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recruiter on phone verifying references for a school hire

Verifying References Helps Create Safe and Inclusive Schools

Keeping students safe should be the number one priority of any school. Yet every school needs to hire new teachers on a regular basis, which means frequently introducing strangers into the community.

Most people who are hired as teachers do not pose a threat to students. But some do, and it can be hard to tell in advance who might cause problems. 

Consequently, proper hiring procedure should always include thorough vetting of a candidate’s background. Ideally, this should go beyond criminal checks to contacting prior employers and verifying their reputation. 

By investing time in thorough vetting now, administrators can avoid problematic hires right from the start. This proactive approach saves schools from the costly and time-consuming process of backfilling vacancies caused by hiring the wrong candidates. Moreover, it ensures student safety and conserves valuable resources, making the effort and time spent on thorough vetting well worth it.

The key to being able to efficiently vet candidates is having your hiring system streamlined and organized, which you can easily do through Teach Away’s recruiting platform

In this article, we will cover:

  • Why school safety is so important
  • Types of background checks
  • The importance of calling past employers
  • Red flags to watch out for
  • Legal implications
  • How Teach Away’s recruiting platform helps

Why verifying references should be a priority for school safety

School safety is important because feeling safe is a necessary condition for learning. 

Students who feel unsafe in their environment are poorly equipped to focus and to do well. They also face increased mental health challenges

Safety can mean many different things, beyond just physical safety. Obviously, violence should be prevented at schools, but there are other factors to consider. 

Teachers and staff can be verbally, emotionally, psychologically, or sexually abusive. They can also be neglectful in ignoring students or allowing students to be harmful to one another. 

Good teachers help create a safe and inclusive school culture where they work. Teachers who do not do so, or who in some way promote an non inclusive school environment, can be considered unsafe. 

Hate speech, harmful language, unfair treatment, and even just name calling, all contribute to an unsafe, non inclusive environment. 

Ultimately, having a safe, diverse, and inclusive school community goes a long way in helping everyone involved.

Types of background checks

Schools should always strive to get an accurate picture of their candidates’ backgrounds before making a hiring decision. These background checks can take on a variety of different forms. 

Criminal background checks are a must for making sure the candidate does not have a criminal history. In many places, this sort of check is a requirement before someone can be hired in the first place.

Typically, candidates can get a quick criminal background check at their local police station. The limitation of this sort of check is that it tends to be local in scope- a candidate could have committed a crime in another state or country without your knowing. 

Schools can also look at a candidate’s social media and online presence to assess their character. 

You need to be careful with this, however, in not prying too deeply into a candidate’s personal life. 

It’s not necessarily a problem if someone has a vibrant life outside of work. However, it is a problem if they have a history of posting racist, hateful, or violent comments publicly online. 

Again, this sort of check is limited in scope, since someone could have private social media accounts where they act differently.   

References from past schools and employers are often the best way to assess a candidate’s character. They are not provided only to prove work experience. 

Schools should make an effort to call and make contact with any school a candidate worked for in the past. It is sometimes easier to detect that they have caused problems in the past over a phone call.

The importance of calling past employers

The reason why it is so important to make explicit contact with past employers is because this will make it easier for them to point out problems. 

Referees often fill out stock reference letters without adding in negative details. Over the phone, however, the same person may feel more comfortable mentioning past problems. 

If the candidate had a reputation for bad behavior at their previous school, you might not need to do any digging. But otherwise, you can ask some more pointed questions to gently guide your interviewee in that direction:

  • Did the candidate have any sort of reputation at your school?
  • Did the candidate every enter into conflict with students or staff?
  • Did any students report feeling uncomfortable or afraid around the candidate?
  • Was the candidate generally well liked?

If any of this feels too forced, or if your interviewee expresses concern, you can simply mention that you wish to perform in depth vetting of all candidates. This particular candidate may not appear to have any problems, but school safety is extremely important to you.

Red flags to watch out for

There are several red flags to consider when vetting a candidate. They vary in severity from mild to serious. 

Work ethic issues could include anything from late or missing paperwork to not showing up to work on time or at all. Individual episodes may not be a cause for concern, but repeated, systemic problems are something you should inquire about.

Interpersonal conflicts include any dispute the teacher had with someone else at the school. Again, it is the pattern that matters more than any individual episode. Everyone faces conflict at some point in their career, but most people don’t have another fight every week.

Student or parent complaints are perhaps the most serious category, as they reflect directly on a school’s relationship with the public. 

Parents do sometimes complain about things that are not necessarily the teacher’s fault, such as their child’s poor grades. Use your best judgment to determine the difference. 

More concerning are reports of harassment, attempts to contact a student outside of school, and reports that the teacher made students feel uncomfortable. These are serious signs that the teacher is unsafe. 

Legal aspects and implications

The legal implications of background checks vary from country to country. 

It is common for a criminal background check, at the very least, to be required for a work permit or permission to teach in a foreign country.

In some places, schools may be held accountable for not doing due diligence on researching the background of a candidate. 

In this case, so long as the school can prove that they performed a good faith effort in checking a candidate’s background, they may not be held responsible if a new piece of information comes to light. But the main reason to vet candidates is still to keep students safe. 

Be mindful, also, of prying too deeply into a candidate’s personal life. Any publicly available information- such as a quick Google search- is fair game. As is calling past employers. 

But anything beyond that could be considered harassment. Use your best judgment in assessing candidates. 

Verifying references with Teach Away

Properly verifying references can be a challenge. Ideally, it should be done as early as possible. 

But since it is so time consuming, it is usually one of the last steps recruiters take in the hiring process. 

This sometimes leads to the unfortunate situation of having to reject a candidate very late in the game due to unforeseen issues. Sometimes a teacher can even be rejected because it turns out they did something that was a crime in their home country, but not in the school’s country. 

One good way to make the process of verifying references easier is to use Teach Away’s recruiting platform. Our platform has a page for references on each candidate, making it easy to confirm and document comments from past employers.