Advice from someone on the other side

This year I’ve been intimately involved with the hiring process. With two of our veteran (and funny, and quirkily snarky, and supremely excellent) teachers retiring and our department head moving on to bigger and better things, there have been a number of math openings to fill. I’ve now seen a lot of demo lessons, had lots of conversations over lunch about teachers, and read a fair share of resumes, recommendations, and personal statements.

In addition, there has been a reorganization of the Upper School administration, and we’re switching from two academic/social/disciplinary deans (one for 9th and 10th grade; one or 11th and 12th grade) and four grade level deans (that deal with attendance, keeping advisers on the same page, and lead the big grade level project) to four “everything” deans and one new “assistant head of the upper school” (assistant principal). These deans travel with the grade (so they work with the same kids each year) and deal with anything and everything regarding the students.

A consequence of this transition is the search for these “everything” deans and the assistant head position.

And I’m on the search committee for these candidates too.

So I’ve been really involved with watching demo lessons, asking interview questions, and evaluating. Because these hires affect me significantly.

Things I’ve learned, observations I’ve had, advice I can give… But this seems very specific to my school, or similar independent schools…

(1) You can tell a lot about a teacher by watching a demo lesson. And though I can understand things that go awry in a demo lesson, when analyzing the lesson, I will never rely on the mere virtue that it was a “demo” as justification for things going badly. Because when it comes down to it, if something isn’t going right, the people watching evaluating you want to know that you can think on your feet, that you can meet kids where they’re at, that you can adapt.

(2) A demo lesson needs to show that you know the content, yes, but that’s a given. And honestly, most of us watching don’t really care if you can get through *everything* your lesson is supposed to cover (though it would be nice). In actuality, we’re paying a lot of attention to the *other* things. Like if you bother to learn student names, if you call on the same person repeatedly, if you help students figure things out for themselves, if you can give clear explanations, if you have a way to see if the kids understood what they were supposed to have learned, if you use only one color whiteboard marker when there are many at your disposal (I don’t care much about that, as long as your clear, but one math teacher cares), if you don’t patronize or talk down to students, if students feel comfortable in the space you’ve created to ask questions, if students are taking notes, etc.

(3) Interviewing in a formal, roundtable setting is hard. From the interviewers’ perspective, we have 40 minutes or an hour to get to know you. Your personality is important here, so show it off, but it is your answers which are crucial. Going into the process, I thought it would be good to provide questions to “stump” the interviewee — because it forces them to give a non-rehearsed answer, one that gets them thinking. But with 40 minutes, let me tell you, you can learn a lot even from the rehearsed answers. Because, as I’ve come to realize, rehearsed doesn’t necessarily translate into disingenuous or flat responses. It often translates into well-thought-out, reflective answers. So think about potential questions beforehand, and know yourself really well.

(4) Your energy level at the end of the day is your biggest tell. If it’s 4pm and you show your weariness, from having to wake up early and be dragged around from meeting to meeting, classroom to classroom, and you can’t keep it up for that last discussion, ummm…, yeah, maybe this school isn’t right for you. Because we’re “on” all the time. Even at 4pm. When we’re with you. So stick it out, fake it, until you’re on your way home.

(5) I don’t know how big this is for other evaluators, but for me, a personal statement reveals a lot about a person. Especially since we only get to see you for a day. Don’t make it a mission statement, or an idealistic collection of vague sentiments (“teaching is the heart of a society”). Give me something–a story, a reflection about your work, a narrative on how you came to a particular form of pedagogy or teaching philosophy–that is specific to you. How have you improved and changed to become the teacher you’ve become?

With that, I have to go and finish my preps for tomorrow. I’ll add more if I can think of any more.

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6 comments

  1. Awesome stuff! I’ve only had one interview out of somewhere around 25 where I was asked to do any kind of “demo lesson.” He asked me to teach him how to play a note on a saxophone.

    I also had one interview where some students and parents were involved in the interviewing. That was interesting.

    I think it’d be great to see how you can tweak the first two points to direct them towards being evaluated by an administrator. In a lot of ways, it’s the same kind of thing, really.

  2. Of course, I never “fake” my evaluation lesson. I remember having teachers in school who would tell us “the principal will be in here tomorrow, so this is how you need to act.” I have found that kids are generally better whenever someone wearing a suit is in the room anyway. :)

  3. Thanks Joel! My demo lessons were actual classes that I was teaching to students — so I got an email saying “The class you’re teaching is an honors Algebra II class… They just finished the quadratic formula. You’re going to teach them completing the square.” Then I had to prepare this lesson and teach it.

    For the dean & assistant head positions we’re interviewing for, we have a student and parent on the hiring committee too! I think that’s fantastic.

    What’s funny is that you’re “how to play one note” thing reminds me of what may be an apocryphal story about some famous old french cooking school, where the final exam was to “cook an egg.” It’s hard to do that one simple act really well.

    I can’t talk too much to how an administrator evaluates a demo lesson, but I’ve talked with some of them after we’ve both watched a demo lessons from a teaching candidate, and their sole concern seems to be not on the content (which they tend not to know), but on watching teaching style. They pay attention to the students (how many aren’t taking notes, how many look confused, etc.) and to stylistic things from the teacher (like if the teacher walks around the classroom or stays in front, if the lesson was teacher-centric or student-centric, etc.)

    As for your second comment, it’s totally on point. I like to think it’s because my students have enough respect for me that they want me to look good, but it’s probably more that they think the suit is there to watch them (or will call them out of they misbehave).

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