Students take lead in hiring of teachers

Kids collaborate to interview candidates

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By Chris Dodge, Fletcher Elementary principal

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FLETCHER — Students at the Fletcher Elementary School are making major decisions about the future of their school.

This year, they have more than a little involvement in the process of hiring new staff for next fall. They are conducting every aspect of the job searches, from crafting the help wanted postings and reviewing applications, to writing questions and conducting interviews. Their work isn’t complete until they’ve made a hiring recommendation to the superintendent.

The effort is one of many aimed at promoting student leadership and engagement at the sixth grade level in Fletcher. Throughout the year, students study and practice a variety of essential skills that transfer across settings, both inside and outside the school. Strong communication and collaboration are emphasized throughout the curriculum and students practice these skills during events such as classroom meetings and debates, as well as visits to the local senior citizens’ luncheon, just to name a few. Over time, and with the guidance and facilitation of their teachers, students use their skills to assume more and more responsibility for their own learning.

Mid-year, when a technology support position opened at the school, it seemed only fitting that students would participate in the search process. With adult support and guidance, they studied the job description, wrote questions and met with candidates. Following the interviews, the students discussed their perceptions of the candidates’ strengths and challenges before making a decision to recommend the position be filled.

“Having students interview me made me think more about the type of users I would be servicing and the kinds of interactions I would have, not only with teachers, but also with the students,” Fletcher’s technology support specialist Connor Allen said. “Allowing students to be part of the interview process not only showed them the type of environment they will eventually face in the working world, but also what happens later on down the road with education and what they will be able to do with all of the knowledge they’ve gathered over the years. It also exposed them to a profession that they may aspire to be in.”

With one successful experience complete, students took on even more responsibility earlier this month when vacancies for music and special education teachers opened. Working with adult guidance, students again reviewed the job descriptions for these positions and discussed the characteristics they would be looking for in a successful candidate. They crafted job ads that were posted electronically and reviewed each application that was received.

“It was the first time I had ever seen a cover letter or resume,” sixth grader Matthew Spiller said. “I realize now that there is a lot more to the process than just showing up for an interview. You have to prepare an application that is neat and looks as professional as you can make it look. Everything counts. It has to be interesting and spelled correctly and look good or you’re going to be out of luck.”

The students carefully scrutinized all 12 sections of each applicant’s online application including their cover letter, resume, background questions, transcripts, test scores, references, licensure status, extracurricular interests and the required application essay questions, which the students also crafted as part of the job postings. They also spoke to other students so that their peers’ priorities for new staff could be incorporated into the process through interview questions that reflected multiple perspectives.

“That was important,” sixth grader Sirena Sawyer said. “We needed to represent more than just ourselves in this process so we talked to other people to hear about what they would want to see in a new teacher. We did a lot of work but it was also about a bigger picture.”

In preparing for interviews, students were expected to adhere to the same search committee etiquette as adults. This included having a thorough understanding of the hiring process, the role of the committee, expectations for confidentiality, consistency, being a committed member of the group, keeping an open mind and being professional and courteous. Students were also expected to dress the part.

“You have to make sure you look presentable so that you can leave a good first impression on the candidate, too, so that they feel welcome and want to come back,” Spiller said. “You are not just interviewing them. They are also interviewing you.”

Students spent about two hours preparing for each set of interviews. As they spoke with candidates, the principal and at least one teacher observed from afar and supported as necessary, which was extremely minimal.

“I wanted to have a say in who runs the music program for the school,” Spiller said.  “I am leaving a legacy of getting the best music teacher we can by being part of this process. I was nervous at first, but after I got into it I wasn’t. I learned that you don’t just look at people and judge. You have to give them a chance to explain why they are there and why they want to take that role. If you just look at them on paper you are not seeing all of them and you are not hearing everything that they can do and bring into the school.”

“I feel like it is important for the students to run the interviews because we have seen how other teachers work with us and teach us and the different things that work and don’t work and we want to make sure that the new teacher brings to the table the positive stuff and everything we have appreciated over the years, as opposed to the things that don’t work so well,” Sawyer said.

“It was great to see the students step into this role,” music teacher Jill Walker, who observed the students conducting the music teacher interviews, said. “It prepares them for experiences that they will face later on in life as interviewees.”

“You have to talk to them and you have to see how they interact and their social skills. I looked for somebody who really works in science and math and our other studies into music,” Sawyer said.

“These student leadership opportunities let students know that they are important and that they don’t have to wait to be grown-ups before they can do meaningful work,” school counselor Sandi Simmons, who participated in the special education interviews, said. “They also learn what it means to be professional and confidential. Adults learn that kids can often do more than we think that they can when they are given the chance to do something important.”

“I chose to participate because I like taking leadership opportunities. I know how to be a leader and I can now use these skills that I have learned in other places outside of school. I learned how to be more strong and confident,” sixth grader Emma Sweet said.

Students agreed that collaborating to find the best candidate for each position was important.

“I found things about each person that I enjoyed and liked, but it was interesting to hear what my peers saw. They saw things that I missed and I saw things that they missed. That taught me that with things like this it is better to work as a team. We came up with a list of pros and cons and we talked everything through,” Sawyer said.

“I felt like I was talking to them professionally and I was not just a kid,” sixth grader Christina Ashley said of the experience. “They could tell me stuff that they had done and where they worked and where they went to school and I felt like they gave me the respect that they would give any other person. I usually feel like I am just the student and adults have the authority. Here, I had the authority and I was more like an adult. I liked that and I knew I was benefitting my school by doing something important.”

“Now I know how an interview goes,” said sixth grader Briana Start. “I know what questions are asked by the group and get asked by the candidate. I learned that there are times when you really have to be professional and mature if you want to be taken seriously.”

Students agreed that they would likely change something about themselves as a result of this experience.

“I will probably try to be a little more mature because of this,” sixth grader Kiersten Cardinal said. “I was really proud of myself for being that mature and now I want to be more like that.” Cardinal said she hopes to refine her skills at asking questions, listening, speaking loudly and using professional body language.

“This was a great opportunity for us to step up and offer our opinion and get more involved with what the adults do,” sixth grader Heidi Tinker said. “I thought it was cool how we got to ask the questions.”

“This gave us more experience learning how to check on how people did in school and if they have been in trouble and if so, what that was for,” said Ashley. “I was thinking about what people would see in my grades and my behavior when I go to apply for a job. I think I am going to try to be more focused because if I am applying for a job they will know I am interested by my grades and actions. I want to be proud when I apply for a job.”

According to sixth grade teacher Jasmine Tremblay, leadership opportunities such as this give confidence to students that are often insecure.

“By giving them the tools, feedback and guidance to be successful at making a decision like this that will impact the entire school it shows them that we believe in them and trust their opinions, especially when they can support it with relevant evidence,” Tremblay said. “This opportunity gives them a chance to naturally and authentically apply and transfer knowledge and communication skills. Middle school students can be focused on themselves and when they see how an employer hires candidates they internalize that experience. They get a unique perspective.”

Students are not the only learners in this process.

“Adults learn that we may often underestimate the potential of a sixth grader,” added Tremblay. “They are capable of anything we ask of them as long as we give them the support, feedback and practice they need to be successful. We’ve learned the value of giving authentic opportunities. Those opportunities give our students an advantage over others who have not had this rich, safely guided experience. Adults that are applying for jobs clearly understand that we value our students, that we believe in their thoughts and ideas and that they are an important part of our community.”

“I would definitely do this again,” Ashley said. “I was given a chance to make a difference with something real and really important. I was responsible for a major decision and I took that very seriously. I helped my school and I helped myself at the same time.”