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July 21, 2021

I'm Qualified, But Will I Be Assessed Fairly?

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    EquitySchool Culture
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      A Black educator recounts contrasting interview experiences, offering insight into the role that diversity (or a lack thereof) plays on hiring panels.
      It can be alienating to enter a room and find that no one on your interview panel looks like you or understands your background. That is how I felt, as a Black woman, when I interviewed for a teaching position nine years ago at a suburban school. Palms sweaty, stomach dropping like the plunge on a roller coaster, I felt like I had to be perfect as I looked across the table at a white, male-dominated panel. 
      That sense of alienation forced me to reconsider every word I said, every gesture I made. Looking back, I felt unwelcome, perhaps, because the panel did not make a genuine effort to make a connection with me. There was very little small talk, and no personality or emotion shown. It felt distant—as if no effort had gone into getting to know who I was beyond my résumé. The review panel’s poker faces made me feel even more distant.  
      Despite this unease, I made it to the final one-on-one interview with the principal, who asked, “How would you feel if you did not get this job?” 
      But, I thought, shouldn’t he have asked how I would feel if I did get the job, instead? Did he frame this question negatively to all candidates, or just me? That interaction with the principal and the lack of diversity on the interview panel sent a signal, whether intentional or not, that I was not welcome.  
      I had expressed my qualifications
      and experience to the best of my ability, so hearing the principal’s jarring question was as shocking as it was unexpected. I suddenly felt deceived and as if there was an eagerness to find something wrong with me. I was certain, therefore, that I wouldn’t feel welcome at the school. 

      Getting It Right 

      Two months later, I interviewed for my current role as a school orchestra director and the experience couldn’t have been more different. A Black teacher greeted me as I entered the building. His simple, “Welcome, you can put your things in here until we call you,” made me feel at ease, and seeing someone inviting and friendly who looked like me immediately made my anxiety about the color of my skin disappear.  
      He gave me eye contact and a firm handshake, which established a sense of trust. He offered a room for me to practice my violin performance that would take place during the interview. His consideration made the environment feel hospitable.  
      This same teacher was part of the interview panel along with three other white men. Prior to the formal interview, we engaged in small talk, which signaled that the principal and his team were interested in who I was, not just my résumé. Moreover, everyone was personable and, instead of the poker faces that dominated my previous interview, they displayed friendly and relaxed faces. This welcoming environment, and the fair and direct questions from the panel, gave me confidence to show my authentic self. I could picture myself having a future in this role. 

      Striving for Diversity  

      Having a diverse, welcoming, and well-trained interview panel is one of the first steps school districts can take to improve teacher diversity. A diverse panel will give candidates of color a different set of experiences, a well-rounded view of the district, and proof that the district's leadership is invested in hiring a diverse workforce.  
      School districts can accomplish this by taking the following actions:  
      • Actively recruiting teachers of color for interview panels, even if the job opening is not in their content area.  
      • If there are no teachers of color who can take part in the panel, school districts should search for community members, parents, school board members, and even teachers in other school districts who represent diverse groups. (Having served on several such panels, I believe that I was able to offer a different perspective during our discussions about candidates and be a spokesperson for an underrepresented group in my district.) 
      • For an unbiased application review process, panels can block out or remove the applicant’s name, as names expose cultural identity and can lead to unconscious biases. Blocking out additional identifiers such as sex and age would prevent triggering other biases about the candidate. 
      • Providing anti-bias training to all the interview panelists so they can avoid making judgements about the candidates. Details such as body language, eye contact, and how the candidates are greeted at the door, are crucial. 
      • Ensuring that the interview is conducted in a fair manner and that the questions asked are consistent among candidates. At Naperville 203, the district that eventually hired me, the interview questions focused on my work as a music educator, my collaboration with peers, and my handling of different schedule scenarios. These questions gave me plenty of room to showcase my expertise. And later, when I participated as an interview panelist in Naperville, our panel wrote the questions ahead of time and divided these among ourselves so that we knew exactly what we were going to ask the candidates. 

      Looking Ahead 

      I’m now finishing my 9th year as an orchestra director in Naperville, Illinois. During this time, I’ve grown the orchestra program to become one of the largest junior high programs in the area, produced award-winning ensembles, mentored several teachers, and have become a National Board Certified Teacher. That Black teacher I met when I came in for my interview? He is a band teacher at my school and we’re now good friends.  
      Having a diverse interview panel resulted in a win-win situation for me and my school district. The district benefited from hiring a teacher from an underrepresented minority group, a step toward improving their teacher diversity and growing their music program. And I benefited from many meaningful relationships and learning experiences.
      I have recently accepted a new position as orchestra director of Waubonsie High School for our neighboring school district, Indian Prairie District 204. Without my positive experiences in District 203, I would have not considered advancing my career. This kind of successful outcome, the one that benefits students, teachers, and the entire school community, is one for which all districts should strive. 

      Shawnita Tyus teaches orchestra at Naperville 203 School District in Illinois. She is a 2020-21 Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow.  

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