Hiring for Excellence in Independent Schools: Why We Need to Seek Cultural Competence in Hiring

Hiring can be both arduous and rewarding, and as time consuming as it is full of possibilities. We would all agree, I believe, that “mistakes” are costly: first, because they can be hard to detect, and second, because they can difficult to correct. It is essential, therefore, that we carefully consider what knowledge and skills sets are critical each time we hire — whether the position in question is school head, administrator, staff member, or teacher.

The complex world in which we educate our students, the demands that are and will be made on those students as they navigate that world, and the critical conversations in which we and they must participate — all of these point to the need for the development of cultural competence. I use the term “cultural competence” to indicate both an understanding of how differences among us are created and mediated in the world, as well as an ability to recognize, not necessarily the answers to all the questions that can be asked about this, but when questions need to be asked.

All School Personnel Have Role to Play in Creating Inclusive Environments

Issues of perceived race and ethnicity, skin color, gender expression and gender identity, perceived socioeconomic class and class status, perceived abilities and disabilities, as well as other societally recognized and sanctioned differences, and how these surface in day-to-day interactions in our schools, as well as in the headlines, in our neighborhoods, and in our curricula and pedagogies, make the challenges of creating and sustaining equitable and respectfully inclusive school environments formidable. Each person who works in independent schools has a role in creating these environments, from moment to moment, in interactions with one another. When we hire a new person to work with us, we need to consider that person’s commitment to, as well as his or her knowledge and skill sets in playing that role, as significant indicators in the position requirements.
You can think about it this way: Anyone can learn anything, given enough time. Some lessons, however, take more time than we have to spend. We cannot build where there is no foundation. We cannot afford, for instance, to hire a teacher, staff member, or school head, who claims to be “colorblind” in the sense that he or she believes that all that is necessary to deal with issues that arise from perceived race, ethnicity and/or color, in the classroom or out of it, is to deny or minimize the effects of these on individuals. As Kimberly Ridley and Ralph Wales point out in their article, “Examining Privilege”:
“The combined skills, materials, and content we choose to teach is one kind of curriculum, and an important one. But a powerful set of lessons is contained in who leads in our schools, who teaches in our classrooms, and who is here to learn. This human curriculum speaks volumes to the values we hold and what we want our children to know” (Independent School, Summer 2014, p. 53).
While none of us understands everything about what any given individual must deal with because of how society is structured around differences, it is essential that we grasp that there are ramifications to the ways people can be treated differently based on this structure. Understanding this means that we must consider these effects in dealing with our students, our parents, our community members, our stakeholders, and each other.
As part of their missions, independent schools have to educate each student in a way that will help each survive and thrive in the world.  As John Chubb, president of NAIS, wrote in the Summer 2014 issue of Independent School, “Equity and justice are among our community’s core values, not just because they are ‘the right thing to do,’ but also because they are mission critical” (p. 11). This puts a high bar in place for culturally competent awareness and skills for each employee. We are further ahead in this professional development if we hire with cultural competence in mind.
In saying this, I am not arguing for a generic “diversity question” to be posed as a part of an employment application process or asked during an interview. Questions that ask an applicant to “define diversity,” or “explain the importance of diversity” or to “list reasons why diversity is important in the classroom,” or even to “list three ways diversity impacts education” are unlikely, by themselves, to help us distinguish between an applicant who has laid the groundwork for continuing the development of knowledge and skills to encourage and build equity in education, and one who has not. Many people can “talk a good game” but cannot play when they are called on to leave the bench. 

A New Hiring Process to Assess Cultural Competence

I am arguing instead for using each new hiring process as an opportunity to do at least four major things to help assess the cultural competence of applicants. 
  1. First, consider the position description and how the person filling this position will encounter issues that deal with the differences noted above. Is this person to be a main contact with parents and students, as well as members of the community? If so, what kinds of challenges might he or she face in navigating across differences? Are we hiring a school head, and if so, what is likely to be this person’s role in examining and improving policies and practices that touch on equity and inclusion? Are we hiring a teacher? If so, what are likely to be some of the curricula and classroom pedagogy challenges around differences that he or she will need to know how to address? Dealing effectively and inclusively with these circumstances should be noted as required skill sets in our position descriptions and advertisements.
  2. Second, we need to consider how to ask behavioral questions during interviews that touch directly on situations related to those mentioned above. We don’t just want to know what the person might identify as the critical issues involved in such situations. We want to know what previous situations they have encountered like these, how they handled those situations, what they learned from them, and how they would expect to apply such knowledge in our school.
  3. Third, before we ask these questions of an applicant, we want to consider specifically what we are looking for in a “good” answer; in other words, we need to talk about and agree on what specific information we want to hear from the applicant.
  4. Finally, we need to include a similar question among those we ask references.  We want to explore how has this person dealt with this type of situation, how was his or her response received, and what was its impact?


What Happens When We Fail to Assess Applicants for Cultural Competence

If we fail to assess, as a part of applicants’ skills sets, their foundations and professional development for cultural competence, we are encouraging the following familiar patterns: 
  • School heads, staff, and teachers who we hire for their “diversity” are likely to feel that they are facing the challenges for creating and maintaining an equitable and inclusive environment alone. They are likely to be the ones who are expected to point out any difficulties, to speak up if there are problems, and to “take care of” those problems is they arise. In other words, they are likely to be given the unspoken message, loud and clear, that they were hired to do this for the rest of us. We will not retain these employees when they have the opportunity to work someplace where equity and inclusion are seen as shared responsibilities.
  • The language that we craft in our mission statements and our school literature that points to the importance of the development of each student and staff member will be seen as pure rhetoric rather than something built on our actualized values and beliefs.
  • We will continue to be “reacting” to incidents of discrimination, harassment, disrespect, and denial, rather than recognizing the past patterns in these incidents and moving to change the structures that support these person-destructive patterns.
  • We will find ourselves hard pressed to explain to increasingly diverse school communities how we take inclusion seriously as a school, and how we are preparing all of our students to lead in an increasingly diverse world.

The good news is that we have the leadership and talent, the critical thinking skills, and the resources to use each critical hiring process as an opportunity to increase the collective cultural competence among us. Then, through collaboration, we can improve our abilities to ask the complex questions required, as well as to craft effective answers and approaches.

I am honored to have been asked to teach a preconference equity seminar at the 28th NAIS People of Color Conference in Tampa in December 2015. Entitled “Seeking Cultural Competence in Hiring: Practical Methods and Strategies for Identifying the Administrators, Staff, and Faculty Needed in 21st Century Independent Schools,” it will provide an opportunity to explore ways to build relevant knowledge and skills into all hiring processes. I look forward to seeing you there.
Cris Clifford Cullinan
Cris Clifford Cullinan

Cris Clifford Cullinan is co-chair of the National Advisory Council for the annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE) and founder of ALiVE:  Actual Leadership in Vital Equity. She can be reached at [email protected].


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