In most job interviews, I believe the interviewers have the one question. They will ask lots of things, look at resumes and transcripts, but there is one question that he or she really cares about, that makes the difference in his or her final decision. The question may be different for each person on an interview panel, but I believe it’s there.
When I interviewed for my first teaching job, the man who became my first department head and teacher mentor was on the interview panel. His one question was something like, “Suppose you look at your grade book after a test, and you realize that most of your class has failed. What is your reaction?” As a new teacher, there were many surprises in store for me and my grade book in the months ahead (I didn’t realize students would sometimes score in the teens, for example), but this teacher assured me this scenario was a very likely possibility, and he wanted to know what my response would be.
I said that if I saw wide spread low performance like that, I would ask myself, “What am I doing wrong?” My mentor pounded the table, said, “That’s the right answer,” and from that point on, nothing I said in the interview mattered to him. I had his vote.
That question reflected the culture of that school and that district. A teacher’s grades didn’t raise a red flag until the failure rate passed a certain point. Rick DuFour would have labeled us a “Charles Darwin School” full of winners and losers, it was just our job to label them. As long as a teacher’s bell curve wasn’t too skewed, everything was fine. It was a center for fixed mindset.
On that campus, a teacher with “high expectations” was code for a teacher with “a high failure rate.” We expected high performance as a campus or as a class, but we did not expect each student to perform at a high level.
Jon Saphier of Research for Better Teaching in Action and author of High Expectations Teaching has an article in the recent issue of Principal that addresses the subtle messages we send regarding our expectations for students. He points out that some of our students have received fixed-mindset messages for years. As teachers, when we work to move these students into a growth mindset, we are confronted with our own beliefs about student ability.
In a recent interview in The Atlantic, Carol Dweck pointed out that “nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time.” Instead, we must remain vigilant of our attitudes so that we can spend more time in a growth mindset.
Given what we now know about growth mindset, and the power of high expectations for all students, I hope the interview questions would be different today. More like, “How do you respond when you notice one student has failed the last two assignments?” or “What will you do when you notice that half of the class scored B’s on the last test, but they all missed question #4 about lateral surface area?” If we as teachers believe our content is important, we have to take steps to help each student to master that content. That’s a tremendous task, but we need to establish that expectation so we can begin the journey toward that goal.