It’s that season again. The calendar has turned, spring is upon us, and schools are once again beginning the process of hiring for next year. I was reminded of this last night by a former colleague who called me for some advice as he begins the process of interviewing for a new position. Similarly, my school is filled with wonderful teaching assistants and permanent substitute teachers who are now in the midst of searching and interviewing for teaching positions for September. I wrote a post about this about a year ago and thought that it was worth going back and updating it with some new thoughts. For some, there is perhaps nothing more stressful than the daunting task of interviewing for a teaching or administrative position. While school districts continue to make budgetary cuts and many cities remain in a hiring “freeze,” we are seeing thousands of certified teachers who are without a position and hundreds of resumes for a single position. It’s certainly a “buyer’s market,” so it is critical that candidates distinguish themselves from the rest in order to land a coveted position. Above all else, the place where this happens is in the interview.
Over the years, I’ve been on both sides of the table and have met hundreds (thousands?) of applicants as both an assistant principal in New York City and now a principal in Westchester County. I’ve seen candidates who have “knocked it out of the park” and many others who have struggled mightily. There’s certainly a fine line, but what I’ve found is that those who struggle to present themselves in the best possible way typically do so because they are either under prepared, overly anxious, or unfamiliar with how to effectively interview for a position.
So as you prepare for your next interview, don’t go in “cold” or feel defeated before you even enter the room. Instead, consider the following ten tips and you will hopefully be well on your way to a position that is right for you…
1) Understand the Process: When interviewing for a teaching or administrative position, it is rarely the case that the first interview is the last interview. In most instances, candidates will participate in a process that will include an initial screening interview, a committee interview (parents, students, teachers, administration), a demonstration lesson (for teachers), a performance task (for administrators) a writing sample, and a final interview with district administration and/or the Board of Education (administrators). Of course, there are no absolutes and the process (along with the length) will vary based on the time of year, the location (suburban vs. urban), the degree of urgency on the part of the school, and of course how well you are doing in the process.
2) Know Your Interviewers: It’s always a good idea to get a sense of who will be conducting the interview as opposed to going in blind. By finding out who you will meet with in advance, you will get a sense of the different constituencies that may be represented (parents, students, teachers, etc.) so that you can better anticipate the types of questions that you will receive. Visualization is key and will absolutely help to reduce anxiety both before and during the interview.
3) Know Your Resume: Simply stated, do not put something on your resume if you are not prepared to talk about it. When conducting initial screening interviews, I will always work off the resume as opposed to a list of pre-determined questions. I can still recall the candidate from a few years back who noted on his resume that he was a member of ASCD. Interested since I too am a member of ASCD, I asked him to tell me about a piece that he recently read in Educational Leadership that had informed his practice as a classroom teacher. Instead of a response that focused on the latest in research and practice, I unfortunately received only crickets and a blank stare.
4) Prepare for the Interview: The biggest mistake that a candidate can make is to walk into an interview unprepared and with a plan to simply “wing it.” If this is your plan, there is an increased likelihood that you will stumble on certain questions, your thoughts will be disorganized, and you will leave out important points that may distinguish you from the other candidates. When interviewing for a teaching position, for example, you are absolutely going to get questions that fall under one of the following headings: curriculum and instruction, assessment, classroom management, student support, special education, and parental communication. Embedded in these headings will be questions that are specific to your discipline, including content-based questions, the CCSS, differentiation, educational technology, and examples of best practice. The best way to prepare is to go online and search for typical interview questions (there is no shortage) and begin to practice responses to different questions that you may receive. The trick of course is to know the “big ideas” of what you want to convey so that you can adapt to variations of these questions while not sounding rehearsed and robotic.
5) First Impressions: While this feels like one of those “goes without saying” pieces of advice, the truth is that candidates often blow the interview before it starts by showing up dressed in casual attire. As an interviewer, I’m instantly thinking that if the candidate arrives casual to the interview, imagine how s/he will dress after a year on the job. My advice on this one is to keep it simple. Invest in a nice dark colored suit (or two).
6) Opening Question: Regardless of the position, one certainty is that your first question will sound something like this: “Tell us a little bit about yourself, your experiences, and why you think that you are a good fit for our school.” Now that you know it’s coming, think about what you are going to say. Too often, I have seen candidates stumble over this seemingly innocuous question and never recover.
7) Answering Questions: There is a bit of an “art” to answering questions in an interview since only a certain amount of time is allotted and it’s likely that the attention span of the interviewer will be somewhat limited given the long list of candidates waiting to be interviewed. The best advice that I can give is to avoid long-winded answers that circle around the question and ultimately leave the interviewer wondering if the question was in fact answered. Instead, concentrate on remaining concise while connecting your ideas and thinking to specific examples and/or experiences. This is where the preparation comes in. Furthermore, don’t panic if you get stumped with a question and don’t be afraid to admit that you are unsure about a certain aspect of a question. If you come in well prepared (see #4), chances are you will be relaxed, confident, and able to respond to unexpected questions in a fairly reasonable way.
8) Asking Questions: You will likely be given an opportunity to ask some questions at the end of the interview, so it’s a good idea to come prepared with a few. This is also a good way to show the interviewers that you have done some research on the school and that you are genuinely interested in the school and not the idea of getting a job in general. During this final phase of the interview, it is important to avoid peppering the interviewers with too many questions that are either irrelevant or inappropriate given the respective stage of the process (see #1). Also, avoid questions about money or what your schedule will look like if you get the position. Again, inappropriate. Instead, ask questions that reveal something about you and your work ethic. Here’s a good one: “Do you have a mentoring program for new teachers?” Here’s another: “What types of professional development opportunities are available for teachers in the district?”
9) Be Yourself: Despite the temptation, it is critical to refrain from providing answers that you think the interviewer wants to hear if those answers are contrary to what you believe. This is a sure fire way to come off as disingenuous and, if you are truly unlucky, with a position in a school where you are not a good fit. This is especially critical for administrators.
10) The Intangibles: There’s so much more to getting the job than looking good on paper and having all of the “right” answers. As a Principal, I am always on the lookout for teachers who are smart, cutting edge, flexible, student-centered, growth-oriented, empathetic, articulate, approachable, composed, confident (not arrogant!), collaborative, organized, independent, dependable, and always professional. That’s about it. Is that you?
It goes without saying that finding a full-time job in education is a challenge. You need to know your stuff, have great timing, and be a little bit lucky. As you go through the process, you will likely send out a countless number of resumes, will go on many interviews (hopefully!), and will find that looking for a job can quickly become a full-time job. If you are a teacher and have in fact advanced to a demonstration (“demo”) lesson, here’s some additional tips:
Hopefully you will get the first job that you aim for and will be on your way to a long productive career. More likely, you will face some rejection despite your qualifications. That’s okay! Just stay positive, don’t give up, and proceed with the knowledge that your hard work will pay off and that you will ultimately land the job that is right for you. Good luck!