Hiring for Cultural Competency in Schools

Posted by Michelle Belton and Jason Novak on 12/5/18 3:50 PM

When hiring season begins, many schools look for opportunities to increase the diversity of their faculty and staff. But it is not enough to simply hire for diversity, schools also need to look for cultural competency skills. While these might seem like straightforward goals, hiring committees are not always in agreement about what skills to look for, and schools can often find themselves unable to attract a diverse pool of candidates who have had equity and inclusion training.

Lowell's mission—to create an inclusive community of lifelong learners in which each individual is valued and respected—requires and inspires us to shape our hiring practices very intentionally to ensure that we honor the depth of who we are and who we educate.

We have researched and thought a great deal about how to attract diverse candidates who come with both cultural competency skills and the desire to further our school’s mission of equity and inclusion. Over the last five years, we have developed a set of practices that has helped us increase the expertise and diversity of our faculty and staff in targeted ways.


We believe that the steps we have taken below have been central to developing our strong and diverse adult community—teachers and staff members who embrace equity and inclusion, model cultural competency, and deliver culturally relevant curriculum to our young learners. 

Structures and Protocols for Hiring

Adding specific structures and protocols, some of which are described below, to our hiring process has helped ensure that hiring practices across divisions and departments are consistent and that all hiring committees consider diversity and cultural competency.

Several NAIS resources have formed the basis for refining our hiring process, including the webinar, “Excellence and Equity in Hiring Independent School Leadership,” and the article, “Hiring for Cultural Competency” by Cris Clifford Cullinan. 

Posting the Job

Part of Lowell’s success in hiring diverse candidates with cultural competency skills comes from our deep commitment to the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity. These values are woven into our curriculum, student life, admissions and fundraising practices, professional development, and the range of decisions we make every day. We believe that there is always more to learn and that we can always improve.

We make this aspect of our school visible from the very start of the hiring process—in the job posting:

  • The job description and requirements reflect the expectations that the school has for teachers to embrace and live the school’s values and mission.
  • The school’s non-discrimination statement is included on each posting.
  • We post on a variety of sites so that candidates have multiple access points.

Forming a Hiring Committee

If your school does not use search committees in its hiring process, think about why. Weigh those reasons against some of the advantages of committees. The biggest benefit of a committee structure is having multiple perspectives evaluating résumés, interviews, work samples, and teaching demonstrations. Roles in schools can be complex and having multiple people who can assess subject area knowledge, teaching skill, and cultural competency, among other specific qualities and qualifications needed, will help you get to know candidates more fully.

In addition, it can help to have a team of people narrowing down a wide pool of applicants. At Lowell, we divide and conquer to conduct the initial screenings and then come together when the finalists have been selected. This saves time in the early stages of the process and allows us to be more thorough at the same time.

When we form our search committees, we strive to pull together a diverse group who are committed to the mission of the school and who represent the appropriate divisions and/or departments. If you do not already use committees, your school will need to decide how many people to include and whether committee members will volunteer, be selected, or some combination.

Whether you have a committee or a team of interviewers, it’s important to get everyone on the same page. Discuss the skills and cultural competencies needed for the position and make sure that those evaluating candidates have some background or training in anti-bias work.

Training the Committee or Team of Interviewers

Take time to train those involved in the hiring process. Our hiring committees discuss what kinds of questions are appropriate to ask and which are not. We also read and discuss articles that offer examples of typical biases that individuals may have. Here are some of the resources we use:

  1. “White Identity and Affirmative Action” from Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
  2. “Bias Among the Well-Intentioned” from Independent School Magazine by Christine Savini
  3. “Interview Questions: Legal or Illegal?” from Workforce

As part of our preparation, we also ask committee members to identify and name any biases they might be noticing in themselves so that the group can hold each other accountable throughout the process. This is a powerful exercise for individuals and for the group.

Creating Interview Questions

The next step is to develop a series of questions that will help the committee or team determine if the candidate has the specific skills and knowledge needed for the position and for navigating the diversity of backgrounds, learning styles, and family configurations in the community. Questions that ask candidates to describe how they have applied their knowledge and skills in different kinds of situations can be particularly helpful. Also, being consistent about asking the same questions is important so that the committee can assess candidates fairly.

Most of our schools have complex populations, so it is important to determine a candidate’s ability to navigate relationships. This is true for both teaching and non-teaching positions. Cullinan’s article, “Hiring for Cultural Competency,” mentioned above has been particularly helpful to us in crafting effective questions.

Review Résumés for Evidence

It might seem obvious, but before the interview, be sure to look for evidence on candidates’ résumés that they have engaged in initiatives or professional development related to diversity, inclusion, and equity; cultural competence; and/or social justice. If you don't see evidence of this work, be sure to have appropriate interview questions ready that will help you ascertain what you need to make your decision. Sometimes, candidates reveal in an interview relevant life experiences that aren't reflected in their résumés.

Candidate Screenings and Visits

As much as possible, try to ensure that key personnel are available to meet and/or interview the candidate. We also have teacher applicants deliver a demonstration lesson, and we strongly encourage all of our committee members to observe. While the room can end up a bit adult heavy, we all see different things, and the ability to share these observations during committee meetings is valuable in the decision-making process. 

Don’t forget, too, that the school visit is a time for you to share your community with the candidate. Think through what you want to highlight about your school and listen carefully to candidates’ questions so you know their concerns and what they are most interested in hearing more about. When you find the candidate you think is right for the position, you'll want them to have had an authentic view of your school community, and you'll want them to say yes to the job!

The Offer

Every school has a different structure for making hiring decisions. At Lowell, the hiring committee recommends at least one candidate to the head of school who then reviews the candidate with the chair of the hiring committee. After appropriate reference checks have been completed, an offer is made.

But making the offer is not the end of the process. Until the contract is signed, the committee still has work to do. Candidates might be considering other job offers or locations. Our hiring committees reach out to candidates once offers have been made. They express their eagerness to work with the candidates and offer to answer any remaining questions. These personal connections help to show the candidate that they are joining a warm and welcoming community. When it comes time for the candidate to begin working in your community, they will already have a built-in support team.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email admissions@lowellschool.org, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Teaching & Learning, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Michelle Belton and Jason Novak

Written by Michelle Belton and Jason Novak

Michelle Belton is Lowell School's director of diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives and Jason Novak is the director of primary school.