Case Study: Building a New Hiring Process

Spring 2024

By Doug Poskitt

This article appeared as "The Hiring Process" in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

Does this approach to hiring for teachers sound familiar to you? Each division head or program supervisor facilitates a search process to identify and ultimately onboard top candidates. It’s a significant effort—often spanning months. There’s little, if any, collaboration across departments. There’s no mention of mission during the recruitment process. An array of colleagues are involved, yet the end result is often that top prospects decline your offer. At Worcester Academy (MA), a day/boarding school of about 550 students in New England’s second-largest city, this was the case—at least in recent memory.

For years, frustrations had been bubbling among our academic leadership group (middle and upper school division heads and myself, dean of faculty), and as the school welcomed several new administrative team members, we started to have open conversations about how our hiring process was falling short. There was surely more we could be doing to recruit and attract top talent—and to streamline our efforts across the school for a more effective approach that would set employees up to stay. 

We needed a step-by-step hiring process that identified talent needs, located potential matches, and eventually brought on board the most qualified candidates. So we began to explore hiring best practices in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds and thought about how we'd be able to leverage and learn from them. We asked what we already knew about job candidate experiences—including our own—that could be improved. We built a new hiring process that is already making an impact. 

Best Practices and Community

During the pandemic and too many Zoom meetings, the academic leadership group met weekly to discuss our challenges and the opportunities to build a new hiring process. We each had worked at several independent schools and remembered what it was like to be a job seeker. We commiserated about how poorly some searches had been run. We shared horror stories of being ghosted. We agreed that increasing the points of contact—with candidates, applicants, and potential hires, as well as with each other—and maintaining open lines of communication were essential. But we needed some guidance from the field, some best practices to establish at our school. As a starting point, we turned to NAIS’s Principles of Good Practice: Hiring Process. 

These principles, including the school’s and the candidate’s obligations, set the tone for the relationship and also convey the spirit and values of the school. The principles, which cover procedures, logistics, and values, can be applied to any hiring process, including one that is fully managed by the school. Through our discussions about how to use the principles at WA, we realized that our conversations needed to include broader representation from within our school community. 

We’d need help from human resources to update job descriptions. The communications office would recommend where to post openings for maximum impact. We reached out to the technology office about how to create the most effective and useful candidate feedback forms. Our director of institutional research would provide data to inform our decision-making, suggesting the wording of questions to yield actionable data about each candidate. As part of this work, our department chairs, the faculty at large, and the board of monitors (WA’s student leaders) would meet with each finalist. This more inclusive hiring process would ultimately help us attract candidates from various generations. 

The New Process

Through our conversations with the academic leadership group and the community, we created a checklist that is now used for each job posting and candidate. It lives in a shared folder that is accessible to the hiring team, and it continues to evolve to meet our needs. Our new process is driven by several key steps.

Update and standardize job descriptions across the school. Rather than have individuals creating their own job postings for hires in their divisions, we have tapped human resources to help us create job descriptions that set the tone for how candidates see our school and that attract the candidates who best meet our criteria. We have created summary descriptions, general expectations, essential duties and responsibilities, and qualifications, and we have included our school’s mission, core values, and DEI commitment. 

Reconsider where we post job ads. Previously, job postings were listed on various job sites, including free and paid postings. As we reimagine the most cost-effective and productive locations, we are primarily posting job ads on the job site of the Association of Independent Schools in New England and in the NAIS Career Center. 

Standardize interview questions at every step of the hiring process (initial outreach, follow-up conversation, and on-campus interview). To avoid redundancy, we document the responses in a shared Google doc, enabling us to learn even more about each candidate. Having the master set of questions prepared in advance of the interview allows us interviewers to coordinate our efforts even if we are not in the same room. Here are some of the questions that we pose to every teaching candidate: 

  • What is it about this opportunity that speaks to you? Why now and why Worcester Academy? 
  • We expect all learners at WA to embrace a growth mindset. Could you share some examples of either how you helped your students learn from their mistakes or how you as a teacher learned from a mistake of your own?
  • How do you know that one of your lessons has been successful?
  • Our students love having grownups in their lives whom they can admire, especially if the grownup is high-energy and passionate about life. How will you manage the boundary between being that person for them and also being an adult role model in their lives?
  • WA exists to instill in its students the desire to learn throughout life, to engage passionately with the world around them, and to be honorable persons of strong and resourceful character. How will you incorporate this mission into your daily practices?

Train colleagues who will be on interview panels about how to be good interviewers, especially those who may be new to that side of the table. The academic leadership team has organized and shared case studies and role-playing to help standardize how the school approaches interviews. We’re better positioned to follow best practices and impress our candidates. Our training, which was led by the dean of equity and inclusion and the associate head, focused on these steps:

  1. Take time to prepare.
  2. Put thought into your questions.
  3. Review the candidate’s information before the interview.
  4. Decide on a structure to follow for each interview.
  5. Implement a standard rating system.
  6. Practice good listening skills.
  7. Consider practicing your interview techniques with friends or coworkers.
  8. Allow the interviewee to ask questions.
  9. End the interview professionally.

Create an efficient feedback form that provides lots of data and insights about each candidate by using Likert scales, which measure a positive or negative response to a statement. These forms are distributed on the morning of the candidate’s final interviews to everyone (faculty, staff, and students) who will have a scheduled meeting with the candidate. An appointed member of the academic leadership group then tabulates the results to inform the decision-making process. Here are some sample questions:

  • Describe your impression of the candidate’s content area knowledge/classroom approach and pedagogy.
  • How well do you think this candidate would relate to WA colleagues/students/parents?
  • Overall, based on this candidate’s experience and campus visit, to what extent would you recommend this candidate?

Establish common criteria for class observations and incorporate our school’s new learning principles in the hiring process: 

  • The teaching allows students to connect new information to prior knowledge.
  • The teacher creates an environment that is safe and inclusive.
  • The teacher uses a variety of teaching strategies that combine content knowledge with skills development.

Include meetings with students for administrative and teaching candidates during their campus visit, and be sure to prepare the students to be good interviewers and to review their original questions in advance of the interview. 

Establish common questions to pose to references and record them in an accessible manner. For example: 

  • What would you say is the candidate’s most notable strength/greatest challenge as a teacher and colleague?
  • Briefly describe an example of the candidate dealing with a challenging, stressful, or highly charged situation.
  • Would you want to retain the candidate if they expressed an interest in changing jobs? Explain why or why not.
  • What professional development would you recommend for the candidate’s future growth as an educator?
  • Is there anything else you think I should know about the candidate that my previous questions did not address?

Draft a booklet of employee benefits for all top candidates to consider when an offer of employment has been made.

Previously, because candidates did not get a preview of the full compensation package, they might not have fully understood the benefits in addition to the base salary. This booklet, created by the business office or HR, can explain the paid time off, the ways the job can be flexible, and additional perks so that candidates will be more likely to accept the job offer. 

After the Hire

Reimagining the hiring process cannot stop once candidates accept our offer. It’s one thing to have top candidates sign on the dotted line but something very different to have them stay for the long term. After all, dedicated teachers are an independent school’s greatest resource. 

We first assessed what onboarding looked like: a set of mandatory meetings before the opening-of-year faculty meetings and a get-to-know-you reception. Then we focused on how to make it better. For the 2023–2024 school year, we prioritized the hiring of a dedicated new faculty coach who, in addition to limited teaching responsibilities, helps clarify school and employee expectations, prioritizes professional growth, and ultimately decreases faculty attrition. Before new hires begin, the coach reaches out during the summer to help get them acquainted with everything they need to begin the year on the right foot, including their class sections and room numbers, textbook orders, classroom materials, the all-employee summer reading book, WA email access, weekly schedule, and so on. We also created a new faculty mentorship program, which the coach oversees. The coach trains mentors and assigns them to each new faculty member. 

We’ve enhanced an annual, year-long training program that takes place during the academic day once each month in a specially designated time slot that does not conflict with classes. During this time, we discuss timely topics (writing effective narrative comments, preparing for parent-teacher conferences, etc.). We prioritize each new colleague’s professional growth (set and discuss goals, observe classes, review course surveys, hold an end-of-year summative meeting, etc.) during the first year of employment. 

Separate from professional growth, we have created essential expectations for all employees’ evaluation. They are shared annually at the beginning of the school year and serve as a hallmark of our review process. And we now conduct “stay” interviews. In an informal, one-on-one conversation, members of the academic leadership group ask about job satisfaction with the employee’s role, team, and the school; aspects of the job that are the most fulfilling and enjoyable; specific challenges or areas of dissatisfaction; progress toward career goals and support for professional growth; and challenges in managing workload with personal life. These conversations can validate many jobs done well, surface solutions to identified issues, or encourage other employment options when needed.

The Takeaways

This constellation of initiatives has resulted in this year’s cohort of about a dozen new colleagues who are well-aligned with our school’s mission. In addition, such a collaborative undertaking has increased the sense of camaraderie and teamwork among our administrative team as well as our academic leaders. This shared purpose in turn has made a favorable impression on almost every prospective new hire. As a result, I’m optimistic that our faculty retention rate will continue to increase.

There is so much potential in streamlining efforts, learning from each other, and collaborating in the hiring process. What we’ve created at WA seems to be working, and we will continue to tweak it along the way. And as other schools learn from us, we hope to hear from more schools about how they are combatting faculty attrition. Isn’t it great how we can learn from each other and not have to reinvent the (hiring) wheel? 

Go Deeper

The quality of the hiring process sets the tone for a mutually satisfying relationship between the school and the candidate. It also communicates to the candidate the spirit and values of the institution. Check out NAIS’s Principles of Good Practice: Hiring Process. NAIS encourages schools to adopt these principles and to share them with candidates as appropriate. 

Doug Poskitt

Doug Poskitt is dean of faculty at Worcester Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts.