With decisions about the curriculum and timetables being made, for September, and budgets about to be sent to schools we are just about to enter the silly season for teacher appointments. Over the next few months the frenzy will gradually increase until the madness of May leading up to the 31st May resignation date. It’s sometimes said that the job of any leader is to get the right people on the bus all sat in the right seat. This starts with the recruitment process.
The 1st June date never really bothered me until I became a headteacher but now I’m always glad when it arrives and the timetabling process can begin with some degree of staffing certainty. Over the years we have evolved our appointments process.
How does your school’s appointment process talk of your values and priorities?
It Has Been a Busy Few Months
This year has been rather busy on the job vacancies front, over the past six we’ve:
- Introduced two new leadership & management posts into our structure (very exciting)
- Made a number of consequential appointments following the successful internal promotion of a few colleagues (very satisfying)
- Appointed a number of great new teachers to over staff some curriculum areas, remove the need for a few teachers to teach outside of their main subject and addressed the odd vacancy (very impressive)
- Replaced some wonderful long serving members of staff who have decided to retire and very helpfully given us plenty of notice (very sad)
- Appointed a new Headteacher at St. Mary’s (very odd feeling)
As many, possibly most schools, are hitting the middle of their appointment season with others just beginning to wind up we are basically done, nearly finished. Possibly the last two teaching adverts of the year have just appeared.
Going Early & POGOF
At St. Mary’s we’ve developed the habit of going early and trying to attract the “cream of the crop”. The better the people we appoint, the better the education our students receive and the easier this headship lark seems to become. Over the past few years we have been fortunate to see a real increase in both the quality and number of internal and external candidates applying for jobs.
This increased quality and number has led to an interesting phenomenon, when faced with one vacancy and two (or on occasion three or last year five) great candidates appointment panels have developed the following mindset – appoint then both because if you pay one, you get one free (POGOF). We are currently in a fortunate budget position due to good student numbers and sound financial management by governors which allows us to over staff the school.
Although this may appear madness at first sight, a number of years ago I went into an academic year slightly understaffed – the cost of this was too great, never again – so being overstaffed has always been my preference and it is relatively less costly than the alternative.
The Person Hunt & The Job Hunt
There have been a number of great posts written about applying for jobs, try Tom Sherrington’s (@headguruteacher) New Challenge: Advice for Getting that Job if you want to look at one.
I thought it might be interesting to tip this on its head and look at the challenge from an appointing, rather than an applying, perspective. Fourteen years ago, back in the dark ages before half the students currently at St. Mary’s were actually born, our appointment process consisted of:
- A late arrival for candidates
- An extended tour of the school
- A cup of tea in the staff room
- Bit of a chat followed by lunch
- And then a panel interview.
If you are looking for any interaction with students in or out of the classroom stop looking, you won’t find it. This was not unusual. To emphasise the point, when I was appointed to my first teaching post I arrived about lunch time, in my PE kit (I had been teaching games on my placement), changed in the staff toilets, was shown around the school and had a thirty minute interview. Oh how times have changed.
Student Tours, Panels & Classrooms
This is one of the areas of our appointments process that we have changed significantly. We now expect everyone to teach a lesson and usually have it viewed by two different observers who come together and discuss what they have seen. I always think this is a really difficult part of the process – being observed teaching a class of students you’ve never taught before, in a room you have never seen before, in a school with all its systems and procedures that you don’t know.
We’re looking for people who relate well to and engage our students, challenge them to think through a lesson in which the learning has been well structured and sequenced. Some people come alive or just seem to be in their natural habitat in a classroom, they interest me. In the afternoon interview we like candidates to tell us how well they thought the lesson went and critically why. Important to avoid the usual “I thought it was good lesson with some outstanding features” unless it really was, what we are looking for is an analytical and reflective practitioner – someone who can look at the lessons they teach and discern the good, the bad and the ugly then build on their strengths and develop new ones over time. These people are showing the raw skills of a reflective practitioner, someone who will keep developing throughout her/his career.,
The student panels are great. They are very used to interviewing candidates, have become very professional at it and take their job seriously. In return we take their views seriously as an important part of the process. They are well drilled and understand that they only see a small part of the day and there is a lot more evidence for us to look at when making the final decision. They are happy to articulate which of the applicants they think would be a great addition to the team of staff, we already have, and why. Our students are also the tour guides.
Our students and their learning are at the heart of our mission as a school, we want to be explicit about this from the very beginning.
Break Time, Meeting Time & Room with a View
The staff at St. Mary’s are part of our greatest asset, the people who work there (on a good day that’s about 1400 staff and students), and form a friendly, supportive team. Being in the staff room at break is an important part of the appointment process as it shows this off. Tea and coffee is made for staff every break, it’s free and there are always biscuits close at hand. There is conversation, laughter and different groups all happily spending a bit of down time together. We also arrange for a few staff to chat to candidates at lunch time – no feedback into the appointments process – just the opportunity to talk to peers who can describe the school, warts and all, and answer the questions you have.
Part of us trying to make people feel welcome is providing them with a base room for the day. It seems the right thing to do but has back fired with some applicants feeling they can’t actually leave the room and it becomes more gaol than welcome base.
Through the stresses and strains of a teacher’s day and the hassles of each half term we try, with a mixture of success and failure, to be a people’s place. It is important that we make this clear to applicants from the start we are looking for great individuals who are also great team players.
We want people who know themselves but can also see beyond themselves, to see the big picture and put their needs, aspirations and preferences within the context of a community of people.
The Dreaded Task
For the last six or seven years we have set potential colleagues a task as part of the appointment process. For main scale teachers this is often a written task consisting of an AS-level question or higher tier questions from a GCSE paper. Questions need to be selected carefully as they must test generic conceptual knowledge (understanding) rather than some obscure fact.
I may be old fashioned but I believe it is important that you know your subject well if you are going to teach it whether that is an 11-18 school or 11-16 or a primary school. If you think this is ridiculous, as everyone we interview has a degree, you might want to try it out as a part of your process of appointment. The results can be surprising and have often asked questions of a candidate’s core knowledge. Triangulate this with a lack of challenge in the taught lesson or mistakes in response to students’ questions and we question whether the candidate is right for us.
For leadership posts we’ve done data analysis tasks but have more recently been using an in tray exercise which can be fascinating and very revealing about how people think and what priorities they have. We want to look at each candidate from a whole series of different perspectives.
Choosing the right fit is complex and appointment processes are not pure Science, there is a bit of Art and some gut feeling thrown in as well.
If the perfect candidate appears, s/her will get the job. More often than not we are looking at talented people with different strengths and areas for development, it’s a complex job appointing people which requires a sophisticated approach.
Preparation is Everything – Don’t Go in Blind
You can’t turn up to an interview any more and simply give it some tap and hope that luck will be on your side. Preparation is key, don’t go in blind.
Make fewer better applications and ensure you have researched the school well. You will probably be there for years, ask yourself will it make me happy working at this school? If not move on, life is too short. If at all possible visit the school and have a walk around but remember this is the start of your interview process whether you want it to be or not.
Include in your application and discussions information you have picked up about the school that particularly attracted you to apply. Headteachers and governors are looking for people who understand the school’s overall mission and priorities and are a good fit, round peg in a round hole. If asked “Why have you applied to this school?” Saying “because it is around the corner” may well be true but it won’t exactly put you top of the list. Don’t make things up but why did you apply to the school?
Think about the main features of the school – 11-18 or 11-16, faith school or not, selective or comprehensive, affluent or deprived area, large extra-curricular programme etc. What questions will they most probably ask you as a consequence or what task might they give you to do? Think about broad areas and plan out a few points that will give you the backbone of a great answer.
Are there obvious gaps in your experience – never taught A-level, not worked in a comprehensive school before? The people appointing you already know this and you are at interview, so obviously they are interested in your application. Expect them to probe potential gaps, be ready.
Right Person, Right Job, Right School
If you don’t get the job and you’re not disappointed either it wasn’t the school you thought it was when applying or you didn’t really want to work there any way. Not getting a job doesn’t suddenly make you a poor candidate, bad teacher or inadequate person – correct fit is everything. I had two interviews for headship – the first one I didn’t get through to the second day and the second one they only seemed to ask me questions I knew the answer to! I was the only person taken through to the second day. The interviews were less than a week apart and I was true to myself in both. If I had been appointed to the first school it would have been a disaster for them and me.
Good luck with your applications but remember to think about the schools you are applying to. What do they want, can I offer this? What are the strengths and weaknesses of my application to this school, where might they probe?
It is the kind of person who asks these questions, sees the bigger picture, that is most likely to be successful. It’s never just about the individual, it’s also about the role and the school.
As a final thought, the world of the appointment process has changed massively over the past decade. The next big change may be in how jobs are advertised and how people are found. If you want to know more have a look at “Find TeacherToolkit a Job”.
As I always find with your posts, you write a lot of sense. I think recruitment is one of, if not the key task, that we perform as Heads. As well as getting the right people in position, the appointments process itself sends a key message about what we value. All teachers applying to our school teach, but for Deputy and Assistant Headteacher positions, for example, candidates teach a lesson as the first activity. If the lesson isn’t good, the process is over for them. I think in the past some have found that harsh but it does show that we would only appoint a great teacher to our Senior team. Overall the process that we have developed at our school is very similar to yours. I have been over-staffing in key areas for a number of years now and it has always, always paid off. It’s a bit like an insurance policy, especially in English, Maths and Science and it means when you have those last minute resignations or maternity leaves, you have great teachers in place already. Thankfully we also have a budget healthy enough to carry this if our predictions are wrong. We have made all the necessary appointments for September now, though May is still some way off and there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip!
Thanks for taking the time to comment. Totally agree about the benefit of over staffing to cover those late resignations and the unforeseen circumstances.
Well done on the appointments.
I found this blogpost fascinating to read and will take away a number of points made. For me the most interesting part of the blog hit for me the core of the issues being faced up and down the land.
You indicated that you were in the financial position to “over staff the school”.
When I worked as a senior manager I was held to account for the results of my teams. I was also given suffcient resources to do the job.
My view would be that you are able to achieve excellent results etc because you are “properly staffed”. Not overstaffed.
If you go to Tesco on a Saturday and ask the supervisor in charge of staffing the checkouts what happens if you try to staff the tills with exactly the minimum nuber of staff to meet the precise level of customers they will tell you that service will suffer, queues will extend. Only when there is a degree of flexibility will you be able to deliver a quality service. If you try to run a school as a sausage factory then you will be efficient at producing sausages and few people who value their health eat shop bought sausages.
So I believe you have a similar business model to that which exists in most independent and private schools.
My view is that most state schools are underfunded, just like providing a skeleton staff on the checkouts.
It is underfunding that produces bad results, burnout and disaster. You are lucky to be adequately funded in my view.
Having said all that, adequate funding does not necessarily produce a good school. To do this requires good leadership and your school clearly has both. Congratulations to you and your team, long may your adequate funding continue.
Thanks for this. Interesting to get a view from a different part of the education system. Getting great people into a school (and then developing them) is the key to providing a great education
Thanks, Stephen – interesting to read, as ever.
I had seven different jobs over six schools across 30 years but worked out recently that I actually had 21 interviews in that time, so I was unsuccessful twice as often as I was successful – and that was only at interview! There were a number of occasions when I didn’t even get that far!
When I became a head I was determined that, in addition to doing all we could to appoint the best staff so that we had ‘the right people in the right seats on the bus’, I also wanted to ensure the appointment process was as positive as possible for all the candidates, including (especially!) those who were unsuccessful and disappointed. In the vast majority of cases we managed it, with those who weren’t appointed still saying they had had a good day (or ‘days’ for senior roles) and a positive experience. I also made sure they had helpful feedback afterwards, too.
I think that every unsuccessful candidate is a potential ambassador for your school, and you want them to leave the school gates saying good things about the school, rather than the opposite, even if they’re sorry not to be selected. Sounds to me as though you’re managing that too.
Good luck with your staffing for the autumn.
Thanks Jill. Your point about giving feedback is really important. It’s such a fine balancing act at times. People deserve honest feedback and useful pointers but nerves can be a bit raw at times due to the disappointment. Your comment about unsuccessful candidates being potential ambassadors is real food for thought.
I think it is very important to ensure that all the candidates who apply to our school have a good impression of the school, whether they are successful or not. Last year we had 175 applicants for two teaching posts and eventually ended up interviewing and skyping nine (we are an international, overseas school). I gave feedback to the unsuccessful candidates by phone (not written, it can always be misunderstood). This year we recruited again for a middle leadership post and I refined the system. After creating a list of required and desirable qualities I was able to use all our notes from interviews to put together a good level of feedback. Even better, when we spoke to one of the unsuccessful candidates we were able to help her prepare for another interview (we knew the school and the region) and she got the job.
It is amazing how poor most schools are at this. I have been on the receiving end of the no feedback habit and it is frustrating. Yes, it takes huge time to recruit from beginning to end (which we count as the start of the second contract, after 2 years) but a school’s single most valuable resource is its staff.
I think feedback to unsuccessful candidates is really important too. I don’t think it helps anyone when all everyone is told is that they came a close second. On a couple of occasions unsuccessful candidates have reapplied again to our school at a later date and wouldn’t have done so if they hadn’t received constructive feedback first time round. One returner did get the job on the second attempt and it was a fairly senior role. She had worked on points from the earlier process and thoroughly deserved it. I think the least we can do as senior leaders is give feedback when candidates have been through a gruelling process.
Totally agree with this.
Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.