It’s that time of year! Districts around the country are looking for good school principals. (Hint: it’s always that time of year.) You’re ready to be one. What does a school principal hiring process look like and how can you prepare?
I’ve participated in several processes as a candidate, even more as an interview panelist, and designed several myself. Below, I’ll walk you through typical components, the most common phases, and an example of how they’re often put together into an effective principal hiring process.
I want you to know what to expect so you can prepare and show your best self. The process can be grueling – but it’s worth it once you get that job!
While this post will focus on the full hiring process, these resources will help you with specific parts:
- How To Become a School Principal
- Principal Resume Tips
- Principal Interview Questions
- Interview Tips for Teachers and Principals
Let’s assume you’ve already identified your target districts, submitted an application, and practiced your answers to the interview questions. What exactly will the process look like?
A good interview process will have multiple phases and components. Why? Each phase will have a different purpose, and the components will be testing you for different skills, abilities, and mindsets.
I’d be very wary of any hiring process that just included a single question-and-answer interview. It may be easy for you, but it also decreases the chances that you and the district will be a good match. No matter how fabulous you are.
A thorough selection process, while grueling, also increases the likelihood of a succesful hire and experience for the principal.
Let’s dive into the components, phases, and an example process.
You have to apply in order to even get an interview! No kidding?
Don’t underestimate the importance of the application in the selection though. Most districts will conduct some kind of screening on the front end. How those screeners feel about the application can make or break your chances both to get an initial interview and later in the process.
Answer every question. Use good formatting. Proofread for typos. Follow submission guidelines.
Those all seem self-explanatory. If they were, I wouldn’t have even included this section. A shocking percentage of principal applications get weeded out because of one (or more) of those issues.
Demonstrate your ability to follow directions, complete paperwork, and follow through immediately.
Most applications will include one or more requests to write about a specific question. If you are really interested in the position, give these your utmost effort. If you can’t, then don’t waste your time applying.
The essays will be read by screeners and can have a significant impact. Even more, these essays are often passed on into later parts of the selection process.
Don’t miss your opportunity to make an impression, evoke a powerful positive response, and demonstrate your leadership beliefs.
The requested topic also likely signals something about the priorities of the district/school. Many times the subject will come up again later in the process and you’ll do well if you’ve already organized your thoughts and taken a clear position.
We all know what an interview looks like. People sit across from you and ask you questions. I’ve yet to see a hiring process that doesn’t include some type of interview. Interviews are, in general, not that predictive of future job success.
For principals, it makes some sense. You have to be able to coherently express your thoughts to unexpected questions/issues to students, teachers, parents.
As a candidate, it’s helpful to understand the different types and purposes of an interview.
Not all districts conduct screening interviews. Larger districts usually do. A screener interview is generally a quick interview with 1 – 2 HR representatives to ensure you meet basic qualifications and some key requirements.
School Stakeholder Interview
I’ve interviewed for lots of jobs and can confidently say that the school stakeholder interview portion of a principal hiring process is the most challenging. People don’t believe me when I say I’ve walked into a room to sit in a single chair surrounded by a table with 20 people “interviewing” me.
This can be anxiety inducing. Preparation and research helps.
You may not face 20 people, but at the very least, you’ll face a relatively large group representing various roles in the school community.
Typically, you’ll encounter a panel of:
- Office staff
- Special education
- Other school principals
- Students (depending on level)
- Community partner representative
There are two important things to remember here. First – it is good that all these stakeholders are involved in the process. Should you be selected, you are more likely to be supported because they all had a voice.
Second – there is no way you can answer every question to satisfy every person in the room. You will be asked questions ranging from very basic to specific and technical. Some of the panel may not even know what the right answer is. Some stakeholders may be looking for a completely opposite answer from others.
Don’t try to please everyone with your answers. Seriously, don’t.
Instead, be yourself and communicate what you truly believe. Authenticity shines and you’ll find a job that aligns with your beliefs.
District Admin Team Interview
Not all hiring processes will have this step. It depends on the size of the district and how they support and supervise schools.
In this step, you’ll likely be interviewed by director-level staff and other school administrators. The purpose is to gather insight from those individuals who will advise, support, and collaborate with the future school principal.
This level of interview will typically be more focused and technical than the initial stakeholder interview. You will be asked questions that require deeper professional and leadership knowledge, are related to the initiatives of the district, and dig into how you handle challenging situations.
The final step in any good principal hiring process will include a 1:1 with the district superintendent. I’d hesitate to take a principal job that didn’t include the superintendent at some point.
The superintendent interview may vary from highly technical to informal. In every case, they will be evaluating both your capability for the position AND your commitment to the necessary work.
Enjoy and learn from the conversation. I’ve found it valuable to remember that the interview is a two-way process. This interview can give you a great sense of the district you may be working in.
During the hiring process, you’ll be asked to demonstrate your skill at various tasks rather than just simply talking about them. These tasks are a great opportunity to display your skills, especially if interviews aren’t your strongest point.
An on demand writing task is different than any written responses you may have been asked to complete as part of the application.
Districts used to do this for handwriting samples. Ugh – I hope there aren’t any still doing this.
Instead, this is a great assessment of your ability to organize your thoughts quickly and communicate clearly in writing. Secondarily, it may actually be testing your knowledge of the subject.
Notice the order. Don’t communicate LOTS OF KNOWLEDGE in an unclear way. Instead, communicate clearly and emphasize the important points.
This is one of my favorite tasks in a hiring process. Effective school leaders know how to use data. They know what data is worthwhile and how it is used appropriately.
In this type of task you will be given a set of data and asked to review, summarize, and report conclusions and/or next steps based on the data.
You’ll be asked to prepare a presentation on a specific subject. As with any writing tasks, assume the topic is important to the district. The presentation could be to an interview panel, the school staff, or a community group.
Keep it focused and on-topic.
A budget performance task can typically take two forms:
- You are given an existing budget and asked to analyze it. This is testing your knowledge of school budgets and your ability to identify what amounts you may have available. This district is likely concerned about administrators going over budget.
- You are given a problem/challenge to solve and a budget allocation. The task is to create a budget that addresses the challenge. This district is concerned about aligning resources with outcomes.
Lesson Observation / Feedback
I would never hire a principal without including this performance task. You will observe a teacher conducting a lesson (either in person or on video.) You will be asked to conduct an observation and feedback session with the teacher.
Other administrators or instructional coaches will observe the session. Afterwards, they will debrief what they observed AND ask the teacher about how they felt about the feedback.
This is so valuable to everyone involved! It allows you to demonstrate your knowledge of district initiatives, your ability to support staff, improve instruction.
Your prospective employer will check with previous supervisors, colleagues, and other relevant individuals.
Typically, these will be conducted by phone by either the hiring manager or an HR specialist. You can’t do much in the moment to influence the reference check.
Be aware that the reference checks may not be limited to those references you have listed.
This is the ultimate reference check.
Are you prepared for a prospective employer to come visit your current work site to ask your current colleagues about you? It may happen.
Not all districts do this, but it’s an increasingly common practice. A small group of experienced people will work with you to set up short sessions with stakeholders in your current school.
As both an interviewer and a prospective candidate I’ve found this to be an incredibly valuable activity.
It’s also a good reminder that you’re constantly interviewing for a future job. You can’t say one thing if you’ve always done another. Experienced administrators understand that you can’t please everyone – but they’ll notice inconsistencies and patterns in your previous answers and how your colleagues perceive you.
The good news is that this step will only take place if you are a true finalist and likely to get the job after a good visit.
The components could appear in any phase of a hiring process.
Most principal interview processes will have 2 – 4 phases depending on the size and complexity of the district and the competitiveness of the position. I’m going to outline what I’ve found to be the most typical three phases.
I’ll describe them in the order that is most common. I’ll also describe which components you are most likely to see at each phase. Be prepared though for variation in the order and composition of each phase.
In this phase, the district is trying to determine if you are basically qualified to be a principal. It may include the following components:
- Paperwork review
- Screening interview
- Reference checks
Stakeholder Interview Phase
In this phase, the district is vetting you with those stakeholders you will be supporting and representing. It will be heavy on school staff and focused on ensuring you can be effective with the school community.
It may include the following components:
- Stakeholder interview
- Presentation Task
- Writing task
- Data task
- Lesson observation and feedback
District Interview Phase
Sometimes this is combined with the stakeholder phase, other times it is standalone. If not combined, it will typically involve fewer candidates. The goal in this phase is to ensure alignment with the district and ability to work within (or on) the overall system.
- District administrator interview
- Data task
- Budget task
You’re a finalist. Now it’s time for the lead administrator to make a choice. This potentially includes:
- Superintendent interview
- Reference checks
- Site Visits
A Typical Hiring Process
These components and phases can be put together in a variety of ways, depending on the hiring philosophy of the HR department, the size of the district, and the timeline. Be prepared for anything!
As an example, here’s probably the most common principal hiring process I’ve seen. I’ve also included the number of candidates that may be considered at each stage. These ARE NOT hard numbers, just what I’ve generally observed.
Three Round Hiring Process (5 steps)
Step 1 (1 – 1000 candidates)
Identifying interview candidates
- Paperwork screening
- Initial reference checks (listed references)
Step 2 – Round 1 (6 – 10 candidates)
School Stakeholder Vetting
- Stakeholder interview
- Writing task
- Lesson Observation
Step 3 – Round 2 (2 – 4 candidates)
- Presentation to district administrators
- District administrator interview
- Budget task
Step 4 – Reference checks (1-3 candidates)
Step 5 – Final Round (1-2 candidates)
- Site visits
- 1:1 Superintendent interview
Final Step – Introduction to the Community
Great – you’ve used this information well. You’ve been offered, and accepted the job. The district will now announce you to the community you are about to serve.
Expect to review and approve a biography, message to the school community, and potential media announcement. Then, you’ll be invited to a reception at the school (or parent meeting) to introduce yourself and meet your future community.
This is an incredibly exciting time and sets the groundwork for your future relationships. Use it well!
The school needs a great leader.
What did I miss? What questions do you still have? Let me know in the comments below.
Also, if you’re looking to dig deeper, don’t forget these related posts: