My dear friend High School English teacher John Burghardt will attest to the fact that I always appear harried. In fact I suspect I appeared harried when I was three years old. Some of us are wired that way. I always thought that Chaucer’s description of the Sergeant of the Law in the Canterbury Tales was particularly apt. A rough translation into modern English would read, “A busier man there never was and yet he seemed busier than he was.”
Probably about half the time, Chaucer’s description holds true for me. In the spring months, though, I actually am very busy. While admissions takes up time (I have the pleasure of sitting in on Lower and Middle School admissions meetings), the bulk of my days is spent on recruiting teachers for the coming year, which I do in partnership with Crissy Cáceres, our Assistant Head of School for Diversity and Social Impact.
Typically schools like ours experience a 10% turnover in staff and faculty on average. With a faculty and staff of more than 200, a 10% turnover can result in looking for upwards of 20 folks. Even if only half of those are teachers, our work is cut out for us.
Crissy and I, as well as numerous other teachers and administrators, attend as many as ten different job fairs, review hundreds of resumes, and for every open spot, invite as many as three candidates to the School for on-campus interviews. While on campus, candidates teach a demonstration class, complete a writing assignment, and meet with a number of teachers and administrators; after all that, we solicit feedback from everyone who had a chance to meet with the candidate. Then we make a determination after reference checks have been done as to whether we have found our person or need to keep on looking. By law, criminal background checks are done when an offer has been made and the offer is always contingent on that last hurdle being cleared.
I am often asked what I look for in a teaching candidate. Finding that teacher who can be a transformative figure (for good) in the lives of children is as much an art as a science.
Once, when asked whether being called by their first names detracts from our teachers’ authority, Gladys Stern, our third Head of School, said, “Honey, being called Mr. or Mrs. gives you authority for 24 hours before the kids discover the answer to two questions: do you know what you are talking about and do you love them? If the answer to either question is no, there are dozens of way to say Mr. which will not be to your liking.”
Gladys’ two questions hover in my mind when I am sitting with a candidate. In addition to candidates having to know their subjects, I want to make sure that they know themselves. I have always appreciated the fact that before they can root around in anyone else’s head, psychoanalysts need to undergo psychoanalysis. If you don’t remember who you were at 5 or 10 or 15 years old, it can be hard to muster the necessary sympathy a teacher needs when presented with a child who has once again forgotten his homework, misread the question, or didn’t understand the lesson you were trying to teach.
Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses captured that need beautifully. While helping a struggling student with a math problem, Stephen has one of his periodic epiphanies: “Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes.”
I will sometimes ask candidates to describe themselves as students. What I don’t want to hear is the expected: “School came easily to me. I always did well in every subject. I loved school.” I am under no illusion that just because I loved reading David Copperfield when I was ten years old, every student in my English class comes to reading with that same ease and joy.
I want teachers who know what it is like to struggle with a subject, to have felt the sting that comes from trying really hard and not succeeding, who understand that all children want to be successful, to be loved, to belong, and to not be those things really, really hurts. I want teachers who know that their subject is merely a window on the world through which they and the child look; the child and the world are always more important than the subject. Finally, given the history and mission of our School, I want teachers who appreciate that there is a moral component to what we are doing, that the aim of teaching is to provide our students with the deep knowledge and skills that will enable them to go out and heal the world or at least administer some necessary salve.
Of my many roles at the School, few are as important to me as finding the best possible teachers for our children. They and you deserve no less.