As soon as Christmas was no longer coming, the jobs section of the Times Educational Supplement would, in pre-digital days, start getting very fat. For the New Year was, and remains, the traditional appointment season. In what follows, names have been altered, and identities confused.
Once, a fellow Headmaster offered me a lift to the railway station. He drove a new Jaguar and wore driving gloves. He also drove a very highly respected school, where he interviewed every prospective pupil, but not a single aspiring member of staff. Conversely, I never interview a prospective pupil, and always interview every prospective member of staff. How interesting, we both mused, enthusiastically lauding each other's practice, whilst both secretly averring we had it just about immutably right.
Appointing staff is the most important thing I do. Every year I try to refine how I do it. My father advised never paying any attention to degree result, let alone A Levels. Just look for character. Alas, I'm no longer so sure. Exams matter more, and tell you more, than they used to. We start off with a team of three reading the letter and CV. One side of letter is more than enough. I've no concern with why they want to come: I'm only interested to find out from the CV what their track record shows they have done already. That means a strong academic record in their subject, and some extra-curricular activity to a high standard.
It used to be the case that the mark given to the application was, along with the observed lesson, the best indicator of the final choice. Then, a few years ago, I appointed a couple of people for whom the lesson had gone badly, and it jinxed us all. So we wrote to everyone who had applied for any job that year and invited them to comment on their interview experience. The huge number of variables (age of class, ability of set, time of day, level of prior preparation, quality of relationship with usual teacher) suggested the unreliability of the discriminator.
The interview, rather against the spirit of the times, I trust more and more. Would I enjoy being taught by this person – that's the key question. The standard questions rarely elicit useful answers. Asked what are your strengths and weaknesses, only prospective Chaplains will turn to their weaknesses first. Some interviewees are difficult to move off their strengths. For the more practised and artful, their weaknesses and their strengths are self-righteously the same: they work so extraordinarily hard that they find it difficult to say no.
Two questions are the best. One of the standard safeguarding questions asks how your childhood may have affected your own practice as a teacher. The answers can often be humbling, moving. The other is the magic carpet question (copyright the author). We give you a complete day off, and a magic carpet that will take you anywhere in the world: where will you go for the day? If I can't remember their name at the wash-up meeting, I will at least remember their destination, and it usually gives quite a lot away. The Grand Canyon (yawn – not appointed). The Melbourne Cricket Ground (appointed). The sea front at Dawlish, to eat an ice cream (vanilla with cone) and then return immediately home (appointed – and subsequently wrote a play on the topic). But what decision, dear reader, would you have made on the following occasion? 'Ah ha', a computing teacher replied with as much gusto as a fully trained robot might manage, 'that's clearly a trick question. Obviously, I'd just stay at my computer.'
Most schools give the candidate a tour. Some Heads give the less good candidates a tour bound to put them off. Wise Heads use a pupil, and wise Heads' even wiser PAs choose a Prefect and debrief the Prefect afterwards. At one of my schools, indeed, my PA, who some believed must have spent time in the security services, was particularly good at this, and when we said farewell to a colleague in the Common Room I would usually start by reading out the Prefect's devastatingly accurate summary of their future trajectory.
Can parents help? Yes, because parents create atmosphere, especially in prep schools, and when the chips are down you want that call, made at the psychologically targeted time of 6pm to elicit an immediate positive response. Sometimes you may need to persuade someone who applied to be Head of Department that they should in fact join what you assure them will be a dream team as number two. Sometimes you may be asked if you can wait 24 hours while the candidate goes for another interview. That's really when you rely on your school's atmosphere. It has presented itself as a generous place, a voluntary kind of place, a quietly confident kind of place. So of course they can go, you say, bluffingly confident that your confidence and your magnanimity will in the end win the day – or rather the morrow. And thank you, parents, I've never known it not work.
And then, parents, do be nice to teachers, especially new teachers. It's increasingly hard to get them. Complain, of course, if you're badly unhappy. But when you aren't, let it clearly and widely be known. Come Christmas, remember, every disappointed teacher gets the chance to move on.