Don’t look for certifications. A state certification is not a clear indicator that someone is a great teacher, a master teacher, a teacher worthy of forming a Christian child in thought, word, and deed. I learned this many years ago, and so it has never been a part of how we hire instructors at Sequitur or how I counsel others to hire instructors. In fact, it has proven to be otherwise. If someone is state certified, it is likely the case that we will have to undo a lot of things in order to teach them how to be a great instructor in a classical Christian setting. To pass the state tests they had to fill their heads and hearts with all kinds of confusion. This is not to say that someone state certified is necessarily too far gone. It is only to say that state certification does not tell me one way or another whether I should hire that person. It may actually give me pause, especially if that person leads with that in their application, flaunts it in the interview, and bets their position on it, which is too often the case.
Some schools argue that parents look for certifications, that accreditation companies look for certifications. First, accreditation companies make up weird standards too, standards that more boards and administrators ought to question. Accreditation often becomes nothing more than mutual back-scratching. If an accreditation company is requiring you to have a certain number of state certified teachers in your school, you should accreditation elsewhere or save your money and don’t worry about accreditation. Second, parents mostly think certifications matter because someone once told them that, not because they’ve studied the history, philosophy, or contemporary issues in education. If parents hung around more certified teachers, they would realize having a state certification says nothing whatsoever about a person’s teaching ability, mastery of a subject, and strength of virtue. Some of the worst teachers I’ve ever taught with or observed were those who were “blue-star” or “blue-ribbon” certified, who jumped through the hoops and therefore didn’t actually need to become a good teacher to stay in the classroom. They played the game; they got the stamp. Because they were approved, they didn’t have a higher standard than the superficial requirements put forth by education departments and the state. In contrast, some of the best teachers I’ve been around have not been “certified teachers,” and I think, “What a loss if they had not been given this opportunity because of some modern and fabricated teaching standard.” Don’t look for certifications. Look for something greater.
Don’t look for degrees. College degrees work much the same way as certifications. Many a great scholars have had to settle for “lesser” positions, positions running cultural centers rather than occupying department chairs at top-tier colleges and universities, because they don’t have the paperwork to prove otherwise. Regarding hiring credentials, academic degrees fail at the same place as state certifications: having one is not a sure indicator that someone is a good teacher in that field, and not having one is not an indicator to the contrary. Therefore, having a college degree as a standard for hiring and teaching is to set up a barrier which either lets in the wrong people or keeps out the right people. One of the best instructors I’ve hired was reluctant to apply for an open position because she lacked a few credits for an undergraduate degree. We said, “We don’t care. Come interview and we will go from there.” She turned out to be an excellent classroom instructor, a great learner, a wonderful employee. And before she was all of that, she was an academy mom. If on our website we had put, “Must have a college degree…” We would have lost the opportunity to hire, train, and bless an excellent instructor. And we would have lost an opportunity to fill our classroom with a wonderful teacher.
So, those are the two major standards most often utilized in hiring good instructors, and I’ve just counseled you to either not use them, or take them with a grain of salt way down in the hiring process. So, then, how does a school with a strong academic standard create hiring standards which are clear, fair, appropriate, and give parents and students confidence that the academy will be filled with high quality instructors?
First, have a clear and strong website. A website acts like a net, a large net in which all kinds of things get caught. When you post a teaching position, all kinds of people will come look at it. If you post it on a general employment site like Indeed, the pool from which applicants swim will be even broader. A clear and strong website will act as a way for applicants to self-filter. This means applicants will come to your site, read about your academy, read about the curriculum, watch the promo videos, and say, “Um, yeah. That’s not for me.” This is good. Classical Christian schools need to hire instructors whose top response is, “This is for me!” A clear and strong website will not filter out everything that ought not to enter, all the applicants who are not a good fit, but it will filter a lot, and it will act as a barrier to those who should not cross and a stimulus to those who should.
Invite applicants. Once your website communicates clearly and courageously what your academy is all about, invite applicants to apply. Have a healthy online application which asks the kinds of questions that will act as a second filter. A good job application will further communicate the teacher’s values, personal qualities, and professional goals. It will communicate the same about the academy and what it expects of its instructors. I have heard many times from applicants that they were surprised at some of the questions we ask on our online application at Sequitur. I often ask which questions were most surprising. The applicant shares and then says that they don’t ever see those kinds of questions on teaching applications. These are questions like “List five books you read in the past year. Which one did you most enjoy and why?” and “Are you a Christina and what does that mean for how and what you teach?” They say it with wholesome surprise, not with concern. This means that before applicants ever make it to us for one-on-one interviews, we are communicating what we expect of our instructors. Again, I have seen this be a deterrent and a catalyst, for the good.
Have them come in and teach. Once instructors apply, those applications and accompanying resumes should be seen by multiple administrators. Good administrators will have a good intuition when it comes to hiring. They, like a great art teacher, will be able to read the student’s art better than the student. Applications should be put in order from strongest to weakest, and a discussion among admin should ensue. There should be a third stack of “not interested.” The strongest candidates should be contacted first, perhaps the top two or three. And here is the kicker! Here it is: they need to come in and teach. They must come in and teach a lesson as the first step in their one-on-one interview. We have done this from the beginning, and nearly every candidate says something like, “I’m rarely, if ever, asked to do this.” And I think, “How is that possible?!” But it is.
When we invite the top candidates in to teach, it is simple. If they apply for the open fourth grade position, they come in and teach fourth grade for one hour. I only give them a few directions: the subject they are teaching, how many kids are in the class, and they will have a whiteboard, markers, and sixty minutes. I tell them nothing else. Part of our assessment is what they choose to teach and how they choose to teach it. That is important. Don’t miss it. We want to see how the instructor makes curricular, pedagogical, and classroom decisions with just a few minimum requirements on the lesson. This allows for good dialogue during the in-person interview after they teach their lesson, and it allows us to better understand the instructor as a scholar and person.
During the lesson I will be taking copious notes on professional introduction, professional dress, cleanliness of the room, articulation of speech, legibility of handwriting, eye contact, clarity of instructions, classroom discipline, classroom protocol, confidence, age-appropriate lesson, student attention, timeliness, humor, sarcasm, frustration, impatience, gentleness, speaking vs. questioning, nerves, visuals and handouts, authoritative tone, gracious posture, joy of teaching, ad infinitum. I then bring those notes with me into the post-lesson interview.
Interview them. After the instructor teaches, I sit down with them for a 90-120 minute interview. I usually have five to eight personal questions I ask and five to eight professional questions I ask. I almost always have another admin in the room with me, the admin who will be their direct superior (Grammar School, Logic School, or Rhetoric School). I usually begin the interview with asking about the lesson they chose and how they think it went. This makes for good and open-ended discussion. I take notes. I consider if they were seeing what I saw; if they saw the weaknesses. Were the weaknesses natural because they don’t teach this class daily or were they substantive? Were the successes on purpose and caught or on accident? If the teacher could do it over, what would they do differently? I then move into alternating the professional and personal questions. This is usually pretty organic and gives us a strong picture, along with everything else we’ve taken in, of the applicant and their readiness to be hired as an instructor at this academy. We also get to see how enjoyable the person is in one-on-one dialogue and what kind of colleague this applicant will be.
Look for teachers who are mature Christians. One of the more important things to look for when hiring an instructor at a classical Christian school is whether the instructor is indeed a mature and maturing Christian. This does not mean perfect Christian. It simply means likely not a new convert, not confused about basic Christian doctrine, not floundering to pursue holiness and mature in loving God, loving their neighbor, and loving Scripture. This means they should exhibit mature Christian virtues inside and outside the classroom, and they should have a general track record in the community of being a mature Christian. They should be a member in good standing at a local Christian church, and they should exhibit, as best as you can tell, the fruits of the Spirit. They should also be able to affirm the academy’s Statement of Faith and provide basic explanation of each point.
Too many Christian schools compromise personal piety for academic competency in their instructors. They will hire a Chemistry wiz who lacks maturity, because by doing so they can convince the tuition-payers their students will get the best AP Chemistry class in town. But this will ruin a school. It will ruin a school culture. It will ruin the students. And it will ruin Chemistry. It will also ruin the instructor. Education is whole-child formation. So look for great academic instructors who are first and foremost mature Christians.
Look for teachers who love their subjects. The second thing to look for in the hiring process is teachers who love their subject. Do they read about it for leisure? Do they look to publish about it? Do they talk about it and deal with its inner core? Do they want to protect it, purify it, mature in it, and pass its great tradition to their students? If so, then that’s a great start. Lots of Christian schools will hire nice Christian teachers who have a mediocre care for and understanding in their subject. And then they sit and settle into a teaching position that makes for a tepid course, a tepid study of an important subject. Teachers ought to have tenacity for their subject; they ought to be swimming in it. If they do not possess and exhibit those traits, they have no business teaching that subject to others; it will only ruin the students who otherwise could have fallen in love with that class.
Look for teachers who love their students. I interviewed a man once who stood at the front of the room and read from his computer. It was a 10th grade Humanities class. He read a lecture he wrote on politics and Church history. The lecture was quite good. He was a good speaker. By all accounts he was a mature Christian. But he didn’t love the students. And for that reason, and a few other minor ones, we didn’t hire him. He looked up, I remember, only three times from his computer, making quick eye contact and going back. I watched the students. They were not engaged. He did not engage them. The lesson was sterile, though philosophically intriguing. Students can feel whether they are loved. Students know whether the instructor is there to check a box and get a paycheck or whether he simply needs an audience for his academic musings or whether he is really invested in their personal apprehension of knowledge and wisdom. I have been a student; I have had each kind of professor. I still remember the best ones. They were mature Christians; they mastered their subject, and by golly they loved the students, and that was felt. It was felt in their tone, their patience, their posture, their pace, and their authority. It was felt in their compassion and their conviction and their craft. I love those professors who loved me, and I’m not surprised that some of my favorite subjects even now happened to be taught by the professors who exhibited the greatest and most mature love toward me as a student.
Look for teachers who are teachable. Classical Christian education has a wider pool to draw from than ever before in the United States, but that pool is relatively tiny in comparison. Indeed, because of the work done by the generation before us, headmasters in my generation have more to work with. We have applicants who have gone through K-12 classical schools. We have applicants who have studied classical Christian education in graduate school. We have applicants whose homes and churches were steeped in the merits and memories woven through classical and Christian education. And even still, it may be difficult to fill a staff with those who are articulate, proficient, and masterful in what cCe is all about. This means another quality we ought to look for in applicants is their teachability. Are they willing to learn? Are they willing to read more? Are they willing to be observed and change their ways? Are they willing to think differently about the subject they love? Are they willing to teach other subjects than their academic corner? Or are they here to collect a paycheck? Classical Christian schools, good education in general, will always require teachers who are teachable, for that is merely the fruit of humility, of professed-ignorance, of wonder, of gratitude, and of living an examined life.
Give one year contracts. So you have done due diligence. You have put up a great website. You have gone through the hiring process. You have watched them teach and have interviewed them. You have had other administrators affirm your comfort with this hiring decision. You are convinced this instructor is a mature Christian, loves their subject, and loves their students. Now what? Hire them. Give them a one year contract, and that’s all. Commit a year to seeing them grow and prove that all you saw in the interview is indeed real. In that year, don’t get complacent, especially in the first year. In that year, work with them on their weaknesses and needs. Have a plan for that year regarding development and accountability. After the first semester is over, conduct a mid-year evaluation. After the year is over, conduct an end-of-year evaluation. Be kind by helping that instructor see their strengths and weaknesses; help them continue on in the former and mature in the ladder. After that, give them another one-year contract. A one-year contract is what everybody gets, even the administrators. If in that year, or any year, the person is not keeping up, not growing, not doing their work with excellence, then help them, even formally. Provide the structure necessary for their growth and see if they are willing to grow. If not, communicate clearly that it is time to part ways, and do so with humility, grace, and confidence.
Have a plan for accountability and evaluations. A one-year contract means they are to do a job in that one year, clearly presented in their contract. That contract should specify what evaluations and accountability will look like. Points of accountability and evaluations are important for ensuring quality control in an instructor and in a classroom. That plan should include the following:
- Full Evaluations: An administrator should observe a full class once or twice a semester, preferably two or three times a semester for new teachers. That full observation should go from the beginning of the class to the very end and include order, decorum, professionalism, speech, classroom management, protocol, lesson assessment, handwriting, student engagement, et cetera. The full evaluation should be sent to the instructor, and, if necessary, the admin should schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss pros, cons, and questions. Full class observations should not be scheduled but should occur when the administrator is prepared to fully observe and evaluate an instructor in their genuine and natural work as an instructor on any given day.
- Pop-In Evaluations: These are less than full evaluations and can last five minutes or thirty minutes. They may be accompanied by notes or not. Pop-in evaluations allow the admin to be present, to simply observe, and to do shorter stents of quality control, ensuring the classroom, the students, the instructor, and the lesson are up to the academy’s standards. These should not be scheduled but should happen whenever the admin feels it’s the right time to pop into a classroom and observe. These should be happening weekly throughout the school. These not only keep instructors on their toes. It does the same for the student body.
- Monthly Meetings: These are usually all-faculty meetings and allow the administrator to bring the instructors through some incremental teacher development throughout the year. This could also happen with a single instructor or a department. This is important for accountability and evaluation because it can act as a platform for reminders, for new lessons, for teacher questions, for teacher concerns, and for building the general culture of the faculty, which is the glue of the academy. Monthly meetings allow admin to get to know teachers more informally and consider their depth and degree of buy-in to the school’s mission and vision, and perhaps even the teachers’ difficulties in expressing that mission and vision in their classroom.
- Mid-Year Evaluations: Mid-year evaluations are formal evaluations where the administrator provides points of self-evaluation to the instructor. The instructor self-evaluates on a variety of topics and questions, then the administrator walks the instructor through their answers and the administrator’s own observations from the semester. What trends are there? What strengths are clearly there? What weaknesses need to be shored up in the coming semester? These are important half-way points to ensure changes can be made in the second half of the year and questions are answered so the instructor has a clear understanding of the quality of their work and how their work is being perceived.
- End-of-Year Evaluations: This is similar to the mid-year evaluation in that it is a self-evaluation that the administrator reviews with the instructor. However, this happens at the end of the year. It is an opportunity for the instructor to see how their full year went, what the ebbs and flows were, and what adjustments need to be made over the summer to ensure the following year is even better than before. If the instructor has received no major marks of discipline or concern, and they have proven themselves to be worthy of a contractual renewal, then the end-of-year evaluation is an opportunity for the administrator to strongly praise the strengths of the instructor and what they bring to the academy, their subject, and the classroom. It is also an opportunity for the administrator to recommend summer reading, summer conferences, or summer coursework so the teacher can focus on a few points of improvement before the school year begins.
All of this taken together will never ensure a perfect faculty, but it will ensure one that is consistently healthy: administrators who have their eyes open, teachers who teach on their toes, and students who know that the adults around them are working hard at their jobs just as the teachers ask the students to do the same. This also ensures parents that favoritism is being avoided, quality instructors are being retained, and weak instructors are being strengthened or released. This will also ensure that the right standards for a great teacher are being upheld, as opposed to some distant and superficial certification which nearly anyone can pass.
The Golden Rule. There is a golden rule in hiring, and that is this: don’t hire someone you wouldn’t want teaching your own children. I have made that my mantra from the beginning, and it has never failed me. And don’t keep someone on staff you wouldn’t want teaching your own children. While for the longest time this rule was merely theoretical for me, it is now practical. My children are now school age, and so my hiring decisions really do directly affect them. At first, this rule was a way for me to ensure parents that we were making the best hiring decisions we possibly could. During prospective parent interviews, parents would often times ask, “So, what is your criteria for hiring?” I would explain all I’ve explained above, with greater brevity, and then I would say, “But the greatest rule is this: I will not hire someone I wouldn’t want teaching my own children. I love no one’s child more than I love my own, and so if I want them teaching my child, if I want my child to learn science or math or literature or art from them, then I want them in a Sequitur classroom. If not, then I will not hire them or keep them.” Parents understood this, even more than the other standards and arguments. And this is why it is the golden rule.
This rule is based on the great Christian principles of loving one’s neighbor, of treating others better than we treat ourselves, of loving others first, of humbly taking the lesser seat. It is easy to look after my professional career and make hiring decisions based on political or social or selfish reasons. But if I am truly loving my neighbor, then I will give them what is best, even if it does not most benefit me. It just so happens, paradoxically, that when I give my neighbor the best, I also get the best. When I hire the best instructors for my students and not just the best ones for my career, my career ends up being quite strong. Love others first. Love your children more than you love yourself. Love your neighbor as yourself, and you will find that the fruits are heaped upon your lap, stack upon stack.
Conventional standards are not good enough, and when we pick our heads above the smoke of modernity, we see decades, generations, of wisdom upon which we can make good hiring decisions. Ours is not the first generation to seek good instructors for its children. And we won’t be the last. The production-line nature of modern education has made us blind to Biblical wisdom, common sense, and easy solutions to what otherwise become expensive and over-complicated problems. We need not devise a new machine to fix the broken one; we simply need to walk out of the factory and back into the rich garden of history. There we find a standard that is worthy to put in front of our children.