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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 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.


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.



Honor Expectations in Physics

August 30, 2017

Our school asks each class/discipline to develop specific honor expectations for our classes. My physics colleagues and I put together this document, and I welcome your feedback to make it even better.

Honor Expectations in Physics

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CVPM Paradigm Assessment—Feedback request

August 26, 2017
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Earlier in the summer, I wrote about paradigm lab assessments as a way to improve student understanding of the arguments we made in board meetings.

Summer is over, and it’s time to get to work cranking out these assessments. I’ve written a draft of the first assessment I’d like to do with my Honors Physics class, and I would love your feedback to make this even better.

CVPM Paradigm Assessment (Google Doc—feel free to edit and comment)

Some questions from me:

  • This will be the first paradigm assessment for my students—am I testing too much here?
  • I don’t want this to feel like a lab report. Would it be better to break this up into a quiz or some sort of form on Canvas?

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Save me from having to use SeeSaw, Class Dojo and Flipgrid with my classes this year

August 9, 2017

I’ll admit, I can become infatuated with edTech from time to time. I also envision that it will have a much more powerful influence on my classroom than it ever seems to have. Despite this, my classroom is still fairly un-techy; I’m inconsistent at best when it comes to using our LMS, Canvas, and on any given you’re most likely to find my students solving physics problems in small groups using pencil and paper.

Still, I do dream of an app that will be a true game changer in my classroom, and I think the app of my dreams would look something like this:

  • Quickly record and tag observations about students and groups—I want to be able to walk around the room, see a cool thing a student is doing, and write a note about it and tag it to the student to refer back to later when I’m writing comments. I’d also like to have the choice to make these comments private. It’d be even better if I could add photos, short video recordings, and audio notes. Double bonus if I could tag more than just the student, for instance #insightfulquestion.
  • Let students submit photos and screencasets for feedback—It’s become a very common method of getting help in my class for students to send me a quick photo of their work for feedback. I can quickly look at the photo and write a few questions to push their thinking, or offer a hint. Right now, those emails pile up in my inbox, and I don’t have a nice way of organizing them or quickly searching for them. Putting all of these photos/screencasts in an app and then being able to organize and tag them would be a godsend.
  • Let students create multimedia portfolios of their work and get feedback from me—I’d love for students to be able to create portfolios of their work—they could add photos, video and audio recordings and tag their work with various tags like #goallessproblem or #explainedmistake. I’d then be able to go through the portfolio of a student and give feedback, both as text, and ideally as written annotation. Bonus if the student can respond to my feedback and we can have a bit of a dialogue.

And of course, I’d want all of this to work nicely on multiple platforms, including my iPhone, student phones of every flavor of iOS and Android and laptops (with extra bonus for instantly de-flipping photos snapped using the webcam).

As best I can tell, this app doesn’t exist as a single app, but I have found 3 contenders that each do part of this. They are:

  • Class Dojo—the observation app. Class dojo makes it super easy to record feedback about individual students or groups. If I never invite my students to have their own accounts, then my notes notes would be private, but if I do set my students up with accounts, it seems like students would see any notes I write about them. Class Dojo is fast—it’s really easy to group students and quickly leave feedback. My heisitation is that Class Dogo does seem to be the the app embodiement of Skinnerism, and I don’t want to create a points economy in my class is fed by Class Dojo like I’ve read about in so many elementary school classrooms
  • Seesaw—an incredible digital portfolio. Seesaw really seems to do some great stuff for allowing you and students to quickly add multimedia to a digitial portfolio, but the ability to quickly add a note about a student leaves a lot to be desired—it’s very clunky and slow. But I’ve heard from a number of high school teachers that really like this app.
  • Flipgrid—the new video sharing wonder. Flipgrid seems like a great way for students to share video. Many of its features seem to overlap with Seesaw, but Flipgrid’s presentation is unique, and I’ve seen a few links on Twitter of people using it as a tool for having people leave video messages when they miss a teacher or professor for office hours which seems cool (but not something I need to do). Flipgrid seems like it could be my photo/screencast submission app, but I’m not sure it does photos, which would be a dealbreaker, I’m afraid.

There’s a crazy part of me that thinks it wouldn’t be so bad to try to use all of these apps this year. But the sane part of me knows this is a really bad idea. Here’s where I’m reaching out to you—are there things these apps can do that I’m missing? Is there a way to get to 80% of what I want to do with just one of these apps?

TMC Day 3—So much awesomeness, and a spirit to make it even better

July 30, 2017
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More details that make Twitter Math Camp so great:

    • Thank you notes: Have you ever had a conference where you were literally provided with thank you notes and encouraged to write a note thanking anyone who made the conference useful for you? Have you ever seen a beach bag full of handwritten thank you notes? Go to TMC18, and you’ll see both of these.
    • Simply amazing volunteers, and not wasting their time: Lots of conferences have volunteers to help make things run smoothly, but I’ve often noticed that those volunteers end up overtaxed and really struggle to participate fully in the conference itself. Somehow, TMC has voluneteers—someone stopped by the first few minutes of every session I was at to make sure the AV was working properly, but at the same time, I noticed that the volunteers were able to participate every bit as much as the anyone else.
    • Flex sessions: Have you ever had a great idea at a conference and then just wanted to be able to talk about it with 10 other people? Or have you just wanted to do some yoga in the middle of the conference? All of this is possible at TMC. Flex sessions are 1 hour long open sessions that any can offer on the 3rd day of TMC, and you can propose one as late as a few hours before these sessions start. So great.

I also truly love the idea of having 2.5-hour morning sessions that extend for 3 days. This really lets you get to know a group of people in a way that seldom happens at a 3-day conference. Our closing circle at Elizabeth’s session was truly special. Elizabeth shared a really open look into how she organizes her classroom and truly delivered on her description to provide an immersive experience and a real window into her teaching.

TMC is dedicated to welcoming others and constantly re-examining itself to make sure it is being as inclusive as possible. Really, I’ve never been part of a more self-reflective community that is so committed to sharing, connecting and welcoming new people to the joy of math and math teaching.

Perhaps the best example of this was the flex session I sat in on with Tina Cardone discussing the TMC application process. Tina is one of the leaders of the registration process, and she shared a ton of statistics with the group about the TMC attendees. The thought that Tina and the rest of the TMC board put into planning this process—they’ve thought of so much and made so many efforts to diversify TMC. A few things I learned from attending this session is that nearly 110 of the TMC slots are filled by presenters. The remaining 90 slots were filled by a lottery and wait list, and only about 94 people completed the lottery application—and ultimately everyone who completed the lottery was able to gain attendance to TMC. This surprised me—I had submitted two session proposals, both of which were rejected (rightly so, when I compare my ideas to the sessions I saw), and after my sessions were rejected, I was really worried about my odds in the lottery.

The challenges of creating a 200 person conference that continues to allow all the people who know and love this community to attend while still remaining open to newcomers is one that I think might be right up there with P vs NP. There were a number of ideas for how we might be able to increase access and awareness of TMC, but I think this is something that our community will be struggling with for some time to come. I did have one big idea about how we might reach pre-service teachers and others who just love math, and I’m going to blog about that in another post.

With this post, my time at TMC must come to an end, as I’ve got to drive back to Delaware and start getting ready for school. I’m sad to miss the last day and the big reveal for TMC18, but I’m leaving knowing that this is a vibrant organization with an amazing future ahead of it.

Why is TMC So white? One idea for change…let’s invite the neighbors

July 30, 2017
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Of the 186 TMC attendees, 166 of them (86%) were white, which I think was a deep cause of concern for nearly everyone at TMC. One other surprising fact is that Atlanta, a very diverse (if still fairly segregated) city, wasn’t especially well represented at TMC—we had nearly as many people from Massachusetts at TMC as from the Atlanta area.

200 is pretty close to a hard size cap for TMC. Grow much bigger, and it will be next to impossible to find institutions willing to host the conference for free. But, at least at this TMC, there’s only one place, the cafeteria that housed all of the keynotes, that is significantly size constrained and couldn’t accommodate a few more people. All of the other smaller sessions were held in classrooms that could easily accommodate 5, 10 or even 20 more people. At the same time, many of the sessions were about more than just teaching math; a bunch are simply about doing math together. And I would classify sessions like Ilana, Christopher and Lara’s session as one of these that was more about exploring the joy of learning math in non school contexts.

This gets me thinking, why are we limiting this fun to just math teachers? Physics teachers like me are already sneaking in, but I’m thinking we might really make some progress on the diversity front by specifically devoting an afternoon to outreach—running sessions specifically designed to share a joy in math (I’m thinking of Jonathan Calydon’s incredible sidewalk chalk project. What if we did this at TMC, and what if we invited the surrounding community to participate?

Expanding TMC in this way would allow us to get a number of people into TMC and have them experience a taste of the community and feel the infectious joy for math that is so pervasive during this conference, and at the same time, it would allow the rest of the conference to stay small, close knit, and not overly tax the facilities by trying to squeeze 400 people into a cafeteria meant for only half that number.

Creating a TMC outreach afternoon will allow math teachers in the area to give TMC a try for an afternoon without having to commit multiple days. If we were to reach out to all the colleges in the area, particularly historically black colleges and colleges that do a good job of serving 1st generation students, we might not only bring some diversity to TMC, we would also be reaching a number of pre-service and potential math teachers who will be the ones who that diversify math education after we are all retired. I think we could extend this even further—why not reach out to students at area schools? After 2 or 3 days of awesome math learning, I’m itching to try out some of what I’ve learned on some real live students. This outreach would be a bit effort—the cities that host TMCs are huge, and it’s a lot to ask the host institution to be responsible for getting the word out to all the math teachers in the city, particularly when we think about how many different types of schools there are. Maybe there should be a TMC sub committee completely devoted to home site outreach.

TMC Day 2—we belong together

July 29, 2017

Here’s a moment—it happened in Ilana, Christopher and Lara’s season on Learning From Children’s Mathematical Play at Math-on-A-Stick. Last year, Ilania got an NSF grant to study Christopher’s amazing garden of mathematical delights, and see how students engage the mathematical ideas within. She and her grad students outfitted kids visiting the exhibits with head mounted GoPro cameras, and they are now spending their time analyzing the footage.

Lara shared one video with us of a girl trying to make a heart out of plastic eggs on a 6×5 cardboard egg carton. For 7 minutes, the girl was thoughtfully working her way through how to improve her heart design, moving eggs from place to place, apparently working with some notion of symmetry.

She filled in her heart, and then expressed some frustration, feeling like it just didn’t look right, and then she said “there isn’t a middle,” and tried to place an egg between columns 3 and 4. And then suddenly, she rotated the carton by 90 degrees, so that there were now 5 columns—and she burst out an exclamation of delight, seeing that she now had a middle, and could reconstruct a fully symmetric heart.

I tell you, for those 20 seconds where that little girl was finding the middle in this cardboard box, every single teacher watching that video in this session was enthralled, and we all cheered at the exact same moment.

This is surely one of many moments when you realize this is a community that has a deep bond, and really gets what it means to love the wonder and creativity of mathematics.

Ilana, Christopher and Lara’s session was fantastic, and they shared some fascinating early findings of how parents interact with their children in these nonschool math experiences. They categorize the interactions into Problematizing and Schoolitizing.

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I find it surprisingly hard to problematize with my own 6-year-old when I work with her on activities like this. Too often, I think I miss the hidden mathematical structure in what we are doing and often jump to the low hanging fruit of the school math that I’m so comfortable with. This is something I need to work on, and I want to keep it in mind for my classroom work as well.

Finally, I’ve been having a few more thoughts about the question I raised yesterday—why can’t I help outsiders to see how amazing this community is?

Do you know how hard it is to hire a math teacher? I’m thinking Holy Innocents is going to have a much easier time making a hire the next time they have a math opening, for the simple reason that 200 incredible teachers have benefited from the school’s amazing hospitality, and have seen the beautiful facilities. So why isn’t every school and college rushing to offer up their campus for TMC? And even simpler, why isn’t some smart administrator with a math opening wandering around the cafeteria looking to set up a few interviews. It seems like such a no-brainer.

I’m still pretty genuinely perplexed by this. At first, I thought maybe it’s the fact that I’m so enthusiastic about the MTBoS when I speak of it that I turn people off, and I’m sure that’s part of it. But I know there’s also a pretty big culture of “connected educators” that are way more enthusiastic than me about the power of connection to transform learning and none of them seem to recognize the truly unique sauce that is the MTBoS, that we are the embodiment of much of what they preach about.  In the rest of the world, it seems that successful institutions and groups get wide recognition both inside and outside the group, and usually more than a few imitators. But I don’t think the MTBoS is getting the recognition it deserves from the math education community or the wider world at large. And given the number of “where is the MTBoS of X field” tweets I see, there aren’t that many imitators either. Probably all of this is me just being too invested in this community and super appreciative of all it has done to push my own thinking. I doubt that there is one thing I can say to a colleague or administrator that is going to get him or her to suddenly change course and recognize this TMC as the future of professional collaboration, any more than there’s one thing I could say to get all my students to fully master Newton’s Second Law. MTBoS is an understanding we all have to construct ourselves, and the best I can do for anyone else is to share my own experience and serve as a patient guide.

It’s late, and I’m getting tired so I won’t be able to tell you how amazing Elizabeth’s (CheesmonkeySF) session continues to be amazing, and that the Talking Points Framework is a genius technique for getting everyone in the class to participate and explain their reasoning.

And I’ve got even less time to say that Clothesline Math blew my mind. I had no idea that you could tackle incredibly deep and challenging algebra, geometry, and statistics problems using a simple clothesline number line. I’m going to try to spend some time thinking about how I might adapt this tool for physics.