Finding the Best Teachers: Part 2
"Teacher quality is the single most important school factor in student success"--Aspen Institute's Commission on No Child Left Behind
The quickest way to improve education is to acquire the best possible teachers. A recent post discussed an effective evaluation process that could be used to identify weak teachers and improve strong ones. Moreover, if a better system of hiring teachers were implemented, the quality of the teaching staff would undergo yet another much-needed upgrade. I strongly believe that despite having numerous and a varied responsibility during my career, my most important job was hiring math teachers. The quality of these new hires would affect hundreds of students either positively or negatively for years. A school must be willing to commit a significant amount of its resources to ensure that it is hiring individuals with the greatest potential for success.
While no hiring method can guarantee 100% success, an effective one will result in creating a staff filled with teachers who possess the tools and potential to become outstanding educators. The underpinnings of such a procedure would be acquiring candidates with a strong curricular background, good teaching skills, and the personal chemistry to relate successfully with both the student body and staff.
The Most Basic Credential
Dr. Diane Ravitch recently wrote an outstanding article in the Washington Post, “No Child Left Behind flunks out”, in which she reveals remarkable insights into a number of current educational issues. Anyone interested in improving our schools should read this piece carefully. One of her most interesting points was in the area of hiring teachers.
Everyone agrees that good education requires good teachers. To get good teachers, states should insist -- and the federal government should demand -- that all new teachers have a major in the subject they expect to teach or preferably a strong educational background in two subjects, such as mathematics and music or history and literature. Every state should expect teachers to pass a rigorous examination in the subjects they will teach, as well as a general examination to demonstrate their literacy and numeracy.
Ravitch is correct in both her assertions and her concerns. While the public may assume that every teacher has a degree in the subject that they teach, that is not always the case. Each spring my district would evaluate and subsequently hire thirty-five or so math teachers. These teachers were given a contract and then their names and resumes were distributed to each of the high schools. And each spring I would be amazed at how many of these guaranteed contracts had been given to individuals without a degree in mathematics. The pile of resumes would be filled with business, education, and science majors. Occasionally some stunning outliers were sprinkled into the mix. One year we had a candidate with a major in art and another with one in drama. My assistant principal decided that we should interview the one from the field of drama—“I was thinking maybe she could bring something new and unique to the classroom”— five minutes into the interview she realized she had been way too optimistic.
My views are very similar to those of Dr. Ravitch. Teachers should have a degree in the field in which they teach. This mind-set began years ago when I was impressed by something a highly successful basketball coach told me. “I can teach a kid how to dribble, shoot, read defenses and defend,” he said, “what I cannot do is teach him to be tall.” I followed this philosophy both in my coaching and in my hiring practices. My history of hires over more than two decades validated my belief that it is far easier to turn a mathematician into a teacher than it is to turn a teacher into a mathematician. Although not an absolute, a large majority of the poorly performing teachers at my school had not been math majors in college. Student opinions reinforced my belief. When asked to describe the attributes of a good teacher, students would regularly tell me that enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject matter were near the top. A person with a degree in a subject would not only be more likely to meet these criteria but their depth of knowledge would also aid in relating the material to the real world and demonstrating its relevance to other curricula.
Building the Interview List
After receiving the early hire information my assistant principal and I would independently go through the stack. My selection process was a combination of objective and subjective. I would begin by pulling out those that were math majors. Next I would look at their GPA. If it was not included in their resume I would request a college transcript. (The aforementioned coach also counseled that “given a choice between two athletes of similar physical talents I will always go with the smarter one.”) Then I would begin the less concrete portion of the assessment. The next question to be answered was how well would this individual fit with our school. Since our student body had an extremely high free or reduced lunch rate and a large ELL population, I would look for clues in the resume that would indicate a proclivity for teaching in such an environment. Previous employment, summer jobs, and other areas of interest would be carefully examined looking for indications of personal preferences. After assessing all of the potential candidates, I would create my list of “blue-chip” choices. After comparing notes with my administrator we would begin making the phone calls necessary to establish a series of the interviews.
Ask any great chef for the secret to a fabulous dish and the immediate response will be “start with great ingredients.” The recipe for a strong teaching staff is very similar. The best method for ensuring a cadre of outstanding educators is to hire only those with excellent credentials. While there are many important variables to consider in selecting a candidate, the primary one should be a strong background in the subject matter. Such a starting point will guarantee the best possible results. The second component in the process, constructing an interview that accurately determines which of the candidates is the best choice will be the focus of the next installment of this conversation.
Next: Making the Interview Productive