When I graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with a master’s degree in school leadership, I was confident I would quickly be hired as an administrator. I met all the requirements education leaders claim they want. The bonus: I was the elusive educator of color school administrators claim they can’t find.
I was wrong. After a six-year job search, I remain an English teacher. Yet public concern over a homogenous, primarily White educator base, escalates.
The current cacophony of education reform talk, centered increasingly on diversity and equity, lacks a focused discussion that gets to the heart of the matter: the hiring process, the gatekeepers and accountability for hiring a more diverse workforce.
Gatekeepers—human resources personnel, administrators and superintendents—need to change the systemic bias inherent in the hiring process by engaging in honest discussions about what ails the profession.
Restructure the Interview Process
Technology and tradition are undermining the original purpose and benefit of the interview: To capture the depth, uniqueness and intangibles of a candidate.
The culprits: One-way video (digital) interviews and the scripted, in-person panel interview.
The digital interview is replacing phone and Zoom-like interviews and requires an applicant to sit in front of their computer and interact with a software app by answering timed questions while recording themselves responding to the questions. This artificial technique works best to capture jargon-laced responses, black-and-white decision making and anxiety if one is used to discussion and not self-promotion.
The in-person panel interview has similar limitations due to its one-size-fits-all approach.
The few interviews I was granted adhered to a similar path: Online application with reference letters, one-way digital interview, an email inviting me to an in-person interview, and a panel interview comprised of 6-15 staff members (not necessarily hiring administrators) asking timed, boilerplate questions. If complexity of thought, strategic planning, relationship building and creativity are critical skills for an administrator, why is it imperative that one display this skill set in a two-minute response? Or prohibit follow-up questions? Or use the same one-dimensional prompt to query candidates with widely different experiences?
It is time to ditch the panel interview and develop a series of professional exchanges comprised of a candidate, principal and representative from the superintendent’s office. As school districts invest in recruitment initiatives to attract educators of color, some of the funds should be allocated to add more personnel to human resources and central office departments to increase personalization opportunities (human contact) and oversight of the process. The current impersonal approach gained credibility to limit accusations of discrimination, but it has devolved into a process that supports the status quo and insular hiring.
Personalization and differentiation enhance the learning environment of students by meeting them where they are—socially, emotionally and culturally. The same approach—meeting candidates where they are, encompassing the whole of their experiences—would humanize and maximize the currently sterile and shallow interview encounter, especially for educators of color and career changers, and help capture the cultural competency of applicants.
Authentic and thoughtful interview formats support the diverse and innovative candidate. A starting point could be incorporating research by Nobel economics laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, which laid the foundation for the behavioral-based interview process.
One promising aspect requires hiring managers to identify a set of priority qualifications for the ideal candidate and, through a scoring process, rank and weigh each according to its value. For example, if a superintendent believes cultural competence, advocacy or alternative career experiences would advance the diversity mission of the district, such qualities would carry more weight for candidates than years in the district or serving as department chair. There are more elements and layers to behavioral-based interviews that hold promise to achieve equity in hiring.
All Educators Must Advocate
Currently, the push to hire more educators of color is shouldered primarily by other educators of color. The voices of suburban school administrators need to be heard. Countless studies show that teachers of color matter for all students, academically and socially. Still, an often-overlooked aspect of hiring educators of color is the potential gains for White students, according to The Atlantic.
Additionally, research by Education Northwest states that White students show improved problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity when they have diverse teachers. Students of color who have at least one teacher of color may do better on tests and be less likely to have disciplinary issues or drop out. But despite the research, the schism remains. Black and Brown teachers predominantly educate Black and Brown students. White teachers educate across the racial spectrum. When one’s access into a profession is reduced dramatically through indifference, bias or worse, what are the chances one will enter the profession?
Accountability is Critical to Reform
Superintendents and principals must commit to systemic changes in regards to diversity. It seems there are minimal repercussions for administrators when few to none of the job openings in a school district are filled by educators of color. Human resources personnel are infrequently questioned about their recruiting channels or elimination process.
Sure, it may not be possible for a superintendent to oversee all hiring processes, but it is fathomable to expect someone in a district be assigned to monitor recruiting, interviewing and hiring. Districts must take control. Don’t simply wish for a diverse workforce, demand it and expect results.
The importance of educators of color to students of color is not unique to 2020, 2000 or even 1980. Their value was noted and defended quite vigorously after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, which—tragically and ironically—resulted in mass firings of Black teachers.
More telling, as documented in an episode from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History,” are declarations of some involved stating that the Brown decision should have started with the integration of teachers and administrators, not students.
We are still waiting.