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Some thoughts on running a physics teacher search

September 1, 2017

This is part of a three post series on the hiring process in independent schools from multiple perspectives. This post discusses how we ran a search for a physics teacher last year. 

To read advice I’d give to candidates looking for STEM jobs in independent schools, see my post, Advice for a physics job seeker from someone who just helped to hire three.

To learn about the perspective of a candidate applying for jobs at independent and boarding schools, see Megan’s post, How to get hired in an independent school

This year we had an opening for a physics teacher, and we ended up hiring a great one. In this post, I wanted to share some of the things we learned.

It’s always a challenge to find a physics teachers—there just aren’t that many of them. It’s even more challenging to find a physics teacher at a boarding school where we need our teachers to also coach and do dorm duty. I know this is a truism even at non-boarding schools, and for other STEM subjects, like math.

Expanding the pool

We started this search knowing we wanted to begin with a large and diverse pool of candidates. In the past, we’ve simply posted a job description on our website and initiated a search with one of the major independent school search firms. Unsurprisingly, this approach doesn’t lead to the most diverse applicant pool—there just aren’t that many physics teachers out there who are familiar with the boarding/independent school world looking for jobs. Just as an example, one placement service we worked with sent us 20 applications for our physics opening, one of whom was a candidate of color and only two of whom were women. Compare this to the 84 candidates the placement service provided for a French opening. It seems that placement services have just as many challenges as we do in finding qualified candidates for physics openings. In order to get the diverse applicant pool we wanted, we needed to be more active in our search.

We worked to expand or pool in 3 ways. First, we posted the job on the NAIS Job Board. This is a simple and obvious first step, but one we’ve neglected in the past. It’s free to post ads on this site, and the job board serves as a clearinghouse for most jobs in the independent school world, so it’s very widely read. It easily yielded as many applicants as the placement service we routinely use.

We also posted to relevant listservs, most notably the Modeling Physics Listserv hosted by modelinginstruction.org. Even if you aren’t 100% into modeling, this is a great place to put your job in front of a great group of teachers who are deeply committed to physics, professional development, and student inquiry. You do have to be a member of this group in order to post, but if you have an opening that you would like to be shared, I would be happy to post it for you on this listserv. Other listservs worth considering might be your local AAPT subsection listserv, and the PHYS-L listserv for physics teachers.

By far the best thing we did in this job search was sending emails to the department chairs of about 80 physics programs around the country. Sadly, there’s no mailing list for this, so a colleague and I spent an hour of so googling “physics department chair for X University” and filling in a large spreadsheet, which I’ve posted here to save you a bit of work should you choose to do the same. In building this list, we made an explicit effort to target women’s colleges, historically black colleges and colleges with PhysTEC programs focused on physics teacher education. Our email included short 1 page flyer that could be posted on a bulletin board (do schools even do this anymore?), along with a description of our school and opening, and a statement that we would be happy to talk to anyone interested in talking about Physics Teaching, regardless of whether they were interested in our school or not. This letter turned out to be one of our best sources of potential applicants. Though these new applicants lacked experience, many demonstrated a deep commitment to physics education through their undergraduate careers and that rivaled many of the experienced applicants we saw. Three of our five finalists who came to campus contacted us first through this outreach, and the diversity candidates that came to us through this outreach was far greater than any other application source in our search.

Three of our five finalists who came to campus contacted us first through this outreach, and the diversity candidates that came to us through this outreach was far greater than any other application source in our search.

Managing the Workflow

We had 3 people participating on the initial screening of applicants, and we knew we needed a way to manage the workflow of reviewing and contacting candidates. It’s easy to get buried in email about a job search, so we turned to Trello, a great to-do manager that specializes in group collaboration. Using Trello, we were able to set up lists for todos, as well as lists of candidates, complete with individual checklists listing each step of the review process.

Checklist

As much as possible, we wanted to make sure we were keeping candidates informed of their status as we proceeded in our search, keeping in mind that most searches can drag on for much longer than you might first imagine. One thing that helped us tremendously in this effort was to pre-draft a set of correspondence templates for each stage of the search, from when an application is received, to the point where finalists are invited for a visit to campus. We tried to make sure we followed up at each of the following stages, and whenever more than a few weeks of time passed following our last contact with a candidate if only to say that we are still considering the application and appreciate the candidate’s patience.

Have a low bar for phone screens

Our efforts worked, and we got a strong pool of diverse applicants. Because of this, we felt we should try to phone interview as many candidates as possible, which led to us doing about 20 phone interviews for this search. Though I’m not sure this approach would scale to a search that had hundreds of applicants, it turned out to be the right decision for us, as we met some great physics teachers, had wonderful conversations about teaching physics and were able to even more clearly identify our most standout candidates. For a number of the candidates that didn’t move forward in the search, I believe we established professional connections that will last into the future.

In order to make our phone interviews fair, we also tried as much as possible to work from a uniform set of questions. We conducted our interviews using skype/google hangouts (and usually had to switch to the other when we had audio problems with our first attempt) and always made sure we had two people on each call so that we could be taking notes while the other was talking. We drafted specific questions for candidates coming directly from college or without teaching experience. Having the question document open during the interview helped tremendously to make sure we were covering roughly the same ground with each interview.

The decision to move forward after a phone interview and invite a candidate for an on-campus interview can be a bit unpredictable and drawn out at a boarding school, given all the various needs the school has in terms of coaching, residential life, housing and other considerations. This is where it became especially important to stay in touch with candidates as the search progressed. But once a candidate did make it to the on-campus interview stage, the headmaster’s office took over, scheduling the day and arranging meetings with students, and teachers and administrators from all aspects of the life of the school. It’s also customary to ask teachers to do a mock lesson, but we’ve found it better to instead ask candidates to participate as a co-teacher in one of our classes. Most often, our students are working in small groups on problems as part of a modeling cycle, and so it’s very instructive to have a second teacher in the room to circulate and push students’ thinking, and it’s very useful to us to see how the teacher actually interacts with students in a small group setting, as this represents the dominant mode of learning for most of our classes. One other thing we do is try to make sure that we provided each visiting candidate with a complete copy of his/her schedule before arriving on campus. We also wrote a clear explanation of what we are looking for when the candidate visits our classes, to make explicit that this was an evaluative part of the interview process, and we didn’t simply want them to passively observe our class. Before arriving on campus we sent them the problems/lesson we were working on, and told them we would like them to interact and observe the students in the problem-solving process, and then followed up later in the day to see what observations they had about the work they saw. Often, this turned out to be a critical differentiator in evaluating candidates. Stronger candidates made sharper and more incisive observations of the students in the class.

In the end, we had three wonderful candidates visit the school, none of whom came through one of the major search firms. We ended up hiring our first choice—a candidate who found us through the NAIS job board posting.

 

Stay conscious of your unconscious bias

Unconscious bias can be a significant obstacle in an effective search. The unconscious biases we all have to implicitly favor those candidates that are most similar to us have the potential to derail even the most well-intentioned efforts to seek out a diverse pool.I  know that if I let it, it would be easy to for me to fill our applicant pool with geeky, Duke basketball loving white guys like me. I would be most comfortable in those interviews, and as a result, I’d likely make those interviewees feel more comfortable, and probably feel a stronger “gut feeling” that this white, male, candidate is going to be a great fit for our department or program. Unconscious bias is how our brain processes information and how we work as social animals, and we have to work hard at every step of the search to make sure we aren’t allowing our own biases to interfere with the integrity of the search and the needs of the program. To learn more about how to do this, I strongly encourage you to check out the great resources Google’s HR department has created in their re:Work program on Unconscious Bias at Work. You’ll find incredible materials here focused on how to unbias your workplace, with a particular emphasis on the hiring process. Google has even created a step by step workbook and presentation you can adapt to do training at your own school. The one hour video Google re:Work produced on unconscious bias is one of the most informative and practical presentations on this subject that I’ve seen.

One takeaway I’d personally like to try from this is to try to adopt more of the practice of structured interviews in our phone screens. Although we did develop a set of common questions, we weren’t as careful in thinking beforehand about what excellent, average and poor responses to our questions looked like, and I think this would have been a very helpful exercise, given the research on how ineffective unstructured interviews can be. At the same time, we have to allow for personalization of the interview process adapt to the candidate’s experiences and background.  

For those of us who work in privileged boarding and independent schools, I think we should also spend a fair amount of time considering our privilege as individuals familiar with and knowledgeable about the boarding school world. We must recognize that the candidates who are most familiar with the independent and boarding school world are going to naturally appear far more fluid and capable in interviews and informal settings throughout the interview process. This initial familiarity, however, may not be an indicator that their performance or adjustment to our community expectations will be superior to other candidates who are less familiar with the boarding school milieu and may, in fact, pick up our culture and habits fairly quickly. Nearly 20 years ago, this was certainly me. Though I was fortunate to attend a private college, I attended public school all my life, was the first in my family to go to college, and spent much of my interview at the school I work at now in awe of the incredible contrasts between this school and my own educational upbringing. I’m thankful that those that interviewed me were willing to see beyond all of the ways in which I might not have registered as a “good fit” for the culture – not because I wasn’t capable but because it was so foreign to me. Those who interviewed me gave me a chance learn.

Further ideas

The lesson I’ve learned from this is that good schools should always looking for great teachers. We need to always be reaching out make connections with other teachers. Mainly, this is good practice—staying connected with professionals in your field keeps you abreast of the latest practices in the field, and also allows your best ideas to make it into the world. But making these connections also makes it much easier to find teachers when you do have an opening.

Reaching out directly to physics departments at colleges and universities turned out to be the biggest bang for our buck in terms of bringing a pool of qualified candidates from a range of backgrounds that wouldn’t have otherwise considered our opening. It has made me think that we could do even more outreach with our neighboring colleges and universities and invite any seniors who are considering teaching to spend a day visiting our school to get a better sense of what independent school teaching is like.

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Amy Hand permalink
    September 5, 2017 1:11 pm

    As a math dept head at an independent school, I really appreciate these ideas; thanks for sharing!

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