Confronting Social Disadvantage

Poverty and Education (Part II)


This is a time of year when many students are preparing to graduate from college and join the work force. It’s a time when the gap between the have’s and the have not’s reveals social disadvantages. Students with social capital research opportunities in their field, apply for jobs, learn to network, prepare for interviews and receive support from their immediate social circle (parents, colleagues of parents, family friends, relatives, etc.). They get feedback to strengthen their resumes and guidance on what the job market wants. Students from backgrounds of poverty and others who are the first in their families to finish college need these opportunities too but may not be able to access them easily.

Are we preparing all students well enough to be successful when the time is right? If we give them a strong academic training, will they have the support structures that will open doors? If and when the doors open, will they have what it takes to step in? Students who live in poverty have many challenges to overcome. Are we doing enough to help them gain the tangible and intangible skills and qualities needed to be successful in college and beyond?

Recently, I shared these thoughts with a wise colleague who agreed that students need more than just a good education – they need to be prepared to seize opportunities when doors open for them. She restated my thoughts very simply.

“When opportunity knocks, will they be ready?” — Zula Barnett, Teacher

At a time when unemployment is an issue, potential employers are complaining about an unprepared workforce. Schools have a dual role – to give students the knowledge base that will allow them to choose a college education and gain the ‘hard skills’ the job market needs, and to help them gain the ‘soft skills’ or intangible qualities that will help them succeed in these settings. Schools need to do three things to level the playing field:

(1) Set a high bar for quality work. This will be an expectation in college and later in the work place, so we need to start early, have high expectations and support students in meeting them. This means no shortcuts. We must ask for quality work and not give kids a pass simply for showing up or putting in the effort. We must show them what high standards look like so they understand our expectations and then support them in reaching that level of quality in their work.

(2) Guide students in being courteous, caring, cheerful, empathetic, pleasant, positive, and hard working. We need to teach them how to present themselves with regard to their appearance, verbal skills and writing skills in contexts of opportunity. We need to give them opportunities to engage in teams.

(3) Build connections within the community so that employers become more intentional about reaching out and bringing opportunities to students from backgrounds of disadvantage. When businesses partner with schools to bring in mentors, tutors and volunteers, relationships are built which can lead to networking opportunities as students grow older.

When I hire new staff I search for soft skills – a positive tone, a cheerful attitude, an interest in connecting with others, an enthusiastic spirit and a sense of humor. These are the intangibles that sway my decision. These qualities lift my team and strengthen its resilience. I can train reasonably competent people in the hard skills they will need to do their jobs well.  I can’t say the same about soft skills which are learned and integrated early in life. In every grade, if we make a concerted effort to model these intangible skills in our own behavior, and expect them from students, I have no doubt that these qualities will become ingrained in the culture of our schools, and spill over into society.

We are coaching kids for the game of life! School is about more than just academics. We must be purposeful about growing the soft skills students will need for the rest of their lives. When opportunity knocks, will our kids be able to step out and compete directly with their privileged peers? I hope we make sure that the answer is a resounding yes.


It’s Hiring Time!

It’s summer time and principals are getting ready to fulfill one of their most important tasks – hiring teachers for their teams. There is something exciting about this process. It is as much a time to reflect on who we are, what we stand for and what we want to accomplish as it is about adding a new team member. I say this because as principals, we have to be able to know what is important to our school so that we can recognize the qualities we need in people who will help us meet our school’s goals. We are hiring more than just a person with a set of important skills… we are looking for someone who has qualities that will add to the culture of our schools.

Yes, I took courses on personnel development. We talked about hiring processes, the do’s and dont’s. It was interesting and exciting, and several things were on my radar when, as a new principal, I took on the responsibility of hiring teachers. Along the way, I learned some things that only come from practice and experience and it’s been fun getting my thoughts ready to write this blog.

Each year, I talk to student teachers who train at my school, to give them an idea of the hiring process. I emphasize the importance of a well-written cover letter, and a well-organized resume. I am happy to give feedback on their drafts of these documents. A teacher is a communicator and writing is a key aspect of communication. A strong cover letter that communicates the candidate’s voice hooks me in. It draws my attention to the resume where I then look for strong academic skills and work experiences. If these pieces gel together then the candidate gets on my interview list.

Some qualities stand out. I look for people who complement my skills if they are working in leadership roles. What strengths do they bring to the table that are not exactly the same as mine? When I hire teachers, I look for strengths in candidates that complement the team for which they are being considered. Collaboration is an important element in education today, and new hires can bring important strengths to teams. I like to involve team members in the interview process. It is interesting to observe the dynamic between them and the candidates – after all, once someone is hired, this is the group that will be working closely together. A big plus is that this often sets the stage for teams to get together and support new teachers after they are hired, since they have already met during the interview.

I give candidates an overview of our school – our demographics, things we are proud of, partnerships with parents, etc. I also let them know what I value beyond curricular and instructional strengths – relationships and the sharing of voices. I try to get them to feel comfortable by letting them know the interview is structured more like a conversation and that we want to learn about them and what they have to offer to our school. An interview can be a nerve-wracking process for candidates – some of them are looking for their first teaching role. Add to that the dynamic of a group interview and that can double their tension. Being an experienced teacher means that sometimes it’s been a while since someone has been on the interview hot-seat. I do my best to help them feel comfortable.

I explain the process and ask them to respond to our questions by painting a picture in our minds of what their classroom would look like if they were hired. During the interview, I listen for qualities in their responses that tie back to the things I have described about our school. Do they see connections between who they are and what I have shared about our school? As much as we are interviewing them to see if they are a good match for our school, I believe they should be looking to see if we are a good fit for them. I look for how they organize their ideas and reflect on their learning and experiences. Reflective practitioners stretch kids by modeling the value of learning. I also look for energy, enthusiasm and a positive attitude. These characteristics have unbelievable potential in engaging students. I always ask candidates what they look for from people in leadership roles – the principal and assistant principal. Their responses typically help me learn about what my team needs from me. More on this in a future blog.

If we tailor our interview questions well, a candidate should be able to walk away from an interview knowing what is important at our school. We should also be able to get a good picture of a candidate’s skills, strengths and personality, regardless of whether a candidate is an experienced or novice teacher.

I highly recommend staying in touch with your HR Director – an important member who can help with the technical, contractual and policy aspects of hiring. Occasionally we are left with an unexpected vacancy a day or two before school starts. I would suggest not rushing into hiring if a top-notch candidate is not on the horizon. It’s better to get your team’s help and put a strong substitute teacher in place to get the year started, work through an interview process and hire an excellent candidate over the next week or so. Teams do a great job of stepping up to the plate to give kids a great start and their support during this period is invaluable. They are generally happy to share ideas and resources with the substitute teacher and join you in reassuring parents.

Hiring is undoubtedly a critical part of a principal’s job, matched only by an equally important role – being an instructional leader who helps teachers be the very best they can be!

” I am convinced that nothing we do is more important than hiring and developing people. At the end of the day you bet on people, not on strategies.” — Larry Bossidy