When I was teaching at Chestnut Hill Academy (now Springside Chestnut Hill) in Philadelphia, I had a student in my junior English class who was perfectly fine. She came to class prepared, for the most part, she participated when appropriate, and she performed perfectly well on assignments. I can’t recall for certain, but she probably earned a B. She didn’t give me any clues as to her particular interest or disinterest in Hamlet, grammar (though besides a few other grammar nerds with whom I run, who does?), or why Nick was so obsessed with Gatsby. So, when she signed up for my poetry writing elective that spring, I was a little surprised. In general, the group of students enrolled had showed some interest in poetry and had maybe penned a few poems on the side.
In order to loosen up the class, I assigned a totally open first exercise. The rules were few: write a poem in free verse, rhyme or don’t, try a sonnet if you dare. The results were a mixed bag. Some went for the home run on their first tries–some went for a more modest approach. I was proud of them all, although I admit not all that surprised, until I got to the entry of the student in question. I was blown away. She had decided to write a beautiful short poem, in free verse, about a teardrop. It used clear language, was simple and direct, and even threw in a word-play or two, but it wasn’t until I took a second look at the unusual shape of the stanza and realized it was arranged in the shape of a teardrop that I was completely blown away. Was this the work of the next great American poet? No—not the point. This was, however, an exceptional effort from this student and a significant learning moment for me. Why hadn’t I seen this in her before? The answer, I think, was that I just wasn’t looking.
This happened 16 years ago, and I have now been out of the classroom and in my current job for 14 years, but it’s a lesson I remember every single day. There was a unique quality in that student, which emerged in the form of a teardrop-shaped poem and which allowed her to brainstorm and produce such quality work. In my opinion, everyone has a unique quality, and it’s that uniqueness that makes people different, special, and interesting. Some people wear that uniqueness on their proverbial sleeves. To find it in others may take a little digging, but it’s well worth it.
A huge part of my job here at CS&A is interviewing teachers, and the task is rewarding, overwhelming, and fun all wrapped into one. My goal for every single interview is to find what quality makes that particular candidate unique, draw it out if it’s hidden, and embrace it. The discovery leads to meaningful conversations that get to the core of each individual. Usually, I locate something quirky on a candidate’s resume and start the conversation by asking about it. Invariably, this conversation leads me to find the candidate’s unique quality, and many times other qualities are uncovered.
If you’re a candidate, don’t let yourself get bogged down with hitting all the traditional “checkpoints” on your resume. Allow your true self—your quirks and idiosyncracies—to shine through. If you’re a hiring contact at a school, allow yourself a little more time to push past your checklist when interviewing candidates. It’s important to find the type of person, not just the type of educator, that’s the right fit for your school.
Finding that uniqueness in a candidate is highly important, as it speaks volumes about what kind of teacher or administrator that person is or will be. Let’s find it in everyone!