“The guy’s good at his job, but when it comes to being a human, he’s a total incompetent.” —Tana French, The Trespasser.
We recently advertised openings for English teaching positions. Working at The Grauer School (CA) is a pretty good gig: high morale, world travel, amazing class size, gorgeous campus, a highly rated place to work (in 2013, Outside Magazine named us one of the “10 Best Places to Work in the United States”). We knew we’d get a lot of interest.
Most of the résumés we received from candidates focus on how they can do things like “facilitate a six-step writing process with students,” or how they have “superior editing and proofreading capabilities,” but say nothing of their humanity, self, or values.
One candidate, with double master’s degrees and a near Ph.D., listed publishing something called A Deconstructive Pedagogy, and another was the president of his college Russian club, but neither of them mentions activities they share with teens.
No doubt, we had talented people inquiring. But these great résumés reveal little about the personalities of the people who created them or how they relate to teens.
We also got a résumé from someone whose class “experienced a 26-point increase in proficiency scores.” We even got someone who claimed to have “exceptional phone sales and follow-up skills.” But only one person mentioned ever having run student trips.
Hardly any sought to address the inherent creativity and individuality teachers can express at independent schools or to answer the kinds of questions that could give them a real competitive edge:
- What passions have you shared with teens?
- Why are you a good role model for the rising generation?
- How are you a kid magnet?
- Do you love cooking French cuisine?
- Have you ever taken a child fishing?
- Are you an herb gardener or a carpenter?
- Can you play anything with strings or sing along with your class?
- Did you write press releases to earn your way through college?
The Whole Truth
Schools need all kinds of help. Great schools are filled with people whose world view of a “school” includes what goes on inside and outside of class and on and off campus, and people who embrace their role in the whole development of the student.
Students need as much attention out of the classroom as they do in it. Sometimes they need more, because our over-programmed, over-parented, over-coached kids of today don’t always know what to do with open time and open space. Sure, teens could use decent proficiency test scores, but it’s important to have great mentors around when they feel lost or alone—or incredibly inspired—as so many will.
I want to hire a “whole person,” one who has developed great teaching skills over the years. And yet, we rarely receive résumés that highlight these skills. After hiring teachers for three decades, I can honestly say that waiting tables is at least as good an indicator of how someone will perform mentoring students as raising proficiency scores.
By whole person, I mean someone who has an interesting life and can share that life on and off campus. Someone who is passionate about human causes and social justice, cultural leadership, the great outdoors, and intercultural immersion.
Applicants: I want to know why kids follow you, why they see you as a leader. List something on your résumé that really shows how you’ve led kids. (See “Apply Within” below to learn more about our approach to job descriptions and the interview process.)
For example, I see you were a volunteer tutor in Guatemala, but I want to know why my students here in Encinitas will want to hang out with you. Or, I appreciate that you “implemented backward design when creating differentiated units for various grades,” but how will students learn to respect the balance of nature when they are with you?
Did you know the average teacher is an introvert? Sound impossible, given that they stand and deliver before so many people on a regular basis? But it’s true. The best teachers teach English or phys ed or Spanish language not just for the intrinsic beauty of those subject areas, but because those subjects give them the wings and the excuse they need to engage and connect and relate. It’s connectors we are looking to hire, not mathematicians, per se. At our school, we often define leadership as “making leaders of those around you.” We want to give our students wings.
I think we can do the field of secondary education some good by altering our future job postings to reflect that our field needs whole, complex teachers who have a range of talents and boundless creativity. Teaching is a noble profession. Aristotle was a teacher. Jesus. Mohammed. Confucius. J.K. Rowling. Sting! Who will carry on this noble line? Surely we can hire teachers who have more than “an exceptional understanding of the California Common Core State Standards and curriculum for English Language Arts.” That’s only half the case—what about the other half? If teachers in our nation’s schools of education are learning that their role is merely to download required curriculum and see it through, it’s no wonder that fewer and fewer people are considering entering the field. (A November 2016 Los Angeles Times article reports a 75 percent decline in people in California going into teaching in the past decade.)
The outcomes of a high school experience are more than a GPA and a degree. Colleges are waking up to this, and every year more are dropping standardized test requirements. I hope high schools will too. The Lumina Foundation has kicked in $1.27 million for NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education) and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to explore student learning and competencies gleaned outside of the traditional academic classroom.
Bureaucrats Need Not Apply
Today’s schools, even those that seem similar in mission, have gross differences in approach and worldview. Teachers, is your classroom coercive or student-initiated? Are students finding unique paths or are they mainly complying with regulations? It’s a big question, because in most schools, classrooms are relatively coercive places, despite tons of progressive verbiage on school websites everywhere. Today’s secondary schools around the world are wrestling with huge differences in background assumptions about what it means to be a teacher.
There are teachers who believe, “I am responsible for adhering to the state and district guidelines as literally as possible so that my students score high on the end-of-year exams.” This teacher is functioning very differently than the teacher who believes, “My most fundamental role is to preside over the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional development of these children so that they become intellectually curious, balanced, and happy.”
Many schools may not actually want someone who is too individualistic and might be better off with hyper-focused, one-subject specialists. But we do not seek them at Grauer. A real teacher scaffolds our dreams and then shares them. A real teacher inhabits our world. The teachers we seek will share in anxiety, insecurity, pain, and moments of teen hilarity. The teachers we seek are ones who, when we think of the word trust in the biggest sense, their picture enters our mind, and we smile.
So how did we fare in our recent faculty member search? We are welcoming two teachers who have all of the holistic attributes we seek: humanitarian endeavors, hobbies, and pursuits and passions.
One is a magna cum laude B.A. graduate who double-majored in English and history and has an M.A. in English education. He has more than 10 years of classroom teaching experience, including having taught in Kenya, New York, and Spain. He also enjoys rock climbing, running, lifting, improv comedy, music, traveling, and service projects. His references sing his praises: “Amazing teacher,” a “strong collaborator,” and a “creative teacher who goes out of his way to reach all of his students” are just some of the phrases they use to describe him. He says he was drawn to Grauer because of its focus on teaching the whole student, inspiring lifelong learners and empathetic human beings, and doing that inside and outside the classroom.
The other is a former literature professor, with a B.A., M.A., Ph.D., and a global background. She enjoys reading, gardening, sailing, biking, camping, and traveling throughout Baja California and mainland Mexico. Her references describe her as having a “knack for developing a caring rapport with [her] students that is characterized by compassion, humor, and flexibility.” And, she believes in “fostering strong personal relationships that are characterized by individual attention, compassion, and service.”
We couldn’t be happier to have these two teachers in the fold at Grauer.
To get beyond the standard skill-based approach to hiring, we write our job descriptions so that our holistic approach is clear to candidates. Our faculty job announcement application contains this wording:
“We specialize in developing resourceful and compassionate individuals and college candidates in a challenging setting. Our faculty is energetic and dynamic, engaging in real teaching/learning relationships with students. Teaching candidates should demonstrate teaching experience, a commitment to secondary education, a passion for Socratic teaching, and an extensive knowledge of their subject matter.”
We also try to ensure that our application and interview process reflects this as well. For example, we ask:
- How and why did you choose this line of work?
- What was the best job you have ever had? Why?
- What is your definition of leadership? What does leadership look like to you?
- Are there any community activities you participate in that you think enrich your teaching or make you a more positive community role model for your students?
- What are you reading right now?
- What sustained international and/or intercultural and/or humanitarian experience do you have?
This last question is one of our favorites, in part because having sustained international or intercultural immersion experiences—as well as a slate of outside-the-classroom interests and talents—is key to securing a position at The Grauer School.