Since I first read it, more than a decade ago, I believe Learning By Heart by Roland Barth is one of the most important books I have encountered on education. I have the good fortune to work in a school in which we genuinely try hard to improve our school in the name of student learning. But the success of such an ambition – regardless of the multitude of other factors involved – ultimately comes down to the quality of the people we hire. This is a critical ingredient in both the development and maintenance of school culture.
Barth’s central thesis is simple, but powerful. “Ultimately, a school’s culture has far more influence on life and learning … than the … department of education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal can ever have.” Culture is a byproduct of relationships. Education is a people business. Good people are more important than good teachers. What do I mean by that? I am not saying that we do not need talented teachers, on the contrary. But if we consider teaching to be a technical, professional function that has instructional tools and is results-oriented in the strictest, narrowest sense (as in exam results only), then it is possible to have “good” teachers without a healthy school culture. To put it another way, it is possible to prepare young people for university entrance, but not life. What we want and need is both, but culture – based around great people with the intellect, potential, and ability to collaborate and learn – must be what we most carefully and intentionally nurture in order to achieve this.
Barth makes the point that the one thing that has the greatest impact on the quality and character of a school – and therefore the students – is the relationship among the adults who work there. “Show me a school whose inhabitants constantly examine the school’s culture and work to transform it into one hospitable to sustained human learning, and I’ll show you students who graduate with both the capacity and the heart for lifelong learning.” This must be the goal of any good school. We must hire teachers with this in mind.
At recruitment fairs and conferences, I have watched teacher candidates be put through officious, formulaic interviews in hotel lobbies and convention centre foyers. I have been alarmed at the priorities revealed in such encounters. Qualifications, experience, and subject knowledge expertise seem to be the primary currency of such exchanges and one would imagine that the recruitment agency checks these things in advance. From behind my laptop I have surreptitiously watched bewildered candidates deliver sample lessons to suited administrators. I’ve heard the nervous questions about classroom management and that sad old enquiry about how a teacher will respond to a decision they don’t like. I rarely hear incisive, human questions that reveal character, personality, a passion for working with young people.
Too many schools, according to Barth, struggle to nurture a culture that creates a sense of community. Most, he contends, are organizations, institutions, or bureaucracies. Our vision for great schools must be beyond this. “The vision is, first, that the school will be a community, a place full of adults and students who care about, look after, and root for one another and who work together for the good of the whole, in times of need and in times of celebration.” At our school, we make it a top priority to hire great people. Schools, as learning organisations, are always about potential, not finished products. When good people fit into the jigsaw of our culture, they can become great teachers. Here are some of the things we believe about recruiting good people who are, in a healthy culture, set to become great teachers:
- How much time do we spend on the qualifications and experience of candidates? Once we know that a teacher is well-trained, we are interested primarily in their personality and passion for learning and working with young people. We are looking for a bright individual with the potential and desire to learn and grow … more than an accomplished history. We need subject experts; we also need people experts. Both have (and will need) time to develop these skills.
- How interested are we in things like classroom management techniques? We want to know what people do for fun. What do they like to read? Have they a passion for music, sports, the arts? Have they skills or interests that are interesting? An engaging person doesn’t need to worry about classroom management.
- What are the most vital things we want to know? We want to know that prospective teachers have an absolute conviction that all students can learn. That character counts. We want them to assure us that they are learners themselves, therefore we are particularly interested in their technology skills and their willingness to become amazing teachers.
- What are we thinking during the interview? We tend to visualise teacher candidates sitting with colleagues in our faculty lounge. We think about them at our Christmas lunch. Will they be the ones who help clear up and then stay afterwards, or will they quickly eat and leave? Will they fit in the team? Will they improve the team? Will they inspire students?
We find that if you hire to these criteria, you can’t go wrong. Teachers need our support, trust, and time. When good people – even those who have never taught before – come into a strong, supportive school culture, they become great teachers.