Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Appointment by ordeal

I've spent the last two working days with the head, governors and advisors of Tredegarville School in a carefully desighned interview process to choose the next deputy Head Teacher. The short listed candidates spent a day in school, each taking a year group act of worship and teaching a class for a subject session. The school council, composed of year five and year six pupils conducted their own interviews of the candidates in the afternoon, using a set of questions they had earlier discussed and devised, reflecting their own interest. I was amazed at the maturity of their brief engagements with the candidates and the discussions that followed. It was illustrative of the real quality of schooling they are receiving, developing their thinking and their social skills.

The second day was the formal interview panel, with set-piece Q&A sessions, a formal presentation on an aspect of school management policy, and a simple problem solving exercise, simulating the role required of a deputy head teacher. This I found really difficult as the whole framework was designed around meeting the set requirements of the County's Human Resources department, to produce a paperwork train of the decision making process for reference just in case any of the candidates should have a complaint to make afterwards.

We did it all conscientiously - but in my case it was with deep resentment, because of the ordeal the candidates were submitted to. It was all over intellectualised and abstract, revealing little of the candidates personality or creative ideas, and giving us little additional information about them as potential deputy head teachers. It did, as one of the panellists said in defence of my open criticism of the process, reveal how well the candidates performed under pressure. Yes, but it was only a performance, out of context.

What we'd preferred to know was how well candidates could think on their feet, summarise, exercise right judgement in a real life, real time crisis, say with an outbreak of violence in school, or an angry dysfunctional parent on the rampage, seeking redress from child or teacher for some imagined offence. These are the stressful contingencies that leading teachers have to cope with. Not to mention the stress of so much useless paperwork and meeting bureaucratic deadlines out of synch with the educational cycle.

I was disturbed to have to go through beforehand letters of application which read as if they were references for the candidates written by themselves to sell themselves, much of this effectively repeating the content of the application form. These were all excellent highly qualified candidates, to judge simply by the forms they'd returned. Discovering what additional and original information they offered about their view of the school and how they saw themselves performing in it was really spoiled by all the self promotion. Unfortunately the interview questions encouraged more of the same. It was as if transparency and common sense were being de-railed by expectations of the process and how the candidates had been encouraged to perform in order to sell themselves. I found it demeaning of their human worth as skilled and gifted, otherwise self effacing pedagogues. What are modern personnell management systems up to?

The day in school with the children revealed the candidate with the best potential. The day of formal interviews came to the same conclusion after a long exercise in detailed analysis and point scoring, but it actually told us nothing more than we had already witnessed by letting candidates be themselves in a new schooling environment demonstrating their gifts and vocation in the real world with real children and adults. On the second day only the brief simulation exercise added anything new to what the candidates had revealed in school, fortunately consolidating the move towards a concensus in appointing. It was for us involved a learning experience which might give us cause for review and reassessment next time an appointment of this kind has to be made.

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