The difference between tech hiring and teacher hiring

Back at ed school, my first supervisor asked me if I thought I would find it easy to be hired.

I said, presciently, “If it isn’t, I’m screwed.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been a test prep and tutor for five years. I don’t even have a website. I just get work. It’s never been a problem. I would never have gone to this expensive ed school if I’d thought I’d have trouble getting hired.”

I remember that conversation very well, with some pride. It’s not everyone who is aware of their critical path dependencies. My flaw, of course, lay in assuming that getting hired as a teacher would be the same as getting hired as a tutor.

Just how thoroughly screwed I was became obvious a couple weeks later, when our school set up mock interviews.

I’m used to the tech world. Google has pretty much ruined the interestwing interview, with its precious but weird questions that would be mocked mercilessly if it weren’t Google. But back in the day, techies did use the interview process to get and give info about the interviewee as a person, because personal attributes are very useful in determining one’s personality as a code. I’d get questions about what kind of take out I liked, my preference for cubicles over offices or vice versa, my favorite movies, and so on.

But one goal was always paramount when it came to the work questions: I was the solution to their problem. That didn’t mean I knew how to fix everything or always had the right answer. But I made clear to him (it was usually a him) that I knew what to do. I knew how to put a team together, how to identify politically sensitive problems, how to identify the problem that just wasn’t making itself clear and when to call in the marines. In all cases, I knew to make it clear that I knew what I could handle, what I couldn’t handle, what the difference was, and how to find the answer. And everyone knows to do this in the tech field—at least they did back in the day. New to the field, a rising star, an established expert, it didn’t matter: Interviewees were confident, competent, and ready to go.

Of course, I couldn’t just pretend to have these qualities, because the interviewer would always be listening to my solutions intently, offering suggestions or asking more questions. Had I thought of these workarounds? How long was the system down? What could I have done differently? It was as much interview as learning process for both parties, and there was never any shame in admitting that no, I hadn’t tried that because the thought hadn’t occurred to me until 10 minutes after the crisis had passed and it was just wrong of me, really, to hope for Round Two simply so I could handle it well. But I could also expect praise, from judicious to enthusiastic, if I had come up with a creative solution. Back in those days, we said “thinking outside the box” without irony.

I loved tech interviews. Of course, I usually got those jobs.

When I moved into tutoring and private instruction, I took this interview approach with me, and it worked fine. For tutoring, I had to spend more time thinking about my clients’ dogs than I ever did in tech, but most wealthy parents want a creative and innovative thinker, coupled with a skill in making kids comfortable. Check. In private instruction institutions (Kaplan or whoever), the bosses have the same approach as techies: they have a problem, they want to know if you can solve it for them. Can you teach, do you know the subject matter, do you deal well with kids whose parents are paying, and will you be on time. Mostly check, except the last one, and I’m good enough that running in at the last moment is forgiven.

The culture shock of the teacher interview took me months just to recover, much less start to map out an effective approach.

First, the format: teaching is a government position, so to avoid lawsuits or charges of favoritism, the interview team usually provides a list of the questions when an interviewee enters the room. The team takes turns reading off the list.

Second, the questions: there will be the differentiation question, the IEP compliance question, the discipline question, the subject matter expertise question. If it’s a Title I school, the ELP question and the grading question (they want to know how many students will fail). If it’s an Asian school, the parent question (Asian parents send teachers some 100 emails daily; many teachers move schools and take a pay cut just to get away from the parents). The questions will all have different intros and be written differently, but the themes are all boilerplate.

Third, they interview a bunch of candidates in a row and each interview is usually 20 minutes. There are no callbacks. The teacher is hired on the basis of that 20 minute interview.

Fourth, and this is important: they don’t really care about the answers. Ideally, the interviewee would read answers directly off the appropriate page of the Big Book of Progressive Teaching Platitudes. The only real risk is too much creativity or innovation.

I have been on something like 35 interviews over four summers; all but four of them were in this format. Those four interviews were free-form and over an hour. I got offers in all four cases (one of which I accepted, and stayed for one year). I’ve only gotten one offer in the other format–the job I just left, after two years.

My first interview year, I didn’t figure it out, but I got lucky (the free-form interview). The second year out, I knew I had to improve and so I started interviewing early in the year, even knowing I wouldn’t get those jobs. By the end of that summer, I was doing much better. I interviewed last year, just to keep fresh. This year, I didn’t even start looking for jobs until last week, for reasons I’ll explain later.

Consider my tone descriptive, not prescriptive. I can’t stand the interview process, but I’m not contemptuous. However, I am always amused when someone like Whitney Tilson, eduformer and hedge fund gazillionaire, desribes the principals as tough, accomplished CEOs who should be able to hire and fire at will. I mean no disrespect to principals, but that’s not who they are.

The public really doesn’t understand how teacher hiring works. The interview questions are a formality; the answers even more so, except for quick eliminations. The administrator and any interview team is looking for a teacher who is NOT a star, who is NOT confident, who is NOT out to solve their problems. The bias runs against teachers who stand out. Once they’ve eliminated the people they don’t want, they hire based on who they’d like to see around–and that is usually the youngest person (one thing, at least, that teacher hiring has in common with tech hiring) who seems both smart and mentorable, if such a word exists. Because most teachers and all administrators love the idea of mentoring young teachers.

As I’ve developed as a teacher, I’ve come to see the sense in some of this. No sane teacher says he has The Answer. She only has her approach, and is always considering other methods to see if there’s a better way. If I were interviewing, I’d dump the person who appeared overconfident, too.

But some of it is pretty horrifying. They are hiring with taxpayer dollars. Discrimination in favor of youth, educational ideology and, when possible, race is rampant. And that’s without even mentioning charter schools, where the lockstep demand for agreement is considerably worse. In many interviews, I am quite aware that I’m just a filler, that they’ve already made up their mind and just wasting their time, and mine.

I try to remember that teachers are indeed that interchangeable and any teacher will do pretty well at any job. But it’s a tough road if you aren’t the sort who instantly fills administrators with warm fuzzies—and I’m definitely not that sort.

However, whenever I start feeling too down, I remind myself that in all likelihood, it’s not my answers, or even my lack of warm fuzziness, but my age that’s ruling me out. I remind myself, too, that come late July or August, a position will open up that an administrator desperately needs to fill. At 2 o’clock am, the drunk takes what he can get and in that context, I look damn good. Hard on the ego, though.

The disconnect between the public romance with second-career teachers and the reality of administrators who avoid them like the plague is something that really should be discussed more. If nothing else, I strongly advise second-career teachers to avoid pricy ed schools, no matter how much fun. Loan forgiveness only comes into play if you can get hired.

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