Teacher Says: Acing the Interview
It’s funny how 30 minutes can determine your life’s path for years to come. But that’s the power of the interview: you have 30 minutes with a committee to answer their questions, and based on how you answer, you will either be selected as the candidate they want, or you will get a “thank you for your time.”
Most people dread interviews the way they dread going to a repeat dentist visit to have a cavity drilled. But instead of approaching the interview with fear and trepidation, try to think of each interview as a learning experience; you can grow enormously by reflecting on the process and thinking carefully about that 30 minutes, and if you’re lucky enough to get good feedback on your performance, you can use it to get that next job that you really want.
You should prepare--especially if it’s for a job you really want. But you also have to keep in mind that there are certain factors that you have zero control over, and you can’t take it so hard if you don’t get it. Many fledgling teachers are told that the committee was looking for someone more experienced. How do you overcome lack of experience? You can’t. The only thing that will jump that hurdle is if, when you present yourself as a newbie candidate, that you demonstrate enthusiasm and a keen desire to learn and grow--and someone decides to take a chance on you.
In addition, there’s an even biggest factor you have no control over: prior connections. If other candidates know someone on the committee, say their best friend works at the school and happens to be on the interview committee, I’d say that that’s a tough obstacle to overcome. Even worse is when there’s an internal candidate--someone who’s already had the opportunity to build relationships, who has insights into the department or school that you’d be hard pressed to match. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed before it even begins. You got the interview, you’ve shown up, you’re ready--of course there’s a chance. But you shouldn’t take that opportunity lightly; make the most of it so that regardless of the result, you can be proud of yourself.
You have to prepare. There’s no way around it. Think about it this way: if you’re not willing or able to prepare for the interview, do you really want the job at all? It’s important to be able to visualize yourself in the school, working with that team--and you have to be realistic and look closely at yourself in the mirror: is this what you really want? If you do, then prepare. If you don’t, you might as well rescind the offer to interview and spend that 30 minutes elsewhere--no good comes from wasting the time of the committee, or your own time, either.
I asked my teacher-friends what advice they would give to job-seekers. They had some great insights to share.
First, you have to get the interview. In order to do that, there’s a few key steps--and yes, you should spend some time here. If you haven’t updated your resume in a while, do it. Take a look at the descriptors for various positions you’ve held or skills you’ve acquired--do they seem to match up well with the position you’re interested in getting? Tailor your word choice to make sure that it has a positive connotation--if you sound negative on paper, they may assume you’ll be a negative Nancy in person, and no one needs another one of those. Once you’ve tailored the written chunks of your resume, think on the appearance of the document, as well as the length. One teacher says, “Resumes and references matter. No clip art on a resume, and keep it relevant and to one page.” One page may suffice if you are especially concise or if you are short on experience, but to many teachers, one page may seem somewhat stringent. Another teacher has this to say on length: “One page is ideal. Two? Ok... more than that? NO! Learn some formatting skills and make stuff fit.” To interject here, I myself struggle with the length of the resume, as I have worked in a number of very different schools with different experiences to share. I agree with a limit of two pages, whenever possible.
Some other resume considerations should be obvious, such as this piece of advice from one teacher: “Spell check!” All teachers should be knowledgeable about basic spelling and grammar skills--make sure to take the time to inspect your document carefully.
You should always have the basics on your resume: name, certifications, education history, and career history. A red flag is when references are absent. Not only should you list at least three strong references, but one teacher says, “Make sure your references will speak highly of you.” Yes, that can be tricky, especially if you weren’t really wanting to share with your principal that you’re looking for a new job, but you shouldn’t make it a surprise for them if they get a call for a reference check--that’s just not nice or professional, on your part. You can include past employers, too. But the bottom line is that not only do you want to look good on paper, you want to sound good from your evaluator’s perspective, too. One teacher says, “I’ve interviewed so many candidates that nail the interview but have poor references.” What a shame to do well and then toss it all away over someone who doesn’t support you! Our past actions, as viewed through the lens of an evaluator’s eyes, are often considered more important than the words we share while gathered around the table with the committee.
Some might ask, can I have a colleague speak for me, instead of my principal? My advice would be this: have a letter from your colleague that shows evidence of your collaborative and cooperative spirit, but have your boss as your reference.
For some positions, a cover letter is required. Don’t skip this step--and remember to tailor each letter to each position you apply to. Your letter should be no longer than one page. And make sure to cover the bases: a brief introduction of who you are and the position you’re seeking, a paragraph about your fit with the school or position you’re applying to, and a paragraph to close--restating or emphasizing your goals and beliefs--make your interest clear. In order to do this right, one teacher says, “Be prepared to know the school, the mission, the achievement data. In other words, do your homework.”
A little research on a school can go a long way--and it can also help you determine if this is the right place for you. “Always know the makeup of the school you are interviewing for,” one teacher says. “My school was one of the most diverse, ethnically and socioeconomically in my mostly white and affluent district. So many candidates came in totally assuming that they were going to be working in a mostly white school. We quickly showed them the door.” Sadly, not everyone wants to work with all students--but you have to know yourself: each school is different and presents different opportunities and challenges--if it doesn’t seem like a fit from the start, pass on applying in the first place. This same teacher goes on: “You have to want to teach all the kids. It will make your journey so much more enriching, humbling, and exciting.”
Beyond the resume (required) and cover letter (possibly optional), there are a few other things you can do, if it feels comfortable to you. One teacher suggests to “[r]each out personally to the school instead of just submitting through HR.” That can be a good thing to do--but if you send an email, keep it relatively short, cordial, and demonstrate enthusiasm for the position--and don’t expect a reply. Be aware that in some situations, it might actually be best to reach out personally to the department chair, if there is one, or possibly an assistant principal--the head boss is usually swimming in emails and meetings, not to mention putting out the little fires that pop up on a daily basis.
Once everything is submitted and out of your hands, you wait. One teacher advises, “Find the teacher effectiveness rubric for the district they are applying for, read through and try to find examples or (better yet) artifacts that show proficiency in those areas.” If you get a call for the interview, it’s time to reflect--doing a bit of mental rehearsing can be a boon, and it can give you a lot to pull from if the right question pops up. You can try to anticipate the questions, based on what seems important to the school. In addition, reflect on your experiences. One teacher says, “Beforehand, think of the 3 best teacher moments of your career...could be success with a struggling student, getting services for a student who needed it, working with a family, etc.” Recalling these sorts of moments can be self-assuring of your talents and skills, but they can also be useful later on. She adds, “When you see the interview questions, decide where these stories fit best.”
Make sure to have a few questions in mind that you’d like to ask the committee. What would you like to know more about, that would demonstrate your high interest in the position? If you know someone who works at the school, you can also reach out to them--usually, teachers are proud of their school and will be glad to talk with you about what they are looking for and what it’s like there. And it’s also your opportunity to gain insight from a trusted perspective: what are the school’s issues? What is the culture like? What are the best things about working there? One teacher suggests, “I feel like every candidate should ask the prospective employer to elaborate on how the organization handled the COVID situation with their organization and employees, and to expand upon what adaptability and resiliency means to them.” While you could do this during the interview, my instinct would be to ask this of a current employee/contact before you interview. That way, you can get a sense of whether teachers feel valued there, or if there’s something lurking beneath the surface that you might want to avoid.
Artifacts and anecdotes are useful not only in an interview, but they also can help during any future performance reviews. One time, I was about to have a difficult conversation with a district-level supervisor who didn’t know me at all. A coach-friend gave me the advice of assembling a folder with my most recent work--things I was proud of that showed what I could do--and to bring it with me. During the meeting, I had the folder by my side, and I never once opened it, but I was able to recall its contents during the meeting, which was a huge confidence boost for me and helped the meeting go smoothly.
A former evaluator of mine, Ron Schumacher, has a unique approach to offer job seekers. Ron is now an elementary school principal in Aurora, CO, and he also runs a consulting business on the side, with one of the offered services being career and interview counseling for education professionals--teachers through administrators. It’s not a quick fix, but a tried-and-true process, and he swears by the results. He says his approach has worked for all but one of his clients. In a very distilled synopsis, this is how it works: keep a journal, look back for themes that emerge, select a dominant theme, and with a mentor, “craft a simple statement that captures the theme.” Next comes practice with a mentor, “to answer all questions with their theme at the heart of the answer, drilling down from a global perspective, to an example of practice, then to a student story.” It’s a process that takes time, but it can have a huge payoff in the result of capturing the position of your dreams.
On the day of the interview, eat. Drink water. Dress well, yet comfortably. If you are wearing shoes that nip at the back of your Achilles tendons or a blouse that stretches uncomfortably in the arms, then for God’s sake, don’t wear those things. Bring a water bottle with you. There’s nothing worse than going into a coughing fit during an interview or having your mouth turn into a desert. Arrive early, but not too much so. If it’s a Zoom interview, check your equipment and your mic before you’re set to enter the room. Additionally, if you're interviewing online, check your lighting and remove or minimize distractions. Yes, we’re all human, and these days interruptions of kids or barking dogs can be common, but if this is important to you, you’ll figure out a way to shove them out of the house or get them to be quiet while you’re on camera.
Oftentimes, you’ll get the questions ahead of time. This is a lovely gesture that not all schools do, but if they offer it to you, use this opportunity. It might be that you get to see the questions 15 minutes in advance. If you do, take notes on them. Skim through and jot down a few words and phrases meant to trigger connections, anecdotes, and more that you could pull from once the interview begins.
Once you are ushered in, either in-person or on Zoom, listen carefully as introductions are made. Jot down the names of those in attendance, if you can. And remember to breathe--a good deep breath or two with a slow exhale can help to clear your mind and keep you from going into overdrive.
The first question of the interview sounds like a softball, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. It usually is: “Tell us about yourself and what led you to apply for this position.” One teacher says, “When they ask ‘Tell us about yourself,’ the interview committee does not want to hear about your recent divorce (true story) or any other deeply personal information. Think about your personality traits, characteristics, how you were as a primary or secondary student and how that has transformed or transferred to your adult professional life.” Another suggestion for the kick-off, is to demonstrate a connection or share a compliment of the school: “If you can, identify a student who attends or their parents ask them what they like about the school. Be very clear and be able to articulate why you want to work there and what you bring to the table.” And don’t spend too long on the first question--after all, you’ve only got 30 minutes.
As you answer each question, be cognizant of time. One teacher says, “Use all of the time you are given to ‘sell yourself.’ If you have a 30 minute interview, talk for 30 minutes. Also, don’t be afraid to revisit a previous question if you remember something you forgot to mention earlier.” Another recommends that you “[g]ive specific examples so the interviewing team can imagine you in that role.” Many teachers agree that examples are powerful. “I've always leaned toward candidates who ‘show’ me who they are. It makes their answers seem more honest and relevant.”
Some questions may be difficult, especially if you don’t have a ton of experience with the situation they present. A tip I got from a friend several years ago was this: if you get asked something you’re unsure of, say, “That’s a really great question,” and take a moment to pause--grab your water bottle, and have a sip to buy yourself a bit of time so that you can reflect. If you’re still not sure, ask them if they can clarify the question. In addition, one teacher says, “If the panel is asking questions that make you wonder about something, ask. It is way better to know what you are getting yourself into before you take a job.” And above all, be honest: if it’s something you’ve never heard of, it’s better to react with curiosity and interest rather than try to fake your way through. So much of teaching is improv and growth; if we had to know everything before we walked in the door, not a single teacher would be standing in a classroom today. A teacher adds, “Keep in mind that the questions they ask lead you towards what they are looking for.”
I have always told my high school students: make sure that it’s mutual--don’t accept an offer unless you’re sure that both sides are inclined. These days, with so many interviews being held online, it can be difficult to read the room, but I would argue that it’s one of the most important parts of the process. Of course, if one committee member appears to be afflicted by resting bitch face, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should run away--but if you see key members of the committee with their arms crossed or leaning away rather than leaning in, you should be concerned. Trust me--I’ve seen it, and it’s the one time I should have turned the job offer down. Listen with your ears and eyes--and also important--listen to your gut. If you have butterflies, that’s natural. If you have a sense of doom or an urge to run to the bathroom to throw up, that’s your body trying to tell you something--and you’d better listen.
Towards the conclusion of the interview, make sure to ask questions, if you are given the opportunity. Ron Schumacher has one of the all-time best-ever questions to share: “Is there anything I said or omitted during this interview that has left you with the impression that I am not the best candidate for this position? If so, I am happy to clarify or expand my answers.” This is very clever, not only because it shows that he cares deeply about the position and the committee’s impressions, but it also shows him as humble--and it opens up the door for a more free conversation to take place.
While the interview may seem interminable at times, time flies. Rather than show artifacts or distribute information to the committee, to make a great final impression, you could try one teacher’s approach: “I directed the committee to my professional website link that could give them a more in-depth look at my work.” That way, during deliberations, if they have any questions or need more information, they’ve got it right in front of them online.
Once it’s all over, and you’re safely back in your car or staring at the log-off screen, it’s time to reflect. But don’t engage in shoulda, coulda, or woulda. Instead, review the list of committee members, and take a few minutes to write brief thank you emails. If you’ve forgotten names, you can review the school’s website or call to ask the principal’s secretary for names. One teacher says she recommends “ thanking them for their time and bringing up parts of the convo you enjoyed.”
As you reflect, do a gut check--how do you feel about how it went? Does it feel like a place you would want to be? Teaching is no longer an entirely independent endeavor--these days, you can’t just go to your classroom and close the door. One teacher offers a sage piece of advice: “Don’t be afraid to say no thanks if you get that feeling that you won’t fit in with the staff or school.” And another offers a warning: “I’d say watch out for the schools that are ill-prepared for you. If they don’t give you questions a bit before the interview, don’t offer some water, and seem intent on not making you somewhat comfortable (breaking the ice) think hard if you're offered the job. You are also interviewing them. If you are able to discern hostilities amongst them....run!” However, if there are no red flags, then be patient, and hope for the desired outcome, knowing that you did your best.
If you get a call and are offered the job, congratulations! Best of luck to you and may the position be the right fit you were seeking. But if you don’t get the call, do your best to solicit some feedback--after a few days, you can (and should!) reach out, to find out if they went with another candidate. Also, seek growth-producing feedback. After all, they may have insights or observations to share with you that can help you later on. As much as it might hurt, don’t just say, “Okay, thank you,” and hang up--take this opportunity to ask for feedback--ask what you could have done differently, or what you should emphasize or deemphasize in future interviews. It may help you to revise your approach for the next one.
The interview process can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be painful. If you are truly a growth-mindset educator, you will welcome the opportunity to share your ideas and skills with the committee. And remember: the one you don’t get is great practice for the one that’s right for you. In time, with patience, and a little pixie dust, you’ll land where you’re supposed to be.
There’s a bunch of things you don’t go into teaching for: the barrage of emails that bark for replies, grading and entering grades, hallway or bus loop duty, chaperoning a school function in the evening, and of course--one of the worst: proctoring. But there’s one thing that is considered worst of the worst for most teachers because it hits you where it hurts: the angry-parent-nasty-gram--the email or voicemail message that says, “Teacher, you suck,” and then goes on to tell you exactly what you suck at and how badly, in their opinion.
I got one of those last week, after a relatively quiet spell on the parent front. And even though I’ve been teaching since 2001, it shook me a little.
I’ve been on the receiving end of a few nasty-grams since I started teaching (and there’s a few I deserved that never landed, thank goodness--phew, got away with that one!). Here are some of the more memorable occasions:
And then, I got an email this week--I had just closed up my office hours and was getting back into the knee-deep swamp of my online grading queue, when a nasty-gram popped up. A parent had taken my feedback from her daughter’s rough draft essay and gone line by line, writing a paragraph per phrase, deriding my feedback from top-to-bottom. She accused me of being careless, hurtful, and causing great emotional distress for her daughter. She cc’d my boss.
I was shocked--why was I being attacked? What was this all about? I took a deep breath, trying not to let the “you suck” message sink in, but there I went, slowly being swallowed up by a swirl of her disparaging words and my own reactionary emotions: sadness, anger, hurt, and self-doubt.
As teachers, we all have these moments. Conflict is, unfortunately, part of the job. Mostly, it remains minor--tiny classroom skirmishes and redirections that end before they even begin. But sometimes, these little conflicts flare up, sometimes catching fire to the forest.
So, what can a teacher do to get through the unpleasantness of the conflict and move on in a productive way? I decided to ask my teacher-friends. Here is what they had to say:
Several teachers say, wait--don’t respond just yet. “24 hour rule. Wait 24 hours before you respond,” one teacher says.
Another says, “4 hour rule and I have a colleague not directly involved with the activity/reason read the email. This way I ensure I’m not replying out of anger.” Sharing with a colleague in addition to giving a bit of time can be helpful, to gain not only perspective, but empathy from a friend. We’ve all been there, right?
2. Treat Yourself Afterwards or Go to Your Happy Place
Other teachers look for a way to cool off after an attack: “I received a nasty message last week. The things I was accused of really hurt and were completely unfair. I just told myself that today this parent needed a punching bag and today I was that punching bag. She doesn’t know me and most likely it wasn’t even me that made her so angry, I was just the place where that anger landed. When this happened, I focused on being as professional and polite as possible and fortunately my administration was there to support me. I then had a nice cocktail and let it go. It truly does suck though.”
For some it’s a cocktail, for others it’s something stronger: “Keep your response focused on facts: student behavior, curriculum, and objectives. Thank them for any other feedback. Go home. Pour a tumbler of bourbon. Think about anything else.”
And other teachers keep a pick-me-up file for days and situations that aren’t going so well. One teacher suggests, “Keep letters and emails from parents who love you (I know you have a lot) and read those when the negative parents get on your nerves.” It can’t hurt to read through some praise after taking a hard knock.
3. Keep it Short
Thank goodness for the mainstream spread of mindfulness. One teacher’s advice is this: “Take a deep breath. When I was younger I used to get worked up and anxious. My first principal was awesome and told me to never respond to an email if I couldn’t reply in 6 sentences or less, or if it was emotionally charged…” and others agree: “1) Always wait at least a few hours and respond only after I have control of my emotions.
2) Keep the response brief. Overly explaining looks defensive. Plus, I don’t have time for that.
3) offer a phone call if they aren’t satisfied or want more information.” There’s a lot of wisdom, especially in point #2--a teacher’s time is already so short. Don’t give it away so easily to your emotions or innate need to defend yourself.
4. Some Say: Call, Instead
“When responding to these messages I tend to try to do it via phone/in person rather than email since so much of tone is inferred in email…” This is very true--much can be said in an email when we read between the lines, not so much in our words themselves, but with the tone that oozes from them. Another teacher agrees, saying “Sometimes talking over the phone or in person can diffuse the situation better than emailing back.”
But if the phone call doesn’t go well?
Some teachers are armed with good sentence-starters that can work for just about any conflict: “I’m sorry you feel that way given the information from your perspective. My perspective is....”
Another offers this advice: “Always sandwich critique between a positive of their kid. Say that you hear their concern. Most just want an audience.”
And then if it gets really ugly? “I have hung up on plenty of phone calls where I have stated “we need to stay in the realm of facts and truth,” and the parent has wanted to make attacks, excuses or accusations,” one teacher says.
I second that, another teacher says: “I know a lot of people are saying to make a phone call, but if it's particularly nasty, I prefer to keep everything in writing. I'm always polite and encourage the parent to ask any further questions. Stick to the facts. Don't type when angry. And if the child is older, check in with them about the problem. If the parent continues to be nasty, I forward all of the email correspondence to my admin and let them deal with it.”
5. CYA, As they Say
Document, document, document, many teachers say. One teacher’s approach, after a conflict-based phone call is to “send a follow-up reply to their email, ‘It was so nice speaking to you on the phone today! To recap, we discussed XYZ and will make these changes for the future (or whatever is pertinent). Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any further questions or concerns. Have a great evening!’ CC admin if needed.”
6. And Some Don’t Reply At All...
If you choose not to respond, it doesn’t mean you don’t care--a reply just may not be warranted at that time. “The best advice I ever received from a principal was to only respond if there is a question present. Then only respond with the pertinent information. This of course does not include rhetorical questions like "how dare you?" one teacher says.
7. ...Because Sometimes, There’s It’s Not About You
It’s not easy to not take it personally when a conflict arises and things get heated. But one teacher takes a different tack: “I get curious. Follow up with questions. I find it becomes less personal when I approach it as a 'problem' we can solve together. There was a moment of clarity in year twelve where a student lashed out at me and I immediately went to the pain this kid must be in. It was as if I had leaped forward in my capacity for empathy. Maybe all those years built to it.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year.” That’s not to say that every irate parent you encounter is experiencing a bout, but it does warrant a teacher taking a moment to step outside of herself, and perhaps, even consider what it’s like to walk in the parent’s shoes. One former preschool teacher says, “...[O]n dealing with difficult people in general - read anything by Brene Brown and realize... it's not about you. Also keep in mind that nasty people only affect you for a short time - they have to live with themselves and their crappy attitude 24/7.” And we also have to stop and think: if a parent is willing to launch a tirade or epithet of nastiness on a teacher they hardly know...what are they like at home? Sometimes standing down or working to smooth things over will make a child’s already-difficult home life a little bit easier. To put the student first, one teacher says, “I try to rise above and kill ‘em with kindness. Just remember the student and do what's necessary to keep things civil.”
And just because someone’s angry doesn’t necessarily mean they are mentally unstable. One teacher says, “They are in “mama bear” state of mind and often fire off an email before they think about it.” Adding to that thought, another teacher says, “Take a deep breath; remember the parent’s comments are usually motivated by loving that child more than everything else; be kind and professional; don’t reply if no reply is sought (like if their aim appears to be to complain and they don’t actually ask a question).”
8. But That Doesn’t Mean You Should Just Take It, Either
“I also never let someone pressure me into an apology unless I’ve made an actual mistake that would warrant that,” one teacher says. “I often will just keep it factual and restate a specific policy or an account of events. Don’t even acknowledge personal attacks.” Another concurrs: “[S]tand your ground and stick up for yourself. Of course, not in a nasty sort of way, but more often than not, we teachers don’t deserve those accusatory emails and a parent should not think it’s right to send them.”
9. But What If You Are Wrong?
In the case of my most recent nasty-gram, I was in the wrong. Of course, the mistake was made without malice: I was scoring a student’s electronic essay revision worksheet, and I just didn’t scroll far enough to realize that she had made some of the corrections I was seeking.
When it’s an honest mistake, here’s what one teacher has a short response that fits the bill: “Thank you so much for bringing that to my attention, I have just fixed it! Have a wonderful day and I appreciate your support!"
But, when you are attacked verbally, it can leave a scar: “I’m gonna apologize for the mistake and think less of them as a parent for their response.” It’s hard to get over that hurt sometimes, even if you’re a super teacher.
10. A Useful Acronym
As teachers, we get bombarded with acronyms to the point where it should almost be a drinking game. But here’s one that’s actually useful, if you find yourself in a conflict with a parent: “I always remember QTIP. Quit taking it personally. I don't let comments, complaints get to me. Parents generally know very little about what you do in the classroom, so their anger is not a condemnation of your ability.” Amen to that--most parents are merely running to the defense of their child, usually from a place of love. And your hurt likely comes from this: you love the student, too--not in the same way, of course, but as teachers, we care. We care a lot more than we’d like to admit. And that’s why it hurts so much when someone attacks us about the job we put so much love, effort, and time into.
This Saturday morning, as my husband and I were clearing out the shed in our backyard, our daughter called our attention to our five month-old Sharpei, Lucy, who was lying on her side in the grass, one eye swollen shut. We went into panic mode trying to figure out what was going on--could she see? Had she poked herself with that stick she’d been carrying around? Had she been stung? Was her eye going to be okay? I picked up the phone and called the vet’s office, which happens to be open from 9-2 on Saturdays. “Please,” I said, “Is there any way I could bring her by for someone to take a look at her eye?” The receptionist told me, no, they were fully booked. “But her eye!” I said, my voice getting shrill. “What should we do about her eye?” The receptionist handed me off to a vet tech who suggested I apply warm compresses. I asked again, “But can’t I just bring her in for a minute for you to take a look?” No, the tech said, we are booked. So I muttered something unintelligible and hung up. A few minutes later, after trying a compress, I called back. “Can I please just bring her by for a minute? She’s hurt!” No, the receptionist told me, but there is an emergency vet’s office 20 minutes away. I hung up and threw the phone down and went back to my dog. Minutes later, Lucy was zipped off to the emergency vet.
Later that evening, with an ointment prescription in hand and Lucy trotting around like a bull with a Queen Elizabeth collar ringed around her head, I had a thought: in a moment of passion, seeking to protect and care for my dog, I had become the angry parent. I smiled to myself.
Sometimes we need a little criticism to bring our failings or shortcomings to our attention. While not every angry parent email is legit, there are some that contain some truth--and those warrant some self-examination on our part.
In response to my recent parent situation, one teacher’s response made me stop in my tracks: “By your own admission, you made a mistake. Why the impulse to make this situation about the parent's reaction? We teachers are not perfect, and parents are entitled to their emotions. Maybe apologize sincerely and without qualification, and move on?” And she is right--I did make a mistake. But what about having some manners?
Sometimes it’s hard to be the bigger person. And being a teacher, so much more is expected of you.
During a conflict, it’s worth it to consider:
Am I in any way at fault here?
What is their perspective in this situation?
How might I have handled the situation that caused this problem differently, if I could?
How can I make this right?
And, the biggest one of all: What can I learn from this?
For me, I’m working on giving parents a little more grace.
Conflict arises because someone cares. I don’t despise the receptionist or the vet tech; I was in a panic trying to help my dog, whom I love dearly. The same goes for the vast majority of parents: they growl and snarl and bare their teeth not because they hate you, but because they love their child.
Conflict is hard, but it’s part of life and teaching. And as one teacher says, “As a mom AND a teacher, I like to think that we are all on the same side, and that we all want what is best for kids.”
A few side notes: Several teachers reached out to me to check on me and see if I was okay--and that shows it all right there--teachers have gigantic hearts and are incredibly caring--about their students and others, too.
One teacher also recommends a book for further reading, should you be interested in further exploration of this topic. It’s called BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, available on Amazon for Kindle.
Many parents, administrators, and teachers have been quick to write off remote learning, hoping to get back to “normal” as soon as possible.
But that hasn’t been the experience of all teachers. For some, the experience of teaching remotely has been rewarding, engaging, and stimulating--for them and for their students.
“There’s a lot of talk out there that students can’t learn remotely. And it’s false.” --Mike, a six-year veteran teacher, working 100% remotely this year
With all of the flak that remote learning has gotten, I wondered: Have teachers received adequate training or been able to share and swap best practices for remote learning, to make it more successful? Or have teachers been rather isolated, told to jump in the lake but not given a life vest or swimming lessons?
For some teachers who were already tech-savvy and working fluidly in 1-1 classroom environments, the transition was fairly easy. For others, who leaned more on traditional in-person techniques, the switch to remote was jarring and hasn’t improved much.
I decided to reach out to two of my favorite teacher friends in the whole wide world who happen to be teaching 100% remotely this year. These two educators are folks I have worked with in different settings and at different points in my career--and they are both incredible at what they do. I reached out to them to see if they would impart some of their learning with me, so that I could pass it along to you, my teacher friends.
The following is what two of our awesome colleagues had to share.
One teacher I interviewed, I’ll call him Mike, is a middle school teacher. He has taught for six years now (including this one), and this year was the first time he’s ever taught in an entirely remote environment, aside from last spring when the pandemic hit. When I asked him what the highlight of his career has been, he replied: “transitioning to remote teaching.”
The other teacher I interviewed, let’s call her Jane, teaches high school. She has 17 years of experience, with 15 in the classroom, and she considers herself a jack-of-all-contents. The best part of teaching for her are the “communities of kids you connect with.” During our discussion, she recalled some past groups of students with whom she shared little inside jokes.
For both of these teachers, relationships are a huge part of why they teach.
That might sound like a strange statement, as some have branded remote learning as an isolating and socially stunting situation, but both of these teachers made it a priority to build strong relationships at the outset of the school year and have continued to work to keep that momentum going.
Mike likes to start off every class the same way: on a topic entirely unrelated to his content area. He provides the students with “Would you rathers” and gleans responses from each of his students in class that day before moving on. “Sometimes it takes 20 minutes,” he says, “but I feel it’s worth it, [even] with the time devoted to it.”
Jane does something quite similar--she begins class by asking students to rate how they are doing that day, on a scale of one to five. Then she follows up with a silly question, such as “If animals could talk, which one would be the rudest”? Or “”Which TV show have you binged-watched?” She makes sure to mentally note any students who respond with a one or two, and connects with them privately after class to make sure they’re okay.
To start the year, Mike made sure to familiarize students with the tools they’d be using to ease any jitters, and he also had each student present a little slideshow about themselves so that students could feel that they knew who else was with them in the ‘room.’ Jane set the tone with a few basic expectations, with the main one being super simple: “Don’t be a dick.” Of course, she didn’t say it quite that way, but students have not violated this cardinal rule. She also had students get to know each other, to get comfortable with each other by first sharing more about herself than she ever has before. “I definitely took more time to give kids my bio: Where am I from? What was my road to teaching? My things I like to do, pictures of my cat and my husband. They want to know these things.” Then she had them each share about themselves, via FlipGrid, responding to a short set of questions, providing their names, hobbies, pets, pronouns. The culmination of the activity was when students viewed each other’s short videos, leaving supportive comments for each other, to make connections within the group.
Early on in the year, both Mike and Jane arrived at the same decision: they would ask for cameras on, but wouldn’t enforce it. As Jane notes, “I didn’t fight the camera battle...it was something that I realized--I’ve only got one screen [and] I can’t see them [all], anyway.” Mike feels the same way: “I ask that they’re on, but I don’t police it. I know that cameras can make [students] self-conscious.” He adds, “Some of them don’t want others to see their [home] environment, and I don’t want that to be a barrier.” He also mentioned that some students got way too caught up in their appearance and were constantly doing their hair. “I will ask them, and I will remind them, but I will not [force them],” he says.
“A huge problem in our profession is that many teachers are perfectionists and control freaks.” --Jane, 17-year veteran teacher, currently on remote assignment
Engagement--or the continued criticism of the lack thereof with remote learning--has been a positive this year for both Jane and Mike. Jane says, “In some ways, I get more participation from students in remote learning than I did in-person. Is everyone participating? No, but they wouldn’t, anyway.” It seems many people forget that while a student who attends in person may be physically present, that doesn’t mean the student is mentally present. Mike has seen an interesting pattern: “It’s weird, but the typical bell curve you see is almost inverted--there’s hardly anyone in the middle.” He talked about how it can be incredibly hard to get students who are “ghosting” him to re-engage. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called on a student who’s ‘there’ who doesn’t respond,” he says. However, when he tried out something new one day, a jigsaw in groups with students partnered up together in breakout rooms to create a Jamboard as a team, the engagement was through the roof: “I had 95% engagement,” he says.
One of the major challenges this year for both teachers has been students who are hesitant to speak up--either during whole class time or during breakout rooms. Jane notes, “they hate breakout rooms with a fiery passion.” But some of their students have warmed to breakout rooms, and Mike likes to use them for individual students, where they each get their own ‘room.’ Students like this approach, Mike says, because “they can call me in when they have questions without anyone else knowing.”
Allowing students to remain anonymous in some ways leads to better participation, in both teachers’ experiences. All of their students are big fans of PearDeck, a tool that both teachers use regularly in their live lessons. “I’ve taught freshmen through seniors and everyone loves PearDeck--everyone can guess with no fear of anyone knowing who guessed what,” Jane says.
Other programs that both teachers use frequently are EdPuzzle and Jamboard. In Mike’s view, Jamboard is great for collaborative thinking “because they can just jot their ideas down.” For Jane, it took her a little while to warm up to EdPuzzle--she had attended a training a few years back, but it seemed more complicated, so she had left it alone. This year, she’s changed her mind: “it does take some time, but it’s worth it.” Her tip for learning new programs to use with students: “Just open it up and start goofing around with it. You click around and you figure it out.”
Both teachers noted that they have not received any substantive training to help with remote learning this year. So Mike decided to go it alone and find his own PD. “Over the summer, I attended an online development, sponsored by PearDeck.” He found the experience to be valuable, as he uses the program on a nearly daily basis. Jane thinks PD from the district could help--if it’s useful. “People are stuck doing something a certain way,” she says, “and there’s not a lot of support to help them do it better.” It doesn’t help that teachers who teach remotely are often deeper in isolation from their peers--or at least, one would think.
Something that has been helpful for Mike, to make sure that working remotely doesn’t overtake his personal life, has been leaning on colleagues who share ideas and lessons. He says, “I rely so much more on my colleagues in terms of planning materials [this year. Last year,] I used to stay super late until I’d get stuff done.” To make sure he keeps a good work-life balance, he adheres to a strict rule: “Once four o’clock hits, I’m just done.”
Jane has also made some key discoveries about how to keep her work from seeping into her personal life. “It took me a long, long time to get away from grading everything,” she says. She began using an exit ticket through Google Forms at the end of each class period as closure, which also gives students immediate feedback on their progress. “Kids really like it because it’s a little five-point quiz...If you get everything right, you get to pat yourself on the back.” She also notes, “if you craft your exit ticket well, they get the feedback they need.” She also admitted that sometimes she will give 100% across the board on a minor assignment--she thinks it’s important to “give yourself permission” to do that every once in a while, to save time. “When I ask kids what they like [about our class],” Jane says, “they say they like the exit tickets--no one says they liked the detailed feedback!”
Another way that Jane has simplified the process for herself and for students is to give each student just one document per day--nothing else--to keep it simple and streamlined. It’s all there: “all the links, all the everything--and then they turn it in [at the end of class].”
Something that works great for Mike is something every in-person teacher wishes for: the mute button. “Behavior management is a million times better,” he says. Jane agrees that her time has become much more efficient, with far less policing of off-task behaviors than in years past. “[Remote learning] is a lot more efficient,” she says, “not a lot of wasting time. I can get through what I normally would get through in 90 minutes [when in-person] in 60 minutes [now that she’s remote].” That allows students extra processing time and extra time to linger and ask questions during the last few minutes of class. And those who are done? They can leave, rather than having to stick around. “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to get people to stop talking,” Jane says.
Both teachers were emphatic that remote learning can, and does, work. In Jane’s situation, it has allowed her more freedom to decide how she uses her time. “One of the things that people value most is if they have autonomy,” she says. “If they have autonomy, their happiness at work increases exponentially.” She is beside herself when it comes to teachers who say they can’t wait to return to ‘normal.’ “I see a lot of times on Facebook, ‘I can’t wait to get back to normal.’ And I’m like, no guys!” Teaching remotely, Jane gets a lot of flexibility in how she structures her days, and it doesn’t mean that she’s working less--she just gets to decide more about when she works. “It’s been great for me,” she says, “but it’s also great for students.” Mike is adamant about remote learning’s power for many students: “I have seen [that] for some kids, this is the best environment, by far. It’s not for all kids, and some kids are struggling this year,” he admits. “But the idea that kids can’t learn remotely is not true.”
If you would like to share your best practices for remote learning, to possibly be featured in a follow-up post, please reach out at: teachersaysemail.gmail.com
Cindy Shapiro is long-time teacher living in Colorado. She is the founder of Teacher Says, a budding podcast and website designed with the idea in mind of listening to and raising up teachers' voices. She has two school-aged children. Her book, For the Love of (Remote) Teaching is available on Amazon for Kindle.