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  • by Blaine Helwig

Are You Trainable as an Educator?

Updated: Apr 18

Over the last four decades, I have come to realize that a myriad of qualitative evaluations are processed in real time during job interviews – from either side of the interview table. The decision power of one party over the other during an interview is wholly dependent upon current labor availability. Supply and demand is the timeless and ubiquitous factor governing open market transactions – including labor markets. Yet, that economic fact is usually a secondary issue to employers despite the fact that an interviewee may have multiple employment opportunities elsewhere for differing sums of money. In reality, regardless if an employer is in a relatively weaker position due to the scarcity of hirable labor, they generally evaluate prospective candidates with a single criterion that matters most to them: Is this candidate trainable with regard to our organization’s needs? Simply put, an employer may desire a candidate that opts to work elsewhere; however, it is almost a certainty that they will not offer a position to a person that they believe is not trainable and does not fit their company’s needs.

Is the Teacher Trainable?

About two decades ago, I joined a volleyball team at a local church that my friends attended. It was not a competitive league, and there was a time investment in driving (both ways) as well as playing a game one night per week. It was a mix of talent on each team. Some players were quite skilled, while other players did not know how to ‘set the ball’ using two open hands to ‘pop’ the volleyball up for the taller players to spike the ball over the net. These players would use a closed fist or swipe at the ball with one hand/arm which offered little control in properly and consistently setting the volleyball for a return shot. The volleyball would fly off in all directions. We tried to teach these players who used these ‘unsuccessful’ ball setting techniques, but surprisingly, there was little to no attempt by these inexperienced players to change their 'setting' behavior. It became frustrating that these few players applied little in their setting techniques after more than ample guidance from the more skilled players. Thus, many of the better players stopped coming to the games which resulted in the league disbanding. In reality, these few players were untrainable despite constant modeling of proper ball control techniques before and during the weekly games.

Teaching is a relatively unique profession. Effective classroom teaching is mostly learned in isolation – despite the student-teacher preparation programs at universities and educational service centers. Pragmatically, most professional work is mastered from direct and unfettered help of other colleagues while working on-the-job. There is little difficulty in asking an engineer, accountant or analyst in the next cubicle for assistance – and presto, help is available at a moment’s notice affording the needed guidance. Not so, in classroom teaching. Why? Your grade level colleague has their own class of students. They cannot simply bolt over and assist an entry-level teacher without a substitute and much pre-planning.

The most efficient and effective means to train entry-level teachers is not through Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) or book studies or the standard campus professional development training sessions after school. The most dramatic means to better a teacher’s instruction is in-class modeling analogously as the commonly used ‘Gradual Release Method of Instruction’ (i.e., I do, we do, then, you do) employed with students. In-class teacher training consists of a highly successful educator modeling instructional techniques and delivery for the novice educator with the entry-level teacher’s students. Then, the novice teacher emulates the instruction model using their own teaching style. Afterward, the two educators debrief on the teacher’s lesson and create next steps, as needed. This labor-intensive teacher training process is a tremendous investment in administrative time and consequently, one of the major factors in objectively evaluating teaching candidates before they are officially hired. Moreover, once a teacher signs a contract and begins working at a traditional public school, it is an arduous process for a campus principal to remove or terminate them if they are not trainable. Thus, effective elementary principals take great care during the interview process to deeply consider the following query – Is this teaching candidate trainable?

Final Thoughts

As with the volleyball example, when quality teachers are not supported or feel unsuccessful in the classroom, they look for other options – profession changes or new elementary schools. In these situations, the question that begs answering is the following: “Why are so many teachers leaving the campus each school year?” On the other hand, if a classroom educator was supplied with effective modeling and training as well as classroom support with challenging students, then it is highly probable that they are not a good fit in teaching as a viable profession.

However, if a teacher was employed in an elementary school with a physical plant manager/principal and not an instructional leader, then the fault clearly lies with the campus leadership. It is difficult for many entry-level educators to dramatically improve their practice without sufficient assistance in specific areas of professional need. Of course, a physical plant manager/principal may not know how to assist and develop their teachers’ classroom efficacy; but that is not the point. An elementary principal’s primary function is to assist in the development of their teachers’ instructional delivery, lesson planning and content development so teachers’ students are socially and academically successful. Simply put, if the campus’s academic performance is chronically underperforming and there is an exodus of teachers each May, then it is time for the associate superintendent at the district level to ask themselves, “Is this campus principal trainable?”

Finally, it is important to note that a campus principal’s mindset must be hyper focused during teacher interviews. I estimate that I have hired more than fifty (50) teachers over the course of my 25-year career in public education. During those interviews, I evaluated each candidate in only one basic way – Are they trainable to meet my campus’ social and academic needs? Of course, it is important to fully understand my personal and professional definition of the word “trainable.” When a prospective teaching candidate is ‘trainable,’ it means that they possess ‘intelligence, an emotional readiness for professional work, a heightened work ethic, philosophical alignment to campus curricular programming, and an openness to direct assistance.’ It is a campus principal's staffing objective to consistently hire 'trainable' teachers that are philosophically aligned with the administration and form a racially diverse faculty. Conversely, if an administrator randomly hires classroom teachers without a clear intent of their 'trainable' qualities, they will invariably find themselves at odds with faculty members on important social and academic school goals.

As an administrator, I was more than willing to invest the training time when employing entry-level teachers, but that training is costly in instructional coaching time. Hence, I would ask general questions during the interview that provided me clues that a prospective teaching candidate fully intended to remain at my campus for at least 3 to 4 years, minimum. Why? I wanted to recoup my time investment or cost of the labor-intensive classroom training during their first year of teaching.

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