From Student Agency to Dating Agency: Hiring Teachers by Algorithm

Given continued advances in technology and the resulting ability to harness data to inform decision-making, new online recruitment tools are increasingly being aimed at developing an algorithmic approach to facilitate the matching of teachers to schools. The fundamental logic is clear and reasonable, one might initially assume. The idea is that schools will be able to essentially profile teaching candidates to fit the needs of the school context. As a supporter of technology innovation and someone who has experienced the logic and benefits of online recruitment, I can see how the potential merits of this development might appeal to some people. But I do not believe in blind acquiescence to technologies that can compromise who we are and how we relate to each other, especially where children are involved. I am, accordingly, disturbed by the increasing, systemic use of data to make de-personalised decisions in education.

There is probably little doubt that the analysis of data will play an increasing role in teacher recruitment. I am sure that among the companies involved in the development of such platforms there are many good people with solid beliefs and values, individuals who will want to see these systems used in conjunction with personal connections, interviews, and relationships. In other words, in very humane ways, using the algorithm as a guide, not a decision-maker, and this is where biometric data may prove initially attractive. The question, of course, with all “data-driven” initiatives lies not so much with the intent or even the veracity of the data collected, but with how it is used. Data can too easily become the decision-making tool of lazy convenience and ends up being used in ways never intended. When I consider my teaching colleagues, I recoil at the prospect of viewing them as data points. Someone needs to shout stop.

Good schools hire teachers based on intangible, vital features that no algorithm can detect. The process of interviewing a candidate is about seeing the excitement (or lack of) in a candidate’s eyes when he or she speaks about working with young people. Or the joy that is revealed when he or she begins to speak about a personal passion that might, perhaps, be a little quirky, but reveals a depth of character and personality that no formal interview question can. Hiring great teachers is about picturing them in your faculty lounge on a dark November, Monday morning or when they are having lunch with colleagues after a particularly exhausting stretch. It’s not about how many books they have read or countries they have visited, but perhaps about the human rights or environmental issue that makes them angry or emotional. It’s about who they are, not who they might feel compelled to identify as when they go through the potentially dystopian, online dating procedure of registering for a teaching job. It’s about imagining how they may react when a student comes to them at a time of great vulnerability and need and how they will respond. It’s about having a sense of how they will react when confronted by an angry parent who, at the end of the day, is really just in need of support, too. It’s about passion and care. In this broader context, I really like what Patricia McGuire has to say:

“[We need] a system that understands how to support, encourage, nurture and celebrate the people who so willingly choose to devote their joy, their talent, their passion, their lives to teaching children. Teaching is not a mechanistic process … [it] demands the entire engagement of the human person — mind, heart, soul — with the struggles and fears, hopes and dreams, family conditions and community contexts of each student in the room…. If the school reformers truly believe that teachers are the key to the success of children … then they must reconsider the mindless application of the deadly algorithm.”

As in all of education, data can help us make informed decisions and it can most certainly help us improve learning, but it can’t and never should replace human interactions and honest conversation. The best guide when it comes to hiring great teachers resides in gut instinct, intuition, culture, humanity, not an algorithm. There is no algorithm for the ecology of learning or for the human variables that reside within. I have been fortunate to be involved in the hiring of many, many truly outstanding teachers. They are, and always have been, first and foremost, outstanding human beings and learners themselves who continue to grow in their absolute dedication to their students and their profession. Learning is a people business. There is no algorithm for that light in the eyes, the willingness to go the extra mile, the truly caring, talented teachers who transform lives.

McGuire, Patricia. “Death by Algorithm.” Huffington Post, May 8, 2012.