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.
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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.