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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

The "Alternative" Candidate

In my first headship, I succeeded a very successful, long-serving head who was an iconoclast. The school had grown under her care to be a fascinating place that consistently turned out quirky, confident, incisive-thinking graduates highly sought after by the secondary schools in our very competitive market.

My predecessor's hiring strategies were effectively folkways and had over time populated the school's wild organizational chart with intriguing people. The school had a much greater number of men in the classroom than most independent elementary schools, more employees of color, and a much greater number of employees (especially for an elementary school) for whom school work was a second (or third) career. It also had a talented man who worked half of the year for admissions, the other half for development and, because he was an avid gardener, directed the school's ornamental plantings.

Heidi's (not her real name) hiring strategy was basically this: build a deep network characterized by a generous view of human talent--meet interesting people--create jobs for them at the school based on their skills. As you might imagine, there were some spectacular crash and burn stories, instances in which Heidi had overestimated a teacher's capacity to translate her skills as, say, an attorney into the French classroom, but there were a greater number of success stories and a culturally rich, multi-talented faculty/staff community because of it.

My task was unenviable. The school had grown large enough by the time I arrived that it's Byzantine org chart had become a liability. Too many responsibilities were dropping through the cracks, and some elements of the school which had once been deemed quaintly informal now felt unprofessional. My work was to "professionalize" the school while, as the teachers expressed it, "keeping it funky."

It's hard to overstate just how important this challenge was for me and how much it transformed my thinking about hiring. Until that time, my hiring precepts were deeply conservative. The ideal candidate in every search was a person with independent school experience directly analogous to if not synonymous with the open position, good references, and a degree from a selective college or university. My colleagues, conversely, had no such expectations, and the multifaceted talents of that same faculty and their influence on the school's character helped me build a much wider sense of who should be serving our schools. My predecessor had also very purposefully transferred most of her key recruiting relationships to me, a core network that I deepened and augmented over time. In my ten years as head of that school, over 60% of my hires in and out of the classroom came from that network. Even more, I was able to reciprocate with referrals--from great people at my school moving out of town, to school parents changing careers, to "trailing partners" of candidates we'd encountered, etc.

In my consulting work, I've used this experience to help schools with conservative hiring tenets expand their thinking to include candidates with alternative backgrounds and to begin to move away from a passive approach to hiring. This fall, with a fewness of well-qualified candidates in the market by those conservative standards, this different lens on the candidate pool has been essential. What parallel skills and mindsets should schools look for?

  • affection for/experience working with kids

  • affinity for the human messiness of schools

  • vision of leadership based on a commitment to proactive relationship building

  • flexibility of ego/capacity for improvisation

  • belief in the school's mission

  • devotion to teamwork and willingness to pitch in across all areas of the organization

  • understanding that the classroom is the epicenter of the value proposition

Now, as a former elementary school head, I am not suggesting that "affection for/experience with kids" qualifies someone to lead a second grade classroom, and indeed a teaching certificate or demonstrated preparation in methods and classroom management should be a baseline requirement for hire in any elementary classroom. Even with older children, independent schools too often fall prey to hiring PhDs from the vast ranks of impoverished adjuncts at colleges and universities around the country only to discover that the degree bedazzlement wears off for students, families (and teacher) before the first quarter is over.

Rather, I suggest that building and stewarding a recruitment network and expanding your concept of ideal candidates to include those who might feel "alternative" initially is not only an essential approach to a difficult hiring season but also a way to expand the vision of education in your school community.

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