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?”
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:
- Give me an example of how you incorporate technology into your lessons.
- Can you tell me about a differentiated lesson that you taught last year?
- What are your “go to” classroom management strategies?
- How do you communicate with the parents of your students?
- 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.
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