The Most Important Thing a Principal Can Do

Guest post by Dennis Barger

What makes you good at what you do? I was recently asked this question in an interview, and it gave me pause to think about how it is that I have come to experience success as a principal. Everyone I know, from students and parents to friends and family, all have strengths, but what are mine as a school principal? Why is my school successful?

The answer is simple—I hire the right people. I am not responsible for teaching all of the lessons that happen in class, or running club meetings, or coaching teams, or (insert a thousand other things that happen on our campus). I am, however, responsible for choosing the people who make those thousands of decisions every day. That is a big responsibility, and getting it right really matters!

When do we learn how to hire? Was that in one of our undergrad courses or part of our master’s degree? I do not remember if it was. I do remember being invited to sit in on an interview by someone who saw me as a potential administrator. I also remember some of the first interviews where I was asking the questions and just how scary it was to realize that I was providing opinions on candidates that I would get to work with in the future. (I also realized that some people should NOT work with kids, but I will save those thoughts for my memoirs!)

When hiring, I am reminded of Jim Collins’ Good To Great. Collins writes about getting the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus. Hiring is where we get the right people on the bus. Without them, it simply doesn’t matter where the bus is heading. Another part of his book talks about getting people in the right seats. That is more about staffing decisions than hiring, but it is a valid point and I recommend the book to all leaders.

Here are some of the key lessons I have learned through years of hiring.

Plan ahead for the interview, then reflect on what you hear. 

First, remember to take your time. That’s the only way to get it right. After the interview, ask yourself: Is this the kind of person in whom we should invest $200,000 for training? Would you want them in front of your children? Do they talk about serving others or just themselves? These are all great things to consider when choosing to hire someone.

Follow up interviews help prevent hiring mistakes.

I find that after an initial interview I have a pretty good idea as to which candidates are a likely fit, which might be a fit, and which should not work here. Follow-up interviews are always a good idea, even though they are time consuming, because making a mistake in who we hire can be way more time consuming and costly!

Take the time to complete the reference checks yourself.

After you find a candidate you like, talk to people who worked with the candidate and listen carefully to how they answer the questions. Do they answer with enthusiasm and examples of this person being great, or do they answer only with yes or no, pausing too long while they are trying to decide how to answer? If you sense a red flag, pay attention to it!

Google and Facebook check your candidates.

Finding unprofessional comments and pictures by your candidates might help you to see who they are when they are not sitting in front of you, showing you their absolute best. One Google search allowed us to learn that a candidate was a reality TV contestant who had been sexually promiscuous on the show. That was not disclosed in the interview or the background checks. Imagine placing that person in front of a classroom full of hormonal teenagers and explaining to parents, “We didn’t know, sorry.”

Learn from your mistakes.

I have had two very painful staffing issues in my 11 years as principal; those staff issues that keep you up at night, fragment your staff, and make your human resource director one of your closest friends. The first of these mistakes came when I asked someone else to complete the reference checks because with one, “I was too busy,” and for the other, the candidate was someone who I was lukewarm about after the first interview and only brought back for a second interview when my original candidate declined. The problem was that we were getting closer to the start of the year and I felt rushed. In hindsight, I would have slept a whole lot better for several months had I taken a week or two longer to make the right decision.

The moral of the story: Hire wisely! 

Take the time to do it right. Get the right people on the bus—people that you would want in front of your own children. I did. My kids graduated in 2014 and 2016. I could look parents in the eye and say, “I would—no, actually—I did put my children in their classroom.” One of the most important things I do, and one of the tasks that makes me good at what I do, is hiring the right people to make our school a great place for kids to be.

What are your best hiring practices? How do you make sure you hire the right people for your school? 

Dennis Barger is principal of Vail Academy and High School in Tucson, AZ. He is the 2016 Arizona Secondary Principal of the Year. 

1 Comment

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Great post, Dennis. Good advice on doing the reference checks yourself. I think another good practice involves recruitment. Having strong relationships with university education programs helps so that you can get to the best candidates early. Thanks for sharing!

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