Upsides to Teacher Hiring From Pandemic Panic

The author’s study found administrators using modified practices for more effectively evaluating talent through virtual interviewing
BY LAURIE A. KIMBREL/School Administrator, June 2022

Researcher Laurie Kimbrel discovered virtual interviews attracted better-qualified teachers, though participants missed the connection of in-person job hiring. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF WEST GEORGIA, CARROLLTON, GA.

After two years of constant changes and struggles to respond to a global pandemic, school leaders had great hope for a return to normalcy by spring 2022. As masking and other mitigation debates begin to wane, school district leaders are settling into a new normal of the possibility of additional coronavirus variants, operating budgets without the boost of one-time federal relief funds, and teacher and staff turnover rates that feel unsurmountable.

For most of the 2021-22 school year, high-profile issues such as students’ learning recovery, emotional wellness and masking have appropriately taken center stage. However, now that we have entered our third teacher hiring season after the onset of COVID‑19, school leaders need to refocus on strategies to recruit, hire and retain skilled teachers who ensure high levels of student learning.

Even before the pandemic, hiring effective teachers had become a challenging assignment for principals. With hiring decentralized in most school districts, principals are left responsible for teacher selection. Principals who’ve been recruited from the ranks of teachers are unlikely to have extensive training in human resources. As a result, significant variations exist in how teachers are hired, leaving an unevenness in teacher quality.

The most common pre-pandemic hiring process involved face-to-face, conversational interviews, which offered minimal opportunity to accurately assess a candidate’s pedagogical skills. Reliance on a conversation as a hiring strategy has led well-intentioned leaders to make judgments based on subjective factors such as appearance, confidence, eye contact, enthusiasm, knowledge of the school district and ability to sell oneself rather than factors that accurately predict teaching ability.

Unexpected Benefits

As a researcher and former superintendent, I became curious about how school districts handled hiring during the pandemic, given restrictions on in-person interactions. A series of interviews with district-level administrators and principals revealed that some aspects of the hiring process changed in relatively predictable ways. There also were positive, unanticipated benefits that came to light. These can serve as strategies to identify the best teacher candidates, which is especially important when there are large numbers of vacancies and small pools of applicants.

»Recruitment is no longer limited by geography.

Teacher hiring begins with recruitment to ensure an adequate pool of candidates from which to choose. Typical recruitment activities, such as large indoor fairs and visits to college campuses, were canceled during 2020 and 2021. School leaders were concerned they would have a much smaller pool of applicants as they faced an increasing number of open positions.

As it turned out, school leaders in my research reported their candidate pools included more applicants than usual from outside their immediate geographic region. Travel restrictions and the ability to offer virtual interviews created a low-risk environment for candidates to explore a wider variety of opportunities. As a result, many administrators reported they were able to hire high-quality teachers from other states and regions.

An assistant superintendent in a suburban school district near Atlanta said, “For the first time, we hired teachers from all over the country. Because we weren’t requiring in-person interviews, we had more applicants from out of state. Of the 45 teachers we hired, 21 were from out of state, and that has never been the case in the past.”

»Virtual interviews provide opportunity for authentic assessments.

During school closures, most schools used commonly available technology platforms to deliver instruction. Not surprisingly, school leaders conducted interviews virtually using the same videoconferencing tools. Unexpected benefits followed.

Requiring candidates to navigate the same tools that teachers were now using for classroom instruction became an authentic assessment of a candidate’s teaching abilities, particularly in the use of personal technology. A middle school principal from South Carolina summed up the unexpected advantage of virtual interviews, stating, “I think this was our best hiring year because we could see if some-one could actually use the technology effectively. If I can’t be engaged with them on the virtual meeting as an adult, a 13-year-old definitely won’t be.”

Similarly, virtual interviews created more opportunities for candidates to share digital portfolios that included artifacts from their teaching experience. An assistant superintendent for human resources in an urban school district with 36,000 students shared, “It helped us to see actual work products of teachers in their portfolios. Principals didn’t have time to look at portfolios in the past.”

»Virtual interviews increase efficiency.

Virtual interviews enabled school leaders to create more efficient hiring processes. More interviews could be scheduled in a shorter amount of time and more staff members could participate. Just as importantly, no sense of obligation for a full interview existed if it was quickly apparent a candidate was not qualified.

As one high school principal in Georgia described this phenomenon, “When someone comes face-to-face, you feel obligated to have a lengthy interview. [You] came all this way, so we can’t stop you after 15 minutes. Interviewing virtually allowed us to feel comfortable with shorter interviews.”

This efficiency also benefitted the candidates because interviews could be scheduled early in the morning or evening. Teachers did not have to take a day off from work to interview for a new position.

»Virtual interviews reduce subjectivity.

Perhaps the most significant change resulting from the virtual interviewing process was lessening the reliance on conversation and greater use of structured and consistent questions. Many school leaders point to a different flow of virtual interviewing.

“Most of our hiring was based on natural conversation and follow-up questions that come up based on the interaction,” said a superintendent of 4,200-student district in Illinois. “Virtual interviews forced us to rethink our whole format and to create specific questions ahead of time that would elicit more than a few words of response.”

School leaders described the necessity of creating interview questions based on the specific qualities they sought in teachers. These new questions were used to ask candidates to speak about their core values or provide specific behaviors they use to respond to common teaching situations.

These changes were made out of necessity, but they closely align with best employment practices and resulted in hiring interviews more likely to predict teachers’ skills accurately. One principal from Illinois shared her feelings about the benefits of virtual hiring, saying, “In the past, I had hired people that wowed me in person, and then it was kind of like fool’s gold when they came to work. I feel that the new types of precise and pre-planned questioning I used in the virtual interviews avoided this, and I hired more quality candidates than ever before.” 

Laurie Kimbrel (right), an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of West Georgia, has studied the impact of virtual interviewing on the teacher selection process. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF WEST GEORGIA, CARROLLTON, GA.

»Virtual interviews have their drawbacks.

The biggest complaint about virtual hiring processes was the loss of personal connection with candidates. Even administrators who improved the predictive nature of interview questions described their belief in the importance of subjective measures such as a firm handshake, facial expressions and body language.

School leaders also lamented the loss of school tours as an element of their hiring processes because the in-person visits provide an opportunity to evaluate candidates based on informal interactions. One hiring administrator said personal tours with candidates tend to “allow us to see how well they do with small talk [and] help us get a feel for their personality.” Ironically, the same leaders who understood the value of structured interview questions also felt a loss about what is arguably the most subjective aspect of the selection process and the least connected to a candidate’s ability to ensure student learning.

A New Normal

COVID‑19 served as an unintended catalyst for school leaders to develop new and more effective measures of the skills of their teacher candidates. We now have an opportunity to help school leaders understand that the benefits experienced during virtual employment interviews extend beyond convenience for the candidates and school staff. Moving away from conversational interviews, whether virtual or in-person, enables school leaders to assess authentic teaching skills and pose structured questions to candidates that reveal insights closely related to the qualities of effective teaching.

The school leaders interviewed for this study reported high levels of confidence that virtual interview processes used during the pandemic created the conditions for hiring skilled teachers who were a good fit for their schools. Follow up recently with the same school leaders revealed that their confidence in the new teachers continued and that the new hires were performing well in terms of student growth.

Despite our longing for a return to pre-pandemic conditions, we shouldn’t be in a hurry to return to our pre-pandemic hiring rituals. Superintendents and leadership faculty at colleges and universities should encourage principals to consider the lessons learned from hiring during COVID‑19. Continuing with virtual interviews may help recruit from a wider geographic area as the teacher shortages worsen in some places and move administrators’ casual conversations as the primary means of hiring.

Reducing subjectivity in the teacher selection process by introducing authentic assessments, careful teacher portfolio review and use of structured and behavioral-focused interview questions should become our new normal for identifying the best candidates even in a time when there are few applicants for each vacancy.

LAURIE KIMBREL, a former superintendent, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Ga. Twitter: @lauriekimbrel