How to Get the Candidates You Want

A survey of college graduates shows that location and feeling needed top the list of what new teachers look for—over pay, educational philosophy, school culture, or grade level assignment—when accepting a job at a school. Here’s why.

Topics: School Management

The process of hiring teachers, aides, and other school staff is arduous. Most administrators find themselves engaging in it each year, if not multiple times per year.

It is an important job skill for administrators to hone; choosing quality candidates to staff a school has a demonstrable effect on student learning, as documented by Laurie Kimbrel in her 2019 article “Improving the Teacher Hiring Process through the Combination of Teacher Quality and Employee Selection Research.”

Ideally, administrators have an abundance of candidates for each job opening, allowing them to select employees who are best suited to the job and the context. However, for most administrators, reality falls short of this ideal. The Economic Policy Institute reported in December 2022 that there is a shortage of qualified applicants. Even when a district’s call for applications yields multiple applicants, it is no easy task to identify the best candidate, say Jerry Whitworth, Thomas Deering, Steve Jones, and Sam Hardy in their article “Hiring Quality Teachers: The Devil is in the Details.”

Make Your School Rise to the Top

Principals are sitting at the crux of this trouble: It is hard to find candidates, and it is often difficult to select the right candidate. Even when managing those two things, in a time of major teaching shortages, job candidates often have many choices and select another offer. How does your school rise to the top of their options?

For the past four years, we have interviewed and surveyed a sample of elementary education graduates as they embark on induction into the profession. As one cohort of the participants and then another graduated and began searching for jobs, we asked them to tell us about their experiences interviewing for teaching positions and navigating the hiring process.

Location, Location, Location

Given the teaching shortage and the qualifications of the recent graduates, we expected the participants to have multiple job offers and most of them did right away. As we listened to these new teachers articulate the process by which they decided which job to take, we were not surprised to discover that the single biggest factor they considered was location. Staying in the town they were living in or moving to a location where they had family or their partner had a job was the biggest concern of the graduates.

Once that concern was met—when graduates had multiple offers in the location of their choice—we expected graduates to talk about pay, educational philosophy, school culture, or grade level assignment. They did, but all of those issues were secondary to an unexpected factor: feelings.

A Desire to Feel Valued and Needed

After geography, these applicants were most concerned with how they felt in the hiring process. When they felt needed and valued—not just as a potential employee but also as a potential employee with very particular skills or dispositions that were specifically needed at the school—that feeling outweighed all the other considerations.

This feeling was generated for the applicants based on a variety of qualifications that the interviewers perceived the applicant had. Sometimes it was about past experience or interest or disposition. It was not enough, however, for the interview committee to identify what set the applicant apart from other applicants; the applicants’ qualifications needed to match an articulated need at the school.  That is, this worked best when the interviewing committee could say, for example, “We have a lot of Spanish-speaking students and families, but very few faculty members who speak Spanish. The fact that you speak Spanish would be such an asset to our school.”

The qualification cited could also be something less concrete, like, “It’s clear to us that you are enthusiastic about kids. That’s something we really care about at this school, and you would add to that in valuable ways.” Seeing themselves as a potentially valued employee who could contribute in ways that mattered appealed to these new teachers even more than other factors they desired for their workplace. In short, if candidates feel wanted by the administrative team, they are more likely to accept the position.

Putting this Pattern to Work for You

Recognizing this pattern in job applicant decision making, we’ve applied it in the hiring committees we’ve served on, intentionally articulating the match between our needs and job applicants’ strengths. While it’s impossible to say for certain whether that changed the outcomes of our hires in the past couple of years, doing so has allowed us to more thoughtfully consider the needs that are driving our hiring choices and to begin articulating those needs from the beginning of employment.

When we set out to study the experiences of elementary education graduates in their first years of teaching, we had a lot of hypotheses about what those experiences would look like. At nearly halfway through the study, we’ve discovered that the experience of being seen and valued as an individual by the administrators to whom you report is important for satisfaction, self-efficacy, and retention in every domain of a teacher’s work life—beginning in the hiring process.

Emma Mecham is a Professional Practice Assistant Professor, School of Teacher Education and Leadership, Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, Utah State University.

Eric Newell is Director of Experiential Learning and Technology at Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University.