Transcript of Interview with Julie Lemley, IS Beijing HS Principal

Q: You’ve shared with me that recently you’ve been focused on making sure that International School Beijing's (ISB’s) commitment to SEL is reflected in your school’s hiring practices. What issues were you noticing in the past? What were your motivations to improve your hiring practices?

Over the last decade, having worked closely with the mentoring program in previous schools, I noticed that the teachers who were hired were very strong in their content areas but may not have had skills or experience in mentoring and advisory programs. This deficit was not evident until they were at our school and in front of kids.  Since developing and implementing SEL Programs is a key focus for our school, we felt it is necessary to have the right people in advisory roles. I think in the high school setting, in particular, sometimes teachers are hired for their content knowledge and their experience, sometimes SEL is not a factor in hiring. Moving into my leadership role, I took it as an opportunity to be intentional about what we are looking for and developing some interview questions that could bring to light their skills in this area.

Q: Before the interview stage, do your job descriptions and requirements include SEL competencies and a mentoring skill-set? Through our work with other schools, we’ve noticed many job descriptions do not include the role of the advisor, even though it may be part of the responsibilities.

Yes, we have being a mentor in our job description for both the high school and middle school educator roles.  I will say that with our newly adopted SEL framework, that I’d like to go back and add in the specific SEL competencies. I think that it’s important to be explicit in what we’re looking for and how we expect our teachers to lead.

Q: So, knowing that you were looking to change your recruitment approach, what changes did you make?

We dedicated part of each interview clarifying our expectations for mentoring: what mentoring looks like on the schedule, and the expectation that teachers are available in the classroom — casually opening the door at 8 a.m.,  describing morning check-ins, and what mentoring looks like. We’re clear about what our SEL lessons look like, the support we provide for teachers, and what the community-building piece looks like at our school. We discuss not just the SEL timetable for their courses or how many preps, but add a clear description of how SEL is integrated into our classrooms.  Up until now, this is something I have never really experienced in an interview.

I’ve developed three questions to help get an understating of the interviewee’s SEL strengths. The first question is a general question about their experience with either mentoring, advisory, or a pastoral role at their school.  This question allows us to see what experience they have or if it mirrors what we do. And even if it doesn’t (some schools don’t have those programs), this question lets us know their enthusiasm toward developing these skills. I also like to ask a scenario question, something that’s realistic. Such as: “How do you resolve student conflict in a class?” or “How would you respond to a parent who says they want their child to have more homework or didn’t believe in mental health issues?” We have to address these real scenarios quite often, so we want to see how the interviewees would respond. And finally, I ask a question I learned co-interviewing with another principal, which I think is a great question.  I ask the candidate to tell a story about a time they felt they had a real impact on a student or a student had a significant impact on them as an educator. We want to give that teacher the space to tell a real story. You can typically tell from someone’s body language or the twinkle in their eye the level of their excitement.  You know that feeling we get when we talk about educating children. I think about interviews I’ve been in, when we are looking for highly skilled academic teachers, we forget the connection with student piece because now we think it’s normal to have strong mentoring skills. If you’re an educator, of course, you’re great with kids, but we want to delve deeper into that — we want to find out more about the person we’re interviewing and if they’d be a right fit for our school.

Q: And, Julie, have you noticed any reaction from interviewees at the moment when you go from asking them to “Tell us about your curriculum approach of xxxx content area?” to “Tell us about teaching the child, not just teaching the subject?” How does this kind of question hit them?

Yes, their reactions are usually quite evident. I’ve found it’s either clear that a teacher is excited about their subject area and teaching the whole child, or they feel it’s an area of growth that they’re interested in pursuing. Sometimes, educators want to come to our school because they know SEL is something we value. By their reaction, I can tell if SEL is something they’re not very comfortable with, and maybe this isn’t the right fit for them. To me, it’s pretty evident, but it would be interesting to see the hard data once they’re on the ground.  We feel that our new strategies are helping us identify educators that are strong in the SEL competencies by asking these additional, targeted questions.

Q: Because ISB is such a well-respected school, you have the benefit of a lot of people wanting to work there. Do you feel you can afford to screen for both academic and teaching excellence as well as this SEL piece while other schools may not necessarily have the opportunity to get both skillsets?

Yes, I think about that a lot.  I think that right now, here at ISB, we have a great package, and it’s a great school. But I think it’s challenging for us too. Due to the pandemic, we’re really only hiring in China, so we have a limited candidate pool right now. In China, not all schools — even international schools — have social-emotional counselors or offer any pastoral advisory care.  It’s scary to think about the impact on students when schools are strictly academic.

Q: I agree, in some schools students’ social and emotional needs are not being met — what’s happening to those young people? My last question is, what tips or advice would you share for those trying to rework their hiring practices to include SEL?

It’s a good question. I think it's important to look at a teacher’s day-to-day practice. What competencies are needed, and what skills are we looking for?  Since our job descriptions are very subject-specific, we often look for teachers with specific content area skills, especially for roles outside of elementary school.  I try to picture that teacher standing in front of thirteen kids, mentoring them and teaching about consent or another difficult topic.  What does that look like? Also, giving people grace and an opportunity to say something like “I don’t know,” “It may not be my strength, but I want to learn,” or “I know this is important and I value it.”  Those opportunities are good too because it allows us an opportunity to grow and mentor teachers in SEL. We’ve spent a lot of time developing our SEL structure, and now we have the capacity to focus on developing our educators. I think the best tip is to make sure that SEL is included in interview questions and when reviewing a teachers’ CV’s.  You must make sure the skills you value are included.

Q: How involved has your HR department been in reengineering your interview process?

We have a new HR director that is very aware of our shift io include SEL and how important it is.  She has two children at our school, which is a definite asset because she sees the benefit side of our process. We’re adding anti-bias and anti-racism questions as well, which do integrate with our SEL practices. We are showing who we are and not just saying, “We’re an inclusive school.” We show that you can be part of our community, whether as a faculty member, staff member, or student.  At ISB, we’re not just saying that we’re promoting diversity, but here you know that you’re seen, included, and heard. I think inclusion is a key part of a successful SEL program, and we are continuing to work on this.  However, there is always room for improvement. We also have our Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism (ABAR) group, and ABAR representatives are included in leadership and search committees. Again, I think that this lends itself to making sure that diverse perspectives are voiced and heard in these committees.

The other piece that we’re still working on is keeping a log of our website activity. We have two sides to our website: the public-facing one and the password-protected community member side. Most of our handbooks, expectations, and policies are locked behind the protection, and we’re currently talking about making our website more public.  We want to saying “This is who we are, and this is our curriculum.”  Currently, we post all our curriculum on the protected side of our website, English, social studies, and math.  But we want to make transparent to the public our philosophies. “Here is our SEL(?)  curriculum: this is what a 3-year-old or 17-year-old will be receiving at our school”. This is important for both hiring faculty members and also for families who are considering our school. We want to be intentional about displaying our SEL practices; this is an area we’re working on right now.

Yes, that’s an important piece, what you put in the public domain.  This lets people know, even before they choose to apply, what kind of school they’re signing up for.  It influences the self-selection process a little bit.

Yes, and making sure, too, that they’re not just signing up for a name because it’s really easy for that to happen at our school. “Oh, ISB is very prestigious,” and we have a recognizable name.  But do you know what you’re signing up for? Because at ISB, we expect these SEL-related things from students and their teachers.

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