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One Secret to Success at YES Prep: Hiring the Right People

Note: This week's guest posts will be written by members of the YES Prep Public Schools team. President and CEO Jason Bernal and COO Jennifer Hines are today's guest posters.

Visitors to YES Prep often ask: what's the secret sauce? What are the two or three key systems or programs we rely on to ensure consistent high results across our system? Are we investing in classroom technology and a blended learning approach? What's the curriculum we use and on what standards is it based? Is the longer school day the real key to our success? 

None of these aspects of our program, though important, are the reason that students from YES Prep perform well on state assessments, get accepted to college in record numbers and persist in college at rates far surpassing traditional levels. The curriculum by itself does not create minds that can handle college-level work. Technology does not create drive or build grit. The longer school day, while helpful, does not in itself create civic-minded young leaders. None of these education "solutions," taken individually or even combined, would yield the kind of outcomes that our students have been able to achieve unless the right people are making decisions, implementing the curriculum, using the data thoughtfully, and squeezing success out of every single minute of every week - planning, teaching, assessing, holding tutorials, talking with parents, planning service trips, mentoring, coaching.

This week, various folks from YES Prep will be sharing our perspectives on the number one driver of our success in redefining possible for Houston's low-income students: the quality of our people.

Let's start with how we attract people to YES Prep and select them into the organization. Every other aspect of our human capital approach from training to innovative compensation models depends upon this first step - having the right people who are all rowing in the same direction. Below are several of our key practices:

Be clear about what you can offer and why potential employees should seek you out: Our success begins by attracting the strongest, highest-performing people into our organization, and we do that in large part with a clear, compelling Employee Value Proposition (EVP). According to Yates and Sejen (2011), an EVP is "the experience offered by an employer in exchange for the productivity and performance of an employee." Another way to understand EVPs is to ask what would compel strong candidates in the marketplace to consider your organization above others. What will working there be like and what can employees expect to experience? 

Too often, a typical school system's EVP is "you'll get to work with great kids and make a difference." School systems would do well to distinguish themselves more purposefully than that. Today's top notch candidates want to be in a job where they are able to make a difference AND where they are compelled by what their employer offers them. An EVP needs to be an authentic statement of what the employee will experience with you; otherwise you'll end up with plenty of folks who don't last the year because they feel they've been sold a false promise. Consider: what makes you unique? What makes you distinctive as an employer? What would working in your school system offer employees that another might not? 

YES Prep's EVP focuses on working alongside like-minded colleagues and for an organization that offers unparalleled profession growth opportunities. We want people considering YES to understand that they'd be surrounded by incredible team members and have many opportunities, both formal and informal, to hone their skills and further their development.   

Select employees as if people's lives depended on your getting it right - because they do: One "bad" hire can set students and teams back significantly. People who shouldn't have been hired will either leave the classroom mid-year or limp into June. Either way, 150 kids who could ill afford to waste time end up even further behind their peers. For that reason, the YES Prep teacher selection model consists of multiple steps. These steps include an initial screen, several interviews with different team members, a school visit and sample lesson with our students. Yes, it's a lot, especially when contrasted with some districts who offer teaching jobs to candidates after an initial job interview at a career fair. But attributes that may get in the way of long-term success can often hide in a traditional interview setting. If districts are going to dramatically increase the quality of their staff, they must be willing to invest more time on the front end to better ensure candidates have the right mix of characteristics for success. Speaking of which...

Select candidates based on the things that really matter: Which is the best predictor of success in driving student achievement in a "no excuses" classroom? High GPA in college? Deep content knowledge? Previous teaching experience? At YES Prep, we hire both experienced and first-year teachers. Intuition might suggest that teachers with experience are more successful. However, we've found that a far better predictor of a teacher's success than their experience level is whether the candidate shares a set of qualities that characterize our highest-performing employees, how reflective they are about their performance, and their willingness to seek out and implement feedback. 

During the first interview a candidate has with YES Prep, we purposefully do not address teaching philosophy, content knowledge, or classroom management techniques.  Instead, we focus on whether a candidate is results-driven, eager to lead, and whether they recover quickly from setbacks. Those qualities, among others, distinguish high performers in our organization. A teacher with several years of experience and a degree from an Ivy League school who nonetheless doesn't match our profile doesn't make it through. Period.

A significant portion of the rest of our selection model focuses on how the candidate deals with feedback. Answers to interview questions are important; equally important is a candidate's reaction when an interviewer provides in-the-moment feedback about the candidate's response. While the content, tone, and pacing of the candidate's sample lesson carry weight, his or her own ability to be self-reflective and to accept feedback from an observer tells us more about whether that person will be a good fit. Does the candidate bristle and excuse away behavior, or carefully consider feedback and how it may be relevant to his or her performance? The candidate's ability to pinpoint areas of growth and openness to feedback from others tell us whether that person has the right mindset as well as the right skill set to create extraordinary outcomes for students.

And once a candidate makes it through the door? In our upcoming posts, we'll dig into the training, evaluation, and compensation practices that are propelling our teachers forward and yielding incredible results with our students.

--Jason Bernal and Jennifer Hines

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