How We Hire Classical Teachers

Every year in February, we travel to the frozen north for the Hillsdale College Classical Schools Job Fair. This year there were dozens of classical schools in attendance–both private Christian schools and charter schools–from all across the country. After a day-long conference with our fellow Headmasters in the Barney Charter School Initiative, Ms. Loy and I spent a day meeting prospective teachers and talking with them about their hopes for the future.

What the Best Teachers are Like

Starting a school means making hundreds of important decisions quickly, and I think the most important of those decisions is about which teachers to hire. In hiring a teacher, we are investing in someone who will have a tremendous impact, for better or for worse, on the lives of our students. So how do we find out whether teachers are going to be the right fit for our school?

Over the years I’ve learned that the best interviews are conversations, and really good teachers are genuinely interesting people. They are easy to talk to, open minded, and they often have as many questions as I do. They have interesting hobbies and are curious about the world. The best interviews last over an hour, and sometimes even two hours.

Teaching experience is important, but even more important than that is a good education. The best teachers are trained in the liberal arts, and they can articulate the meaning of our school’s mission and explain why a well rounded education is so crucial for happiness. They know the dangers of specialization, even if they have chosen a particular field to study in graduate school.

Good teachers are good explainers, and they are eager to make sure that the people interviewing them understand them. In a really good interview the interviewer becomes like a student and learns something about teaching, or about chemistry or woodworking, for example, as I did yesterday.

It is hard to figure out if someone is a good teacher in a two-person conversation, even a long one, because so much of teaching means being in front of a classroom, delivering a well-crafted lecture without losing the class’s attention. If the conversation goes well, we follow up with a teaching demonstration whenever we can. Seeing someone in action in front of a class of students gives us a sense of whether they like young people, how well they can explain something complicated to a large group, and of course, how the students respond to them. A visit to campus is important to prospective teachers, too, especially those who are considering moving across the country to be with us.

Interview Questions

We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the questions we ask our prospective teachers, and there are a few that seem to work well.

1. Tell me about your education.

2. Are you going to be a good teacher? Why? What will be the biggest thing you have to learn?

3. What are you reading at the moment? If you had to name one book that all school children need to study, what would it be?

4. Imagine you are a successful and thriving teacher. How would you want your students to describe you?

5. What role do parents and teachers play in the education of a child? How are they the same? How are they different?

6. Given a long division problem, teach me how to solve it as if I am a 4th grader.

7. Name the parts of speech in the following sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Can you diagram the sentence?

8. Who is your most important teacher? What was that teacher like? Will you be like that teacher, or different? How and why?

The best part of the day was seeing Elizabeth, a Founders alum and a current freshman at Hillsdale College, and Anna, one of our seniors who is in town for a prospective student weekend.