Okay, principals, why are manhole covers round?

  • leadership
  • 17 April, 2011

Human resources specialists kill me. They love to ask prospective employees weird questions with the idea that the out-of-leftfield approach will catch the job seekers off guard and get them to reveal themselves. (Barbara Walters did the same thing for years in her TV interviews of celebrities: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” Kind of makes you want to cry.)

  I was asked recently by a reader of this blog what questions I would ask a prospective principal to make sure that I made the right hire. It’s a great query and I wasn’t ready for it. I rarely interview principals, so I wasn’t sitting on a bank of questions that would get at the key features of successful school leadership (though, I must admit asking a principal what kind of a golf club he or she would be looks like a lot of fun).

  My counsel to these teachers was that they should lean heavily on a meta-analysis of 27 studies of principal impact on academic achievement by Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe (Impact of Leadership on Student Outcomes: An Analysis of the Differential Effects of Leadership Types, Educational Administration Quarterly, 2008). It is an article that I use with my students as it is the most up-to-date and complete look at the impact of principal leadership on learning that I know.

  This study found that, indeed, principals could raise achievement, and that they were more likely to the more linked to curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development issues that they were. Many principals try to be great managers (with spic and span floors, clean desks) or charismatic leaders (high on personality and motivation), but the research doesn’t suggest those to be the good hires.

  So, if I were conducting the interview and trying to find an effective leader for my school, a leader capable of raising reading achievement, I would ask the following research-based questions:

 Tim Shanahan's Patented Whiz-Bang Interview Questions for Prospective Principals (Sure to Identify Men and Women Able to Lead a School to Raise Reading Achievement)

1. What goals/expectations would you set for this school and how would you ensure consensus?

 2. What role would you play in the planning and coordinating of teaching and curriculum?

3. What role would you play in teacher learning and development?

4. How would you ensure an orderly and supportive learning environment?

5. How would you evaluate teaching effectiveness?

6. How would you evaluate the adequacy and appropriateness of the curriculum?

7. What would you look for in the hiring and assignment of teachers?

8. What would you prioritize in the resourcing of the school to ensure and support learning?

9. What would you look for in classroom visits, evaluations, and walk-throughs?

10. How would you communicate with teachers to help them improve their performance?

  And, of course, you could ask them, "Are you more like an oak tree or a weeping willow?"


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Okay, principals, why are manhole covers round?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.