Education is a civil right. This fact is what drew me to teach in New York City, and is, I’m sure, what drew many of us to education. But issues of equity can not be tackled in the classroom alone. As organizations based on the idea of equal access and equity, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are also examining our hiring, training, and retention practices through this same lens of equity. And one major way to ensure more equitable practice for our people is through structured interviews.
I know, I know- the word “structured” can seem stale, even bureaucratic -- it’s not exactly something that inspires. But hear me out. We all care deeply about having a diverse staff. We’ve seen study after study about how diverse teams perform better, and that educators of color have profound impacts on students of color. It can just be a lot harder to find ways to actually get there. What we have found at Democracy Prep is that forward planning, deep thinking and rethinking -- and structured interviews are the way that we have managed to get there. Structured interviews are less of a checklist and more of a process that forces hiring managers to really be thoughtful and specific about what they are actually looking for. It also allows us to review the specific language and processes we use that may screen out high quality candidates due to outdated criteria -- or even turn candidates off from the role itself.
While there are many well-written articles and blogs about what a structured interview is and what it looks like, in my experience, the key to effective structured interviews is the rigorous thinking required to even get you to that process. You really, truly need to interrogate your reality to identify what your school needs, what individual teams within your school need, and how to have a clear sense of what you are looking for. After two years of hiring great people - but not always great teams, I finally learned some hard lessons. In hopes that you might learn something from my own takeaways, here is my version of creating structured job interviews.
- Define the hard skills. This part is pretty universal. Strong content knowledge and the ability to build relationships are often at the top of the list for me. But think critically about your own context, is there anything else you would add for the specific role you are hiring for?
- Define your culture, values and mission. What does your school believe in? What are your values? What do these values look like in action? Write these out. The writing is key. This will force you to get objective about what you are looking for - and it will help you push past any biases. Have others who think differently than you read what you wrote to push you for clarity. For example, I used to say that I wanted someone who “gave it their all.” But without defining what that looked like, I gravitated towards people who “gave it their all” the same way that I do. Now, I think I’m awesome, but an entire team of me? That’s not going to lead to optimal decision-making on behalf of kids.
- Ask yourself: Where are you in the lifecycle of a school? Schools, like people or ecosystems, have life cycles. For example, start-ups usually need someone who has a tolerance for uncertainty and someone who is excited to create. An established school maintaining success may need teachers who prioritize excellent execution. Or you may be an established school that needs a bit of shaking up.Consider the idea that organizations are like people, and needs can sometimes change. When it comes to answering this question, be sure to check your gut, make sure you’re not hiring the same profile of person over and over again. Remember, diverse teams perform better.
- Define the tasks. Most schools will ask their candidates to perform a demo lesson. But as you reflect on steps 2 and 3 above, consider what else matters to the role and would be a realistic preview of the work this teacher will do? For example, our school developed grade level and department teams that were highly collaborative, so talking with staff members was important. Do you need folks to integrate feedback quickly? Give them feedback and ask them to implement it. Is family engagement core? Have them role play a conversation with a family member of a scholar. Feedback around management or execution can usually be implemented in the moment. Rewriting a lesson will take a bit more time. Plan accordingly.
- Edit. Look at your task list. Is it a full day? If so, you’ll likely want to edit what it is you’re requiring of candidates. Few can spend an entire day on campus, and I’d caution against putting too many barriers up to finding great-fit teachers. Think about how you might get more out of each task, rather than adding tasks. Let’s say you have a role play about a challenging situation. I would have the candidate explain their thought process, act it out, get feedback, and then do it again. In the course of 20-25 minutes, you can see how someone grapples with an issue, how they execute, how they process feedback, and how quickly they can implement that feedback. You can also think about (reasonable) pre-work. For example, one leader I worked with was concerned because he wasn’t sure he was being clear on what good lesson prep looked like. The solution? Send your lesson planning expectations, and an exemplar, and ask folks to come in with their prep.
- Get other voices. Involve other stakeholders in the process. Whoever handles culture in your school can do role plays involving scholars and families. A Department Chair or Dean of Instruction can co-observe the demo lesson (especially if they are the one who will ultimately give this person feedback!). In some schools, I have seen high school students interview candidates so that an interviewer can see how a candidate responds to the scholar voice. When deciding who does what, think about who the candidate will interact with, if hired, to help give a realistic preview of the job - and to get input from stakeholders who will ultimately work with them. One note here: everyone needs to write their notes after the interview and before they talk to each other, to avoid being influenced by other interviewers.
- Define what you are looking for. This is where context comes in. Remember, you are building a team, and teams thrive on diversity. I have found that diversity of experience and thinking leads to a richness of perspective -- so long as there is a clear definition of the goals being worked towards. So pay attention to the teams you already have as you think through who will be the right complement.
- Calibrate.This is key. You need to calibrate as a hiring team so that your team is as clear on the needs as you are. This doesn’t mean the team should think like you -- again, you need checks too! But it does mean everyone needs to be clear on what they are looking for in their portion of the interview process, and how it plays a role in the larger hiring process.
- Debrief. You asked teammates to participate, so be sure to create space to hear their perspectives. Because different sessions may yield different data, it’s also important for interviewers to push on each other. Some healthy debate is good. It is important for everyone to feel heard if you’ve asked them to participate -- and you need to hear them to make the best decision.
- Rinse and repeat. Like any good system, you need to audit your interviewing process. This can be done by reflecting on the debrief, analyzing your hiring data, and talking to your hiring team.
Does this take time? Absolutely. Will you nail it right away? No. But the process is one of the best investments of your time. It will force you to get clear about what matters, and what doesn’t. It will push you to think past jargon and reflect on your biases and blindspots. The conversations with your team will help you develop a shared language of excellence. Designing an interview that gives such a realistic picture of the job ensures that candidates know what they are signing on for - a key to retention. And the rich data you get from the process will not only create strong, diverse teams, but it will also help you to be strategic about onboarding your new teammates, helping them feel included, and ensuring they are set up for a successful year. When it comes to structured interviews, I can’t think of many other things I did as a leader that had such a significant return for our school and most importantly, for our kids.