The Secret Trait To Look For in Your Next Teacher Interview

The Secret Trait To Look For in Your Next Teacher Interview
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It’s that time of year again: recruitment season. Whether you’re scouring job listings and polishing your resume, or sitting on the other side of the desk and pouring over endless candidates to find the perfect teacher, the recruitment season can be challenging for everyone involved. For those of us who are trying to find the perfect candidate I have a secret trait you should be looking for in your next teacher interview.

No, a misplaced staple or comma shouldn’t disqualify you, but I will say it can be hard to sort through from good to great candidates.

More on that in a moment, but can I just take a minute to ask, do any of you throw out resumes because of a spelling, grammatical errors, or because it was printed on non-resume paper? Sure when applying for a job one should be careful to pay attention to the details, but do people really discriminate based on one or two tiny errors? I remember when I was finishing my teaching degree, the head honcho at our university’s career services center visited a class I was attending to share horror stories about hiring managers and superintendents “chucking” resumes if as much as a paper clip was the wrong color. Sure some of us are busy, but even if you’re lucky enough to work at a place that gets buckets of resumes, I can’t imagine simply tossing aside the potential of finding the perfect fit for our community because of a small error or two. Of course, first impressions matter, but despite the horror stories from the career services office, I’ve never heard of anyone that does this…add a comment if you’ve seen otherwise.

So back to the point of this blog. For a school leader who does any work in recruitment, there are a number of important traits and skills one might look for in their next hire. Of course, this ranges from years of experience, to use of technology, or experiences working with students with a range of learning differences. These are all important skills, but I submit that as important, and perhaps the most important trait to look for is a teacher’s empathy for their students experiences.

“Empathy? Most important?” Yes. you “heard” me right. It may seem like such a simple and minor trait, but I argue that empathy for students is at the core of everything significant we do in schools…and for that matter, it may be just as important in other industries. I came to this conclusion over the previous year through my own research for my doctoral dissertation (Warning: Doctoral Candidate Trying to Get You To Care About Their Research), the focus of which is on examining the experiences, motivations, and inspiration for our most innovative teachers at Punahou School. To avoid boring you with information about methodology or selection criteria, I’ll fast-forward to a prominent and early finding to my study: empathy matters.

I examined groups of innovative teachers within each division (K-12) across the school and the single most important factor that contributed to a teachers classroom innovation was their commitment to empathize with their students. This can look differently for each teacher but included teachers scouring through their resources to find instructional experiences that fit the specific needs of a struggling kid, remembering how boring school was as a 4th grader and therefore designing every classroom experience with the high and difficult bar of being both fun and worth learning, or developing fun and real community with students and their families, which can be especially important for students in a large school like Punahou.

One teacher I studied shared an interesting insight about how impacts their instruction and drives them to create meaningful experiences in their classroom, stating:

I want my classroom to be 51% fun and 49% learning, because that 49% will stick so much more if [the students] want to come. If it’s 51% fun, they want to come. They wake up in the morning and they want to come. Kids like craziness, they like fun, they like humor. I think when you empathize with the students and what their worlds are like and how coming to school can either be the biggest bummer in the world or a huge joy in their life, that just leads to you being innovative. If you want them to enjoy school as a joyful place, I don’t think a teacher would ever settle on a traditional classroom.

We’ll said, if I do say so myself.

So how do you look for empathy when interviewing candidates for your next school opening? Well I’m still working on that, but I think you can start by asking questions that get at the motivations for why they teach and what inspires the work in their classroom. Here are some questions you might consider:

  1. What were you like as a student?
  2. What inspires you and what you do in your classroom?
  3. What does a successful lesson/classroom experience look like to you?

These are just some of the questions I’m starting to experiment with to distill a teacher’s tendencies towards student empathy. In particular I really appreciate the question “What were you like as a student?” as it gives a candidate a chance to share an aspect of the lens that they see their students and school. Teachers who recall school being comfortable and minimally difficult have much different ideas about school then a teacher who struggled with a learning difference or felt unaccepted by the general community. Now to be clear, both teachers are capable of being wonderful or horrible teachers, empathetic and less empathetic, but I found in the nuance of a teacher’s story an opportunity for the interview to bring us deeper into the empathic potential of the candidate.

So that’s it. Look for empathy.

What do you think? Is empathy as big of a deal as I’ve made out to be? What do you look for when hiring teachers? Add you thoughts in the comments below and if you’re new to Learn[ed]Leadership and you like interesting stuff then make sure to sign up for our free monthly (or so) newsletter by clicking here or in the fancy box to your top right.  Or if you want immediate updates, Like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.

Author: Andy Aldrich

Andy is a founder of Learn[ed]Leadership as well as a school administrator at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI. In addition to pontificating on ideas in education, Andy stays busy chasing after his daughter and impressing his wife with his big muscles.

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  1. Absolutely, empathy is very important. In fact, a teacher should be striving to promote empathy socially in their classroom and also embedding it into their curriculum as a key facet of understanding as well. Students who can analyze the emotional implications of major events in history, product design, problem solving in math, writer’s block…as examples, will be students who will develop their emotional literacy in all contexts. It starts with a teacher who understands their experiences as students and models empathy in his classroom and curriculum planning. That is the big picture in my opinion.

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