A Most Important Job
It would be hard to disagree with Whitaker’s assertion that “if a school has great teachers, it is a great school” (“What Great Teachers do Differently”, Eye on Education (2004), page 9). I’ve sat in several workshops by Bambi Betts during which participants have been reminded in no uncertain terms that their primary responsibility is to ensure that the best possible teachers are in their classrooms, every day. That challenge is usually met by slightly nervous glances around the room. And as James Stronge was keen to remind us at the recent EARCOS Leadership Conference, while hiring teachers is “probably the most important thing you do,” the vast majority of us who hire teachers for schools are HR amateurs and the process is a “highly individualized artistic endeavour”. (After I read Blink, I at least forced myself to stop and think to ensure that every time I interviewed a candidate during the “speed dating” that is an international recruitment fair, I wasn’t simply making up my mind within 30s and then looking for evidence to reinforce my “gut reaction”!)
A recent survey of AISH members found that 83% of responding schools have contract deadlines before the the end of the calendar year.
A Teachers’ Market
The question of “what is a great teacher?” could fill a day’s workshop on its own and I’ll set that aside for now, and simply assume that all school leaders are trying to hire the best possible teachers for their schools. I’ve been trying to hire “great” teachers for international schools for nine years and each year, it feels a little more challenging. The number of new schools is increasing faster than the supply of talented, flexible teachers. It’s no wonder that presentations by Richard Gaskell of International School Consultancy are always packed with slightly nervous administrators, eager to learn how many more thousand international schools have opened in the past year!
A Hiring Process Disrupted?
This increased demand for great teachers has given rise to a shift in recruiting time lines, especially in Asia. A recent survey of AISH members found that 83% of responding schools have contract deadlines before the the end of the calendar year. In the comments that I read from the schools’ heads, a pervading sentiment seemed to be “I would love to do my hiring in the New Year but other schools aren’t waiting and I could miss out on great teachers”. So the international teacher recruitment fairs that used to mark the start of the recruitment process are increasingly becoming the culmination of the process for some schools. More and more teachers are being hired via Skype and email communications, rather than following in-person interviews. More and more online teacher recruitment companies are emerging to try and challenge the traditional “big names” (Search Associates, ISS, CIS, etc). I’ve lost count of the number of such companies with which I’ve connected on LinkedIn, but it’s certainly more than 40. And the increased pressure to hire well and hire quickly comes within the context of our need for maximum possible diligence around student safety. The one thing that is more important than hiring great teachers is keeping our students safe and stories like that of William Vahey really do keep school leaders awake at night. The work of the International Taskforce on Child Protection, and the efforts of major teacher recruitment companies to improve hiring processes in this regard, are important and appreciated. No matter how much pressure school leaders feel to fill their openings before other schools, we simply have to demonstrate the maximum possible diligence and effort to protect those children entrusted to our care.
After I read Blink, I at least forced myself to stop and think to ensure that every time I interviewed a candidate during the “speed dating” that is an international recruitment fair, I wasn’t simply making up my mind within 30s and then looking for evidence to reinforce my “gut reaction”!
So, to to recap: hiring great teachers is the most important thing we do but most of us have no formal HR training and it’s getting more competitive each year. Hmm… not a great recipe for success, you might reasonably conclude. And yet, I’ve been happy (OK, mostly happy) with the wonderful educators I’ve managed to attract to my schools over the years. And most of my school leader friends usually say the same. So it seems that we’re managing to do something right. For me, success has been closely connected to the question above: “what is a great teacher?” Or, more accurately, “what is a great teacher for our students and our school?” I’m convinced that the secret to good hiring is not finding great teachers. Rather, it’s finding great teachers who seem to be the best “fit” for your school’s Mission, programme, climate, and goals and then working collaboratively with those teachers to help both sides decide if they feel the same degree of “fit”. (You can probably understand why I see many parallels with the university application process for students).
People Love My Workshops On Hiring; I Suspect It Is the Topic and Not The Presenter 😉
Over the past five years, I’ve presented or co-presented several workshops on this topic for teachers and school leaders in the EARCOS region. The workshops are always full beyond capacity and much as I’d like to believe it’s because of my charisma and expertise, I have to concede that the high attendance is most likely because it’s an important, complicated and little-studied topic. Informal feedback at the workshops, along with hundreds of related conversations with school leaders and teacher applicants, suggested to me some of the priorities for teachers seeking international teaching positions and for the schools trying to fill those positions. As you might imagine, teachers prioritize factors such as geographical location, career advancement opportunities, and reputation of the school. However, there has been very little formal research consideration of whether or not accepted motivation and management theories apply to this relatively recent phenomenon: the “global nomad”. I carried out a small scale study in the mid-2000s and I was aware of perhaps 2 or 3 others. Then in 2011 my friend and former colleague, Dr. Dale Cox (head of Shekou International School), surveyed more than 1,500 teachers who were seeking new positions. His analysis concluded that among many influencing factors, the teachers’ relationships with the school heads was probably the most influential factor. Which prompts the question: What might school heads do to take advantage of that influence they wield? Dale’s study also raised some interesting questions in our minds about how recruiters might differentiate their recruiting strategies and materials, depending on the teachers they are seeking that year (younger or more experienced, singles or couples, etc.)? We’re still pondering that one…
Finding The Best Fit For You and The School
Teachers at my workshops have understandably been less interested in what other teachers are looking for and far more interested in what schools are looking for. In fact, I admit to being surprised by how little most teachers seemed to know about schools’ priorities and about current recruiting processes and time lines. But then I guess that’s why they were at the workshops! Each school has its own priorities in any given year but my experience leads me to conclude confidently that most schools are generally looking for demonstrated ability in modern pedagogy, “low maintenance”, positive personalities, and teachers who are “value added” (in other words, who willingly go above and beyond the job description). I would encourage any teacher who’s thinking of looking for a new international position to learn as much as possible about the school and honestly weigh up the fit. Take the time to tailor an application to each particular school: specifically, what can you do that can help support a school’s Mission and goals? In what ways might you be a stronger candidate than anyone else for this particular school? Be completely honest with the school and expect them to do the same with you. That’s one of the secrets to any successful relationship, right?
Whether you’re a recruiter or you’re looking for a position, I wish you success in finding a good fit.
At time of writing, I’ve hired four teachers for next school year but my school is growing and I need to hire quite a few more… so I’d better get on with it…
Paul Wood is Executive Principal at YK Pao School’s secondary campus in Shanghai.
Disclaimer: Ideas and opinions in the blog posts are the work of the author and do not necessarily reflect the ideas or beliefs of 21CLI.