The simple truth is that the fastest way to build a collaborative environment isn’t to give people structures and processes for collaboration — it’s to hire people with an openness to the notion that they can learn from others.

      Anyway – hope you are well and happy!


  3. Edward McFarland _ Staff - EastWakeCo

    Much appreciation Bill! So true, we often asked bank questions instead of developing questions that can get to the heart of what and who we are looking for with regard to candidates and their skill sets. Those are great questions – already downloaded and “tinkering” to use with my next principal interview. I am still learning – thanks for teaching!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Edward,

      Super jazzed that those questions made sense to you! I’d love to know how you change them for principal interviews — and whether or not the questions that you ask get you responses that you think are more instructive than the bank questions that we tend to rely on.

      This topic is SUPER personal to me simply because I completely believe in the Power of PLCs — but I’ve worked with a TON of peers who were solid individual teachers but who weren’t all that interested in collaboration. That’s exhausting to teachers like me — and it really does cripple collaboration.

      One of these days, I want to come work in an Eastern Wake school! So many of my favorite people are in your buildings, and I think that’s super cool.


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