Principals, If You Don’t Include Questions About Race, Class, and Privilege During Your Interviews, You Are Failing.

Principals, if you don’t have your staff hired and ready for back to school, you have my sympathy. As all school leaders know, the best hiring season for teachers is early in the calendar year (around January to March).

At times, late in the school year, or even mid-year, a school community will get lucky, but for the most part, hiring well means hiring early and never completely take the recruitment hat off.

While I strongly believe in principals being able to work with their leadership teams to both hire and when necessary fire, it is tempered with the belief that schools cannot fire their way to greatness. Only hiring well, coaching, and support will work.

Ask the Right Questions

A few people have asked me what types of questions my leadership team uses to be as selective as possible in choosing the most aligned candidates.

For us, it is critical that we find educators who truly believe in the potential of our students, nearly all of whom are Black. We are looking for a particular mindset when it comes to people leading our classrooms full of our community’s precious children.

If you don’t bring a sense of intense love for our Black youth and unwavering urgency to serve them, you aren’t the right fit at our school. The injustices that Black students experience are pervasive. Educators must be accountable to providing a vastly different experience than Black children experience in society. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

Since we always want to be able to look a parent or grandparent in the eyes and say, “yes, I would definitely put my own child in that classroom,” here are a few of the questions we ask to ascertain which candidates will be good fits for our school community:

  • Why teach in a Black neighborhood? Why here?
    • Some teachers grew up as kids role-playing school, but still want to “play school” with other people’s children. We are also trying to probe for missionary, racist, “I’m here to save you” or other harmful mindsets.
  • Give concrete examples and rationale about how you build relationships with students. How about with families? With communities?
    • Of course, we need deep content expertise, but we also need folks who can build deep relationships and communities, and have the mindsets that will support and lead Black children at an accelerated rate.
  • What do you believe you should be held accountable for?
    • They have to be comfortable being held accountable for how much children learn. Some teachers only want to be held accountable for what they covered in the class. It’s a different type of teacher who embraces accountability—individual and collective. We want them.
  • How do students know when you are frustrated?
    • If the candidate responds by saying they don’t get frustrated, run. Modeling how to handle frustration is a key component of students developing their emotional regulation. Relationships can be harmed by educators who hold grudges against children, holler, or have poor communication skills.
  • What strategies have you used to support students’ racial identity development?
    • People don’t always have good answers to this. But, we are looking for teachers who understand the bombardment of messages that tell Black students that they are worth less and worthless. We want teachers who consciously and emphatically buoy students against this racist tide and check their own messaging to boot.
  • What are you reading? What have you reflected on and learned about the need to improve your practice?
    • Growth mindset means always learning and not just waiting for professional development to expand thinking and improve practice. When we speak about professionalizing the art and science of teaching, self-efficacy and self-development also plays a key part. Ownership of one’s craft is vital.
  • How does race, class, and privilege play itself out in classrooms? Describe how you mitigate them? Provide examples of how your own privilege and implicit biases impacts and informs your work with Black students.
    • Ignoring one’s race, class, and privilege, does not contribute to a healthy, respectful classroom. These blind spots can severely impact the learning of the students as well as the teachers.
  • What are your strategies and non-negotiables for ensuring Black students are successful? How do you define this success? Can you give examples of how strict authoritativeness lives in your classroom? How does your classroom speak to high standards and love?
    • Hilary Beard speaks about the authoritative parent and teacher who establishes a high bar that is tightly married to high levels of support. This “warm demander” pushes students and these students respond by meeting the bar.
  • Have you had a Black supervisor? How would you feel about being led by a Black male principal? Why?
    • I encourage the Black women education leaders to ask this as well. Yes, it is 2018, and there are still plenty of people who will cast aspersions about the leadership of people of color. I’ve known folks who raise their eyebrows to an answer of a Black leader and go to someone white and smile at the very same answer they heard before. (Too many examples to cite here, I’ll have to follow up with a different blog about the undermining that happens in schools and systems.)
  • Describe your experience of being coached and receiving feedback. Give an example of negative feedback and your next steps in response to receiving this feedback.
    • It’s unnerving to meet so many candidates who have never received coaching or instructional feedback. This has to be prioritized and should include leaders beyond the principal.
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


  1. […] 4. Hiring Poorly for the Most Important Job in the Universe. I firmly believe you can’t fire your way to creating a great school, but you can hire and coach your way there. But, what if principals, recruiters, and leadership teams aren’t asking the right questions from the start? It is much easier to coach someone to be a strong teacher if they have the right mindset about other people’s kids – particularly the Black ones. […]


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