Chapter 3: Ace the teacher interview – get that job
Okay, so you are ready to ace the teacher interview. Now I’ve done a career’s worth of interviews. When I first started out, I was an LTO or long-term occasional teacher. I’d fill in for teachers who were on maternity leave and the like. Because my positions lasted one semester at a time, I was doing interviews at the mid-point of each year (we have two semesters per school year where I teach) and at the end of the year for jobs the following year. No job applicant really likes interviews, but ultimately everyone has to do them. So you might as well go in there, kick butt, and afterwards worry about which job you should take, not whether or not you will have one.
Now how do interviews work? How do you ace the teacher interview? They vary a lot, depending on the skill of the interviewer and on the bureaucratic framework in which the interview takes place. In one of the most challenging interviews I experienced, the Principal had a set of his own questions developed over a lengthy career. It was early in my career and I was floored by a few of his questions, which forced me to think quickly. One question I specifically remember was, “Tell me about a lesson that was a total disaster and what you learned from it.” When faced with an interviewer like this, just be yourself and be honest–you will be found out if you aren’t. Be confident in yourself and in your own skills. A person like this Principal has been around the block a few times and, in the end, simply wants to know how you will help your students succeed. Explain how you will create an environment where anyone can succeed no matter their background or skill set and you have a good chance of getting the job.
As I later discovered as I did more job interviews, this Principle with his well-honed list of questions was not typical. Let’s now look at how 99.9% of interviews go. Administrations are required to ask a specific set of questions and “score” your answer on what is essentially a set list of expected answers. To get top marks, you need to hit their keywords. Now, what do I mean about keywords? Keywords are specific words that are currently all the rage in the educational community. They are words which describe a certain pedagogy, expectation, or goal within the school or school board. For instance, some keywords that were current when I was applying for jobs were: “Literacy,” “Numeracy,” “Differentiated Instruction and Assessment,” “Applicability,” and “Student Success.” Nail the keywords and you’ll score well on the scorecard, putting yourself in an excellent position to get the job.
So how do you know what the current keywords are? Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to find them. Whether during the previous school year or at home getting ready for your interview, make sure that you write down each keyword you come across so that you have them in mind when the interview day arrives. Here are some tips:
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Identify current keywords
- Pay attention at staff meetings! Staff meetings are a place where keywords are constantly being used because that’s where administrators inform their teachers about the current educational climate. I know from first-hand experience how vital these staff meetings can be. I got severely burned during one interview because the interviewer was my current VP, who had talked extensively about a particular keyword at a staff meeting that I hadn’t paid full attention in. The keyword phrase was “Restorative Practices,” which is a term derived from a development in the criminal justice field called “Restorative Justice.” In the education context, it essentially means dealing with a conflict by allowing each side to have its say and then coming to a mutual understanding about how each side feels and about how the parties should have acted in the situation. This is an excellent approach to resolving conflict and one that I did, in fact, use in the classroom. But in the unforgiving environment of the job interview, the meaning of the specific term escaped me, as I was staring down the eyes of someone who had no sympathy for my lack of knowledge (alas, she was the one who had talked to us about it a few months earlier). I couldn’t for the life of me remember what that term meant. Now many administrators will help you when you are floundering by providing you with alternative wording or something to guide you in the right direction but, unfortunately for me, I was cooked and no help was coming. I didn’t get the job.
- Ask your colleagues (especially your department head) about what keywords they have heard lately. Your peers are a fantastic resource since they have been exposed to the same words you have. The department head is the best place to start since he/she has to attend additional meetings where they discuss these types of things in more detail (the joys of being a department head). Come right out and say, “I have an interview coming up and I’d really like some pointers regarding keywords that I should use during my interview.” Most are more than happy to list them off for you.
- Check out the school board’s website as it is another excellent source of keywords.
Use keywords strategically
At your interview, make sure that you use these keywords in your answers to questions. If you aren’t asked directly to talk about a particular keyword, you can introduce it yourself in a relevant context. For example, if asked about how you assess your students, you might say that you use “differentiated assessment” by doing this, that and the other thing, an approach that you find is most apt to lead to “student success. “ There we go, that’s two keywords used in one sentence.
But don’t simply fling around keywords as empty jargon. You need to do some research on the school itself so that you can apply the keywords to the specific context in which you hope to be working. Examine the school’s official web page to find out what the school is about, what the community is doing, what the school’s goals are, and so on. Before one particular job interview, I looked up the school and the department where I hoped to be hired. There I found a fantastic description of an annual school-wide event that just blew me away. The website included a description of what the event included, videos, and student testimonials. I knew I wanted in and so I dug deeper and was prepared with tons of context, information, and questions when the time came for the interview.
Relate the keywords to concrete examples that demonstrate your teaching strengths.
An excellent way to accomplish this is by bringing in a portfolio with student work. This work should prove how innovative you are as a teacher and how you use a multitude of methods to give your students every possible chance to succeed. For example, I get my kids to create video projects because I want to give them a chance to show what they know without having a write a test, which can be a struggle for some students. Then, in preparation for a job interview, I had a student-made video installed on my laptop and ready to show at the appropriate moment when I wanted to talk about the keyword “differentiated instruction.” I provided the interviewees with only a few seconds of playback, but the demonstration was effective. Note: make sure whatever you have is fully ready to go. You don’t want them waiting for you to get your stuff together.
Prepare in advance your examples of how you have succeeded in meeting the common challenges of classroom teaching. Don’t count on being able quickly call up relevant examples from memory in the heat of the interview itself. You may be able to, but that’s just lucky. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will be when you are asked to describe the way you maximize student engagement or handle problematic behavior. For example, to prepare in advance for a question on “behavior management,” write down how you handle difficult situations by using a series of escalated steps (for more on this topic, see Chapter 7). Your steps might look something like this:
- Talk with the students involved. Often small disagreements (especially among younger children) can be resolved quickly and easily at this first step by simply talking with those involved.
- Get the parents involved. Whether it’s a phone call home or a face-to-face parent conference, it’s very important to keep the parents in the loop. Parents may provide concrete strategies that they feel will help or they may reinforce the school by providing the necessary kick in the butt that some kids need (losing a cell phone for a week can really make a student cooperate in class).
- Ask for advice from colleagues (mostly fellow teachers, especially in your own department, but also guidance councillors) who have knowledge of the student. What worked for them and what didn’t?
- If these steps have not resolved the problematic situation, the next thing may be to include the administration in the loop.
So far we have been focusing on learning how to talk about your teaching strengths and skills by relating them to current keywords. But a successful interview involves a lot more, including practicing good communication skills and using plain old common sense. Here are some additional points to consider.
- Be professional.
- Teaching is a profession and, as a professional looking for a job, you need to act and look the part.
- Arrive early! I once got lost on my way to an interview but since I had planned to arrive early, I made it just on time.
- Bring a copy of your résumé and references (then, if they ask, you have them at hand).
- Dress professionally. It’s much better to overdress than to look too casual.
- Be courteous to everyone, including any and all staff you meet (especially secretaries, because they wield an awesome power). You never know who will speak with whom and what will come of it.
- When preparing for the interview, don’t sell yourself short. Do some brainstorming on all your specific strengths and think of specific instances when you used them. Don’t restrict yourself at this point to the classroom. Think also of skills acquired in another job or volunteer placement that are translatable to the school setting. School involvement is huge because schools need people to coach, direct plays, run clubs, help out with events, etc. Willingness to use your particular talent in afterschool activities shows that you are passionate about helping your students and assisting your peers. It also demonstrates that you can work well with others.
- In the interview, listen carefully to the questions asked. If you are not sure that you understood the whole question, you should repeat what you did hear and provide an opportunity for the interviewer to fill in the gaps. For example: “You are interested in hearing about X and Y and you also wanted . . . what was that again?”
- Take notes during the interview itself. This may seem like a strange suggestion, but think about what people do in debate competitions or what lawyers do during a trial: they take notes. Why? It helps them fully understand the question so that can provide a succinct answer without missing any key points. If you fail to answer the question actually asked, you will lose precious interview points. Taking notes has another benefit: once the interviewer has asked a question, you can use 5-10 seconds to finish your note. These 10 seconds are an excellent time to compose yourself and figure out exactly what you are going to say. If you jump right into your answer, it’s very easy to become flustered and forget some important things. The note-taking strategy leads to fewer instances of “I should have said this” or “Shoot, I forgot to mention that” on the drive home.
- Be aware of the timing and pacing of the interview. The interviewer(s) have scheduled a specific amount of time for the interview, which you should be told about. If not, assume it’s not more than an hour. Aim for answers that are detailed, interesting, and succinct. The more you have thought in advance about possible questions and answers, the more likely that your answers will hit the Goldilocks standard of being not too long and boring, not too short and uninformative, but just right.
- Watch the body language of the interviewees and shorten your responses if they give signals that they are becoming impatient or bored.
- Discover, if possible, what the interviewers are really interested in. Once in an interview, I was asked what kind of technology I used in my classroom. My goal was to keep it concise and only hit the high points, but I should also have added that I could provide lots more detail and examples if desired. After I failed to get the job, I called to ask for some feedback (something that you should always do). The Principle told me that I wasn’t a good fit for what they were looking for—hers was a very technical school and I simply didn’t use enough technology in my teaching. I was kicking myself because I could have gone on at length about all the various ways I have used technology in the classroom.
- Show how you are improving yourself through the professional development course(s) you’ve taken, online courses you’ve completed, mentorship programs you are involved in, and the like. You should always be trying to improve yourself; tell them about what you have already done and what you plan to do. Interviewers want to hear that you are a life-long learner, especially when you emphasize the benefit it will have for your students (e.g., you are modelling what you want to teach, which is that learning is a way of life; learning new web skills allows you to be more creative with technology, and so on).
- If the interviewer has not given you a chance to talk about some key strengths, achievement, or way that you could contribute to the school’s goals, at the end you can volunteer it. For example, “You might be interested in a team project that I used with my senior students in which teams researched an environmental issue and then built a website to share their findings with the class.”
- When invited to ask questions about the job, make sure that you ask some. This is your last chance to show your interviewers why you are the person they should hire because you will be an asset to the school. In this situation, I like to show my knowledge of the school/board by asking a question that I can follow up by showing how my package of skills and qualities makes me an excellent fit. Moreover, a question that relates specifically to the school shows that you have initiative and have done your homework. You could say, “I noticed on your website that you’ve done this, that and the other thing. In your experience, how have you found that this initiative/ project helps your school meet its goal?” Depending on the answer, you would show that you share this goal and explain what you have done/ would do to advance it. If they say that they are pushing technology integration in their school, you could indicate that technology is such a vital component of your teaching because it allows you to meet your students’ needs by using tools they are familiar with (Wikis, Twitter, website-building, and the like). Other good questions include:
What are the main issues that you face at this school? What are your plans to address them going forward?
How will the school be spending its funding over the next few years?
What are the short-term goals of your school?
In each case, you would, of course, explain how you would help them address these issues/ meet these goals, using your specific skill set or teaching strategy.
- Before you face the real interview, rehearse. Go for a dry run. Recruit a knowledgeable person who will role-play the interview with you, asking you questions in a mock interview. In advance, give your interviewer a copy of the job posting and a copy of your résumé. For the interview, choose a quiet setting where you will not be interrupted. At the end of the interview, ask for specific feedback. Did you use appropriate body language, including eye contact? Did you sound knowledgeable and professional? Did you convey your passion for teaching and helping students? Record the interview so that you can replay it yourself and hear which questions you aced and which areas need more work.