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Effective Teacher Hiring

by Kenneth D. Peterson

Table of Contents

Chapter 4. The Hiring Interview

I have devoted this entire chapter to interviews because of their extensive use, detailed complexity, specific limitations, and demanding logistics. Realizing the potential of interviews depends on skill, preparation, and good timing.

According to Messmer (1998), a candidate's ability to create a good impression during an interview doesn't necessarily translate into effective teaching. As common as they are in teacher hiring, interviews frequently are used too early in the selection process and tend to overemphasize personal qualities that have nothing to do with the classroom. However, at later stages of hiring, interviews help clarify data from other sources, provide additional information about the applicant, and eliminate candidates who have trouble answering basic questions.

Benefits of Interviews

Interviews make sense. What could be better than asking candidates questions face to face—watching their reactions, reading their body language, and seeing their communication skills firsthand? And interviews are highly intuitive: most people are convinced they can tell a great deal about a person from a short question and answer session. Scriven (1990) notes that interviews help reveal a candidate's level of grace under pressure, mastery of language, familiarity with current issues, knowledge of the hiring district, and a few intellectual qualities. “Much of teaching consists of presenting new material and explaining information to students,” says Clement (2000, p. 26). “An interviewee who can thoroughly explain a grading scale to you can also explain it to students and parents.”

Limitations of Interviews

Unlike classrooms, interviews are small-group encounters. Interviews have different goals than classroom teaching, and the perceptions of the interviewer are not the same as students'. Interviews too often assess interviewing skills rather than teaching skills; if a meeting with a candidate results only in vague impressions rather than in clarifying objective evidence about his or her track record, then it is useless for selection purposes.

According to Scriven (1990), teachers should never be selected solely on the basis of an interview. Interviewing hazards include learning more about the interviewers than the candidates, placing a premium on the peak performer rather than the constant achiever, lending too much weight to “show” qualities unrelated to classroom teaching, and general unreliability.

The Screening Team should pay particular attention to interviewee preparedness, interviewer skill (such as the extent to which he or she probes difficult topics), physical conditions of the interview itself, and the power relationship—e.g., whether the candiate is being interviewed by a teacher, principal, or superintendent. Among other things, the Screening Team should

  • Select and train multiple interviewers
  • Interview candidates more than once
  • Control interruptions, secure a pleasant setting, and watch the time to ensure optimal interviewing conditions
  • Consider the benefits of group interviews (e.g., varied points of view)
  • Use a mix of standard and personalized questions

Purpose of Selection Interviews

Selection interviews can help the Screening Team

  • Determine candidate skill level
  • Decide whether the applicant fits the job
  • Compare candidates to each other
  • Sell the district and school to the candidate
  • Identify red flags
  • Fill in applicant profile and information lacking in previous reviews.

These tasks can actually conflict with each other: for example, the systematic and structured questions necessary to assess knowledge, skills, and attitudes can also threaten the interviewer's ability to foster positive feelings and promote the district.

Structured Interviews

During structured or situational interviews, interviewees recall or hypothesize about specific behaviors and wrestle with job-related dilemmas, and interviewers base their conclusions on behaviorally descriptive scoring guides. Interviewers should

  • Base questions on the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for the open position, with a focus on teacher behaviors
  • Concentrate on district goals, programs, and themes
  • Make objective decisions
  • Be held accountable to the Screening Team, which should review and assess interview performance
Researchers find that predictive validity, consistency, and inter-rater reliability are all substantially increased by structured interviews (Harris & Eder, 1999). Still, many interviewers resist these types of interviews, either because they fear losing control over the process, prefer informal interactions, rely overmuch on gut feelings, or resent the time demands of training and accountability.

Principles of Effective Interviews

The Screening Team should only interview a small group of the most qualified applicants; interviewers should be carefully selected and trained, and should show evidence of genuine involvement with candidates. They need to be both tough minded and sensitive to the candidate's anxiety, while remaining assertive and maintaining control of the agenda. Good interviewers must know when to ask direct questions and when to subtly coax the answers out, as well as the difference between interrogating and following up. Interviewers should see each session as reflective of their own reputations and techniques.

The best interview programs include two to three individual interviews, followed by one group session in which both administrators and teachers ask questions of the candidate. The group session should include a mix of interviewers who have already reviewed the applicant's resume and some who haven't.

Types of Interview Questions

There are many different types of interview questions:

  • Individual vs. sequential
  • Closed (short answer) vs. open (extended answer)
  • Standard (asked of all) vs. custom (candidate-specific)
  • Easy vs. difficult
  • Trait-based vs. behavior-based
  • Competency-based vs. opinion-based
  • Situational vs. principle-based
  • Factual vs. hypothetical

The following four types are especially important to hirers:

  • Past-performance questions.Used to: Solicit detailed examples of past performance.
  • Balancing questions.Used to: Balance negative or positive responses with opposites (e.g., “what about a time when things did not go so well?” “Tell me about a success in that area”).
  • Negative confirmations.Used to: Solicit a second example to confirm a negative impression.
  • Reflexive statements.Used to: Guide the pace and direction of the questioning (e.g., “I think it's time to move on, don't you?”).
  • Reflexive mirroring statements.Used to: Clarify what has been said (e.g., “So your opinion is that. . .”).
  • Half-right reflexive questions.Used to: Assess candidate's ability to speak own mind (e.g., “I've always thought that teachers should never negotiate with students about assignments or topics. Do you agree?”).

Approximately 70 percent of the interviewer's questions should be competency-based, and should focus on tangible instructional skills (e.g., how to begin a lesson), professional knowledge (e.g., copyright laws), classroom behavior (e.g., pacing classroom instruction), and interpersonal skills (e.g., dealing with a difficult parent). In addition, questions should concentrate on candidate behavior, either by describing past actions or discussing a hypothetical situation. Here's an example of behavioral and nonbehavioral answers to an interview question:

Q: Tell me about the time you realized that certain students consistently finished their work ahead of the rest of the class.

Nonbehavioral answer: I think it is very important to keep all students busy. Many discipline problems begin with idle time. My cooperating teacher said that “sponge activities” are very effective. Another common problem is that teachers do not know their students, and are surprised by uneven finishing times, which actually are very common and should be planned for. Also, seatwork needs to be demanding enough that even the fastest finishers should be challenged.

Behavioral answer: I asked individual students to tell me about what finishing early was like, and what it meant to them. I asked another teacher for her advice about dealing with early finishers. I changed my learning centers so that students could actually record their own progress while there. Lastly, I produced some study guides that allow students to start on their own work without my guidance. This student self control worked very well for about three-quarters of my students.

Assignment Questions

Prior to the interview, the Screening Team should ask the candidate to visit the hiring school, community, or Web site. The interviewer should then ask “assignment questions” related to the visits, such as “You were asked to visit our computer center. How would you use this resource?” or “You attended Science/Math Night. How would you have your students participate?” Additional assignments might include readings, visits to neighborhood parks or libraries, and attendance at school board meetings or parent nights. The Screening Team might also consider assigning tasks to applicants for post-interview reporting, perhaps asking them to submit a brief written reaction to aspects of the school program.

Types of Questions to Avoid

The following kinds of questions should be kept to a minimum:

  • Leading questions (e.g., “We're under great pressure right now to raise test scores; how do you feel about testing?”)
  • Loaded questions (e.g., “So which is better, over-testing or over individualizing?”)
  • Trait questions that merely solicit candidate opinions, preferences, and self descriptions (e.g., “Describe your strengths.” “How do you feel about whole-language approaches?” “Are you committed to teaching?”)
Interviewers should also refrain from asking multiple-choice or true-false questions because they are either too complex to be easily understood or too limited for substantive answers. See Figure 4.1 for a sample list of questions not to ask.

Figure 4.1. Off-Limits Interview Questions

  • How old are you?
  • What is your race?
  • Of what country are you a citizen?
  • Tell me about your accent.
  • How tall are you?
  • What is your native language?
  • How did you acquire your second language?
  • What is your marital status?
  • Are you a single parent?
  • What is your preferred form of address: Miss, Mrs., or Ms.?
  • What are the names of your next of kin?
  • How many children do you have?
  • What are your child-care arrangements?
  • Do you own or rent your home?
  • Do you live alone?
  • Do you have any large debts?
  • Who is your emergency contact?
  • What is your sexual orientation?
  • Tell me about your religious beliefs?
  • Describe your political beliefs or affiliations.
  • Describe your attitude toward unions.
  • Of what clubs are you a member?
  • To what organizations do you donate money or time?
  • Are you physically fit?
  • Are you disabled? If so, how severe is your disability?
  • Have you ever been treated for any conditions or diseases?
  • Do you use alcohol or drugs on your own personal time? Have you ever had a problem with either?
  • What is your military service history?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Do you have additional outside income?
  • What are your retirement plans?

Hirers should avoid conducting personality-profile and stress interviews. The goal of personality-profile interviews is to ascertain the applicant's character traits—making them very limited, because no single kind of personality is better for teaching than any other. Meanwhile, the conditions and goals of stress interviews—in which pressure is purposely applied to see how well the applicant can handle it—are so different from those of teaching that they too should be ruled out.

Combinations of Question Types

Interviewers might want to ask different types of questions in succession. For example:

  • Question 1: training and experience. “What preparation have you had for working with parents?”
  • Question 2: behavioral. “What steps did you take when a parent said, ‘I am interested in better supporting my daughter in school’?”
  • Question 3: willingness to work. “How do you intend to develop your skills for working with parents?” “What evidence is there that you are a hard worker?”
  • Question 4: transitional. “Is there anything else I should know about your work with parents?”

For additional examples of question combinations, see Figure 4.2.

Figure 4.2. Three Examples of Combined Question Types

Example 1

  • Question 1: conceptual/theoretical. “What is an important skill for 2nd grade students?”
  • Question 2: past behavioral example. “How did you teach this skill?”
  • Question 3: analytical. “What were the results?”

Example 2

  • Question 1: conceptual/theoretical. “What is your position on cooperative learning?”
  • Question 2: past behavioral example. “Give me an example of how you accomplished this.”
  • Question 3: analytical. “How did cooperative learning add to student learning?”

Example 3

  • Question 1: conceptual/theoretical. “Should schools teach character building?”
  • Question 2: past behavioral example. “Can you recall an occasion when you taught character-building skills?”
  • Question 3: analytical. “Was this time well spent?”

Organizing and Scheduling Questions

The Screening Team might consider the following guidelines for establishing interview question types:

  • Seventy percent of all questions should be highly structured. Of these,
    • Five percent should encompass rapport building
    • Five percent should be introductory
    • Eighty percent should constitute core questions
    • Five percent should address data confirmation
  • The other 30 percent should include a combination of open-ended, hypothetical, and probing—i.e., clarifying and verifying—questions.

Selection interviews are not just about finding the best candidate, but also about whether or not the candidate wants the job. There is always a degree of tension to interviews; after all, interviewees are inevitably as concerned with trying to look their best as interviewers are with finding their weak spots. Consequently, hirers should do their best to make the interviewees feel at home, and should make encouraging remarks halfway through the session, such as “This is going well” or “This is good—I'm getting the information I need.” Although physical attractiveness should never be taken into account during selection, studies show that it can be an overwhelming factor in human judgment.

How to Interview Well

For a successful candidate, the hiring interview is the beginning of a long relationship; favorable first impressions, therefore, are crucial. It is up to the interviewer to set a good tone from the outset; to ensure as smooth a session as possible, interviewers should attend to the following key points:


  • Seek their own interview styles rather than use someone else's.
  • Practice interviewing techniques on several of the best teachers in the district.
  • Create a thoughtful invitation to the interview, including
    • Maps
    • A preview of what to expect
    • Information about the district
    • Time and expected duration of interview
    • Names and duties of interviewers
    • The URL of an Internet map site (e.g.,
    • A positive personal note to the candidate
  • Consider the interviewing environment—it should be private, accommodating, and brook no interruptions.
  • Make sure chairs are comfortable and don't wobble, and that the candidate is not facing direct sunlight.
  • Know what topics not to ask about (e.g., age, marital status, religion).

A Good Beginning

  • Present themselves appropriately: because first impressions never change, interviewers should strive to appear cheerful, comfortable, eager, and prepared.
  • Have necessary materials—files, pencils, forms—on hand.
  • Avoid scanning applicants from head to toe upon first meeting them.
  • Give candidates a chance to catch their breath—provide them with water, juice, or coffee.
  • Provide a brief tour of the school.
  • Build rapport by asking about name preferences and engaging in small talk.
  • Describe the purpose of the interview; emphasize that it is mutually beneficial.
  • Separate interview data from prior paper reviews.
  • Begin with familiar topics, such as the weather or an event going on at the school.
  • Open with unthreatening questions to set the interviewee at ease; begin with an icebreaker question (e.g., “Did you have any trouble finding the school”).

Listening and Questioning

  • Pay attention to the power-relationship differences between themselves and the candidates (e.g., discuss their own past experiences as interviewees).
  • Take charge of the interview, rather than wait to be influenced by the candidate.
  • Always keep the goal of the interview in mind: to assess the candidate, sell the position, and verify information.
  • Avoid winging it or basing judgments on gut reactions.
  • Present a positive but accurate view of the position and district.
  • Provide some elements of surprise (e.g., “You are licensed for high-school teaching; what would you do if we assigned you to kindergarten for a month?”)
  • Maintain eye contact with the candidate.
  • Allow the candidate to answer questions as fully as possible; do not interrupt.
  • Explain why they take notes and ask certain questions.
  • Record first and overall impressions.
  • Let their immediate emotional reactions to answers diminish, lest they judge the applicant too hastily.
  • Define esoteric terms.
  • Avoid comparing candidates to each other.
  • Ask spontaneous, unscripted questions when deemed appropriate.
  • Frame questions in simple language and divided according to topic.
  • Probe their own areas of expertise heavily.
  • Work methodically and stick to the interview plan.
  • Estimate the candidate's capacity to grow into desirable characteristics.
  • Use the 20/80 rule: talk 20 percent of the time, listen 80 percent.
  • Encourage candidates to teach them new things about their areas of expertise.
  • Pay attention to body language: lean forward, smile, maintain an open posture.
  • Never register surprise or disapproval at a candidate's answers.
  • Employ active listening. As Arthur (1998) and Messmer (1998) suggest, interviewers should:
    • Periodically summarize what they have learned from the applicant.
    • Filter out distractions.
    • Base new questions on newly supplied info.
    • Think faster than they talk.
    • Listen for connecting themes and ideas.
  • When closing the interview, thank the applicant, inform him or her of the next steps in the selection process, and take care to end on a supportive note.

See Appendix C for a step-by-step list of possible interview questions broken down by category.

Avoiding Interviewer Bias

The very expertise necessary of all good interviewers—informed, expert subjectivity—can sometimes cross the line into prejudicial bias. Five specific kinds of bias in particular operate during interviews. These are based on

  • Information about the candidate gleaned prior to the interview
  • First impressions of the candidate
  • A single statement or answer that may skew interviewer reactions to unrelated responses
  • Nonverbal communication
  • The interviewer's own experience or preferences

Additionally, Klinvex, O'Connell, and Klinvex (1999) suggest that hirers watch for biases due to

  • Leading questions
  • Personal or professional similarities between interviewer and candidate
  • The “halo effect” of one or two outstanding applicant characteristics
  • Pressure to fill the position
  • Discriminatory information, such as age or ethnicity

One good strategy for overcoming bias is the multiple-interviewer session, as the variety of viewpoints helps keep subjective reactions to a reasonable level. I recommend that the final three candidates complete a total of two or three individual interviews and one or two group interviews.

Note Taking

Hirers should document all interviews by taking notes. These should include the reasons for the applicant's ultimate assessment, along with direct quotes from the candidate. Notes should refer to job-related issues only. Excessive note taking, however, can be distracting. And while some people feel that using numerical rating scales in their written records adds objectivity, the fact is that numbers on their own add little to no objectivity; the scale itself is subjective.

Common Interviewee Behaviors

Some candidates are skilled at creating a sense of ease and competence by talking or acting in a certain way. While this is pleasant, it has nothing to do with quality teaching, and interviewers should be careful not to be swept up by the applicant's charm. Other candidates are especially good at complementing the interviewer's manner: if the interviewers are aggressive, they become passive, and vice versa. This behavior creates a false impression of compatibility, which, again, is separate from teaching ability and should be treated as such. Other common interviewee behaviors include:

  • Self-enhancement (e.g., “I was exceptional”).
  • Other-enhancement (e.g., “you're the kind of principal I'd like to work for”).
  • Conformity of opinion (e.g., “I agree that a small district like yours is best for students”).
  • Justification of dubious qualifications (e.g., “student gains weren't measured, but our spirit was the highest!”).

Dealing with Difficult Interviewees

Interviewers should be prepared to deal with difficult applicants patiently and courteously. If a candidate is especially shy or nervous, the interviewer might sooth him or her by adopting a softer tone, adjusting body language, and asking easy questions early on. Gentle acknowledgment of the discomfort can help. If the candidate gets flustered, the interviewer should intervene with statements like “that's alright, that seemed a bit different from what you intended. Let's go on to more important things.”

Interviewers should periodically interrupt overly talkative candidates and steer them toward answering another question. Most overly dominating applicants can be controlled with direct but gentle statements such as, “Excuse me, we seem to have strayed,” “It's important that we address certain questions,” or “We really need to stick to our agenda and schedule.” Especially aggressive candidates should be told explicitly to be more direct and provide shorter answers. In the most extreme cases, interviewers should begin talking along with the applicants until they are quiet. Interviewers should ask overly aggressive or emotional candidates what the problem is, and should let them know that interviews are not the best places to handle such issues. Some might offer a cooling-off period before trying the interview again.

Interviewer Training

Interviewers need to be trained. Some researchers suggest that training should include information on using rating scales and practice simulations (Palmer, Campion, & Green, 1999). Some other important training topics include

  • Long-term district planning
  • Ideas associated with the sociology of hiring
  • Sequenced question strategies, types, and purposes
  • Hiring law, including improper questions
  • Types of decision making—e.g., unanimous vs. majority opinions
  • The limits of interview data
  • Use of interview data in combination with other sources

Potential interviewers should also sit in on interviews by the district's best veteran interviewers, or practice their interview techniques on district teachers. Trainers can even grade interviewers on their responses to simulated interviews (live or on videotape). Successful interview training should take around 20 hours to complete.

Interviewer Accountability

Some research suggests that interviewers are more consistent and accurate when they are held accountable for their judgments. To this end, the Screening Team should ask interviewers to draw specific connections between their observations and judgments, which the Screening Team can then analyze for logic, lack of bias, compliance with expected procedures, and agreement with other interviewers. Follow-up discussions with successful candidates are another way for the Screening Team to assess interviewers.

Group Interviews

Group interviews allow candidates to interact with several judges, and help district staff to feel involved and respected for their roles. Other benefits include

  • Multiple areas of specialization among the interviewers
  • The greater legitimacy of a group assessment
  • Fuller recall and more comprehensive records of interview
  • Reduction of individual bias through consensus
  • Opportunity for members to challenge each other's observations, assumptions, and decisions

Of course, there are disadvantages as well, such as

  • Greater risk of a breach in confidentiality
  • Selection of additional personnel can be time-consuming and difficult
  • Time demands of additional training, materials preparation, and deliberation
  • Tension between teachers recognized as good selectors and those who aren't
  • The increased likelihood of minority opinions and subsequent ill will
  • Risk of turning off applicants if interviewers don't see eye to eye

Group interviewers should be chosen from the Screening Team, and should represent a mosaic of roles—e.g., teachers, administrators, parents, older students, staff. While involving parents and students can take time, it's well worth the effort, and helps enrich hiring decisions (Fischer, 1981). The group interviewers should not include interviewers and paper screeners from earlier in the process. The district may want to include people who are not on the Screening Team as group interviewers. These people would not handle the paper screening or have a say in selection policy and final decision making. Such a separation of duties permits those who are not on the Screening Team to conduct other important tasks, such as follow-up phone calls.

Group interviews are best when the Screening Team draws up a printed protocol, which should include information on the interview setting, an agenda of questions, a list of prohibited topics, and a breakdown of interviewer roles. The interviewers should number between three and five, with one selected by the rest as a leader. An odd number of interviewers rules out split decisions. An agreed-upon core set of questions should be divided up among the interviewers, each of whom should be allowed a given number of follow-up and spontaneous questions. The group should agree on each member's roles ahead of time, as well; for example, one member might ask about subject matter while another concentrates on training and expertise. Questions may be asked in rounds, so that every line of questioning is heard, and seats should be arranged in an arc.

The Durham County School District in North Carolina uses a particularly unusual group-interview technique. Early applicant screening includes an “interview seminar” during which 12 to 16 candidates are interviewed at one time by a team of three district administrators. This procedure is perhaps not as personalized or as tailored to the individual candidates as others, but it does allow for discussions of the district, a somewhat collegial setting, disclosure of some teacher leadership qualities, comparisons between candidates, and efficiency. Following the seminar, some applicants are interviewed individually.

Teacher Perceiver Interviews

Some authorities on teacher hiring recommend psychological testing of candidates, often using the Selection Research Teacher Perceiver scale, a 60-item survey. The questions are arranged according to domains: Mission, Focus, Gestalt, Rapport, Drive, Empathy, Individualized Perception, Listening, Innovation, and Investment. Advocates of this type of test cite the low cost, ease of administration, and consistency across situations (Muller, 1978). However, researchers have concluded that the empirical base for such claims is weak; that the tests are only partially predictive of student ratings of new teachers, but not of improved student achievement or attitudes; and that the tests raise questions of conflict of interest for teachers with different favorite instructional approaches (Haefele, 1978; Miller, 1977; Yoder, 1976). Although the validity of this test has yet to be proved, Wise, Darling-Hammond, and Berry (1988) reported that many of the districts they studied used variations on this instrument.

Other districts use a standard battery of questions, either in interviews or on a survey, that are scored to yield applicant diagnoses according to different categories (e.g., “Personal Motivation,” “Child-Centeredness,” or “Preference for Collaboration”). Answers to these questions will often suggest candidate personality types. There is no research to suggest that any single personality type is best for teachers, but district personnel often prefer to work with people who think or act like they do. However, this attitude may be the opposite of what we need for healthy educational organizations, since schools must teach to a variety of student styles and preferences. It is up to each district whether to use personality profiles.


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