The panic set in just before we ended school for Pesach break. While in the process of hiring a teacher, we made the decision to close school and move to the Zoom platform. In those initial weeks of shelter in place, my hope was still that after Pesach we would return to our campus and be able to continue the search in a traditional manner. The week before Pesach break it was clear that this was not going to happen. We would not be able to meet candidates in person.
After some soul searching, we decide that our best option was creating a Zoom experience that mirrored our normal hiring process. I was skeptical of how effective interviewing on Zoom would be, but with few choices we started our Zoom interview process immediately after Pesach. I was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly the process went and by the feeling, both from the candidates and from our team, that we were able to get a clear sense of the fit for each candidate.
Going through our process on Zoom did two things for me as an administrator. The first was cementing my feeling that we have a good hiring process that helps us get to know our candidates and helps our candidates get to know us. The second is that it challenged some assumptions formulated over a decade of hiring teachers.
As I’ve built our process of getting to know and evaluating candidates, I’ve approached the process with one basic goal: Making sure we have a good sense of each candidate and making sure they have a good sense of us. This translated into two questions I pose to myself and my team during the design of the visits. Firstly, what are the experiences that we want this candidate to have to accomplish these goals? Secondly, who are the people we want the candidate to meet in order to accomplish these goals?
Two examples of how we translate these goals into experiences for our candidate are choosing the classes for the model lesson and involving students. In general, each candidate teaches the same two classes to facilitate comparison. Part of the fabric of our school’s culture is the wide range of Judaic background and skill level in our student body. We have students coming into high school having never attended Jewish school, as well as students who have been in Orthodox day school since they were in diapers, and everyone in between. This informs our choice to have Judaic candidates teach two classes, one with our strongest students and another with either some of our weakest students or with a mix of students.
We also have a group of students meet each candidate by themselves to give us feedback. There are no other adults present at this meeting. It is a chance for the candidate to really hear directly from students and for our students to have the edifying experience of being involved in shaping the school’s future. This fits our culture and illustrates how we actively put students in leadership positions and support their pursuit of experiences that will truly prepare them for the future. This piece of our system is modeled after an experience I had interviewing for an administrative role at another school. I really enjoyed getting to speak to the students and was struck by the level of trust the school displayed in their students. When I began my current position the next year, I knew that this was something I wanted to adopt for our own searches.
Every school has a unique culture. The specific aspects of the interview process must match the culture of the school and be aligned with the goal of mutual understanding between the school and the candidate. Having our same process fully on Zoom worked out far better than I would have imagined. The feedback from the candidates as well as our own staff was that the process was surprisingly informative and thorough.
I was also surprised to find myself questioning some long-held assumptions about hiring in the face of this process.
In my experience, connecting over Zoom has not felt as real or effective as in person conversations. We were very concerned that this reality would make it difficult for students and teachers to get a sense of how the candidate would connect to our team and our students. This concern was rooted in my assumption that I needed to witness the interactions, read the facial expressions and see the nuance in order to judge if there was potential for good connections. Instead, we solicited feedback from students in the model lesson and the group of students that met with each candidate, both via google form after each visit and in a Zoom session once they had met all the candidates. Students felt as confident as usual and gave insightful and helpful feedback.
This assumption grew out of years of feeling like seeing a teacher in action is imperative in identifying their strengths and growth areas. Consistent in-person classroom visits and feedback have always been the main levers in improving pedagogy in my schools. In searches over the years, I had gotten videos of lessons and they weren’t nearly as helpful. Despite all this, after watching the Zoom model lessons and discussing them with each candidate, I had a good sense of their developmental stage in their growth as teachers. However, the discussion of how the lesson went with each candidate played a more significant role than usual. In addition, speaking to the teacher’s current supervisor about their classroom teaching was also important.
As an “out of town” community, we always understood that the decision for a teacher and their family to relocate was a significant one and assumed it was near impossible to make without spending a Shabbat here. Aside from the current travel challenges, there is no community Shabbat experience to speak of, so we were left to imagine ways to replace this experience. We put candidates in touch with community members and a representative from the Federation. Current teachers also discussed the different parts of the community with each candidate. As we are not finished with the process, I still wonder if inability to experience the community will prevent our chosen hire from accepting the offer.
In both my personal and professional life, I have searched for some silver linings of shelter-in-place and Zoom school. A positive in our process of searching for a faculty member during COVID is the renewed sense of the effectiveness of our hiring process, now battle-tested, being fully transported onto a Zoom platform. The second bright spot is the ability to rethink assumptions and perhaps make our process even better, or at least more flexible, in the future. As school leaders, any opportunity to model openness to learning should be embraced.
Rabbi Maury Grebenau is the principal of Yavneh Academy of Dallas. He has been a senior administrator and a change agent in schools for the past nine years in Texas and California and has published numerous articles on educational leadership. Email Rabbi Grebenau at email@example.com.