Professional Practices


September 2019 Volume IV Issue VI





Hiring Coachable High Performers


School administrators will agree that hiring is a critical responsibility of the principal just as hiring principals is a critical role of superintendents and assistant superintendents. Hiring a high-performing teacher or principal can seem daunting, especially when hiring for a high needs or transformational situation. As Joseph Murphy explains in his book Professional Standards for Educational Leaders: The Empirical, Moral, and Experiential Foundations, teachers matter. There are pointed differences in resources and quality among schools and sometimes between classrooms in the same school. Hiring high performers can buffer some of the natural learning curve that all new teachers and principals encounter and, thereby, reduce the impact of that learning curve.

Marcia Baldanza, the author of Professional Practices and a Just ASK Senior Consultant, lives in Arlington, Virginia. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.

This makes the responsibility of the principal to hire the best teacher possible even greater. Our students need and deserve the best teachers each and every day orchestrating the best lesson in terms of focus and learning opportunities. While some districts advertise vacant positions and perform initial screenings before principals interview applicants, other districts have principals post vacancies, screen applicants, and interview. Generally, the hiring logistics (necessary background checks, contract negotiations, etc.) take place at a central location. In both approaches, the principal usually conducts an interview.

In thinking about the interview itself, I never felt fully satisfied with my own protocol. I secured some high performers and some low performers yet I was unsure of how my interview process was able to distinguish between the two. In a school or school system, hiring a low performer is a problem for many reasons. Hiring poorly has the following bad outcomes; you can probably add more.

  • Bad teaching for the students
  • Extensive resource support (time, money, and materials)
    • Coaching
    • Training
    • Monitoring
    • Documenting
    • Terminating
  • The termination process can have an adverse impact the school culture

I was interested to learn if there were ways to increase my chances of hiring a high performer and decrease my chances of hiring a low performer so I enrolled in an online class offered by Leadership IQ’s CEO, Mark Murphy, called The Science of Hiring for Attitude. This five-module class totally changed my protocol and I now know my mistakes. While The Science of Hiring for Attitude has many business-related examples, it was easy to align these to an educational setting. Here’s what I learned:
Murphy notes that 89% of hiring failures are due to the affective nature of the position while only 11% of hiring failures were due to the technical skills needed to perform the job. We’re really pretty good at hiring for skill. I have always thought that I could teach someone the skills and knowledge needed for effective teaching, but affective skills aren’t as easily taught. Murphy describes problematic affective skills as:

  • Lack of coachability (cannot adapt and not accepting of feedback)
  • Limited emotional IQ
  • Low motivation
  • Temperament not suited for the role (highly individualistic people don’t fit well into a collaborative culture)

So, knowing that teachers have such a powerful and life-affecting influence, we can and must do better with hiring them. Most interviews focus mostly on the skills side of the role. We’re pretty good at determining those. What we’re not good at is hiring for the more affective attributes. Murphy, and I, are in agreement that skills do matter, but we can teach some of that. We need to be better about hiring for attitude.

Getting Started: Identify Characteristics of High Performers

To begin, identify the attitudes, characteristics, or qualities that differentiate your high performers from your low performers in your unique school. Actually make a list taking care to not note abstract ideas like reliability, trust, etc. Rather, what do these characteristics look and sound like in your school.

Designing Your Interview Questions

After you have listed the characteristics of your high performers, draft scenarios that will elicit responses that will help you identify high performers in an interview setting.

  • Pick one of your high-performing qualities and identify a situation where that characteristic would be obvious.
  • Begin your question with, “Could you tell me about a time you…” then insert the situation you identified. This is really important! Don’t start your questions with, “What would you do if…” Asking a hypothetical question will get you a hypothetical answer.
  • Leave your question hanging. It may feel awkwardly open ended, but it allows the candidate to respond more thoroughly. Many supervisors, myself included, want to make the question easier by adding little phrases, like “… and how did you solve it?” This leads the candidate to a destination he/she may not have gone. Do not turn a great question into a leading question. Mark Murphy hit this home for me when he said, “Let’s say your candidate has 100 related experiences to the quality you’re looking for, 99 of those are low performer qualities and one is a high performing characteristic. If we ask a leading question to help the candidate get to the one time (out of 100) he/she showed the trait you’re looking for, you’re likely to hire a low performer.” So, leave your question hanging—no little phrases allowed!

Differentiating Between Problem Solvers and Problem Bringers

There are two types of people: problem bringers and problem solvers. A question about a problem to a problem bringer will yield an answer that identifies a problem. Asking a question about a problem to a problem solver will yield the problem and how they solved it. You never have to ask a problem solver how they solved a problem. They will automatically tell you. Murphy cautions us to not include anything in your question that could limit our ability to see if someone is a problem bringer or problem solver.
The two examples below demonstrate how to design stronger interview questions:

  • Usual Question: Tell me about a time when you had to adapt to a difficult situation. What did you do?
    What’s wrong with this question? For starters, the phrase “what did you do?” is leading. Remember that your problem solvers will automatically tell you what they did. The word adapt suggests to the candidate that you want someone who is flexible and adaptable. Better to use the word “face” here. So, a better question that reveals your high performance trait of flexibility is:
    Better Question: Could you tell me about a time you faced a difficult situation?
  • Usual Question: Tell me about a time you had to balance competing priorities and did so successfully.
    What could be better here? Yes, the word “balance” suggests to the candidate that you want someone who can juggle multiple tasks. Make that a more neutral term like “face” works here too. The last phrase “…and did so successfully.” is leading. It may be leading the candidate to search their memory for the one time (out of one hundred) they successfully balanced competing priorities, leaving the 99 times they couldn’t hidden from you. So, this question becomes:
    Better Question: Could you tell me about a time you faced competing priorities?
    Leaving the question hanging creates a necessary tension. We want the candidate to experience that tension and then resolve it.

Creating an Answer Key/Guide for Your Questions

Murphy also taught me how to create an answer guide for my questions. I had always designed a rubric, but this is different, and better! Murphy recommends designing one question for each of your high-performer characteristics.

  • To identify the best answers, invite top performers with whom your work to meet with you one at a time and ask them the interview questions. Note their answers carefully.
  • Next, invite low performers to meet with you and repeat the process.
  • If you have a large group, consider a survey. You’re listening/looking for warning signs (bad answers) and positive signals (good answers).
  • Sample enough staff to get sufficient examples of warning signs and positive signals.
  • Create a 1-7 scale for each question using the examples you collected and generate middle of the road examples and/or ask your mid-level performers to also answer the questions.
  • Be attentive to verb tenses and pronouns. Murphy noted that high performers use first person, past tense: “I did…” Low performers used “You should…” Low performers also speak more in absolutes such as totally, completely, always, never.

Most Importantly, Focusing on Coachability

Finally, there is a need for one more question, making my total six. I’d have five questions each related to one of my high-performer characteristics and one for the number one reason new hires fail – coachability. This question is a five-part question designed to reveal coachability and goes like this:

  • What is your supervisor’s name? Could you spell it for me?
    This question tightens the gut and asking to spell the name, changes the responses to the following points.
  • Could you tell me about xxx as a supervisor?
    You want to listen for terms used. Are you like xxx? If so, and it was a pet peeve for the candidate, stay clear of this person.
  • What is something you could have done to improve your working relationship with xxx?
    High performers are continually in a state of self-reflection. They say things like, “Yes, we had a positive relationship, and I might have considered reaching out sooner on a couple of projects.” Low performers, on the other hand might say something like, “We had a great relationship. There isn’t anything I would do to improve our relationship.”
  • When I speak with xxx, what will she say is your greatest strength?
  • Everyone has areas to improve, when I talk with xxx, what will he/she say is your greatest weakness?
    Use the word “weakness” as “opportunities to improve” is soft. If the candidate cannot speak to this question, that’s a warning sign. Coachable people know what the supervisor will say before it is said. The coachable candidate anticipates feedback from the supervisor.


Putting My Exemplar Interview Together


I will have one question related to each of my five high performer characteristics and one multiple-part coachability question.(See details on coachability questions above.)
My five questions for high performer hiring and my thinking about each question:

  1. Could you tell me about a time you needed to work with others?
    I’m looking for evidence of collaboration and teamwork. Problem solvers will naturally tell me outcomes, so I don’t need to ask. Answers do not need to be classroom related. Some of the best collaborating happens outside of the school house, but can be applied within the school house.
  2. Could you tell me about a time when you faced a challenging situation?
    I’m looking for perseverance here. Again, problem solvers will tell me the outcome, so I don’t need to ask.
  3. Could you tell me about a time you needed to communicate to a large group?
    I’m looking for evidence of effective communication such as active listening, planning, understanding the audience, etc.
  4. Could you tell me about a time you planned a large event?
    I’m looking for organization with this question. That could be in planning a party, wedding, play, musical, vacation, or unit of instruction.
  5. Could you tell me about a time you faced a challenging student?
    I’m looking for evidence of a person who wants to know students deeply and seeks to engage with them at multiple levels in varied ways.

Points to Note:

  • These questions do not include any small phrases or words to lead the candidate.
  • Next, I need to create an answer guide by mock interviewing or surveying members of our current staff as described above; this will enable me to better listen for warning signs and positive signals.
  • Then I will be ready for my hiring coachable high-achiever hour-long interviews. This process is clearly a wise investment of time and energy!




Resources and References


Murphy, Joseph. Professional Standards for Educational Leaders: The Empirical, Moral, and Experiential Foundations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2017.

Murphy, Mark. “The Science of Hiring for Attitude.” Leadership IQ.

National Policy Board for Educational Administration. Professional Standards for Educational Leaders 2015. Reston, VA, 2015.

Ward-Singer, Tonya. Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2015.




Share this newsletter



Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only.

Please include the following citation on all copies:
Baldanza, Marcia. “Hiring Coachable High Performers.”  Professional Practices, 2019. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2019 All rights reserved.