Speaking as a former school district superintendent, I can tell you one of the greatest challenges that schools with large percentages (75% or more) of impoverished at-risk students face is hiring and retaining a whole staff of strong teachers. There are a myriad of reasons why this is true. From teacher fit, to working conditions, and perceptions about equity in pay for teaching jobs that may be perceived as more attractive, the best, brightest, and most seasoned teachers, often do not opt for the “toughest” schools. This creates a void in our nation’s most needy schools. The students who could benefit most from the guidance of expert educators often have a decreased chance of being exposed to them during their PK – 12 careers.
When approaching the issue of staffing “tough schools” I always wanted to give equitable support and resources to the administrators in those buildings. Of course equity does not always mean equal. Understand as well that this never came at the sacrifice of other schools in my districts, in the sense that resources were never taken from one school to give to another school. Instead, tough schools simply received more sometimes than their peers. Why? The simple fact is that tough schools are starting in a different place than their less tough peers and have to travel further around the racetrack to get to the same finish line.
Even when providing tough schools with additional resources and staffing allotments that were needed though, we often ran into the same problem, finding strong candidates who would stay a while, say 3-5 years. This is the conundrum in tough schools, identifying the best candidates, hiring them, and retaining them. Principals in my tough schools often relied on best practices that had been gleaned from years of experience in hiring candidates. These included determining key qualifying factors for potential interviewees, sifting through dozens if not hundreds of applications to screen for the qualification factors, setting up enough interviews to effectively assess the strength of the candidate pool, and then selecting the most qualified candidate who best fit the school. This process would invariably sift out a good number of adequate to effective teacher candidates, but many of them, for many reasons, would transition out of the tough schools before the three year mark.
Because I know the issue that principals in tough schools face, I was intrigued when I ran across a recent article in Education Week titled Study Links Teacher ‘Grit’ with Effectiveness, Retention. In the article, Holly Yetlick details the findings of a study on novice teacher retention out of the University of Pennsylvania. The study indicated that novice teachers with greater levels of perseverance and passion for long term goals or ‘grit’ were more likely to be effective and remain in the profession. The intriguing thing about the study is that the researchers identified the prospective teachers’ level of grit based on information in their resumes. Researchers commenting on the study have also opined that the same type rubric that was used in the University of Pennsylvania research could be used to develop teacher screening models in the field that would help administrators identify and hire the “grittiest candidates.”
The potential implications of the research highlighted in the teacher grit article are in fact echoed in current developments in practice. Personally, I am aware of at least one major research firm that already has a model in practice that ranks teacher job candidates based on an algorithm used to analyze their applications, making the task of identifying the most qualified job candidates in the pool of applicants more simplistic. I worry about this though, because it removes a measure of the human element from the process.
While filtering through 100 or more applications is a grueling task, there is serendipity in the process. The best teacher candidate does not always come from the highest ranked university, have the highest GPA, have traditional training, or have been in individual positions for long periods of time. Sometimes there are little hints from past job titles or responsibilities that indicate who may possess the best skill set, have the hidden pedagogy, or be the best fit for a position. A computer program that uses a set of rules based on a rubric will simply be incapable of picking up on these nuances. I submit that nuanced intangible fit factors are equally important as grit when selecting teacher candidates.
In regard to identifying teachers for tough schools, administrators need to put more attention on the intangible fit factors when making hiring decisions. Also, district office personnel who are serious about turning around their toughest schools will commit the resources to make them competitive in the teacher marketplace. In line with this move, administrators in tough schools must also commit to making the working conditions in their buildings comparable to those in any school so that teachers who have a commitment to their investment in their profession will stay. I state it this way because as in a number of professions that involve a heavy theory based preparation for a practice based career, during the first 3 -5 years of teaching, many educators find out what the day-to-day life of practice in the field really is and they make decisions about their futures based on that. Working conditions are one of the biggest factors that impact new teachers’ decisions to remain in the field and veteran teachers’ decisions to remain at a particular school. While these measures don’t serve as a silver bullet and tough schools will invariably continue to face some challenges in retaining the very best candidates, these steps will help. I have witnessed them work myself.
To close, with a focus on continuing to select and retain the best candidates, tough schools can significantly improve student achievement. To this end, tools that assist in grading candidate applications should be viewed as just that, tools; because they do not replace the insight and judgment gained from years of practice in the field. Also, tough schools must focus on the continuous development of staff once they are employed and they must maintain appropriate professional working conditions. With this approach, leaders in tough schools will be able to successfully address many of the staffing challenges that they face, fulfilling the duty of their important work, knowing that the futures of our nation’s neediest children depend on it.
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