The $64,000 Question: What Will Your Response Be?

For those that don’t know, The $64,000 Question was a popular TV game show back in the 1950s. It was broadcast between 1955 and 1958.

It is spring, and anyone in education knows that it is the season for hiring. Administrators know it, along with department heads, human resource directors, and superintendents. Hiring most often results from retirements, enrollment needs, new positions, and a variety of other reasons. The season may bring about some trepidation if there are lots of positions to fill, however, it can also be an exciting time where those responsible for hiring get to onboard new educators into their schools and district.

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As a school administrator for 19 years, I’m now well acquainted with the rhythm of the school year (the “ebb and flow” from season to season) and especially the cadence of hiring. While this has become all too familiar to me, I continue to learn and grow and there are things about my own hiring processes that are a work in progress.

Over the course of many years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, both at my own school, and while in service to the district.  I’ve also had the good fortune to work with skilled superintendents that have supported the process and taught me along the way. While a principal in Maine in a rural district, I worked at a fairly large elementary school in a three town district.  I remember my former superintendent telling principals that every opportunity you have to hire is always an opportunity to hire better than what you had before. He also shared with principals that when looking at candidates, you could always work to help someone acquire skills, but work ethic and attitude probably “were what they were,” and if a candidate did not have all three, you should look elsewhere.

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For the past eight years I’ve been a principal in Lexington, Massachusetts, and during that time, I’ve continued to grow professionally and explore interviewing and hiring as a means to get the very best possible teaching candidates and educators for the students in my school. Shortly after I started in Lexington, my former superintendent shared an article he had written about the 10 minute screening interview.  The piece was short but insightful. It helped me to maximize my time, and the time spent by interview committees. In essence, you would select a group of possible candidates and bring each one of them in for a short (10 minutes or so) screening interview. You could ask them two to three questions, not necessarily related to the job, but questions that would give you a small window into getting to know them a little better. Based on the screening interview and other qualifications you pre-screened for, you would then bring back a smaller pool for longer interviews with a larger committee.  For instance, if you did approximate 10 minute screening interviews, you could potentially screen about 4-6 people in an hour, and over the course of a few hours, screen upwards of 12-18 people. I’ve done this with my assistant principal and this has helped us narrow down pools of candidates so that when we bring a handful of candidates back to the larger interview team (panel interview), we make the most of the 45 minutes to an hour we have with them.

So you’re probably wondering where the “$64,000 question” comes into play now that I’ve shared a bit about what I’ve learned and the process I use.  Well, to be honest, I did not come up with the question but saw it somewhere else and I knew immediately it would help me get candidates that viewed schools in a way that would demonstrate their commitment to teaching and learning.  During my screening interviews, I always ask the following question:

“Why do you think some schools are successful and other schools are not?”

I generally get a very puzzled look from interviewees after asking it, and I’ve often gotten comments such as, “Wow, that is a great question,” or “Wow, that is a difficult question.”  In all honesty, I do note the reaction to the question and the candidates ability to coherently respond as part of my notes, however, I am generally looking for the content and thought around the answer.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell  you that when candidates answer the question with the word(s) “resources, having resources, having a new building, etc,” I generally consider them as less preferred candidates.  I know that, while additional resources are always helpful, I have seen many schools do AMAZING work for students with not a lot of money, material objects or resources.

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The answers I am hoping to hear from candidates could include any one or all of the following:

  • “They hire and retain outstanding, skilled and dedicated teachers” (one of the single most important factors)
  • “There is strong leadership that is student focused” (plays a significant role in a school’s success)
  • “The school promotes and supports parent involvement and the school works to involve parents in multiple ways and venues”
  • “Targeted, thoughtful professional development and a growth mindset for all members of the school contributes to schools being successful”
  • “The school uses high levels of communication regularly with parents to keep them informed about their students”
  • “Diversity, equity and inclusion are taken into account in all aspects of teaching and learning”
  • “The importance of the right relationships are the foundation of all work”

This is not an exhaustive list of answers, however, as you can see, the answers are related to positive school culture and a focus on students and learning. They demonstrate commitment to processes, actions and behaviors, not necessarily getting more “stuff”.

So, whether you are faced with the $64,000 dollar question during a screening interview, or you are an administrator, experienced teacher, office secretary, department head, etc., you are not only thinking about the question, but more importantly, how you will answer or how your actions demonstrate those skills and behaviors that make schools successful, thriving places for students.


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