I graduated from college with a physics degree and teaching credentials in physics and math. After teaching in the Philippines, I returned to the U.S. to look for a math or science teaching position in the Philadelphia area public schools. I had teaching experience and credentials in two high needs content areas. I wanted to teach in a high needs public school. I thought I was well positioned to find a job, but what I found instead were roadblocks and frustration.
Although it was already July, most public schools still didn’t know what openings they had for September. At one district, I was told to sub for a few years and maybe a job would open up. When I finally did get invited for an interview, it was impersonal and uninviting. Six people sat around a table with a tape recorder. They asked me four prepared questions. After each answer, no one commented or reacted. They just asked me the next question. They said they had to do this to make sure that things were “fair.” I never saw the school where I would work; I never met the students I would teach nor the teachers with whom I would work.
Meanwhile, private schools were actively courting me. Schools were willing to fly me across the country to visit their campuses. I’d spend a day with their faculty and students and teach a one-hour lesson to demonstrate my instructional approach. The administrators at these schools treated me with professionalism and respect. They made me feel like a recruited star athlete.
I wanted to work in a public school, but the hiring process drove me away. I ended up taking a position with a private school. During the first week of the school year, the public schools started contacting me for job interviews. I had to tell them that I was no longer available.
Now, after being a school leader and supporting school leaders, I know that the most important thing a school leader can do to develop a great school is to assemble a great team of teachers. Schools need to design hiring processes that help them recruit outstanding teachers who will work well within their school communities. At HTH, we have attempted to do that. We hope that the people we hire will be with us for many years, and so we invest time and resources in getting to know potential candidates.
A key feature of our hiring process is the “Bonanza,” a full-day, interactive job interview that involves multiple HTH stakeholders. After an initial paper screening and screening interviews, approximately 25 candidates are invited to come to a Bonanza Day. These 25 are often applying for a range of different content areas at different schools within the HTH community. They are invited to come on the same day so that we can see how well they interact with students, faculty, and school directors at HTH and how well they are able to collaborate with each other. We also do this so that we are more efficient with our time.
Candidates begin the day mingling with teachers and staff over breakfast. This is a time for conversation and informal interviews. Next, all the candidates gather in one room for an orientation to the school. They hear the story of how High Tech High was started and what the schools are all about. They also learn about the logistics for the day.
All candidates teach an hour-long class in a classroom appropriate to their content area. They can choose to teach a lesson related to what the students are already studying in that class, or they can elect to teach a lesson that connects to their own passion. After the lesson, students fill out feedback forms on whether they think we should hire the candidate.
In addition to teaching a lesson, candidates spend time observing in classrooms. Over lunch, candidates again interview with teachers, staff, and school directors. Next, candidates interview with groups of middle school and high school students in an open area known as the HTH commons. Candidates routinely tell us that the student interviews are the most rigorous part of the day, as students come up with their own questions such as, “At High Tech High, there is a wide range of students in every classroom. How will you challenge the strongest students while supporting the students who need help?” I think it is important to resist the temptation to coach the students on the interview process. Students, working together, have become quite good at their portion of the interview process. After the student interviews, the students gather together to debrief so that a few student representatives can bring their opinions to the faculty after school.
Toward the end of the day, candidates gather in a classroom to design projects together in groups and discuss education articles that they read ahead of time. Since we are a community that values collaboration and adult learning, and since we have observed educators who work well with students but not so well with peers, we want to see candidates in action with other adults. After a final round of questions and answers, the candidates leave, exhausted.
However, our work continues. Current HTH teachers gather to talk about their potential future colleagues. Student representatives come to this meeting and offer their feedback as well. School directors then meet to discuss who should be hired immediately, who should be told that this is not a good fit, and who should be told that we want to hold their application while we continue to interview more candidates. Until last year, all the directors needed to come to consensus before an offer of employment was extended. Now that we are growing to ten schools participating in this process, we feel an unresolved tension between school leader authority and group consensus. What happens when a director wants to hire a teacher about whom other directors have serious reservations? Hopefully we will see this as a creative tension as we resolve these issues case by case.
The HTH hiring process can be grueling and is not always perfect, but we think it makes a real difference in helping us to recruit and hire strong teachers. And each year that we go through the process, we learn a little more and get a little better at figuring out how to identify those teachers who will be a good fit for our schools. In any case, those whom we hire have learned about our schools, students, and staff, they know that they are wanted, and they enter with a significant vote of confidence from students, teachers, and school directors.