10 Points to Consider when Reference Checking in Schools
Most schools have a process for selecting staff that includes checking references for very good reasons: interviews are false situations in which sometimes people present themselves as way better than they are (especially if they are very confident); or they can tank the whole thing because they are too anxious, no matter how much the interviewer puts them at ease. Sometime people hide things, or avoid certain topics.
I have been interviewing staff for almost 20 years and have made both good and poor decisions afterwards, however I have been saved from one or two disasters, as well as made sure we did not miss out on good ones.
Here’s what I have learned:
1. Always do a reference check.
Besides being good business practice, it’s just sensible. No matter how certain you are about a candidate. Check the person out. You’re not psychic, so you can’t know everything there is to know about a candidate. (And even if you do own a crystal ball and beaded curtains, no ways are you omnisciently foresighted.)
It seems like a no-brainer that someone seeking to employ a teacher would do this, but I have realized that some people couldn’t be bothered or perhaps are so rushed that because they perhaps know the previous institution or trust the former school’s head.
In at least three instances, I know heads who have employed former staff of mine, all of whom, caused us to breathe a sigh of relief when they left; yet none of my colleagues called me to check on the teachers’ time with us. I would have told the headmasters not to touch them with the proverbial barge pole. In all instances, they didn’t last long, but I could have saved my colleagues some pain and suffering (and money).
2. Do the reference check after the interview
I don’t like to prejudge the interview and prefer to check information and queries I have after meeting the prospective employee. A reference check is a confirmation of what you have decided after the interview, not a shortlisting technique.
3. Ask difficult questions
Remember to follow your instincts about certain areas in the interview that perhaps you weren’t so sure about. I have a reference form which has standard questions on it, but there is a section for the ones I want to check with a referee. If my probing in an interview still leaves me with question marks, I make a note and ask the questions outright of those offering a testimonial.
4. If you can’t reach a referee, contact the previous school
You’ll be surprised at what you learn. Sometimes all they can do is confirm that a teacher worked there (and the fact that they only have minimal info on the educator also tells you something); sometimes you learn a whole lot more, that a personal referee perhaps won’t tell you, especially if you suspect a disciplinary issue that might have existed. Listen for what they are NOT saying.
Be leery of staff who haven’t informed their current employer they are looking – this is not a deal breaker though.
5. Watch out for Euphemisms and Hesitations
That pregnant pause when you ask about how the educator relates to her charges or whether there have been disciplinary instances can tell you more than words. You have to be a voice sleuth. Listen for the nuances and delays – they are telling.
6. Always do a criminal check
The group of schools mine belongs to has a tight background checking procedure for this reason. We check a person’s references and we do a criminal check that involves a computer search, a police clearance and sexual offenders register check.
My team once interviewed a person called Michael Engelhart (not his real name of course, and not quite the one he gave us.)
His criminal check came back with convictions to do with the Suppression of Witchcraft Act. It made sense when I realized how many questions he’d asked about the Christian ethos of the school I was at. And then I looked at his name – which was an alias…look again…) Clearly a nutter!
7. Check their Social Media Sites
Look at groups they belong to and read their personal posts. People reveal so much more on Facebook and Twitter than whether they are a cat person or football fan. Look at the jokes they post; their friends pages and the groups they belong to. Even young people are careless about privacy. And if you are doubtful, Instagram is worth a thousand words.
8. Sometimes get a second opinion
Once a superb teacher who impressed us no end in the interview received a damning reference from a headmaster who described her as a troublemaker, which seemed just a bit overdone. We did a second reference and took a chance on her. And she was a remarkable educator.
People lie – even heads of schools can be venal.
9. Be suspicious of Applicants who list a colleague, not the head of the institution, as a referee
Almost every poor appointment I have made has been based on the affirmation of a peer, not the boss. Go to the top.
Having said that, it is often the peer who knows the ‘true story’ behind an unfavourable review from the boss, so you may have to trust your instinct on this. See #9.
10. Trust your gut
Ultimately all interviews are a bit of a crap shoot. As much as you must do your homework, eventually you have to trust your gut and make a decision.