What is the single most effective technique for hiring a qualified ESL teacher?

A language school in Taiwan recently faced a typical problem. A teacher had been hired from the UK on the strength of his faxed CV. He held the Cert TEFLA and had a few months' experience of teaching in London. On paper, he looked fine. Soon after his arrival, however, the situation looked very different. His students found him sullen and unmotivating and other teachers reported that he was dismissive of their level of English. Eventually, the school decided to let him go and went through the recruitment procedure again, this time with better results.

Recruiting teachers without a face to face interview is a hazardous process and for this reason all the major language school chains such as International House and Linguarama have an in-house recruitment process which includes both face to face interviews at central clearing posts and follow up phone interviews with personnel at the particular centre to which they are applying. Their turnover rates of teachers are significantly lower than language schools which depend on paper qualifications and reports alone, and for a very good reason.

When candidates attend an interview, an experienced interviewer will be able to form an impression of how that person will come across to their students, ideally as lively, interesting, knowledgeable and motivated. If the interview suggests otherwise, that the candidate is ill-prepared, uninterested in their potential students, and looking for what they perceive as a meal ticket so they can drink beer in an exotic location, this will be immediately picked up. There is no sound substitute for this type of contact.

Given the large number of recruitment agencies working in the TESL field, there is every reason for language schools to avail themselves of this service. The language school that outsources their recruitment should be looking for a very specific package when choosing their recruitment agency. Firstly, the school should ask about the relevant experience of the interviewers. Ideally, they should not only have worked as TESL teachers themselves, but preferably have previous experience of recruitment as Directors or Directors of Studies. Secondly, they should have firsthand knowledge of the country for which they are recruiting so that they can be alert to the particular challenges the teacher will encounter. Also, the school should be looking for a high level of administrative competence in the agency so that they can be assured that there is a two way communication flow between the school and the chosen candidate.

The interviews conducted by such agencies would cover a wide range of issues to the benefit both of the language school in question and the potential teacher. The interviewer must assess the following: the competence of the candidate as a language teacher, the personality of the candidate and the suitability of the candidate for this particular post. Additionally, the agency should also be able to answer questions in the following areas: the key features of the culture in which the teacher will operate, and in particular how this impacts upon the style of teaching they will offer; the key qualities sought by the language school in question and what support will be available to the teacher to fulfil these criteria. Needless to say, the agency should be able to accurately describe the pay and conditions and any special local requirements, such as the need to procure a visa or certain vaccinations.

When assessing the competence of a teacher, an interviewer should focus both on their technical competence, that is, on their ability to accurately describe and explain language and on the techniques they would use to assist students, and on the degree of sensitivity a teacher would bring to such a task. In TESL there is no such thing as a 'one size fits all' approach and a teacher should be able to demonstrate a diversity of techniques and approaches which would ensure learning. This ability is tied in very strongly with the personality of the candidate. A teacher needs to demonstrate versatility, flexibility and sensitivity to cultural nuances. Furthermore, they should have the ability to change techniques to bring about the evolution of learning. A teacher arriving in China, for example, who is the first native speaker to teach in a particular school, should be aware that initially they would do well to use a fairly traditional approach which emphasises the authority of the teacher and only gradually adopt a highly student centred approach. This type of subtle question is difficult to convey and assess in any other format than a face to face interview.

A further advantage of the face to face interview is that it gives the candidate confidence in the employment procedure and is much more likely to lead to the making of a good contract that is unlikely to be broken. Many would-be TESL teachers are young, just out of university, and with little experience of living in another culture with all its challenges and thrills. For such teachers, a face to face meeting with a recruiter enables them to ask specific questions about the country, the city and the school in which they will be working, and a good agency will fully prepare them for the situation they will face on arrival. This helps to reduce the likelihood that after two or three miserable months, the teacher will renege on their contract and head for home.

Many language schools, as a money saving exercise, continue to persist with the belief that a faxed CV is sufficient. In the long run, this is self-defeating and detrimental to the profession. In no other teaching position would a candidate be taken on without a thorough interview. It is time to apply the same standards in TESL across the board.

By Emma Headley

Emma Headley has been involved in many aspects of TEFL since 1988, both abroad and at universities in the UK. She is currently a lecturer at the University of Abertay, Dundee, where she specialises in teacher training and EAP.

She also runs an ESL business, Inspired Ideas: www.inspiredideas.org, which offers a variety of services for teachers and language school managers.