Interviewing Prospective Staff

The Hiring Tapes

Want to have some way to assess a person’s understanding before you hire them? Rather than talk abstract philosophy, can a candidate see and describe the fundamental elements of early childhood pedagogy? If they can’t, it seems reasonable they probably won’t create it.

Frustrated having to hire new staff without seeing them teach? You can ground an interview by using any or all of these four short videotape portraits of preschool life, selected to stimulate in-depth discussion about qualities of teaching young children. Each 3-4 minute scene presents a significant aspect of teaching four-year-old children in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic classroom. Each has a link to the number on Vimeo.com, so candidates won’t be looking at this page.

scene1Scene 1 — Community Responsibility

Teachers may find it a major challenge to get children to clean and restore the classroom. It is not something most people enjoy, nor most children come to school expecting to enjoy. A few children may step right in, some may be reluctant to contribute, and some may resist. Here is what it looks like when all the children are participants in the community.

Cleanup time displays the culture of any school, so can your applicant tell you what the children have learned about themselves and about their relationship to others in this preschool community? If not, they might think cleanup is a necessary duty rather than a learning experience in achieving a group goal.

How the children act is indicative of the balance of power between adults and children, the locus of responsibility in a classroom, and the social elements of the children’s participation, interest, initiative, caring, and perseverance. Likewise, the intentions the adults hold for children’s agency, responsibility, and participation are apparent in what they do and do not do.

Can your applicant identify the values present in this cleanup time? If they can’t see the responsibilty taken by the children for each other and the classroom, they might not work towards those values. Does your applicant notice that the adults do not direct the children but remain present? If not, they may have not done the personal work required in learning to facilitate initiative in children, for you can’t make children do this. Is your applicant critical of what they see? If so, expect them to be critical of others in their employment.

If your applicant can describe how this is created in a community of four-year-old children, grab ’em quick.


scene2Scene 2 — Limit Setting

This scene depicts the roller coaster ride of teaching — the rises of wonderful times and the descents into tense times. At the beginning the children are cooperative and constructive. Then the cleanup bell rings, and they become wildly exuberant in destroying what they had made. From a detached perspective, it is possible to say that the children in these wild moments are simply having good fun. Most people can remember times in their own lives when they enjoyed “fights” with snowballs or pillows, and would have hated for some “authority” to step in and stop them. Hey! We’re having fun. Nobody is being hurt.

On the other hand, teachers face the anxiety of fulfilling their responsibility for children’s safety. A horrible vision of the worst case scenario can likely fill their minds, such as someone getting hurt or someone crying. It is equally possible to think that if you are responsible for the safety of these children, you cannot ignore this kind of behavior. The urge is strong to step in and put a stop to it.

Can your applicant see the benefits here of NOT stepping in?  When the “bonking” began to hurt, the child in the yellow jumpsuit told the child in the striped shirt, to stop. It worked. It stopped. So the children dealt with the problem appropriately, using words to solve problems not physical retaliation. Can your applicant indicate to you that this positive result would never have happened if the teacher had stepped in earlier? Helping or “managing” children is often not the wisest course.

This scene may stimulate strong opinion for it can illuminate one of the key issues in a teacher’s development — what we variously call discipline, behavior management, or guidance. It is easy for novice teachers to voice a self-assured advocacy for control. Often experienced teachers appreciate the complexity of these events and understand the way schools can help develop children’s ability to cope independently with social difficulties. They will hang back, observe closely, allow children to make mistakes in the safety of a community, and then act assertively to support positive steps when they occur, which is what happened in this clip. Thus less control may help step children forward into taking responsibility to assertively express their own needs and interests and care for others.

Can your applicant articulate their own thoughts about the dimensions of an educator making these kinds of decisions? When do you wait? When do you act assertively? Experienced teachers can clearly tell you what guides their intentional practice.


scene3Scene 3 — Science in Free Play

We watch two different play times as the teacher talks to the children. This is not cleanup or group time where the teacher is expected to lead; this is free play. In free play, the children’s initiative is valued; their ideas create the play. The children can chose to be in these exploration activities or be somewhere else — to paint, build, dress up, or select other choices the space offers. The distinction between the role of the adult in free play and the role of the adult in group time is critical.

STEM is at work. Certain free play materials foster discovery and creativity. Note there are no toys here. Can your applicant be able to describe the kinds of free play activities that present investigations in science without using commercial toys? Experienced teachers will be able to tell you the characteristics of activities that allow every child to be an inventor and a creator no matter what their learning style or developmental level.

Experienced teachers can also see how this teacher is acting in a carefully considered way, following guides that she knows will help these children act freely, take risks, reflect upon what they do and others do, and learn to think about what is happening before them. Can your applicant identify which actions a teacher takes in the development of the dispositions of science in play?

Note there are no directions from the teacher for children to do any particular thing, e.g., Try the funnel. or See if this will float. Note the absence of questions, too, e.g., What happened? or Do you think that will sink or float? Note the teacher never uses judgmental praise, e.g., That is very nice. I like how she is stacking all these things on hers. Does your applicant notice the absence of these common behaviors? Much of the literature in early childhood education says that the role of the adult is to ask timely questions in free play. Do they agree or disagree with this practice?

Experienced teachers will also be able to see the way the teacher is building vocabulary, giving the children language that applies to their experiences not only to think about the effects they cause but also to express themselves to others. Can your applicant describe the guides for effective facilitation of science in free play?


scene4Scene 4 — Perseverance

The teacher cues and responds to Johnny’s attempts to assemble a graduated concentric rings puzzle. In addition to color, shape, and size, the child must discriminate the orientation of the ring. One side of the ring has a protruding peg that serves as a miniature handle. Johnny has not played with these puzzle sets before. He encounters a piece that does not slip quickly into place. His first attempt is upside down. He tosses it aside. Will he give up or stay engaged?

Perseverance is the amount of time a learner is willing to spend at a given task. Two-year-olds often spend short amounts of time at many things. By age five, children ought to be able to persevere at difficult challenges for extended lengths of time. Does your applicant convey to you that perseverance is the idea that matters, not the completion of the task? In other words, do they understand that the amount of time the child spends keeping on without success is one of the essential outcomes of a good education?

Children learn to persevere by having success in times of difficulty: “too easy” teaches little; “too hard” teaches giving up; “overcoming trouble” teaches a lot. Effective teachers look for that center point, the place where the child encounters trouble enough to be hard and where sustained effort, either now or coming back again, can yield success. It is a delicate balance; assistance is probably the worst thing one can do. How does your applicant see self-confidence developed in young children?

Does your applicant easily proclaim an opinion of what is right or wrong here? Little is simple here, for the decisions this teacher makes depend upon the her relationship with this child. It is difficult for outsiders, like us, to see the dynamics of an event like this, among unique people, at a unique moment in time. This teacher knows Johnny better than we do who are watching the tape. No one can say if this is wrong or right. Does your applicant understand that the teacher is using her insight in deciding when to wait or which way to assist?

Can your applicant describe the way this teacher facilitates? If so, that would be a sign of an applicant who is able to be an effective facilitator of young children, in other words, be an educator. If your applicant is critical, they may also be critical of children, other teachers, parents, and you. Being judgmental is not an attribute of an effective educator.

Note how the teacher provides information and keeps her hands off. She attends to the work of other children, leaving Johnny alone for a little while. Can your applicant describe his or her own guides in situations like this? How do they describe rules for helping? 

Johnny got help from a peer. Can your applicant distinguish between peer help and teacher help? Is there a difference?

Encouragement. Positive feedback. Reinforcement. Rewards. These are words we often use to talk about the essential need to validate and strengthen actions by learners in a warm, authentic way. Teachers may try to be positive in ways that may or may not have a positive effect. Likewise, children may acquire habits of seeking adult approval rather than relying on their own internal sense of satisfaction. Can your applicant distinguish the kinds of positives that work most effectively without detracting from a child’s sense of self-worth?

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