Best Questions — Starting a School, Part II

I’ve volunteered to take the lead at putting together a plan for recruiting, interviewing and evaluating prospective principals for our new elementary school here in DC (scheduled opening, August 2011), and thus far it’s been a really useful process of trying to surface the “best questions” one should ask to get the fullest sense of a person and his or her philosophy about education and how best to help children learn.

As is always the case when I’m trying to get to the root of an issue in education, I begin by calling Kim Carter, the head of the QED Foundation and, as I said recently on Twitter, the finest thinker/doer I have met in K-12 education work. Kim pointed me to the work of The Haberman Foundation, which has done some great research on teachers who make a difference. She also said the core question to ask should be: What do you think are the most important factors that determine student success?

I like it, and I was also thinking of asking the following. Please check them out and offer any and all feedback and new ideas so we can be sure to get the process as finely tuned as possible.

  • Which ideas/approaches to learning have had the greatest influence on you, and why?
  • What are the core questions/riddles that drive you professionally?
  • What was your most powerful personal learning experience? How would you go about creating a similar environment and similar opportunities for our students?
  • What’s your personal motto?
  • When you interview potential staff members, what traits are you looking for?
  • What’s your vision of the ideal school?
  • What is your most marked characteristic?
  • If you could change something about your approach to work, what would it be?
  • If you could replicate something about your approach to work, what would it be?
  • What core habits of mind & work will you want to see our graduates embody, and in what ways do you intend to help ensure that they do?
  • Describe your ideal system for measuring student outcomes.
  • Describe your ideal system for evaluating educator effectiveness.
  • What do you feel are the core attributes of an optimal learning environment?
  • If we’re having this conversation five years from now, what would you like to be able to say are the five things you’ve done successfully — and how will you know you’ve succeeded at them?
Categories: Leadership, Learning, Starting a School

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  1. Rusha Sams
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    This is a list I would like to keep, if that’s permissible. Great questions! I like the two about ideal systems for 1) measuring student outcomes and 2) evaluating teacher effectiveness.
    One of the greatest challenges for principals is knowing when to be visible and when to be accessible. Those who stay in the office may not be monitoring the teaching in their building, but they also know that they must be accessible to parents, students, teachers, community members. I love to hear what prospective principals have to say about balancing the two.
    Best wishes with your new school. Looking forward to hearing more about it.

  2. Sam
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Rusha, and of course — use whatever is useful and discard the rest. I love the idea of asking people to think through the delicate balance of visibility and accessibility as a principal. Thanks for the great addition! And let me know if others occur to you.

  3. Andy Webster
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Love the list, and the interview would be a long one. The question that I often ask and find most revealing is: “Among those who have worked with you over several years, what is their most common misperception of you?”

    I would want to ask more about the candidates leadership style (and the question above often reveals something about that). I would ask about leaders the candidate has worked under, what he/she would want to emulate, and what not to emulate. I think that to be a good principal, you need to be able to shift leadership styles according to the need of the situation. For example, if you are only a consensual leader, that will bite you sometimes.

  4. Jenna Fournel
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    My favorite question of all time for interviews is: “What’s something unique we don’t know about you now, but would find out after working with you for a few weeks?”

    The way people answer this question is often more important than the answer itself and in more than one instance our decisions to hire or not hire someone have come down to their reaction to this question.

    I’ve never interviewed someone for a principal position, but I think this question would be relevant because one thing I’ve seen with principals over the years is the way in which their willingness to be open and genuine with their staff can mean the difference between their ability to inspire change and the need to constantly push against resistance.

    Now, in our school, we’re going to start with the change we want to see… so there will be little resistance (part dream, but mostly true I hope) still it can’t hurt to have a principal whose openness inspires others to keep the great things we start with going.

  5. Posted June 21, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Great post Sam. I’ve often thought one of the best questions in determining leadership for a learning environment is for the community/organization: Are you ready to allow someone to fall short of your ideal and live up to their best potential? So often we put so much of our idealistic hopes on the role of “leader” that no human can keep up.

    Within that context, here are a few additional questions I think have been helpful:

    1. On a scale of one to ten, how do you assess you ability to do the job as it is described?  What past successes, skills, or other reasons do have for your assessment?

    2.  What do you anticipate will be three challenges you would face in this job role during your first year?  Why?

    3.  We can’t climb inside the head and souls of any candidate and really know them.  What might our questions have missed in getting the best sense of you, what you can contribute to our school, and what makes you a great candidate to consider?

    4. What would the person who knows you best in the world share as your strengths, and what would they say are the areas you’ve got some work to do?

    5. What are things that people do or situations that make you cringe or get on your nerves? How then, when someone is doing that, might you respond to them within our school community?

    6. Tell us, without talking about what you’ve done or do, who you are.

  6. Posted June 23, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a set of related questions—“Describe a situation at work in which two or more people disagreed strongly with one another about something. If those people reported to you, how did you resolve the disagreement? How about a situation in which you disagreed with someone on an important issue. Was this person someone you report to? A peer? How well did you think the situation was resolved? What would you have done differently? What did you learn from that experience?”

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