How to hire the right school leaders for your district

How to hire great school leaders - McEwen Education

How to hire great school leaders

As Jim Collins tells us, “getting the right people on the bus” is key to creating a successful organization.

Nowhere is that more true than in hiring school leaders.  Teachers set the tone for deep and joyful learning in their classrooms, but if the leader is not on board the school suffers.  Conversely, great school leaders create communities of deep and rigorous thinking and joyful cultures of experimentation, risk, and professional learning.

I’ve been on both sides of the interview process.  Unfortunately, it has often been the case that the hiring for these essential positions comes down to opinions formed after one or two short Q and A sessions.

I get it–time is precious and these decisions often have to be made quickly.  However, having some stock questions and protocols can ensure that schools and districts have the best chance of hiring the right candidates.

Here are some tips from my experience.

Invite varied perspectives to the hiring committee

When hiring a high school principal, for example,  we had a mix of content area representatives. Some were department chairs, but not all.  An assistant principal who was not interested in interviewing for the job was asked to be my point person at the high school. The current principal was serving in an interim capacity and had already made clear her preference to return to an elementary setting, so she helped us with scheduling and greeted the candidates.  We also had  school committee and community representatives, as well as at least one other principal in the district. Students have either served as part of the formal committee or as part of representative groups who meet with the candidates.

Ask for experiences not answers

Google “questions for principals” and you are likely to find  a series of “warm-up questions” such as

What is your background/leadership philosophy/your strengths

Then, there might be a series of questions asking them to tell you how they might deal with one type of scenario or better.

While this may get you some good information, some of this can also be prepped heavily and.sometimes, might not be true.

It’s better to always ask for examples of what the candidate HAS done with some explanation of how they would apply what they did and what they learned to novel experiences in the future.

By the way, I always give the questions to candidates when they arrive, giving them some time to prep.  It calms nerves and allows them to shine.  At the very least, have the questions printed and placed in front of the candidate so they can refer back to them when responding.

Interview Questions

  1. In approximately 5 minutes, tell us a bit about what brings you to us today–specifically, tell us why you have applied for the position of principal of x School.
  2. Today’s diverse students come to us with a variety of skills, interests and passions as well as with a variety of differences, including social-emotional issues, etc.  How have you led a staff to ensure equitable academic outcomes for the health and safety of all students.
  3. Describe what you would expect to see in an exemplary classroom?
  4. What steps have you taken in your current role to make data use a part of the ongoing cycle of instructional improvement? Include, if you can, the role of data in providing student interventions and supporting students with IEPs.
  5.  Tell us about your ideal school environment and how you have worked with various stakeholders—parents, teachers, students, etc.– to develop that kind of culture in your present role.
  6. Please tell us about how you have worked with a teacher struggling to meet expectations around instructional practice?
  7. Tell us about a time you made a tough, unpopular decision in the best interest of students.  Describe the rationale, process and result.
  8. What is a professional book you have read recently and what did you gain from it?
  9. Is there anything we did not cover that you would like us to know about you as we consider you as a candidate for this position?



Include a performance task

Because a 60 minute Q and A session simply won’t tell you HOW  a person will execute his or her job, a performance task is a must.

Ours usually revolved around data–asking the candidate to analyze a set of data and prepare a presentation to be shared in a  mock faculty meeting.  You may include some guiding questions, but your better candidates will just run with it.  (As an aside, if a candidate for a leadership position emails to ask if it’s “ok” to do this or that with the process or the presentation, this is probably not someone you want to make important decisions at a moment’s notice.)

Spend a full day with your finalists

Or at least several hours.  Here’s the schedule we used (and sometimes adapted) for principal candidates.  Clearly, our current situation highlights the need for some changes, but many of these can be adapted for a virtual setting.

  • 8am: Arrive at school. Walk building with current principal or another designee.
  • 9am: Observe a teacher.  We put the candidates in touch with the volunteer teacher about a week before the interview day. They took it from there. On interview day, the candidate and a small subgroup of the interview committee (me, a department chair from another content area, and an assistant principal) observed the teacher.  The three of us intentionally sat back, but the candidates were free to take a more active role as they might as principal.
  • TAKE THIS ONLINE by using a video.  If you don’t have a teacher who can provide this virtually, use one of the many videos that can be found online.
  • 10:00 am: Observation debrief. This occurs in a fishbowl with the interview subgroup observes the conversation between the candidate and the teacher.
  • 11:30 am: Student panel luncheon We left this wide open for the candidate’s discretion
  • 1:00 pm: Parent meeting–again, we let the candidate take the lead
  • 2:20 Mock faculty meeting: the interview committee participated while the candidate used this time to share his/her responses to the performance task
  • 3:15 pm: Candidate meets with a small hiring committee sub-group for questions or debrief at candidate’s discretion.

This is a long day and you may need to truncate it a bit.  (We’ve even done this in half a day when necessary.)  But don’t be deterred –this is time well-spent.  I’ve had candidates tell me–those hired and those not–that this interview experience was the best they’ve had. I’ve been on the other side and completely agree!

Ask great reference questions

So, your candidate got through the first round with excellent examples and may have wowed you during the demo day.  Now is the time to check with those who have worked most closely with the candidate in prior roles to check or confirm your judgments.

Here’s what you don’t want to say: “We just met with Sally. She was great. Everyone loved her.  Do you have anything to add?”

Instead, try some of these questions.

  1. Explain the demo day.  Then, you might ask about a particular piece of it.  For example, you might note that Sally used a protocol with the staff during the mock faculty meeting.  What’s her usual MO when leading PLCs or faculty meetings, etc?
  2. Of all the people you’ve worked with in Sally’s role, where would you place her–top 5%, top 10% or other. Why?
  3. If I called you a year from now and told you it hadn’t worked out, what would you imagine would be the reason for that.
  4. What are the three words you would use to describe her? What three words would (parents/students/faculty) use?
  5. If you had this same position in your district, would you offer to X without hesitation?
  6. Can you tell me when or how you have seen X demonstrate courage to do what is right for students?
  7. I am really looking for ___________, why is X the right person for that?

For sure, this is a lot of time and effort.  However, hiring good leaders is essential for building communities of deep and joyful learning.  Not only do you get a great view of the candidate, but candidates who go through this process come away with a much better understanding of the school and district.  Now that you know each other, you’ve got a better chance for a great fit.


Happy Hiring!


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