Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Hiring for Cultural Responsiveness – A Necessary Consideration

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Joseph Ellison

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Activate Student Agency

It is April. This month brings with it various seasons for various people. For some, April brings the start of Spring. For others, it brings tax season. For sports enthusiasts, it brings the prospect of another baseball season. But for principals like me, it brings hiring seasoning. This is the time of year where we make decisions about continuing current staff contracts, are informed about retirements and resignations, and begin to hire staff for the next school year. Hiring season brings with it the complex dance of screening applications, interviewing, hiring, and determining how to best support these new hires. For principals, hiring season should also bring a time on introspection centered on cultural responsiveness – before the aforementioned process begins. Researchers (Johnson, 2006; Terrell & Lindsey, 2009) have shown that principals must clearly understand their own assumptions, beliefs, and values about people and cultures different from themselves in order to lead effectively in settings with diverse student populations. If a school principal serves a diverse student population, he/she must know what he/she believes about culture and race BEFORE engaging in the hiring process.

Cultural responsiveness must be a major consideration in the personalization of student instruction. The “whole child” (including current skill level, previous instruction, socioeconomic status, and race) must be considered in order to truly personalize instruction. Cultural responsiveness is necessary because so much of what happens well in the classroom hinges on it. When reduced to its irreducible essence, cultural responsiveness is about understanding how varying experiences impact students, about learning how to embrace diversity, and about fostering connections between school staff and the diverse populations they serve (Ladson-Billings, 1995).


Our school district (Shelby County, KY) is in the midst of an instructional paradigm shift. We are deepening our commitment to personalized instruction and pursuing competency-based education. Our recently adopted district strategic leadership plan places us in the middle of this work in the next four years. This plan focuses on building teachers’ capacity to facilitate student learning in a competency-based manner. This strategic plan calls for students to engage in performance assessments aligned to our new Profile of a Graduate, to engage in a defense of learning at key transition years (grades 3, 5, 8, and 12), and to have access to learning in a variety of modalities (face-to-face instruction, online learning platforms, internships, and community-based learning). The end goal is to ensure students graduate high school with the applied knowledge and skills necessary for success in life – no matter if students’ individual paths take them directly to college or university, the military, or the workforce. Coupled with this work, leaders from our district are actively working with leaders from another Kentucky district to craft a competency-based education assessment pilot for the state department of education. As we make this shift, securing the most appropriate staff for the job cannot become a lost concern.

See, hiring just might be the most important work a school principal completes. Securing the right people in your school and placing them in the right positions is critical to student success. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for a good hire. When serving a diverse student population, it is important to hire individuals who reflect your school’s student demographic. Principals must balance hiring quality individuals AND hiring individuals that are reflective of the student body. When considering cultural responsiveness in hiring, three (3) keys that I have learned as a principal stand out to me.

First, stabilize turnover. Principals have the daunting task of making decisions about continuing teachers’ employment. In a school of my size, we employ 70 teachers to support nearly 1500 students. One commitment I have made to our school community is that we will seek to have a stable staff…but not at the expense of highly effective teaching. There are times when a teacher is not a good fit for the school culture or students, and the decision must be made to not continue employment. There are other situations were employment may be salvaged and success may be seen with the provision of additional support. Before discontinuing a contract, a principal should ask himself/herself a series of questions: In what areas does this teacher most need to grow? Do we have the resources in our school/on our staff to help them grow in this regard? Will this teacher be the impactful teacher our students need if this growth is achieved? With the necessary support, can this teacher make a significant difference in the lives of our students? Does this teacher connect with our students and fit with our culture even with the observed struggles? If a principal can answer yes to those questions, he/she should consider retaining that teacher and supporting him/her to higher levels of performance. Stabilizing the teaching force in a school can be a game changer wherein students develop a stronger sense of who the teachers in the their school are as people and faculty collaboration can be increased and strengthened.

Secondly, recruit. Sometimes, the best applicants for your school do not find your postings on their own. Sometimes you have go out and find what your school needs. This drive to recruit for your school should be no different than working to find the best instructional resources for your staff. There is no silver bullet to student success, but having high-quality people teaching the students in your school is a start. Principals should actively attend recruiting fairs at local colleges and universities. Principals should attend fellowship opportunities provided by alternative certification programs. Principals should actively seek out the staff they need. In this sense, it is fruitful to forge a strong relationship with your district’s Human Resources department. Ensure they know your mission…your vision…and your needs so they can seek and recruit alongside you. More than anything, principals should unapologetically hire for diversity. A principal should not feel guilty seeking highly qualified minority candidates to serve a diverse student population. Principals should actively and unapologetically seek what the school and students need in new hires! Principals must hire from an informed, culturally responsive orientation to ensure success for all students. Principals must match their actions to the schools’ mission statements and hire the staff needed to achieve increased levels of student success. This starts with active recruitment by the principal.

Finally, hire dispositionally. Many times, principals become consumed with resumes, sample lessons, and reference checks during the hiring process. I would challenge principals to look beyond these very necessary and tangible aspects of the hiring process and seek to read candidates’ dispositions. A disposition is simply a natural and prevailing habit of mind that impacts a person’s emotions and relationships. While it may be difficult to gain a full read of a candidate’s disposition in a one-hour interview, you can ask questions that provide insight. This insight should then be used when considering if an individual will work well with students and mesh well with the existing school culture to move student achievement forward. The beauty of cultural responsiveness is that it can be achieved and enacted regardless of an individual’s race or ethnicity. Some principals find it difficult to hire individuals who reflect their diverse student populations because the applicant pool does not yield diverse candidates. In this case, principals should hire individuals who espouse a culturally responsive orientation. Teaching and learning are personal engagements that are influenced by who teachers and students are: their racial/ethnic identities, their personal life experiences, their social interactions, and their personal perceptions of learning and the world. Principals can ask interview questions that screen for the necessary habits of mind that integrate cultural responsiveness into classroom instruction, even by teachers who are not racial or ethnic minorities. Looking for the right disposition can make an incredible difference in the learning experiences of students and the culture of the school.

Managing personnel and hiring the right people is a core practice in the life of a school principal. This important work must be undertaken with a strong sense of cultural responsiveness because cultural responsiveness starts at the top…with the principal. We know that colorblind teaching does a disservice to students. Teachers must work to approach their craft with a level of cultural responsiveness that allows them to embrace and explore the unique aspects of student identity in their classrooms. Until the principal is willing to do this at the school level – and hire with this consideration in mind – we will continue to struggle to see cultural responsiveness in classrooms and in the personalization of student learning. In this hiring season, I am looking to get the right people with the right dispositions in the right seats in my school. How about you?


Johnson, L. (2006). Making her community a better place to live: Culturally responsive urban school leadership in historical context. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 5, 19-36.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Terrell, R. D., & Lindsey, R. B. (2009). Culturally proficient leadership: The personal journey begins within. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

See also:

Dr. Joseph Ellison, III is a former youth pastor, a former classroom English teacher, and a practicing school administrator. He currently holds the position of principal at Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelbyville, Kentucky.