Hire For Character

Use these four strategies to minimize errors during the hiring process and maximize the opportunity for long-term success in your school.

Hiring the right people is one of the most essential tasks for every principal. Over my career, I have hired hundreds of staff for my school. Some decisions were spot on. Others appeared to be correct at the time but were made in error. Analyzing my decision-making process over the years, I have tried to refine my process to minimize errors and maximize the opportunity for success.

When we hire staff, we are making a 30-year commitment. Often principals look at candidates and make decisions based on temporary needs or lesser important characteristics. What we should remember is that staffing decisions should be based on character, not necessarily skills. We can train people in many skills. But we can’t change the core of a person. Character matters. The character of a person refers to the combination of qualities and traits that make up their personality, behavior, and values. It encompasses a person’s moral and ethical principles, attitudes, beliefs, and habits, as well as emotional and social intelligence.

Staffing mistakes can take years and hundreds of hours to correct. Making the best decision we can is essential to success. Sometimes we ask the wrong questions. Sometimes we look at the experience with a particular textbook series, assessment, or skills based on content. Sometimes principals look for people with a certificate or degree that’s appealing. While those things have value, they often are not the most important. We can teach a candidate many different skills that are needed for their job. However, we cannot change who they are at their core.

There are only certain things I can teach someone, but there are some things I can’t teach:

  • I can’t teach empathy.
  • I can’t teach how to get along well and work in a team.
  • I can’t teach how to work with parents as partners.
  • I can’t teach how to be coachable.
  • I can’t teach how to be flexible.

But I can teach how to do many other technical skills for the job and how to improve upon them if staff are willing to learn. Here are four areas you should consider when hiring any staff member.

1. Determine Your Core Values for Staff

As an educational leader, you have to reflect on what is most important to you. If you haven’t thought about your educational philosophy recently, now is the time. Consider these questions:

  • What do you feel are the essential components of the teaching and learning process?
  • What is your greatest hope for your students?
  • What do you think is the greatest challenges in education today?

There are certainly many questions you can consider, but these are a good start. Write your answers down. Do the work, and dig deep. You’ll find the basis for determining the kind of people you want working with children at your school.

For me, the basis for what I value centers on relationship building. This is where it starts and ends. I also believe all staff need to be hard-working, willing to accept feedback, and be open to learn from their mistakes.

2. Select the Best Candidates for Interviews

After determining your core values, you should use this as your guide for selecting candidates. Don’t revert to just looking for someone with a specialty degree or someone who attended a particular university. Be cautious not to look for a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

We have all looked at lots of applications and resumes. This can be a daunting task if you have dozen or even hundreds of applicants. Look for candidates who:

  • Are already involved with kids in a variety of ways;
  • Have connections with volunteer organizations;
  • Understand the community and your school;
  • Are go-getters (Did they email, call, or stop by?);
  • Are hard-working;
  • Have integrity; and
  • Demonstrate through previous experience they have the core values you’re looking for.

Word of mouth is often the best advertising. Listen to the people around you. Your staff wants to work with people who are like-minded. Consider their recommendations carefully.

3. Develop Proper Interview Questions

Tailor interview questions to the position you are hiring for. And remember that everyone who works in a school works with students and should fit in with your core values. For teachers, I recommend creating questions based on five categories:

  1. The Teacher as a Person
  2. Classroom Management
  3. Planning
  4. Instruction
  5. Monitoring Student Progress

I also recommend giving the candidate situational questions, which will allow you to dig deeper and follow up. Consider types of questions that help you understand:

  • How they work with other adults;
  • Whether this job is their calling;
  • Whether they love kids;
  • Whether they can accept constructive criticism; and
  • That they want to partner with parents and students as team members.

As you interview, keep these eight strategies in mind:

  1. Keep good notes on each candidate.
  2. Rate each answer based on a scale you’ve created in advance with your interview team.
  3. Pay attention to the candidate’s body language.
  4. Listen to the candidate’s tone, volume, and cadence as they speak.
  5. Look for opportunities for follow-up questions that dig deeper into your core values.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask more than one follow-up question to provide clarity.
  7. Determine whether they “did their homework” about the school and position they are interviewing for.
  8. Note whether they have good, thoughtful questions for you at the end of the interview.

4. Conduct Quality Reference Checks

Once you have selected the candidate you feel is right for the job, you should always call references. Do not skip this step, even if you’re somewhat familiar with the candidate. Speaking with supervisors and people who know this candidate helps you gain a greater understanding of who the candidate is as a person and whether they will fit into your school. Don’t be afraid to pause with the candidate if the reference check does not go as expected.

Here are four things to consider as you do reference checks:

  1. Always talk to the candidate’s last supervisor.
  2. Talk to at least three people.
  3. Base the questions you ask on your core values.
  4. Remember that what is not said by a reference is as important as what is said.

Here are a four questions I recommend asking when calling references:

  1. Is the person coachable?
  2. How do they respond to constructive criticism?
  3. How do they work in a team?
  4. What role do they play on a team?

Hiring staff is not merely a transactional process. It is a long-term commitment that demands careful consideration. It is one of the most important things we do as principals. Prioritize what matters most. Look for staff who value relationships, work hard, and are coachable. Take your time before, during, and after the interview. Base your decisions on the character of the candidate and what you value the most.

Matthew Moyer is principal of Rupert Elementary School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.