Professional Learning at Starbucks

IMG_1005 (2)

There are about thirty of us in this Starbucks in the Chicago neighborhood where I’m  spending my afternoon, and it seems that we are all engaged in something important to us. Some of us are reading, many of us are studying or doing some type of homework. Some are writing, and some are deeply immersed in conversation. A mom snuggles the toddler on her lap while she reads the newspaper. One lady is gripping a highlighter and pouring though stacks of papers filled with text, and I feel certain that she is pulling themes for qualitative research, just as I was doing a few years ago when I was writing my dissertation. And I am sipping tea, grateful to be enjoying self-directed professional learning time for a few hours.

When do you find time for professional learning? I don’t mean when do you go to workshops or discuss and share at meetings or (for Illinois administrators) attend Administrator Academies? I mean when do you read/watch/write/talk/create/learn because doing so is meaningful to you as a learner and leader and teacher of others? I’ve tried all sorts of things… I’ve blocked out dedicated time on my calendar during the work day, but have usually not lasted past a week or so. I simply cannot ignore the ringing phone or knock on the door, and well, let’s just say that I’m still on the road to recovery when it comes to the whole Checking Your Email Thing. Bottom line: at work, work distracts me from work. Or I’ve decided that I’ll focus on professional learning while I have lunch, but then I don’t have lunch, or I meet during lunch, or I actually catch up with someone at lunch. For me, my best self-directed professional learning happens outside of the work day. It happens as I listen to an audio book or podcast in the car or on the treadmill (currently enjoying HBR’s podcast Women at Work). It happens when I read an article on Twitter while my husband drives. It happens when I dive into a book on leadership or learning on a weekend afternoon. (Recent good read: Daniel Pink’s When, which fed my nerdy interest in the topic of Time.)

Enter: The Starbucks in Lincoln Square.

My husband Larry has been taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music for years now, and I enjoy coming down here to Lincoln Square with him, pretending I’m cool enough to actually live out here. (I’m not. I don’t.) Last spring, I even took a class myself, enjoying thinking about teamwork while singing with a nice group of people. (Curious? I wrote about it… Work Team Lessons While Singing Doo Wop… Who Knew?) However, this autumn the electric guitar class that Larry wanted to take didn’t match up with any vocal classes, and so I’ve dedicated the time to my own professional learning.

Here I sit in Starbucks down the street from the Old Town School, sipping on my hot drink, reading, writing, maybe watching, and learning. There is one simple rule: I deny the urge to do any of the work that is specific to my job description as a school district administrator. I’m not answering email and I’m not completing a project that is staring at me from my Google Task List. I have been a working adult long enough to know that the email will never be to zero, and neither will the task list. So it is up to me to save myself! This is time that I use to develop myself as a learner, teacher, and leader so that I may be useful to others in ways that may not be described within that job description. I may be reading articles, possibly those shared by people I respect in my PLN, or retrieved elsewhere. (The newest issue of Ed Leadership showed up in my email box yesterday, and I’m itching to get to those articles on Social Emotional Learning. Also, our Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Learning just shared an article about listening with compassion in the classroom… looking forward to reading that today, too!) I might use the time for reflective writing. (Does this blog post count? Yes, I think so. I’m thinking about thinking. Very “meta”.)  I may be reading a book. (Next week, I plan to dig into Rath’s Strength’s Based Leadership, lent to me by colleague and Learning Leader Alicia Duell!) I may be watching a Ted Talk; I may be digging into the Illinois State Board of Education website, reading about something that is coming down the pike. Sometimes, a muffin may be involved.

Today,  I’m reflecting on how my professional learning has intersected with Starbucks. You see, back in the the late ’80s, I was a barista in one of the first Starbucks in Chicago. I was experiencing my first real job as a half-time teacher in Oak Park, IL, and making up the other half of my rent by pouring coffee. There were no Frappuccinos then, there was no Iced Peach Citrus White Tea Infusion Lemonade. There was coffee, there was espresso, there was cappuccino, there was tea. And there was this 23 year old newbie, steaming milk and thinking about how to teach my third graders how to read. I love that I’m sitting here, so many years later, enjoying this same space (well, a few neighborhoods away), still thinking about how children (and adults) learn, and where my place is in it all.

Why this blog post? In John Stepper’s Working Out LoudStepper explains that Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. Perhaps my Starbucks strategy might help someone carve out that time for professional learning. And perhaps some of you will share with me your own strategies for finding the time – I would love that! Stepper also guides people towards accountability through goal setting that is shared with others. In some ways, then, this blog post keeps me honest. If I’m writing about it today, I sure better still be doing it next week!

My colleague Catherine Joy is my model for professional learning. She always has a new book or article, and she fits learning in anywhere/anytime: she is known to watch a Ted Talk while getting ready for work in the morning. Now that is dedication! I’m still working on it all. Today, Larry told me it was time to sign up for the next set of guitar classes — did the time frame still work for me? Indeed it does. Hey, nice barista behind the counter, I’ll see you next week!

I came close to crying in a middle school hallway today, and I am not a middle schooler

MiddleSchoolStudents

I came close to crying in a middle school hallway today, and I am not a middle schooler.  I’m not even a middle school parent, well not anymore. It was the glorious first day of class, and this assistant superintendent had the honor of helping out at two middle schools. Due to the outstanding organization and cheerful goodwill coming from staff and students at both of these schools, my “helping out”  consisted mostly of assisting lost 6th graders with finding classes and opening reluctant lockers.

Ok, what was the lump in the throat about? It came on quite suddenly when a sixth grade boy politely asked me to help him find his class. So… huh? Well, most of the emotion came from the sheer joy of being in a school with excited students and staff.  The boy and I chatted about his summer a bit as we walked down the hall together, and don’t worry, I held it together. Didn’t freak the boy out by actually letting this overwhelming burst of emotion show! After we parted ways, I returned to intermittently helping nervous kids open lockers and watching/listening to middle schoolers who were in their element. A few favorites:

  • The Greetings and Supports – “You’re going to gym? I am too!” (followed by a hug and a High 5); “Come with me, I did this last year!” (I LOVED that one!!!)
  • The Nerves – “Dude, it feels so weird!”
  • The Tough Vulnerability (5 eighth grade boys dressed to impress, swaggering down the hallway together, but still peering at their schedules)
  • Blending In and Standing Out (Who is inside those Nike Air Force 1s? Who is beneath that awesome rainbow-colored hair?)

I taught middle school for a year at the very beginning of my career, and do not remember the students being quite this fantastic. I don’t recall them encouraging each other this much, or being this fresh-faced and cute. Of course, I may be remembering my students from the weary end of the year rather than from the excited start. Maybe, though, part of it is that all of our emphasis in the social-emotional realm is paying off, and adolescents really are nicer than they used to be. You don’t have to look too far to read about bullying… educator friends, we need to tell the great stories, too.

So back to the heightened emotion I was feeling in the hallway… it also may have been because I was hit in the face with all that it took to get ready for that moment. In late May, I had committed to my work self that in the slower summer months (HA! NOT!) I would make sure that just about everything I worked on would in some way make things better for someone, or would support my own learning and reflection (“What’s In Your JunePile?“). It was an extremely busy summer, and I tried very hard to hold myself accountable to this goal. Of course, ultimately, “making things better for someone” could be distilled down to making things better for this sixth grader. I collaborated with other administrators to write and submit a grant (fingers still crossed as we await news!) in order to forward this boy’s social-emotional goals, a colleague and I took new staff on a bus tour while teaching them about our district in order to prepare them to help this boy grow, another colleague and I labored over decisions about this year’s staff evaluation assignments so that we could best support the professional growth of the adults who work with this boy. Etc.

Later in the morning, I had the pleasure of watching the Principal, Assistant Principal, and Dean model vulnerability when they introduced themselves to a class via a slide presentation. They invited students to guess which of them sometimes has trouble maintaining a “conversational level” (the Dean!) and who is sometimes distracted and off-task (the AP?)…  Without banging them over the head with it, they showed the students that we all have differences and hurdles and wonderful strengths as well. Bravo, adults! What a fantastic message for adolescents who are trying so hard to figure themselves out, who need permission to struggle with their awesome, terrible selves every single day!

Tomorrow I start the day with a brief meeting in my office, but I know I will be itching to return to the wonderful staff and students in Middle School 2, where I spent part of the afternoon today. The truth is, the adults and preteens in neither school needed me very much today, and I’m sure that tomorrow will be the same way. Who are we kidding? I needed them.

I’m Still Learning from Summer Camp

Image result for overnight camp

“My heart is full and mushy and running over with feelings.” Not very eloquent, but it is pretty much what I said to my daughter yesterday as we walked the grounds of the overnight camp that taught us each so much about ourselves. It was Alumni Day, and both of my daughters and I are all alumni, having collectively spent 24 summers there.

It is not possible explain what this camp means to me. Here’s the anecdotal data, though: when I was seventeen, I spent the summer there on the work crew, where I cleaned bathrooms and emptied garbage FOR FREE. Need I say more? If you were lucky enough to go to overnight camp and loved it, you understand that it does not matter that you drank “egg water”, ate indescribable food, gave up all privacy related to your personal hygiene, slept in cabins or tents that horrified your parents (“We are paying all this money for you to sleep in THAT?!?!”) and were driven round the bend from the itch of mosquito bites (while there) or maybe lice (a delightful surprise after you got home). You understand that you want your own kids to go there, and if they do, you are sure to either drop them off or pick them up (instead of putting them on the bus both ways) so that you can experience having your heart quicken as you drive through the camp gates and hear the singing and smell the smells. Ok I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I love my camp.

As I drove home with my brimming and mushy heart, I considered why people who are lucky enough to attend overnight camp often feel connected to their “summer homes” in ways that supersede their attachments to their schools. After all, unless you move often, you certainly spend more hours in the year at school than you do at camp. However, although I went to excellent public schools and have great school memories, for me, at least, there is absolutely no comparison.

We could talk about the joy of independence with no meddling parents around, of making our own daily decisions about things that are both not all that important and also enormously important. We could talk about the value of choice, of picking which activity to attend (basketball or friendship bracelets? paperbag dramatics or canoeing?), and of learning from counselors who are maybe just 4 or 5 years older than us, and therefore hilarious, wise, and incredibly cool. We could talk about possibilities of summer flirtations and all-out romances, if that is our type of thing. But what is on my mind just now is the idea of Belonging.

Image result for overnight camp

My K-8 school district chooses specific Areas of Focus to frame our work with children, and for the next few years, along with Literacy Throughout the Day, we will be focusing on Positive School Climate. And we’ve written this vision for that focus: Students and families are invited into a school environment in which they feel valued, safe and engaged in meaningful learning. Yes, well, that is indeed exactly how I felt at overnight camp — valued by my friends and counselors, safe to take risks, and engaged in learning which meant an awful lot to me. All of this, because it was clear that I belonged.

Of course, not every camper is a happy camper. Children leave before the session ends, or muscle through but never return. Ask them for their stories, and there is a high likelihood that they were shown by others, usually campers, that they did NOT belong. Like schools, the camps keep trying, but haven’t made it right for all kids.

When I think about my own school experiences, there is one particular middle school teacher who brought school connection to me and so many of my friends. His teaching techniques were unusual, and I’m sure our parents rolled their eyes often at what they heard about and saw come home in our backpacks, but his message was clear and it worked: “If you are in my class, you are part of a community. We care about each other, we risk showing each other who we really are, and we are safe.” If you went to Maple Jr. High School in Northbook, IL awhile back, there is no question that you know exactly who I mean. He was a legend. I went back to observe his classroom while I was preparing to be a teacher, and quite frankly was appalled. I was learning the science of teaching then, and what I saw did not at all fit with what I was studying at college. Now that I know more, I wish I could go back and take a peek at the art of his teaching. For sure, a huge part of why he helped us to feel connected to our school and to each other was because he showed us that we belonged.

Most kids do not get to go to overnight camp. It is an expensive luxury, and well out of the realm of possibility for the vast number of families. Lots of kids would not want to go, and lots of parents would not want to send their children. And of course, families have a myriad of ways of creating wonderful summer memories for children that have nothing at all to do with camp.

Going to school, though, well that’s pretty common. So what can we learn from camp? How can we help our children love school the way that I love that bunch of buildings, trees, and people who gather every year next to a lake in Wisconsin? I feel sure that it is less about drinking “bug juice” and telling ghost stories, and more about creating a feeling of belonging. That, we can do. Our teachers already work very hard at this, and I’m so glad that we’ll be giving time to ongoing conversations as we learn how to get even better.

I See You, Spiderman Dad!

 

Spiderman Dad

It is Father’s Day, and I’m thinking about Spiderman Dad. I’m also thinking about my own dad, who taught me through his actions to always do what I believe is right, about my two wonderful fathers-in-law, and about my husband (more on him later). But right now I’m thinking a lot about Spiderman Dad.

I met Spiderman Dad at school drop-off one morning this past spring. In my school district, our central office administrators serve as back-ups when principals are absent, so I was at one of our elementary schools early one morning, wearing a safety vest and greeting students as they exited cars. There he was, a man in a Spiderman hoodie, cheerfully hustling his kids out of the car. We shared a smile, and I told him that I liked his sweatshirt. He grinned sheepishly and told me, “Yeah! I’m Spiderman before he got into shape!” and off he went to start his day.

Why did the moment stay with me? I think it was because I felt that I learned a few things about this guy in that short interaction. First, I had the chance to peek at the warmth shared between Dad and children. Surely, these kids’ day was going to go better because it started with some loving communication with their dad. How lucky he and his children are that they had this time together — as much as we’d like to, many of us can’t drive our kids to school, and instead find other ways to help our children start off with love from us. Of course, there is a lot I don’t know here… maybe he doesn’t usually drive them, but that day they missed the bus. If so, then his annoyance at the situation didn’t show, so bravo for him! Maybe the kids would rather be on the bus with their friends. I don’t think so, though — they seemed pretty comfortable to be arriving with a send-off from Dad. In any case, the warmth between them was very present.

Also, Dad is approaching life with a sense of humor, as indeed he was maybe not as “in shape” as Movie and Comics Spiderman. As we all know, that sense of humor goes far when getting through the day, week, and year with children!

And then there was this: Spiderman Dad appears to be willing to be Embarrassing Dad. Well, maybe not yet. Right now, the young school-age children are probably delighted that their dad wears a Spiderman hoodie. But give it a few years, and I guarantee that middle-schoolers will be shrinking in their seats and hoping to be dropped off half a block down. Yet, somehow I think that Spiderman Dad may still be wearing that hoodie during those adolescent years, either oblivious or purposeful about the temporary humiliation that he is bringing to his pre-teens. There is, as we all know, a long and rich history to Embarrassing Dad.

And this brings me to my husband, Larry, who brings grace and beauty to being Embarrassing Dad. Ever since my now young adult daughters were teenagers, the girls have been proud to connect their dad with their friends, and the friends adore him. He is not purposeful about being embarrassing, he just plain does not care. He appears to be completely un-self-conscious about dorky dancing and off-key singing and kindly lecturing and music sharing. Below is a picture taken today when Larry visited Sophie, our twenty year old (top left), in Boulder. She and her college roommates made him Father’s Day brunch after he suggested it — who gets away with such a bold move and everyone is happy? My fabulous Embarrassing Dad husband, that’s who!

Larry

 

Back to Spiderman Dad, though. In truth, I don’t know him, not at all. If I saw him again without his hoodie, I probably wouldn’t even recognize him. And yet, I’ve built a positive story about him from just a few cues. And perhaps that’s my biggest take-away, a reminder about an idea that I discuss with newer teachers whenever I have the right moment: we have to assume that the parents in our schools are indeed doing their very best with their children. When we talk with them, even if we are not in agreement about something, we must remember that our parents are entrusting us with all that is most precious to them. We also have to remember that it is brash of us to believe that we always know what is right for a child. Yes, we bring research and experience to our opinions, but parents live in a whole other realm of knowledge about their children, because they are the PARENTS!

So anyway, yeah, I see you, Spiderman Dad. I hope you had a Happy’s Fathers Day! As far as I’m concerned, you’re crushing it.

 

The Truth Is… We Could Not Run Our Schools Without Our Substitutes

teacher pic

On any given Friday in May, my school district is struggling to fill our substitute vacancies. Many of our highly regarded substitutes are retired teachers, and by May they have worked all of the days that our state’s retirement system will allow. In addition, May brings college graduations and weddings and, well, a wide array of reasons for our teachers to be absent from work. And yet… learning must continue.

Thus, we find ourselves utilizing creative solutions for plugging those holes, and so, a substitute may arrive at one school to step in for a third grade teacher, only to be told that we’ve covered that vacancy another way, and that he/she is instead needed at another school across town to teach bilingual Polish first grade, or middle school math, or perhaps PE. Or, a substitute will come to a middle school teaching assignment expecting to have planning time as part of the day (definitely not guaranteed for substitutes, but a nice perk!), and will instead be told that he/she will be covering other classes during that time.

When we are asking our substitutes to do more and more, I am glad that we have a few constructs in place to thank them for their commitment to our district:

  • Like many districts, we have different pay rates — a daily rate, an increased rate for those who have worked a certain number of days, and a long-term rate. A couple of years ago, we also added a Loyalty Rate to honor those who have, indeed, shown loyalty to our school district. In order to be eligible for this rate, a substitute must meet these qualifications: have worked in our district for at least 5 years as a substitute and/or in a full time position, and have worked on at least 90 days as a substitute in our school district in the previous year. The Loyalty Rate resets each fall, and thus each spring we review our data to identify which substitutes qualify for the rate in the next school year. Full disclosure: the Loyalty Rate is only $3.00 per day more than the rate used for those who have worked at least 60 days. However, we know that our substitutes may also work in surrounding districts, and we created this rate to both encourage them to keep our district at the top of their list, and to acknowledge their consistent work and longevity with our district.

IMG_0329.JPG

  • Each June, we host a Substitute Appreciation Tea. We schedule it during the window between the school year ending and summer school starting so that as many substitutes as possible might be available. We work with our food service provider to create a real tea, complete with finger sandwiches, pastries, lemonade, and of course, tea! The agenda is simple: very brief speeches from a couple of grateful administrators, time to mingle (many of our substitutes have known each other for years, and love the chance to catch up), and an opportunity for substitutes to provide feedback to us via a brief form which they complete in small groups.

Our Tea gives us the chance to let our substitutes know how much we really appreciate them while also getting feedback from them in a positive setting.

  • We are proud of the training that we provide to our substitutes, and believe that putting time and effort into offering substitute trainings shows them that we appreciate and value the work that they do for us. We make it very clear to them that every day counts for our students, that gone are the days when a teacher might have the substitute put on a movie for the students. Our substitutes need to be ready to teach new skills and reinforce what has already been taught, and thus our school district helps them to hone their craft.

    All of our substitutes are required to attend a half-day training prior to working for us. Even if they have worked in this role in other places, we want to make sure that they have full awareness of the expectations in our district. We try to keep our training interactive and fun while we provide important information. During this training, we cover: HR basics such as securing assignments and understanding pay structure, information about our district, crisis plans and health training (such as practice with EPI Pens), and classroom management expectations and tips.

In addition, we offer our substitutes optional training opportunities throughout the year. We take advantage of times when we know our substitutes would not be working for us, such as after school or during School Improvement Days when students are not in attendance, and then provide inservices run by our specialists. For example, training about working with students who receive special education services was provided by our Director of Student Services, and updated information about math instruction was given by our Math Coordinator. In this way, we help our substitutes to remain current in their teaching practices, and we honor their work as educators who are important to our system.

Of course, the best appreciation comes at the school level. I will never forget the joy and pride I felt when teachers told me that they had created goodie bags for all of the substitutes who were present at their school on a particular day. I also regularly remind our principals and building secretaries to greet and thank substitutes, and to treat them as the professionals that they are.

The truth is, we could not run our schools without our substitutes. It seems only right that we let them know that.

What’s in Your JunePile?

It started when I was a teacher. Every year, every May, there would come a day when I would just start tossing things in a pile to deal with “later”. Later meant after the last smile was shared with a student, after the last grade was given, after Field Day. After the last day of school. I never knew when the day would come — just one afternoon I would realize that there were only a few weeks and lot left to do with my class, and I could only spend precious time on papers, projects, and tasks that would really mean something to my students. The rest would have to wait until school ended, in June. The JunePile.

It continued when I was a principal. I tried to keep an organized office, so the JunePile became a JuneBox which was stashed under my desk. And if something wasn’t important to others before the end of school, well, then, it wasn’t getting done until everybody went home.

Of course, now, most of my JunePile is electronic — more of a JuneList, if you will. And as an assistant superintendent, I have many projects that are best done in the quieter summer months, anyway. But nonetheless, the habit continues. I’ll get very stressed about how quickly the end of school is coming, and one day will breathe a little sigh of relief when I remember that there are SOME things on my list that don’t have to get done right away. And anything that won’t directly affect students, families, or staff gets put in the JunePile to be dealt with after the school bus pulls away for the last time.

The end of the school year is always such a rush, isn’t it? Educators are amused when folks who have not devoted their lives to school ask in May, “So, is school winding down?” Winding down? Winding DOWN? Hilarious! School does not wind down. We run like crazy to the edge of the cliff, and try very, very hard not to fall off of it. That’s it, and everyone who lives by the rhythm of school knows it.

But that last day of school WILL come, and then indeed it will be time for me to dig into my JunePile. This year I’m wondering, though, why am I even considering doing things that don’t have a direct impact on students, families, staff, or other administrators? So, perhaps my primary responsibility on my first day after school lets out should be to cull the pile, continuing my commitment to spend time on work that is important. Yes, there is filing that went undone this year, and I’d eventually be sorry if I couldn’t find something I need. Ok, I’ll crank the music up in my office and file. But I’ll hold myself accountable for ensuring that everything else enhances the work or life of someone, or supports my own learning and reflection.

Truth be told, writing this blogpost was indeed in my JunePile. It definitely did not have to get done prior to school ending! But then it was Memorial Day weekend, and I had some time, and was in the mood for reflecting. So I went for it.

Of course, summer is much, much more than a time to catch up with work. For me, it is also reading in a hammock and walking after dinner with my husband and exploring Chicago neighborhoods with my daughters and going to Botanic Gardens with my parents and eating on a patio with friends and completing the Summer Challenge at my yoga studio and if I’m lucky, some traveling. Many years ago, inspired by a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich (or perhaps Eric Zorn? — I cannot find the column, I’ve tried!), I was motivated to capture my summer memories by buying a pack of notecards, numbering and dating them, and every day of the summer writing down at least one summer activity that I enjoyed that day. I still have those cards in my nightstand, and occasionally use one for a bookmark, finding peace, adventure, or luxury in a summer memory. I just pulled one out; it reads, “7/3: Getaway to Wisconsin — Lazy Nap, Lovely Anniversary Dinner, Movie — Spiderman!”

And there you have it — those summer pleasures are what really belong in the JunePile. So, what’s in yours?

Reference Calls — Listen for the Truth (8 Tips)

I was a newer principal, and I had recently dismissed a pre-tenured teacher. She wasn’t terrible, just not good enough for my students. I had written her a reference letter, the kind you write for just this type of situation — strengths, as everyone has them, with lots of holes that I hoped other interviewing administrators would find. Then I took a call from a principal in a nearby district. We knew each other by association, but that’s all. He was eager to hire her, and this call was his final stop. I answered his questions, and thought, “I hope he listened carefully, and realized that I wasn’t really recommending her.”

Years later, this principal and I landed together in a new district. Early in our professional relationship, he told me, “You know, I had to let that teacher go after one year. I couldn’t believe you had recommended her to me – I was always so annoyed about that!” “What?” I said. “I didn’t recommend her! I was trying to tell you NOT to hire her!” It was a perfect example of what happens over and over again. He was listening only to confirm his decision to hire her, and I was being positive, and hoping he could read my mind.

I share this story often in my current role as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. Administrators (and hiring executives in other organizations, I am sure) work diligently to find the very best person for their opening. They carefully comb through applications and resumes, conduct screening interviews, 1:1 interviews, and often team interviews. By the time they get to the reference checks — well, that’s what they are often doing — checking a box. This is the last step in the process of finding the Perfect Person. They are already sold on the candidate, and, if they brought in a team to interview, so is the team! Who wants bad news at this point? And so, like my principal friend from many years ago, they miss what a reference might be trying to convey in an oh-so-indirect way.

Hiring is one of our most important administrative tasks, particularly when hiring teachers and principals. This is the time when we really need to get it right, because getting it wrong can make for a very, very bad year. (And, depending on a whole bunch of variables, one mistake can be prolonged for much longer than a year.) So, how do we get it right? Here are a few tips:

phone-call-two-people

  1. Before starting to make those calls, promise yourself that you are open to hearing bad news. Honestly, that’s what is most important. In fact, when I interview with a team, I ALWAYS talk about how important reference calls are, and let team members know that sometimes we have to go another way after we’ve made those calls. Experienced interview teams know that the person who came to the interview is not always the person who “shows up” at work, even if it is the same person! When I remind my team of that, they are understanding if we end up going with our #2 choice, or even if we have to interview more candidates.
  2. Try to establish rapport with your reference at the start of the call. Yes, yes, everyone is busy, but find a way to connect with the reference as a person. It will be harder for your reference to evade your questions or straight out lie to you if he/she likes you on the phone — even a little bit!
  3. Do you have flexibility with your questions? If so, make sure to ask, “Would you re-hire this person?” Or, if you are speaking with a colleague, you may get useful information with, “Why do you think X would be interested in coming to a new school/district/organization?” And if the first answer you get seems bogus, find a way to dig a little.
  4. Even if you have to use a standard set of questions, surely you can ask follow-ups. When I sense that someone is choosing words very carefully, or is trying to brush past a question with a pat answer, I may ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” Often, they will.
  5. Pay attention to the reference’s tone of voice, and listen for the pauses. Your reference may be trying to figure out how to answer a question in a way that is semi-truthful without hurting the person’s chances for getting the job. This is the perfect place for those follow-up questions.
  6. What about those references who ask you to simply email them the questions, and they’ll email you the answers? Yes, they might just be really busy, but they MIGHT be trying to control the situation by carefully wording their answers. You can’t see pauses in an email, you can’t hear tone of voice, and asking follow-up questions is then even more time-consuming. I try very hard to get people to talk to me on the phone. When they won’t, I don’t necessarily decide that there is a problem with the candidate, but I don’t put much stock in that particular reference.
  7. Think carefully about who you are calling. For the most part, avoid calling your candidates’ colleagues, or only do so if you are also calling a supervisor or two. A teacher’s teammate is rarely going to tell you that his/her colleague had classroom management problems or didn’t communicate well with parents, and an administrator’s lateral co-worker is unlikely to tell you that projects were not finished on time. I won’t hire anyone without speaking with his/her current supervisor, although certainly I will agree to make that call last, after I’m satisfied with the results of other calls. Also, you may be able to glean quite a lot of information from a supervisor from 2-3 years ago. Sometimes, the supervisor won’t remember much — but sometimes he/she will remember A LOT, and will be ready to talk when no longer in regular contact with the candidate.
  8. Finally, use your resources. The best reference call is with someone you know. Even if you don’t know any of your candidate’s references, someone else who is part of the hiring process might! If so, hand that call over to your colleague to get the most truthful information.

I still enjoy a friendship with that principal colleague who hired that marginal teacher. We still talk about this. We both learned. We are both still learning.