Interviewing recruits? Enlist your students
On what basis should a teacher be given a job? Their performance at interview would be near the top of many people's lists, as would how well they teach a trial lesson and whether they have relevant experience and skills. Likewise, how a candidate interacts with others is generally deemed important.
The idea of including young people in recruitment is more controversial. Student voice is a polarising issue. But could it have a role in helping us to make such decisions, given the importance of student-teacher relationships? Much of the evidence points in this direction.
The paper part of recruitment - CVs and application forms - helps us to assemble a field of qualified candidates. But ticking off someone's skills against a job specification tells us only so much. The trial lesson gives us a sense of basic competence, but how can we assess those crucial rapport-building qualities that have such an effect on students' learning?
In his meta-analysis of influences on achievement, Visible Learning, Professor John Hattie from the University of Melbourne in Australia places teacher-student relationships strikingly high on the list: 11th out of 138 positive factors. Hattie rates the size of the effect at 0.72. (By comparison, an additional year's schooling is equivalent to 0.4.) Similarly, research conducted by Professor Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia in the US found that positive relationships in early schooling have an effect on young people's attitudes to education long after the contact ends.
So we know that students perform best when they feel comfortable and valued, and that teachers take the lead role in setting the tone. But can we adequately measure this seemingly intangible factor when we are making appointments?
The interview day is short and meaningful connections take time to build, but we should be looking for signs that a candidate will nurture good relationships with students. Some sense of a candidate's interpersonal skills will come through in the interview, but this is adult-to-adult contact and of secondary importance to an applicant's facility with young people. Giving a perfect answer to a fiendish question does not mean that a person will exhibit approachability and warmth in the classroom. So how can we assess this?
We should ask students for their honest views about candidates and listen seriously to what they say. Students are excellent critics of their own experience and their initial ideas about teachers have been shown to predict how they are likely to relate to them over time. A 2005 Israeli study asked a group of young people to rate teachers on the basis of 10-second video clips. Their judgements were firmly in line with those of the teachers' regular students.
First impressions appear to be surprisingly accurate here, much of which is down to how we read a person's general demeanour. Hattie summarises some of the important factors from a student's perspective as "positive and open gestures, physically moving around the room, relaxed body orientation, frequent use of smiles, direct eye contact, a variety of friendly and encouraging vocal tones". Young people use these cues to make judgements about how competent, fair, trustworthy and supportive a teacher is, and to predict how they are likely to be treated by them.
In addition, Harvard University researcher Vanessa Rodriguez provides a helpful analogy for effective teacher-learner dynamics. She writes about a mutually affecting system of teacher and learners, which adapts on the basis of the feedback flowing between them. Neuroscientists can even measure a harmonising of brain activity between a teacher and a student during interactions. It would not be surprising if this happened most when those relationships were underpinned by trust and mutual respect. In fact, it is hard to imagine it happening without these qualities.
An insider's perspective
We should avoid the temptation to make judgements about trial lessons wholly based on our own observations. Our adult perspective, which is outside the intimate system of teacher-learner interaction, is secondary to the students' own experience and we should find a mechanism for canvassing their views prior to any decision.
Admittedly, this can be logistically difficult in a busy school day. But it is worth shortening a lesson so that students have five minutes at the end to fill in a brief questionnaire assessing a teacher's manner, passion, rapport and likely fit with the school, and rating the learning that took place. (Students are startlingly good at looking as though they are learning - whether they are or not - and evidence suggests that teacher-observers are, on average, not very good at judging how much learning is taking place in a lesson, although this can be improved through training.)
So students' perceptions of a trial lesson are important but we should give them an even broader role in helping us to appoint the right people. A teacher's impact on a school is not only felt in the classroom context. Encounters outside this space - in the corridor, playground or lunch hall - can be extremely influential in subsequent interactions.
A number of schools, including my own, run student panels for prospective candidates. My student teaching and learning group meets each candidate to ask questions (of their own design) that tease out a person's motivations, relationship with their subject and broader interests. Crucially, the process also sheds light on the interviewee's interpersonal skills outside a structured lesson environment. I observe the sessions and gather student feedback, which sometimes - but not always - matches my own opinion. The contrasting reactions can be invaluable when my colleagues and I gather at the end of the day to consult with the school leader about whom to appoint.
I do not mean to suggest, of course, that students should have the final say. Senior managers must carefully consider all the available evidence in order to form a holistic judgement. I merely intend to emphasise the fact that we can easily underestimate, or forget about, the critical judgement of our students when it comes to their classroom experiences.
Our whole staff recently undertook formal lesson observation training from a senior schools inspector; he ran the same session for my student group straight afterwards and rated their insights about the video demonstration lessons as highly as those of their experienced adult counterparts. Their conclusions were not identical nor expressed in the same language, but they saw things that teachers did not and were able to contribute to a more rounded assessment. We ignore their voice in the recruitment process at our peril.
Alistair McConville is director of teaching and learning at Bedales School in Hampshire, England
Read our guide to recruiting the right teacher for the job.
What does an interview with a student panel involve? Teachers discuss their experiences on the TES Connect forums.
Read questions posed by real-life student panels.
Babad, E (2005) "Guessing teachers' differential treatment of high- and low-achievers from thin slices of their public lecturing behaviour", Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 292: 125-34.
Rodriguez, V (2013) "The human nervous system: a framework for teaching and the teaching brain", Mind, Brain, and Education, 71: 2-12.
Pianta, RC and Stuhlman, MW (2004) "Teacher-child relationships and children's success in the first years of school", School Psychology Review, 333: 444-58.