I have only ever worked in a private school. This isn’t by intention; though most would imagine that I would prefer the privileges of private school, the truth is that the public system has never been interested in hiring me. Six years into a teaching career, three university degrees and a fourth under way, six 100-hour-plus additional qualification courses, and the public system is still closed to me.
This isn’t to say that I don’t like private schools. The school I started my career with, and the one I am starting a new position at this month, are wonderful schools with great programs, and looking back I wouldn’t change the past six years for anything. But it is to say two things: part of the reason these (private) schools work well is that teachers could be – and sometimes were – fired; and two, if the public systems across the continent are to achieve greatness, they need to adopt the nimble approach of private schools – that is to say, the practice of any organization committed to success where hiring and firing decisions are based on competence, and competence alone.
There are three possible reasons the public system doesn’t hire people like me – or nearly all of my teacher friends who, like me, can only find work in private schools. It could be that we are weak candidates, or that we present poorly on our CVs or in interviews – this remains an open possibility. Second, it could be that those interviewing don’t know how to pick good candidates out of the pile. But I think the third possibility is most likely: public boards are so burdened with bureaucracy and unionism that hiring decisions are often driven not by applicant quality, but by inflexible and unworkable set of practices designed for the needs of the organization, not student success.
The hiring process in the Toronto District School Board illustrates the point. While much of what follows is conjecture, there are a set of agreed upon facts. Any teacher wishing to be hired for the fall needs to apply the previous winter. Exactly when isn’t clear – the TDSB website encourages applications from December until an indeterminate point, but there are lots of rumours about secret deadlines earlier in the year. The application is on-line, and fairly basic: which degrees are possessed, what additional qualifications have been earned, and the like. If those in charge of hiring (often former teachers who have moved up the board hierarchy) choose to, they invite applicants to a board interview. At the interview, applicants are asked five questions – and the questions are easily guessed at through a Google search. In order to keep the interviews standard (and fair, goes the logic), interviewers are not allowed to ask follow-up questions, but instead largely check-off a set of ‘look-fors’ – sadly, sometimes not more than educational buzzwords strung together. You cannot leave any supplementary paperwork, like letters of reference, copies of a teaching portfolio, or even a sample lesson plan. In fact, to remain impartial, the interviewers do not have a resume in front of them. If against all odds you manage to impress during the interview, you are placed on the eligible-to-hire list.
And what a list it is. On it sit the collected hopefuls of the fourth largest school board in North America, and a district with two teaching faculties over-producing teachers. There are rumours that there are divisions within the list between those ‘recommended’ and those ‘strongly’ so, but no evidence of this is available on the board’s website. Principals determine staffing needs sometime in the late spring, and begin to fill vacancies. First, openings are available only to those currently in the board. And finally, when the leftover spots are still leftover, principals access a list of candidates who are ‘eligible-to-hire.’ The board maintains that those on the list could be called for one last school-lever interview starting in June – but it seems most common to get calls much later, even well into the fall term. And by the time the principal interviews the candidate for the school-level job, the situation is often desperate and nearly anyone will do; teachers are frequently hired mere days before they are expected to teach.
The process, then, is at least six months long, and often much longer. And at the end of it, questions remain: how can the best candidates emerge from such a slow process, on which is biased towards existing union membership, and relies primarily not on the judgment of the person legally responsible for the program of any school, the principal, but an educational Russian doll of sets of committees within committees?
Earlier I had argued there are three reasons the public board has never seen fit to hire people like me and my teacher friends, but there will be those arguing there is a fourth: they will say that as part of a demographic crisis in education there are fewer children, and therefore fewer jobs. Public boards aren’t hiring, they say. Doubtlessly true, but I would argue that with so many underperforming teachers, surely there are some on the unemployment rolls who would be better in the classroom than those with tenure. And the argument against reform on the basis that ‘unionism prevents us’ is hardly a response. If education is important, clever politicians and passionate educators must find ways around any impediment to the overall success and dynamism of our education system. If we don’t change (some of) the teachers, any talk about reforming our education system is mostly air.