Written by: Brian Preece
A common practice in hiring teachers is the trial lesson where prospective teachers teach a lesson in front of students. Some of these trial lessons may be as short as 20 minutes while others might be a length of a block period (80-90 minutes). They are typically 30 minutes.
Trial lessons sound great in theory. Shouldn’t prospective teachers be able to show their craft?
I guess for the most horrendous candidates, this could be a screening apparatus. But you think those candidates would have been eliminated in the resume/application process, or perhaps in the initial interview. I would also imagine for most prospective teachers, they took part in educational courses where they had to teach lessons and did something we call “student teaching” and thus some evaluations from professional educators (professors and licensed teachers) took place and would be on hand for those making the hiring decisions. Wouldn’t these evaluations, where those evaluating saw the teacher over several weeks, take precedence over a trial lesson. And if a veteran teacher was changing from one school to the next, shouldn’t their overall experience and success at their previous school be a more important evaluative tool?
I’m sure many administrators and teachers will defend the trial lesson as an essential piece of teacher hiring practices. They will say they are truly insightful. But as any educator can tell you, almost anyone can put on a good “dog and pony” show. And if you don’t know how to do that, just google “trial teaching lessons” and this will bring up dozens of “lesson ideas” so that you can truly succeed at this endeavor.
These trial lessons have been done at the school and district in which I teach. However, they aren’t done in all cases. For example, our current department chair applied at another high school in our district and was asked to do a trial lesson. He was not hired by that school but was hired by our school just after a standard interview process (which actually took place over the phone). He has proved to be a very capable teacher, so much so that he was entrusted to lead our department after just one year at the school. Of course, all that was really needed to know came from his application/resume, a call to his supervisors (principals and perhaps a department chair at his previous school), and maybe accessing actual evaluations including student teaching.
Our conversation on the topic was interesting and proved to be the catalyst for this piece.
Our agreement on the value of trial lessons came down to one thing we both see as our strength as educators (and the most important aspect of teaching)–the ability to forge strong relationships with our students. Sometimes, the best teaching takes a bit of time, sometimes great teaching requires building relationships to get the most difficult students to engage. Of course, this isn’t going to be shown in the dazzling trial lesson.
I would imagine if I had 20 minutes to do a lesson, I might come in with some candy, maybe play a Kahoot game and do something that was highly interactive. It might get the immediate engagement of most students. If I had a block class, of course throw in several transitions or activities and make sure the students work in groups of some sort because that seems en vogue these days. Doing these practices are not bad things per se. But of course, teaching isn’t a sprint, it’s more of a marathon, and throwing out some candy bars might get students excited for that moment, but these dog and pony show type of lessons aren’t exactly going to be what class looks like all the time. They also aren’t going to show if that teacher is going to get involved in other aspects of the school, be a good team member with their department or school generally, or if they have a broader command of both pedagogy and content.
I also have to wonder what the students think of these things. I mean a block class period might see two or three of these candidates during their class period. Are they going to like the younger teacher better? The male teacher better? The female teacher better? The teacher that looks most like them better? The teacher that could speak Spanish to the ELL’s better? Or just maybe the teacher that threw out a lot of candy bars better? I also have to wonder if the students will be allowed to give any feedback. Will the hiring committee even bother to talk with the students about the candidates?
Other questions come to mind. Should the prospective teacher try to get to know the students a bit before they leap into their content (though that might be hard to do in 20 minutes)? What happens if their lesson requires technology and that isn’t available? And if the same audience of students isn’t available for all candidates, is that really fair? No two classes are the same. What if one group of students had a student (or two) that was very difficult for even the most seasoned teacher while the other class didn’t?
Ultimately, I think for administrators to abandon this questionable hiring practice, things do need to improve in regards to evaluations of teachers generally. I think trial lessons come from the premise that administrators can’t trust other administrators and educators, along with college professors, to evaluate teachers. And as far as cooperating teachers with student teachers, the trust might be extremely lacking. In these cases, a candid evaluation is necessary. Most student teachers get rave reviews by their cooperating teachers, and while this might be the case for many, it isn’t the case for all. And we all know that administrators often want to dump less than stellar teachers to other schools and districts so often times they give undeserved glowing praise to extradite things. The simple solution is more honesty and professionalism among the broader community of teacher leaders in evaluating teachers and teaching prospects because basing a hire on a trial lesson might not be the best idea.
Brian E. Preece is a 29-year teaching veteran who in 2017 was named as a Utah Teacher Fellow associated with Hope Street Group, an advocacy group for public educators, teacher leadership and public schools.