Hiring Questions

9 min read

Over at the Thinking Stick, Jeff Utecht has posted a series of questions and answers related to the hiring process.

At the outset, Jeff states:

You will notice that my list says absolutely nothing about integrating technology or how the teacher uses technology in his/her classroom. No, this list focuses directly on the skill set and the tools these teachers use for their own learning.

My immediate question, of course, is: why? But we'll get to this in more detail later.

The hiring process has always fascinated me, as it is a frequently overlooked element of maintaining the strength and vitality of an organization. I thought I knew something about hiring until, a few years back, I had the good fortune to be hired by -- and work for -- Trish King. Trish has since gone on to become the head of The Island School, and if you're reading this you know what happened to me, but much of what I describe in this post is influenced by what I learned from Trish. My experience working with her helped me become aware of the potential to have the hiring process accomplish more than just hiring great people. Hiring is an opportunity for a school to refine and revisit its priorities; thus, the hiring process, if done well, can serve as a reality check for how well a school is accomplishing its mission.

Back at the Thinking Stick, Jeff's questions are rooted in a specific context, that of finding teachers capable of and excited about using technology in their teaching:

Hiring teacher that do not get excited about teaching in a new networked space will not help to move any information literacy focused school forward.

Jeff breaks his questions down into 4 categories:

  • Basic User -- this section deals with 4 specific programs (all Microsoft: Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Publisher), and email.
  • The Average User -- the 2 questions in this section deal with information literacy and internet filtering
  • The Web 2.0 Teacher -- this section consists of 4 questions about various forms of participation/interaction within online communities. Blog readership, RSS, Google groups, etc.
  • Teacher 2.0 -- the questions in this section play to some of the commonly repeated memes of the blogosphere: the rapidly changing world, the coolness of new gadgets, and informal learning

There is some great stuff here, but also some things that should be jettisoned. All of the questions in the Basic User section fall into the "Jettison" category. If I interview anybody in 2008 (heck, if I interviewed anybody in 2005) who possessed and publicized superb Publisher skills I would wonder why they had spent time learning a tool that could be replaced by competent word processing software for most needs, and would need to be replaced by real publishing software for complex needs. In attempting to gauge the technical proficiency of teachers, I usually ask one question: How do you use technology to streamline preparing your course curriculum?

This question allows for a couple details to emerge: it focuses on how tools are used; it reveals what tools are used, and when; it allows the interviewee to talk about their teaching, which in turn reveals details about their philosphy of teaching. A good answer to this question also could how the candidate connects with kids.

Also, the original question focuses on software released by a specific company -- in this case, Microsoft. This narrow focus sets too low a bar.

Interviews provide an opportunity for two-way communications on multiple levels. The stated purpose of an interview -- to allow a school and a candidate to learn more about each other -- only scratches the surface. Interviews offer a chance for the school to engage in word of mouth PR -- most teachers have a network of colleagues, and we talk, and a positive or negative impression gets shared. Interviews should also be viewed as learning experiences for both sides: whenever you have a set of educational professionals in the room, you have a group of people who have something to learn from one another. Additionally, interview questions can be guided -- in some ways a form of teaching with the test (with a hat tip to Eric Hoefler). This is why I like to ask questions that require an answer based in a practical application. As an example, having a candidate self-assess Word proficiency doesn't tell me much, but hearing about a lesson that a candidate prepared using OpenOffice in order to not further Digital Divide issues gives me insight into their pedagogy. And, if a candidate hasn't been using technology in this way, a guided question can serve as a wake up call that, perhaps, they should.

The Average User questions include a great question on Internet filtering. The final two sections -- The Web 2.0 Teacher and Teacher 2.0 -- are designed to gauge a teacher's familiarity with social networks/informal learning. However, questions asking about RSS readers, specific tools that create online communities, and a teachers most recent gadget sidestep the point: we want to find people that are creative. We want to find people who, in the pursuit of knowledge, aren't afraid to fail. We want to find people who can articulate their learning process. And, because we are talking about hiring teachers, we need to find people with the above qualities who want to teach and model these traits for kids.

Technological skills can be taught. Intellectual curiosity, to an extent; but caring about kids -- not so much. I don't care if someone gets excited about an iPhone -- because, I mean, have you seen some of the folks excited about the iPhone, or [fill in the name of gadget/service du jour here]? -- All the gadgets/technological interventions in the world won't elevate mediocre teaching.

And this is where we veer away -- at least temporarily -- from the discussion on hiring.

So, let's take as a given that one goal of the hiring process is to identify candidates with a propensity toward lifelong learning. Lifelong learning implies a network of fellow learners, or what many people now refer to as the social network. Tools don't create our social networks. Tools give us different ways to keep track of them, and different ways to contact them, and different ways to share information with them, but the ability to leverage the power of the social network should not be confused with the social network itself.

I find a comparable and related lack of clarity in much of the discussion around Personal Learning Environments (or, as Chris Lott accurately coins, Personal Living Environments). We all have our Personal Learning/Living Environment -- it's what we see when we open our eyes in the morning. A technological tool helps us organize it, and a great technological tool will allow us to create additional connections that further our learning. The technological tool many of us are working towards would allow easy export/import of swaths of our learning that we have stored online -- and its worth noting that open source tools allow for more portability than any of the proprietary Nings/Facebooks/etc curently out there. The promise of the technologically-mediated PLE is the promise of a tool that tracks, supports, and expands our personal learning -- and, I would argue, by extension, our quality of life.

And this is where we return to hiring: technology use has little to do with just using technology, and everything to do with connecting people with people, and people with ideas. This is doubly true when examining effective use of technology within education. I have heard the memes/arguments outlining the case that change is occurring rapidly, and at unprecedented rates. These also miss the point. Technology succeeds when it is invisible, and when it is taken for granted. If, in our hiring process, we separate technology use from teaching, the current paradigm will remain unchanged, and this will always be funny. Technology integration will have succeeded to a degree when someone can make one of these about a PLE.

Until that point, though, questions and statements about "the world of tomorrow" ring a bit hollow, and the role of technology in that equation feels overblown. The more relevant question is how we can model behavior that allows students to use tomorrow's technology to address the issues of our very distant, recent, and ongoing cultural evolution. While the technology around us changes quickly, human nature remains remarkably consistent -- across time, across cultures, and across levels of technological complexity.

In looking back on this, we've come a fair distance from your average job interview, but that's okay, because most job interviews are just dog and pony shows when they could be so much more. If these things matter -- and if you're still reading at this point, I'm betting you're either a bored insomniac, or that this does matter to you -- then we need to clarify our terms. In trying to wrap this post up -- which is what I've been trying to do for the last several paragraphs, with no luck -- I've been trying to figure out why Jeff's post struck a chord with me. I guess it comes down to this: in the teachers I have worked with, I have had a large amount of success teaching them how to use technology. However, I have also met teachers who were incredibly intelligent, competent in their subject areas, intellectually curious, but who didn't like kids. Some of these teachers were very competent with technology, but it didn't matter. You can teach technology, but you can't teach people to care. As this relates to the hiring process, I'd much rather filter on finding people who care about kids more than they care about gadgets. A caring educator and an informed technologist aren't mutually exclusive, but we need to start talking about them as things that go hand in hand.

, , ,