Leaders must collaborate to find quality principals

Superintendents should involve administrators, parents, teachers, counselors and student ambassadors
By: | November 19, 2018

Superintendents know there are fewer decisions more critical than the selection of new principals.

A superintendent who’s front and center in the selection process will be able to engage with key stakeholders, communicate a vision for leadership, and establish an early relationship with the successful candidate.

My experience has led me to identify five steps toward successful hiring.

1. The paper screen

I still take the old-fashioned route and bring paper résumés home to review in the evening or on weekends. Using a simple three-point scoring system, I rate each résumé as a 3 (low), 2 (maybe) or 1 (high).

Working with the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and the assistant superintendent for human resources, we compare notes to develop a list of candidates to invite for the next step.

2. The screening interview

Screening interviews are an excellent way to get an immediate sense of each candidate’s match to a school culture and community.

Lasting about 20 minutes, screening interviews allow the superintendent and other appropriate school leaders to meet candidates to gain a sense of their instructional leadership and ability to communicate a shared vision.

If appropriate, the retiring principal can take part in the screening interviews.

This offers the outgoing principal a chance to talk about potential candidates with me; it gives each candidate the opportunity to learn from the current leader about the school’s mission, celebrations and community.

With most searches, about 20 candidates receive screening interviews.

3. The interview panel

Screening interviews typically yield about six candidates worthy of a deeper look. Here’s where the fun begins: an interview with a panel comprising several teachers, two parents, a curriculum or special education supervisor, a fellow principal, and a school board member.

In addition to the panel, the school counselor can invite four or five students to serve as ambassadors. Interviews are scheduled so that each candidate arrives 30 minutes early for a student-led tour of the school.

The students greet each candidate, show them around the building and answer questions. While the counselor is part of the tour group, we have found that students—even fourth-graders—are quite capable of conducting themselves maturely and taking their ambassador duties seriously. It’s an excellent way to promote leadership and public speaking skills.

We listen to their (often candid) remarks about each candidate. This information is then shared with panel members. Knowing how each candidate interacted with the children has always been of high interest to panel members.

Several days prior to the interviews, share a list of questions with the panel members and invite their input. The questions may focus on the candidate’s understanding of the school community and goals, academic leadership experience, ability to build relationships, and potential to be a change agent.

Many times, teachers or parents will suggest a “scenario” question such as: “The playground aide has brought two children to your office for fighting. How will you handle this?”

Frame the question to be as open-ended as possible so the candidate’s decision-making process is on display. Having a standard bank of questions will provide a consistent interview experience for all candidates and will help the panel fairly evaluate each candidate.

4. The debrief

At the conclusion of the interviews, everyone has a chance to share their thoughts on the candidates during a debriefing session. I do not ask panel members to rate the candidates or provide me with their first or second choice. This is important. I do not want panel members to be upset if I do not hire their first choice, for example.

After the debriefing session, I do ask each panel member to provide the name of one candidate they would eliminate from consideration if given the chance. Everyone gets one vote. This is extremely valuable, as it inevitably narrows the field to the strongest two or three candidates.

As superintendent, I ultimately make the hiring recommendation to the board of education. I will evaluate this school leader and, hopefully, recommend tenure for them later. The decision needs to be mine.

It is valuable to reflect on the candidates for a day or so before determining who the preferred candidate is. I think about the needs of the school and district, and compare the strengths of the candidates compared with our existing leadership team.

Once reference checks and salary negotiations are complete, a summary of the candidate’s background is forwarded to the board of education’s personnel committee for review, and then to the full board for approval at the next public meeting.

5. Welcome to our school community

Once hired, my office prepares a press release introducing the new school leader. We invite the new hire to a school event so teachers, students and parents can meet the new principal.

Once the principal is at work, I schedule time to talk about our district goals and to offer professional insight into the school culture. I also introduce the new principal to administrative colleagues and encourage them to reach out for assistance.

By taking a direct leadership role in the exploration and selection of a school principal, the superintendent has an opportunity to interact with constituents in a positive, collective endeavor—and the superintendent will learn a great deal about the school’s leadership needs.

Barbara Sargent is the superintendent of schools at Parsippany-Troy Hills School District