This year, salary in the Mt. Lebanon School District for a newly minted teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $46,500. The top of the scale, reserved for teachers with at least 16 years experience and a Ph.D., is $102,300. Salary AND benefits—health care, retirement, sick days—amount to a substantial investment over the course of a career. To ensure that the investment is a good fit for both the public and the teacher, lots of people are involved in the process of hiring A teacher.
Getting these relationships right is critical to the continued success of our schools. “It is a million dollar decision or, these days, even more,” says Stephen Scheurer, the school district’s director of human resources (HR). Sheuer heads a three-person support staff.
The teacher’s union contract specifies that any vacancy must first be posted internally. This can sometimes lead to a series of shuffles; as current teachers successfully bid for the open positions, other positions open up. Once things settle down internally, HR uses high tech resources to seek outside talent. First step is posting the position on the district website for one week, which may attract as many as 100 applicants.
HR then forwards a list of the viable applicants to the building principal or the department chair, who compiles the interview list. A recent search for a vice principal netted 105 candidates; 25 were interviewed; seven got a second interview, and four made it to the final round.
Several administrators, including the principal of the building where the vacancy exists and principals at the same level who might work with the candidate in the future, participate in the interviews and observe teaching demonstrations required of candidates who are being seriously considered.
HR administrative assistant Mary Watkins, who has worked in HR for 15 years, says she takes a proprietary interest in every candidate who comes through Mt. Lebanon School District’s Human Resources Office. “I am a mother, and I think some of that reflects in the job that I do,” says Watkins. “I feel that if it was one of my two children who was out in the job market, and they had issues, I would hope that they had someone who they could rely on.”
Like Watkins, Mt. Lebanon School District employees, old or young, male or female, administrator or teacher, seem to believe wholeheartedly in the value of their jobs and their ability to do them. Naturally, they want to see similarly enthusiastic, competent people joining their ranks.
“I think that the minute you see me in the classroom, you are like, ‘Oh, she was born to do that!’” says second-year teacher Caylin Charrie, a fourth grade teacher at Howe. “I love every aspect of the job, every inch of it.”
Mt. Lebanon generally keeps its teachers for a lifetime. Young teachers enter the system full of new ideas; savvy principals who work with new employees know the value of partnering all that energy with experienced professionals who may serve as a mentors.
The strong relationship among teachers, department chairs and administrators is one of Mt. Lebanon’s strongest traditions and a boost to new teachers, says Andrew Kuskil, who has taught manufacturing and production, applied engineering,and applied power technology teacher at Mt. Lebanon High since 2010. “Everyone in the district has such a passion to see the students succeed,” he says, “and it is very comforting to know that our administrators have great faith in our teaching ability.”
At the elementary level, new teachers often are chosen from among the substitutes. “We really don’t invite any unsolicited or cold resumes; otherwise, we would be buried.” Scheuer says. “It is a very attractive district.”
The substitutes are “sort of like our practice squad, if you want to make a comparison,” he continues. When we don’t have any full-time, what we call ‘contract’ positions, I ask [the candidates], ‘Would you be interested in substituting with us?’”
Substitutes have numerous opportunities to show off their skills and get to know the principals. They work on an on-call basis, when teachers are off for illnesses, personal days or professional development, and they may be invited to take longer-term positions, filling in for one of the approximately 20 teachers who take maternity leave in the course of a year. “Permanent subs,” as they are called, have a chance to make a lasting impression on the district’s decision makers. And considering the competition, those impressions need to be special.
Charrie knew the opportunity was special—so special that she interviewed for a long-term sub position by phone from her hotel room on the first morning of her honeymoon.
“When I got out of school, my plan was to sub in as many districts as I could, so my name and my face were just everywhere, and do the absolute best job, even if it is just a daily subbing job,” Charrie said of her efforts following graduating three years ago from Robert Morris University with a master’s in instructional excellence.
That strategy paid off, because it was a principal in another district who brough Charrie to the attention of Mt. Lebanon’s HR department, which led to the stepping-stone position and ultimately the contract position at Howe.
While working at Howe as a long-term sub, Charrie and a couple of coworkers introduced the Kids of Steel exercise and nutrition program. “I thought that if I could just bring something to the building that they didn’t have before, then even if they let me go at the end of the year, at least I did something that would leave a lasting mark,” says Charrie, who openly admits that her goal was to knock the socks off the decision makers.
By all accounts, the principals’ input into the decision-making process helps keeps the Mt. Lebanon staff strong. “When I got out of college, I tried to get in some districts where the principal’s opinion didn’t matter,” says Charrie, “and that is really hard, because [the principals] know you and they know their building and they know their teachers and they know what they need. I do think that the principals’ opinions matter here, and I think that’s wonderful.”
Charrie’s efforts obviously impressed her principal and others and resulted in a coveted position that she feels puts her at the top of her profession—and she intends to stay there. “I think that Mt. Lebanon does a really nice job of presenting to their teachers that, ‘This could be your forever job, and we want it to be your forever job—we chose you for a reason,’” she says, “and that’s a nice feeling.”
Scheurer and his staff cultivate that feeling in dozens of employees every year. In a typical year, they might fill more than 150 positions,” including new hires and internal transfers that are often created when one teacher retires and another teacher in the district bids for that position.
“One retirement could potentially result in five moves before we get to the bottom,” says Watkins. “We have people with multiple certifications, so they might be in an elementary classroom right now, but their dream job is to be an elementary librarian, so when the librarian’s job is posted, they bid on that. Then the other elementary position is now open and someone else thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, I love fifth grade and I love [principal]Jim Salerno, and I’d love to go to Lincoln so I’m going to bid on that.’ The person who takes that then vacates and it’s just a checkerboard.”
Brian McFeeley is in his second year as principal of Mt. Lebanon High School. A successful example of how the system works at its best, McFeeley began his teaching career 17 years ago, straight out of college, as a middle school math teacher. He worked his way up through the ranks, expanded his education, soaked up the mentoring that the district offers and tried out administration, first as an interim dean of students when another district employee took a sabbatical. Now, after many rungs in the ladder, he trains other teachers on how mentoring works and fosters the next generation of leadership.
McFeely says he benefited from the district’s culture of willingness to help and support. “Whether it was formal mentoring when I was a new teacher or informal, receiving encouragement and opportunities for leadership, throughout my career principals, assistant principals and central office administrators have really been supportive of me,” McFeeley says.
The hiring process at the secondary level differs in some ways from the elementary level—there isn’t as much “churning,” because, for instance, a world language teacher isn’t generally certified to fill the shoes of a tech ed instructor. More extensive search tactics are sometimes necessary to find the teacher with just the right qualifications.
Kuskil reflects on the interview process. “I had never experienced such a wide spectrum on the interview team and the many levels of interviews,” he says, noting that the first round of interviews was only the beginning. “After interviewing with some teachers and the department chair, the most intense interview of my life was about to be next.”
In the next round, which took about three hours, he was greeted by students, the department chair, fellow science and technology education teachers, and the unit principals. “The department chair was very kind, respectful and a true people person,” Kuskil says. “He and I discussed my work history, hobbies, teaching experience, previous experience, plans for the future and what ultimately brought me to Mt. Lebanon. I immediately felt valued, respected and connected.”
The final interview was with Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer and Assistant Superintendent Deb Allen. “They really made me feel like I had what they were looking for,” Kuskil says. “They had much interest in my experience and philosophy on education.”
Kuski says he has prepared for his tech ed job since he was a small boy. “I worked with my father and his small family company. He taught me everything about things that tick to gears that spin,” he says. “I always took apart everything I owned, plastic or metal. I had to understand how it operated. Developing a strong passion for mechanical things and the way they work led me to a high school job at the local hardware store.
“I attended a vocational-technical [high]school,” he continues. “I owe my vocational instructor many thanks, as he gave me the courage to seek a [college] degree in technology education… I always tell my students to get involved. Even if they are cleaning beakers in the chemistry lab, they are bound to learn something, and knowledge is power.”
The HR team takes pride in finding specially qualified, passionate teachers—name any teacher in the district, and they can tell you something that makes that person the right person for the job. They recruit in various ways. A recent family and consumer sciences teacher was selected from approximately 20 applicants who responded to the listing on the district’s website. The office also advertises in newspapers and educational publications. And Scheurer and his staff have access to another high tech tool. They sometimes use PA Educator, an online system where school districts pay to advertise positions, and candidates post their credentials.
“We’ve used that from time to time, often for the more unique positions,” Scheuer says. “If we’re looking for a chemistry teacher or we need a physics teacher or AP English teacher, something that is not so plentiful out in the market.”
These specialized searches are also a time where the school board may need to make an exception to their own rule and approve hiring experienced (and more expensive) teachers. “This is not unique to Mt. Lebanon, but our board has set a policy that if you are going to bring in an external candidate, you cannot hire them any higher than a step four on the salary schedule without official approval from the board,” says Scheuer. “So you can’t just go out and say, ‘I know a 10-year experienced chemistry teacher at Bethel Park who would love to work here, and we are going to hire him or her’ [ because it would likely be a salary cut for that person.] But, the board has made exceptions before. So, if it is a very difficult-to-fill position where we are struggling to find the best candidate, we’ll get exceptions made by the board to take them higher.”
When a teacher is hired, it is a joyful experience, not just for the winning candidate but also for the HR staff. “We jump up and down and hug a little bit,” says Watson of that magic moment when an offer is made. “When I watch these people who I feel are fighting for their lives, their careers… all I try to do is be a cheerleader and say, ‘Hey, hang in there. It’s going to happen. I know it is going to happen.’ Then, when it does happen, I’m happy for them.”