Breaking Traditions in Education Hiring: Rethinking References

Tosca Killoran (EdD)
9 min readSep 11, 2023

As the education landscape evolves, so must our methods to identify and hire the best educators for our schools. I may get heat for this, but one area I believe is long overdue for reconsideration is using references to indicate a candidate's suitability for international teaching positions. While references have long been a staple of the hiring process, it is time to acknowledge their limitations and embrace a more robust approach considering modern education's complexities. As a leader at a large international school, I can share my hiring experiences, explore why references may not be the best tool for the job, and explore alternative ways forward.

Subjective Understanding vs. Human Analytics

References, while well-intentioned, often fall prey to the subjective lens through which they are provided. A reference is a person's perception of a candidate's abilities, coloured by personal biases and limited interactions. This subjectivity introduces significant variability into the hiring equation, making it difficult to form a comprehensive and accurate assessment.

Human analytics, on the other hand, relies on data-driven insights gathered over time. Performance is measured across multiple dimensions and occasions, allowing for a more holistic understanding of a candidate’s teaching prowess. I suggest hiring committees ask for the data collected from the teachers on their practice over time to paint a clearer picture of a teacher’s pedagogy and practice, untainted by personal biases.

As humans, we tend to believe that good things happen to people who work hard and bad things happen to people that are lazy. This is outcome bias. As educational leaders we draw too strong an inference based on this. We tend to judge teachers by outcomes and not by process. This is a real problem and it gets in the way of our understanding of … teacher performance assessment.

To learn more about human analytics in education, read here.

The Influence of Intersectionality

Intersectionality significantly impacts hiring practices in international schools by recognizing the intricate interplay of multiple identities and experiences. It fosters diversity, ensuring that candidates from various backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and socio-economic statuses are considered equally. This approach enriches the school community, enhances cultural competence, and promotes a more inclusive and equitable learning environment. However, not every leader or hiring committee has Gender-Based Analysis training.

Anyone who has worked at a school knows they are political spaces. References are typically obtained from the executive leadership within educational institutions. While these leaders are undoubtedly knowledgeable, their feedback might be nefariously biased due to systemized inequity, internalized racism, bigotry, or, more simply, inadvertently skewed due to internal school politics or limited exposure to a teacher’s day-to-day activities.

To address this, an alternative hiring process could involve the submission of anonymous 360° evaluative feedback. This format empowers teachers to request a broad assessment from colleagues and the institution. Anonymity ensures candidness. Including feedback from peers, students, and parents creates a well-rounded view of a candidate's impact on the learning community while inviting insights into the intricate interplay of the candidate’s multiple identities and experiences.

I send 360° leadership surveys each year for my professional growth. Admittedly, it is a practice that demands both resilience in receiving criticism and adeptness in data coding to discern recurring patterns to enable goal-setting. Here are some 360° samples to make copies of and edit for use within your context. Reach out if you require access or have ideas for changes and improvements!

Perhaps at this juncture, it is important to recognize that beyond the commonly discussed aspects of the ‘reference game,’ a less-explored and darker facet significantly affects schools' inventive potential and overall welfare. Frequently, educators are hesitant to challenge established norms, inquire critically, introduce unconventional ideas, or embrace risks due to their reliance on a small number of individuals for future references once they depart from a school. This framework creates a complex web of potential ethical concerns permeating the educational system.

Introducing novel methods for evaluating candidates would ensure a release from the fear of a ‘bad reference.’ It would foster an environment where schools can consistently enhance their practices through genuine input and constructive feedback.

Lack of Training and Expertise

This year, I had a reference check conversation that went something like this:

Tosca: Thanks so much for your time today. I just had a few more questions. How would this candidate handle complex inclusion cases and differentiation for diverse learners?
Reference: Oh, they manage quite well. They are a team player and always willing to collaborate.
Tosca: Sounds excellent. And, what programmes are you leveraging as a school in diversity and inclusion to help them with that collaboration?
Reference: Well, I think they’re familiar with some tools. We had a learning support team that usually handled that stuff.
Tosca: Interesting! You said ‘had,’ are you no longer with the school?
Reference: I was the grade level leader in Korea, but I work in deliveries now in California.
Tosca: Ah, I see. I love California. What is your alma mater?
Reference: Oh, I didn’t graduate from Education.

Although the above conversation was out of the norm, the traditional reference system assumes that those providing references are education experts equipped to accurately evaluate a teacher's skills, attitudes, and aptitudes. However, this is not always the case. References may be given by leaders who need more expertise in the subject matter, diluting the reliability of their input.

An alternative approach involves task-based and scenario questions or case studies. Candidates could be presented with scenarios that mirror real-life challenges they may face in the classroom. Their responses would offer tangible insights into their problem-solving abilities, instructional strategies, and adaptability.

Look at the end of this article for sample scenario-based interview questions.

A Path Forward

International schools should consider embracing human analytics, task-based questions, and anonymous 360° interviews to usher in a more effective and fair hiring process. This process would provide a more comprehensive overview of a teacher’s performance.

What are your thoughts on the traditional reference check?

Possible scenarios for the interview process

During the interview, candidates are presented with these scenarios as spontaneous 'cold calls' or on-the-spot challenges. This approach aims to evaluate their capacity for agile thinking and ability to draw upon the knowledge and skills within their teaching repertoire.

PYP Scenario:
You are a Grade 4 teacher in an international school that follows the PYP framework. In your class, you have a diverse group of students, including a child with special needs who requires additional support for reading and writing, a student from a different cultural background who is learning English as a second language, and a few high-achieving students who are eager for advanced challenges.

Recently, you introduced a unit on 'Community and Sustainability' to your class. The central idea is 'Exploring how communities can work together to create a sustainable future.' You have designed a series of inquiry-based learning activities to explore this concept, including field trips, group projects, and independent research.

Here is the multi-faceted challenge you are facing:

Inclusion and Differentiation: One of your main goals is to ensure that all students, including the child with learning differences and the English language learner, are fully engaged and able to access the curriculum. How do you adapt your inquiry-based activities to meet their needs and provide appropriate support to ensure their success while maintaining a sense of inclusion and belonging within the class?

Behaviour Management: You notice behavioural challenges during group projects, including student disruptions and conflicts. How do you address these behaviour issues within collaborative inquiry-based learning, promoting positive behaviour and restorative practices while ensuring that the learning process is not disrupted for others?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI): As part of this unit, you want to ensure that students appreciate and celebrate the cultural diversity within your classroom. How do you integrate cultural perspectives into the curriculum, foster an inclusive classroom environment, and address any potential biases or stereotypes that may arise during discussions related to sustainability and community involvement?

Academic Rigor: To maintain academic rigour, you must challenge the high-achieving students while ensuring they align with the unit's central idea. How do you design extensions or additional learning opportunities to meet the needs of these students, promoting critical thinking and deep exploration of the topic?

In your response, please share how you would approach these challenges, considering the principles of inquiry-based learning and the PYP framework. Highlight past experiences or strategies to address similar situations and discuss the outcomes you aim to achieve for all students.

MYP Scenario:
You are a Grade 8 MYP teacher in an international school. You are currently teaching a unit on 'Globalization and Its Impact on Society.' The unit's key concept is 'Globalization,' and the related concepts include 'Interconnectedness' and 'Cultural Identity.' As an MYP teacher, you are expected to guide students through a holistic education emphasizing inquiry-based learning, international-mindedness, and development of the learner profile attributes.

Here is a multi-faceted challenge you are encountering:

Inclusion and Differentiation: Within your class, you have students with diverse learning needs, including a student with a learning disability who struggles with reading and writing, an English language learner who is proficient in spoken English but requires support in academic writing, and a few gifted students who are ready for more advanced exploration. How do you design and implement your instructional strategies and assessments to accommodate these diverse learning profiles while maintaining high academic standards and ensuring all students actively engage in inquiry-based learning?

Behaviour Management: During classroom discussions and group activities related to the unit, you observe instances of disruptive behaviour and moments where students lack respect for different cultural perspectives. How do you address these behaviour challenges, foster a respectful and inclusive classroom environment, and guide students toward recognizing the value of diverse viewpoints in discussions related to globalization?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI): Given the unit's focus on globalization and cultural identity, how do you ensure students appreciate and respect the cultural diversity within the classroom? How do you incorporate diverse perspectives into the curriculum, promote cross-cultural understanding, and address any potential biases or stereotypes arising during discussions or activities related to globalization?

Academic Rigor: As an MYP teacher, you aim to provide a challenging and rigorous education that aligns with the MYP framework's goals. How do you design assessments and learning activities that meet academic expectations and encourage students to think critically about the global issues discussed in the unit, make connections between different subject areas, and reflect on their development as internationally-minded learners?

In your response, please share your approach to addressing these challenges within the context of MYP, considering the principles of inquiry-based learning and the MYP framework. Highlight any previous experiences or specific strategies you have employed to navigate similar situations and describe the desired learning outcomes for your students.

DP Scenario:
You are a DP teacher responsible for teaching a Higher Level (HL) course in 'XXXX.' The course is part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme, emphasizing critical thinking, research skills, and a deep understanding of ‘XXXX’ issues. As a DP teacher, you are expected to guide students through a rigorous curriculum that prepares them for university-level studies and fosters the development of the learner profile attributes.

Here is a multi-faceted challenge you are facing:

Inclusion and Differentiation: Your DP class consists of students with diverse learning needs, including students who excel in political science, students who struggle with academic writing, and students from culturally and politically diverse backgrounds. How do you design your instructional strategies, assessments, and coursework to cater to this diverse range of students, ensuring that each student is intellectually challenged and fully engaged with the DP curriculum?

Behaviour Management: In the context of rigorous academic discussions and debates on issues, you may encounter passionate and potentially heated exchanges among students. How do you manage classroom dynamics, promote respectful and constructive dialogue, and ensure all students feel comfortable expressing their viewpoints while maintaining a productive learning environment?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI): As ‘XXXX’ encompasses a broad range of global issues, how do you ensure students appreciate and respect diverse perspectives and opinions? How do you incorporate a variety of diverse voices and cultural viewpoints into your teaching materials, discussions, and assessments, fostering an inclusive and equitable classroom where students value the contributions of others?

Academic Rigor: DP courses are known for their high academic standards and demands. How do you design assessments and assignments that align with DP curriculum objectives and challenge students to engage deeply with complex ‘XXXX’ issues, analyze data critically, and develop well-reasoned arguments? How do you support students meeting the IB Diploma Programme’s expectations while encouraging wellbeing and personal growth?

In your response, please share your approach to addressing these challenges within the context of DP, considering the principles of inquiry-based learning and the DP framework. Highlight your past experiences or strategies to navigate similar situations and describe the desired learning outcomes for your DP students.



Tosca Killoran (EdD)

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