The Superintendent's Role in Hiring School Principals
There are fewer decisions more critical than the selection of a new school principal. Though, this important and time-consuming process may leave some superintendents feeling as if they would rather hand this off an interview panel – and interview only the final candidates. Leaving this selection process to a committee, or even a highly capable Human Resources Director, however, presents a missed opportunity for the Superintendent. By being front and center in the selection process for a new school principal, a Superintendent will be able to engage with key stakeholders, communicate a vision for leadership, and establish an early relationship with the successful candidate.
Having had the opportunity to hire three elementary school principals within one school year, I’m excited to share the process we used in our large 7200+ student district.
Step One: The Paper Screen
Following the job posting and the influx of resumes from interested candidates, I still take the old-fashioned route and bring paper resumes home with me to review in the evening or on weekends. Using a simple 3-point scoring system, I rate each resume as a 3 (Low), 2 (Maybe), or 1 (High).
3 = Improper certification, insufficient experience, other
2 = Potential for leadership,
1 = Demonstrated leadership experience, experience in schools/districts similar to ours, positive career trajectory
Working with the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction and the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, we compared our ratings and developed a list of candidates to invite for screening interviews.
Step Two: The Screening Interview
Screening interviews are an excellent way to get an immediate sense of a candidate’s match to a school culture and community. Lasting only 15-20 minutes, the screening interview allows the Superintendent and other appropriate school leaders to meet candidates, gain a sense of their instructional leadership and ability to communicate a shared vision. For one school principal screening, I invited the retiring principal to join the screening interviews. This offered the retiring principal a chance to talk about potential candidates with me and gave each of our candidates the opportunity to learn from the current leader about the school’s mission, celebrations, and community. With most searches, between 15 and 20 candidates receive a screening interview.
Step Three: The Interview Panel
The screening interviews typically yield between 3 and 6 strong candidates worthy of a deeper look. Here’s where the fun begins! An Interview Panel comprised of 3-4 teachers from that school, 2 parents, 1 curriculum or special education supervisor, 1-2 fellow principals, and a school board member is convened. It has always been my practice to include a board member. It provides the board member with insight into the superintendent’s hiring process, allows the school board member to interact appropriately with staff and parents, and has the added benefit of one member of the Board of Education being able to speak to the candidate’s strengths as they are hired.
In addition to the Interview Panel, I work with the School Counselor to invite 4-5 students to serve as ambassadors. We schedule the Panel interviews so that each candidate arrives 30 minutes early to receive a tour of the school led by students. The students greet each candidate, tour him/her around the school, and address questions. The counselor is there to facilitate, though we have always found the students quite capable of conducting themselves maturely and taking their ambassador duties most seriously. Students as young as 4th grade – or a very precocious 3rd grader - can handle this responsibility admirably, and it’s an excellent way to promote leadership and public speaking skills.
With older students, I take time the next day to debrief with them and the counselor about the candidates. When elementary school students are involved, the school counselor talks with the children and listens to their (very candid) remarks about each candidate. The counselor then shares this information with the panel members when we debrief at the close of the interviews. Knowing how each candidate interacted with the children has always been of high interest among the panel members.
Several days prior to the interviews, I share a bank of questions with the panel members and invite their input. The questions typically 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, as in, “The playground aide has brought two children to your office for fighting. How will you handle this?” I allow for this and frame the question to be as open-ended as possible so the candidate’s decision-making processes can be on full display. Having a standard bank of questions provides a consistent interview experience for all the candidates, helps us fairly evaluate each candidate against the pool, and dissuades personal agenda questions from cropping up.
Step Four: The Debrief
I establish very clear parameters for the panel members. I explain that we will debrief at the conclusion of the interviews and that everyone will have a chance to share their thoughts on the candidates. I do not ask the panel members to rate the candidates or provide me with their first or second choice. This is important. As Superintendent, I make the hiring recommendation to the Board of Education. I will evaluate this school leader and, hopefully, recommend tenure for this person several years later. The decision needs to be mine. Further, I explain that sometimes reference checks don’t pan out, or a mutually agreeable salary and benefits package cannot be negotiated. For all of those reasons, I don’t want panel members to be disgruntled that the Superintendent didn’t hire their first choice. Each time I have offered this explanation, it has been graciously and willingly accepted.
That said, the debriefing session is always extremely candid and thoughtful. I write everyone’s comments on large chart paper in a T-Column format for “Candidate Strengths” and “Questions or Areas for Growth.” My role in the debriefing is to ensure that everyone has had a chance to speak and voice her thinking. I will often ask panel members, “Can you say more about that?” to accurately capture their thoughts.
After the interviews, I bring the debriefing charts back to my office and hang them in an inconspicuous area so that I can reflect on everyone’s words and consider which candidate is the best match for the position. This is the hardest part. Sometimes, the candidate I liked the most doesn’t connect well with the panel – or with the students. In the end, it’s important to remember that wonderfully wise mantra – “It’s not about you.” Our school community needs leaders who will be positive partners with the faculty, students, and parents – AND move our district forward. This is a time to put ego aside and focus on finding the best fit.
One last note in this area – don’t forget the thank you notes! This includes a formal thank you to committee members, a thank you to the student ambassadors (usually accompanied by a small gift card to a local bookstore), and – eventually – a thank you to the potential school leaders who will not be moving forward in the process. I always call the candidates once a final decision/affirmation has been made and offer feedback on their interview if it is desired, but the formal note also matters a great deal.
Step Five: Welcome to our School Community!
Once approved, my office prepares a press release introducing the new school leader and we invite her/him to a faculty meeting, concert, and/or Field Day event so the teachers, students, and parent can meet and talk with their new principal. Many times, the teachers who served on the Interview Panel will act as hosts and introduce the new principal to faculty members. And, of course, the students who toured the candidates around the school are ecstatic to see this person again.
Once the principal is working in the school, I schedule time to talk about our district goals and to offer professional insight into the school culture. Certainly, school leaders need time and many interactions to learn some things on their own, but I think it is respectful and wise to alert new leaders to potential minefields or “don’t touch” traditions. I also introduce the new principal to administrative colleagues and encourage them to reach out to each for assistance.
By taking a direct leadership role in the exploration and selection of a school principal, a Superintendent has the opportunity to interact with students, parents, teachers, and board members in a positive, collective endeavor. Everyone will appreciate the Superintendent’s involvement – and Superintendents will learn a great deal about the school community and leadership needs. So, roll up your sleeves and get to work!