From advertising through to appointment, in the digital age it’s inevitable that at least some of your school’s recruitment process happens online.
But in the last year – with schools repeatedly forced to close their doors to candidates – the school visit, the in-tray task and the interview lesson all now need to be reformatted.
For many international schools, who recruit teachers from a global pool of talent, connecting with teachers via video conferencing is already routine. But for others, who may rely on local educators, the move to a virtual interview process could be an intimidating prospect.
How can you appoint a member of staff without ever having witnessed them teach? It’s a question causing many governors and leadership teams sleepless nights – something akin to a football club signing a player they’ve never seen kick a ball.
However, in the quickly evolving world of Covid-19 and education on lockdown, it’s something for which schools have been quickly finding solutions. Back in April 2020, to try to obtain an understanding of how schools have digitalised this process, Tes spoke to a panel of leaders to get their advice.
One headteacher from an international school in Europe explains that she can still get a good feel for a candidate when recruiting online. However, where she normally invited candidates for the final round of interviews on site, this is no longer possible, but it shouldn’t be seen as an insurmountable obstacle.
“As a recruiter, you begin to know what is the right sort of person for your school,” she explains. “I have introduced more layers of interviews just to make sure that my instincts are right. I’ve been in much closer touch with referees and asked candidates to share a digital online portfolio, or to send along evidence of some of their strong or successful lessons.
“If a teacher is passionate, their previous employers have said they are hard-working and effective, and they have shown me evidence of a great lesson, I feel pretty confident.”
Before the interview
It may be that the communication and form-filling element of your recruitment process is already digital. Many recruitment agencies allow you to manage applicants securely online and contracts can still be mailed out.
For Nick Soar, executive principal at Harris Academy St John's Wood and Harris Academy Tottenham, in London, much of the initial recruitment phase was already digital.
“The Harris Federation operates a completely digital application and selection process, which is centralised and supported by the talent acquisition team,” Soar explains.
“Academy staff log in, either on site or remotely, to a cloud-based system, which provides academy users with secure access to advertise jobs, review applications, shortlist and schedule interviews for any job.”
If you are worried about physical copies of contracts becoming lost or even contaminated, there are tools such as DocuSign, where you and candidates can digitally complete contracts.
In many ways, moving from physical documents to digital copies should make things easier from a data protection perspective. Having stacks of CVs left sitting on your desk or on top of the printer is a General Data Protection Regulations nightmare, after all.
“Ensure the process is fair and consistent, and does not fall short on standards for safer recruitment,” says Soar.
“There are plenty of third-party software providers who can facilitate remote access and digital recruitment, but be mindful of data protection in how you collect, store and share personal information.”
How to make the online interview work
For most schools, the biggest challenge will be moving from a face-to-face interview to something virtual.
However, having spoken to international leaders who have been using video conferencing tools to vet candidates for years, many see the value in – and even prefer – online interviews.
“I get a better feel for the candidate and the candidate gets a better feel for us because there’s more time,” says Karrie Dietz, head of school at Stamford American School in Hong Kong.
“It’s not rushed. When it’s online, I can take my time. If the interview needs to be longer, we can set up another time.”
Another leader echoes this view: “Some of the best interviews I’ve had with educators over the past 10 years have been Skype interviews,” says Jennie Devine, principal of St Louis International School in Milan, Italy.
“They can get themselves mentally prepared, they don’t have to navigate a new city. It takes a lot of those factors out of the equation.”
However, that's not to say there are not some shortcomings to digital interviews, as Liz Cloke, head of secondary at Tenby International School in Malaysia, and someone who interviews expat teachers exclusively online, acknowledges.
“On a remote interview, you don’t know if they are able to actually do it in the classroom,” she explains, “So your interview questions are really important as they can delve deeper into their pedagogical understanding. References also become more important.”
Soar acknowledges that interviewing online means the usual robust process, where candidates would arrive at school and face an identical procedure, can also potentially get neglected. As such, consistency is key:
“At Harris, academies have the ability to host online virtual interviews with a panel of interviewees, creating a fair and consistent digital interview process, with the aim of ensuring no applicant is at a disadvantage,” he explains.
From the feedback Tes received, there seem to be five clear ways schools can ensure their online interview process is as comprehensive as possible:
1. Add extra layers to your interview
Many schools will be concerned that it’s difficult to get a true feel for a candidate via a video call.
For international schools already conducting their interview process online, they use multiple interviews with different members of staff. This helps get different opinions and allows the candidate more chance to build rapport with the team.
For Cloke, the process begins with a 30- to 40-minute conversation with at least two members of the senior leadership team.
“We now do a first round of interviews, which is a short, informal chat to get to meet the applicant,” explains Cloke.
“This establishes their motivation for the position, our school and the country. You get to see a little of their personality to make some quick judgements on their suitability for the position. It also shows whether they’ve done their research on your school, which shows they are serious.”
Dietz sees candidates move through a series of interviews, allowing some time for both parties to assess each other.
“There’s usually space in between them and, if the candidate has any questions, we can connect them with a teacher and they can have very frank questions about the school and what living in Hong Kong is like.”
However, one European headteacher explained that simply replicating the same format for each round of interviews just to get more people involved in the process isn’t a good use of time. Instead, you need to change the purpose each time.
“We conduct three different interviews, all with a slightly different objective," she explains. “This means you’ve got three different opportunities and dynamics, and when you put those together, you get a more layered view.”
2. Find new ways to assess their classroom competency
An obvious drawback of interviewing from a distance is not being able to see your candidate in the classroom. A normal teaching interview in the UK would involve candidates planning and conducting a lesson, and also perhaps a presentation and a timed task.
But with your prospective new staff member at the end of a phone line, at the mercy of internet bandwidth and perhaps in a different time zone, getting an accurate impression of their ability in front of a class might seem impossible.
Louise Smith, chief executive at the Warrington Primary Academy Trust, disagrees. She is planning to get her interviewees to execute a live lesson remotely via software already rolled out across her classrooms.
“Obviously we can interview them and have a conversation with them, but we would also potentially use Microsoft Teams to live stream a lesson to a selection of our children,” she says.
“We’ve got access to all of our cohort, which at one particular school are getting very high rates of engagement. In our recruitment drive, we always ask our children’s viewpoint on our candidates.”
If getting candidates in front of a class poses too much of a logistical headache, then there are other ways of getting a picture of your candidate’s teaching prowess. Nick Soar assesses candidates during the interview process without the need for a live demo.
“It’s difficult to replicate a lesson observation virtually,” he says. “But by using competency-based questions and role play or simulations, we can recreate an interview and assessment process, which identifies an applicant’s suitability.”
The European headteacher that Tes spoke to also plans to get candidates doing something that will impact less on her students, whereby candidates film a short instructional video that the panel can view and use to generate questions.
“Just two or three minutes, and nothing fancy, but something to see how they would explain how they would achieve an objective,” she explains.
“I wouldn’t ask for them to teach a class live at this point as it is strange and unnatural, and I want to keep up continuity and normality for our students.”
3. Get a true picture of your candidate's personality
Along with schools and leaders, candidates also find themselves in uncharted waters. With this in mind, and with the overall aim of getting an accurate picture of your interviewee in mind, Devine advises that you do what you can to put candidates at ease.
“I think being honest about the limitations of the technology straightaway is really important,” she explains. “It puts them at ease and they’re less worried about making a bad impression.”
Soar agrees that the interview scenario may not suit all candidates, whether it be in the flesh or online, so the more you can do to help candidates relax, the better.
“Digital or virtual interviews are not common practice in education, and for many practitioners they will have limited or no experience of what a virtual interview is like,” he says.
“Conducting a multi-stage interview process gives applicants the chance to familiarise themselves with the process and technology used, and the opportunity for the interview panel to see how the applicant performs throughout the process as a whole.”
Once you’ve allowed the candidate to settle into this new format, you’ll be able to get a better idea of them as a person. But without seeing the candidate in the flesh, this places added importance on the questions you’ve prepared, so make sure they cover as much as possible.
You won’t have those tea-break moments to get to know a candidate, so consider how you can extract some more of their personality.
“Use questions that allow people to talk a little bit more about what sparks them, or what makes them happy or what gives them passion. That way, you can get a real sense of who they are,” Devine continues.
The European headteacher agrees that getting a good sense of a candidate’s personality is possible when interviewing online, but the line of questioning needs thought.
“Focus on the person, their values, their work ethic and attitude to behaviour management,” she explains. “Listen to how they describe their students and how they talk about their own successes.”
“For me, focusing on what they know about the particular curriculum is not all that important. If I have a passionate, hard-working teacher who has consistently strong reports from their line managers, I can help them flesh out teaching in our school, using our curriculum.”
4. Lean on their references
If you are unable to witness a new member of staff in action, speak to someone who has. Good leaders will always want the best for their staff, so will be happy to give you as much information as possible.
For Dietz, it’s important to scratch beneath the standard letter of reference that you might receive with an application, which can be quite generic and is almost always glowing.
“What is helpful are the confidential references that the referees complete and conversations that I have with them on the phone,” she says.
Under the current circumstances, the referees have taken on a new level of importance, according to the European headteacher.
“I have more of an interrogation of a person’s current employers than I normally would,” she explains. “In the past, we’d always have three written references but now, I follow up with conversations to follow up key aspects. It’s good to speak to people and get the whole picture.”
5. Ask for an online portfolio of evidence
As the interview process has moved online, so has much of the teaching and learning. Teachers will already have resources, schemes of work and, increasingly, multimedia and recordings of virtual instruction.
Ask a candidate to submit some online materials, which you can then ask them to introduce during interview. The European headteacher explained that many departments will ask for portfolios but now, with no opportunity to meet candidates in person, this is even more useful.
“Normally, when people come and visit the school, they’ll have a hard copy of a portfolio,” she says.
“One head of department has asked people to upload things to Padlet. Another has asked for scanned copies. It’s having those concrete examples of work that we’d perhaps normally see online.”
With this additional layer, alongside the additional elements schools are using to supplement and adapt their process, it looks as though recruitment needn’t be impacted too greatly.
As Dietz says in summary, school leaders are faced with regular challenges, and the majority are overcome with creativity and ingenuity.
“This is an opportunity,” she states. “Many international schools have chosen to do their recruiting online because of the advantages. Yes, there are obstacles to overcome, but there are certainly advantages.”