EdTech & Design, Leadership, Policy, Teaching

Personalized Learning: Hiring Educators for the 21st Century

Educators and policymakers around the world are engaged in a discussion about the need for system-wide education reform, often referred to as 21st century learning or personalized learning. They are advocating a move from broad-based learning outcomes to more individualized environments tailored to the specific needs of each student and offering greater choice and flexibility. Although proponents of personalized learning may disagree about the elements and implementation of this approach, they share a conviction that the current focus on reforming aspects of the education system is both healthy and timely.

They share another characteristic: they pay scant attention to the role of the employer in supporting this change. While the literature addresses the needs and responsibilities of students, teachers, parents, community members, post-secondary institutions, and others, the employer is almost entirely absent. Yet employers in the education sector play a crucial role: they make decisions about who is hired, and they oversee decisions that shape the environments in which our students learn and our teachers work and grow professionally.

School districts, as employers, must ensure that their hiring practices are aligned with educational goals – whether these are broad initiatives or more specific attempts to introduce innovative instructional practices and new curricula. Success in this area requires that both provincial ministries of education and individual school districts carefully examine their human resources practices, particularly those relating to recruitment and selection.

The Importance of Hiring Decisions

Most discussions on how to ensure that teachers have the skills required to meet district-level goals focus entirely on pre-service training and professional development. The basic assumption is twofold: that the skills and competencies developed in teacher education programs align with the skills and competencies valued by school districts, and that professional development initiatives help teachers strengthen their practice in ways that are consistent with broader system goals. However, this may not be the case. The curricula covered in faculties of education may be more closely aligned with faculty research interests than with labour market requirements, and professional development activities are often chosen by the individual educator, based on personal interests.

As a result, school districts exert limited influence over the content of teacher education programs and the professional development of their staff. Where districts do have control is in making hiring decisions.

The hiring process is the intermediary step between teachers’ pre-service education and their ongoing professional development journey. It’s a critical juncture, and it’s important that employers get it right.

The hiring process is the intermediary step between teachers’ pre-service education and their ongoing professional development journey. It’s a critical juncture, and it’s important that employers get it right. Districts will only succeed in meeting their educational goals if they have the educators in place with the skills, knowledge, and vision to make it happen.

Research points to a substantial and far-reaching cost of a poor hire. In addition to the administrative costs of advertising, screening, and interviewing candidates, longer-term negative consequences may have a significant impact on an organization.[1] These include increased costs associated with the need for more managing and mentoring, negative effects on co-workers in terms of morale, and lost leadership opportunities. The public’s confidence in the organization may erode, and hiring an underperforming employee may also affect an organization’s ability to hire stronger performing candidates in the future. Within the education sector, the cost of a poor hire extends even further. An underperforming teacher may hinder student learning and undermine student confidence – with associated costs that are not easily measured.

The demographic reality underscores the urgency of paying more attention to our hiring practices. In the B.C. public education sector, for example, more than one-third of practicing educators are over the age of 50.[2] With districts preparing to increase their hiring efforts to offset this retirement trend, there is an obvious opportunity to match the skills and abilities of incoming employees with school district goals.

An analysis of the hiring practices used in many of B.C.’s school districts reveals that a significant number still rely on recruitment strategies and selection methods that were commonplace 30 years ago. These traditional approaches rely more heavily on the interview than on evaluating a candidate’s competencies from other sources. Further, selection criteria are not always clearly defined or aligned with selection methods. Hiring decisions are often rushed and made without proper planning, making it less likely that staff are using a consistent, rigorous selection process that enables them to identify the best person for the job.

Although some districts are changing their hiring practices to more closely align with best practices in human resources, the change is not widespread or happening quickly enough. These best practices include the use of thorough and well-designed screening, interview, and reference checking processes to gather evidence of the selection criteria and to assess the candidates’ competencies.

Selection Criteria: What Are We Hiring For?

Currently, most school district goals include a move toward personalized learning, and so districts need to ensure they are hiring people with the skills and attributes required to implement this goal. Yet without a defined list of what a “21st century educator” will need in terms of skills, knowledge, and abilities, how can school districts be confident that their new recruits have the expertise to support students in a collaborative, flexible, project-based, and interdisciplinary learning environment?

While many of us have a broad understanding of the skills and competencies that personalized learning aims to develop in our students, there has been less discussion of the skills and competencies it will require of our educators. We do know that, with the shift to more student-centred learning environments, educators’ roles will evolve. The precursor document to British Columbia’s Education Plan outlines a fairly typical description of what personalized learning might look like. It sees a system where instructional approaches to learning could include:

  • teachers becoming co-learners with their students, using inter-disciplinary approaches and working in teams of teachers to support students;
  • students being provided with more time to reflect on what they are learning and why they are learning it;
  • teachers facilitating learning experiences for students beyond the classroom that contribute to the community at large;
  • using the community and local environment as the classroom;
  •  teachers providing students with real life problems requiring a team-approach to develop a variety of solutions;
  • recognizing and providing for a variety of ways for students to express their learning.[3]

If districts are serious about implementing personalized learning, they need to ensure that their hiring practices are attracting and selecting applicants who can implement these new approaches. As a first step, they need to define the skills, knowledge, and competencies (the selection criteria) teachers must possess if they are to successfully create these new learning environments. These selection criteria will drive the hiring process – from creating the job posting and screening applications to shortlisting candidates, conducting effective interviews, and checking references. Allowing the criteria to drive the process helps to prevent common selection problems – such as inconsistent evaluation of candidates – and maximizes the likelihood that districts will select the best candidates.

Allowing the criteria to drive the process helps to prevent common selection problems – such as inconsistent evaluation of candidates – and maximizes the likelihood that districts will select the best candidates.

For example, districts might want to include the following selection criteria to measure a candidate’s ability to support personalized learning:

  • proficiency with a variety of current computer systems and an understanding of how information technology can be used to facilitate student success;
  • an ability to be collaborative, flexible, and creative in a range of working and learning contexts;
  • an ability to approach problems with a willingness to adapt to changing conditions;
  • facilitation skills that allow students to feel empowered, confident, and self-directed;
  • a strong understanding of the importance of diverse learning programs for all students;
  • ability to present ideas in variety of ways;
  • active and patient listening skills;
  • valuing the role of community and the influence of others in students’ learning.

Once school districts have identified the selection criteria they will use to evaluate candidates, they need to ensure that all stages of the hiring process – including recruitment and decision-making – are focused on attracting and selecting candidates who will meet those criteria. They also need to adjust their recruitment practices regularly to reflect current best practices.


Many districts are making significant investments in technology, both in program design and in new technologies such as SMART Boards, iPads, and wireless connectivity. It is a huge risk to make these investments without a parallel investment in a process to ensure that new hires are equipped with the vision, values, and skills to facilitate the shift to new ways of learning and to help our students thrive and succeed in the century ahead.

EN BREF – Le processus d’embauche constitue l’étape intermédiaire entre la formation des maîtres et le perfectionnement professionnel continu. Les employeurs doivent réaliser correctement cette étape critique. Dans le secteur de l’éducation, embaucher la mauvaise personne peut coûter très cher : un membre moins performant du personnel enseignant peut nuire à l’apprentissage des élèves et miner leur confiance – et les coûts qui en découlent sont difficiles à évaluer. En premier lieu, les conseils ou commissions scolaires doivent préciser quelles compétences, connaissances et habiletés les enseignants doivent posséder afin d’engendrer de nouveaux environnements d’apprentissage. L’établissement de tels critères pour encadrer le processus favorise le choix des meilleurs candidats. Après avoir déterminé les critères de sélection qui serviront à évaluer les candidats, les conseils et commissions doivent s’assurer que toutes les étapes du processus d’embauche – dont le recrutement et la prise de décision – visent à attirer et à choisir les candidats satisfaisant à ces critères.

[1] John Sullivan, “The Cost of a Bad Hire: Butts in Chairs and How to Convince Hiring Managers to Avoid Them,” August 9, 2010, www.drjohnsullivan.com/articles-mainmenu-27/articles/hr-metrics-mainmenu-31/527-cost-of-a-bad-hire.

[2] British Columbia Ministry of Education, “Teacher Statistics – 2011/12,” www.bced.gov.bc.ca/reports/pdfs/teacher_stats/public.pdf.

[3] BC Ministry of Education, “Personalized Learning in BC: An Interactive Discussion Guide,” 2011. www.personalizedlearningbc.ca/#/24-25.

Meet the Expert(s)

Janet Stewart

Janet Stewart, B.A., B.Ed., M.Ed., is currently the Associate Superintendent of Human Resources with the Vancouver School Board and was previously the Director of Make a Future – Careers in B.C. Education, a provincial human resources initiative in B.C.’s education sector. 

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