As a Teacher, Should I Work With a Search Firm for My Next Position? | Niki Conraths | 6 Min Read

Full disclosure: Niki Conraths has been a contributor to Intrepid Ed News since its inception, and she is also the Arts Department Lead in the OESIS Faculty Placement program.

December 12, 2022

Questions to ask and why you need to prepare for a different type of interview(er)

Faculty placement in top independent schools has been handled by very few, long-established firms. These agencies only cover a fraction of the hiring needs of our 35,000 independent schools nationwide, which employ around 530,000 teachers and serve almost 5 million students. Why is there so little competition for such a sizable market like hiring? And how has that impacted teachers and schools?

Without question, this monopoly in hiring has successfully placed thousands of teachers into jobs since the late 1970s. On their terms. Revenue, their bread and butter, lies in the long-lasting relationships with established schools that float them a certain number of positions per year. It is no surprise then, that those agencies are more interested in protecting that relationship than supporting your change of heart. There are many more of us, the teachers, than schools willing to contract with an agency. The following is worth thinking about:

Agencies screen the teachers they think will be attractive to the schools they serve.

Typically, firms are called for help when the job is highly competitive (i.e. Math), employee capacity to sift through piles of resumes is limited, or there are just too many positions to fill. On the talent side, as much as online tools have increased your ability to get hired without intermediaries, an agency representing and knowing you has many advantages. Once you have completed the screening process your profile will be in a database, ready to be matched with a job posting that is a good fit according to your preferences and skills. Your case manager will have a personal relationship with you and follow your career over decades. If you make it into the pool of suggested candidates, your resume will end up at the top of the hiring manager’s folder  — and be read

In the past two years, diversity hires have moved to the top of the priority list and established agencies have struggled to meet that demand. Building a diverse pool of applicants, widening recruitment criteria, and writing position statements that show a genuine desire to increase belonging was not part of their toolbox or expertise. You can help them! 

  • Ask your agency about the matrix used to create a match. What is matched up exactly? College degree, experience, or a teaching philosophy as OESIS proposes with the School Fit tool? [Sign up, it’s free and gives lots of good pointers for your interviews.] 
  • Ask your agency about professional development opportunities, conferences, and networking opportunities with schools. How are they connected in education? What value-added do they provide to you?
  • Ask your agency about their expertise in your field of study. Can they be specific about you and how you teach? 
  • Ask your agency about affinity groups in the schools they represent. Will you belong when you get there?

Agencies want to attract large schools with big endowments…and keep them happy

Agencies live on commissions, effectively pricing smaller schools out of the (perceived) high-end talent market. Only well-off schools can typically afford the high commission rates (10% for teachers or more for department chairs) which are added to the budgeted salary for a given job. Adding 10% to a salary is a tough ask for many small independent schools; they can’t be represented, and you will not be matched to a potentially good fit. Even just a 5% commission rate would increase the pool of schools able to join, giving you more choices.

  • Ask your agency about the types of schools they serve: do they have good cross-sectional representation in size, urban versus rural locations, and tuition cost?
  • Ask your agency about their membership options. How serious are they about being accessible? Can schools opt into tiered packages? Can they spread the payment over two years raising the stakes for a good fit (and your placement specialist shares the risk)?
  • Ask your agency if they are willing to negotiate their percentage depending on the timing of the hiring cycle. If you are willing to disclose your intent to leave early on, can they lower their fees and open the door for better negotiations for you? 

Agencies have exerted a stronghold on the hiring cycle

The traditional hiring marketplace is stuck in old timing cycles that are no longer relevant since hiring has become a year-round process. Agencies have invented this idea of “hunting season” which goes from January-April, raising the stakes and stress for schools and candidates alike. Administrators worry that if they can’t find a suitable teacher in those 3 months, the agony of summer searching looms. Conversely, those teachers who are “leftover” are made to feel inadequate and must bow down to another year in a place they no longer feel they belong.

I have been on one of the largest agencies’ books for almost 15 years, starting off as a dance instructor, then as department chair, and later as a senior administrator. When I approached my coordinator one spring to throw my name in the hat at the last minute, I was informed that they would not take me on if I had already signed a contract with my current school for the next academic year. It was a conflict of interest, she said (Huh?). Unless my boss would give me permission to do so. (He did!)

So, if you want professional representation, you have to make your thoughts public very early, which is often considered an act of betrayal in tight-knit communities. And, if you can’t find a good fit, you are tied to your desk for another agonizing year. And round it goes. 

On the flip side of the coin, if a head of school has a need to hire late in the school year, why are seekers and workers being kept at bay from each other so that agencies can exercise a stronghold on revenue and essentially control the timing of hiring? Teachers leaving mid-year used to be unheard of; it is now a reality. 

  • Ask your agency if they will represent you year-round no matter your status with your current employer. 
  • Ask your agency if they will sign a confidentiality agreement with you.
  • Ask your agency if they are prepared for the kinds of questions that have been generated by new DEI initiatives at schools.
    • These questions from SUNY are good guidelines to help prepare you for the interview. 
  • Do not be afraid to be vulnerable and disclose where you feel you would want extra training and support: it shows that you are serious about it
  • If you do not have an extensive multicultural and diverse background, look for examples in other schools that you feel comfortable proposing in your new position. 
  • If you are a BIPOC teacher, turn some of these questions around and ask your interviewers to expand on the work they do, both on the department and HR side.

With these thoughts in mind, working with an agency should be a learning and community-building experience for everyone involved: teachers, schools, and the search firms themselves. 

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Niki Conraths for Intrepid Ed News.

Nicola Conraths

Nicola Conraths has worked in independent schools for 15 years, serving as Director of Artistic Studies at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and as director of Comparative Arts and dance instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Nicola merges her many interests into projects that connect unlikely topics, people, and places. Recently she has worked with New England Conservatory Prep School, Boston Ballet, YOLA/LA Phil, and SMOC/Headstart schools. Her newest venture, Das Surrealistische Büro, is a consulting capsule for tangential thinking. She lives in Detroit.

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