Lockdown has caused a lot of problems for schools and education generally. I think most people are by now familiar with the perfect-solution-less nature of things specifically as they apply to distance learning, assessment and other issues like free school meals. However, one unforeseen area of complication is that of how to recruit staff when you can’t see them teach.

Being able to recruit at this point isn’t an issue that can be pushed off or ignored – “we have bigger fish to fry.” I’ve always been a strong believer that workplace mobility in education is crucial to the healthy functioning of our sector. In short, if people can’t move schools easily then often:

  1. People stay miserable in one school
  2. Leave the profession entirely

Neither is a Good Thing and both should be avoided. Point 1 leads to sub-par performance and long term misery. Point 2 leads to the stonkingly problematic ongoing recruitment and retention crisis. These problems are exacerbated in the age of corona and I’m worried that people will end up stuck in a school they aren’t happy in for another year, exacerbating the chance of hitting point 2 above. On the flip side, if you can’t find anyone to come work at your school you lead to administrative and educational nightmares as a beleaguered team try desperately to fill gaps with time they don’t have.

So recruitment – and recruitment now – is important. But, it is reasonable to ask, with lesson observations a central part of the schools recruitment circuit, how are leaders supposed to take on new staff when they haven’t seen them teach?

The first thing to note is that the way we currently do things is far from sacred or optimal. Without going into too much detail, I recommend you read David Didau’s blog series on the topic here. Given all that, if you aren’t ready to make massive overhauls to your recruitment process just now I ask again, how are we supposed to do this?

My (fantastic) school and (fantastic) department were in exactly this situation. We desperately needed two new teachers for next year or we were royally screwed. We put out job adverts over a month ago and got a good field. We were ready to call to interview and then corona struck. No school, no lessons. The timing was disastrous, but we needed these teachers.

My (fantastic) boss – head of Teaching and Learning – came up with a cunning plan. This plan would certainly not be a perfect solution, but in our unprecedented age of perfect-solution-less-problems we were not willing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and allow these teachers to slip through our fingers. Under normal circumstances, candidates would be given a lesson title and asked to produce a plan, not using any particular proforma or template, but to give us an indication of what was in their head (when I applied I just gave some scribbled musings on where the lesson fitted in a sequence of learning). HOD and head of T&L would observe the lesson and then give feedback. The feedback is crucial because we wanted to know not just if they could teach, but if they could get better at teaching. Someone could be brilliant in the classroom, but if they couldn’t respond to gentle challenge then they wouldn’t be the right fit for us. Following the first interview, there would then be a second interview with the HOD and the Principal on more generic stuff.

The second interview was easy, we just did that over Skype. For the lesson, instead of actually observing it, we just went deeper on the lesson plan. We asked for an extremely detailed lesson plan that would give us as much information about how they would teach the topic as possible. We asked for candidates to be precise in what they would do and how and to really tell us what’s going on in their heads. To be honest it felt to me more like we were setting a “my best lesson” blog post than a lesson plan.

We then received the lesson plan, reviewed it individually, then discussed it together and came up with a list of questions to probe further. In the questions we tried to maintain a healthy balance between “being focused” and “being leading,” you don’t want to give away what you think the “right” answer is. You’re interested in their thinking and how they respond to gentle nudging.

Sample questions might be along the lines of:

  • What is the purpose of this starter?
    • Follow up: if it is a settler, why did you choose these questions?
    • Follow up: if it is assessing prior knowledge, what will you do if performance is poor?
    • Follow up: is there a difference between assessing prior and prerequisite knowledge?
  • During the starter, what will you be doing?
    • Which students would you normally go to first?
    • Do you do that immediately or wait?
    • Why?
    • If a student is struggling, what will you do?
  • In your starter, which question is the hardest? How do you know?
  • Could you explain **x topic** for us now in the same way you would in class?
  • Why have you chosen this diagram and not any other?
  • At what point will you check for understanding?
    • Which question will you ask in your check?
    • Who will you ask it to and how?
    • How will you gather whole class data?
  • In this sequence of questions, what does question 2 do that question 1 doesn’t?
  • In this sequence of questions, why does question 4 come before question 5?
  • What are the common misconceptions in this topic?
  • A student asks you a question –make up a question- how do you respond? (question should be focused on a “classic” error in this topic)
  • A student answers a question with -make up an answer- how do you respond? (as above)

And so on. We also then gave gentle feedback like:

  • I’m worried that if you use this model, it will lead to this misconception – say the misconception –. What do you think?
  • It looks like this is a lot of information to give in one go. What are you going to do to help students cope with all that information?
  • If you do it like this -raise certain issue e.g. hands up if you understand- then it could be that certain students will -raise certain bad response e.g. students giving you bad data-. What do you think is a better way to do it? (If they can’t think of one, then follow up and ask them how they think that solves the problem)

If you ask me how it went, the answer would be “ask me again in October,” but that would have been the answer even if I had seen them teach and corona had never happened. You can’t really know if you made the right appointment until you’ve been working with them for a while. Having said that, I really enjoyed the process and without giving too much away (as it wouldn’t be right), I am very optimistic about next year.

When I first published this blog, the title was “recruiting in lockdown.” Chris Baker (super smart sensible sort) pointed out to me that even in non-pandemic times, this method actually sounded better than the standard model because of the insight it gives you, as well as the technical advantages of:

  1. Can do this “asynchronously,” so you can do the interview after hours, minimising need for cover
  2. Can use it as an early filter. Do the lesson plan then feedback, then if they do well invite them in to teach it

As such I renamed this blog. I don’t think there is much that we as a profession will learn from lockdown that we didn’t already know, but this might be one thing.