Category Archives: PGCE

What have job applications and interviews taught me?

In my teaching career to date, I have worked in a number of schools, attended numerous interviews (both for main scale and promoted posts) and completed more application forms than I care to remember. I have also been at the other side of the table, being involved in shortlisting and interviewing teachers.

Applying for jobs is always rather nerve-wracking, you are putting yourself on the line and no one likes rejection. Unfortunately, that is part of the process and it is better to develop a bit of a tough skin rather than sink into a pit of despair.
My own experience of the application and interview process has been rather mixed. In the January of my PGCE I started scanning the TES job pages for suitable jobs. I sent out numerous applications, received some rejections, heard nothing from others. Finally, I got an interview at a school in Cirencester.
I researched the school, prepared my sample lesson and ran through possible interview questions. The lesson was ok, I liked the school and the pupils seemed nice – I didn’t get the job. I have to say that I was a bit gutted. However, looking back, the fact that they announced the successful candidate in front of all 4 of us (saying that we were all good, but that candidate x was better), suggests that at least one manager lacked a little empathy.
My second interview was for a school in Gloucestershire. Again, the lesson and interview went ok. We were then taken on a tour of the school and shown the classroom the successful candidate would teach in. It was an old porta-cabin at some distance from the English department, and the rest if the school. There was a boarded up window and a jagged hole at the bottom of the door. I was truly relieved when I found I hadn’t got the job as I had pretty much decided to decline it if I had been. During the wait in the staff room  for a decision (something that is much less common nowadays), I had been torn between my gut instinct that this was not the right school for me and the fear that I might never find a job.
My third, and successful, interview was for a school in Somerset. I was more practiced, both in delivering a mini lesson and in being interviewed. The head was friendly, staff and pupils seemed nice and, when I was offered the job I nearly cried.
Since those early days I have attended interviews, some successful others not, in a broad range of different schools (I particularly remember the one at Cheltenham Ladies College, lovely homemade cream cakes – for the sake of my waistline it was probably a good thing I didn’t get that one). I still get nervous, but I know the type of questions that are likely to be asked and the ‘lesson’ does not hold the horror that it used to.

So, what have job applications and interviews taught me?

  • You will probably have to apply for several jobs and attend several interviews before you get a job offer. Keep this in mind and don’t let it get you down. I know it is a cliché to say that it might not have been the right school for you, but sometimes a school is looking for someone to fill a very particular gap in their team. Also, interviews, like teaching, are a learning process, you will get better.
  • Proof-read your application, get someone else to proof-read it, then proof-read it again for good measure. The first screening process many schools will put applications through is for spelling and grammar mistakes – make mistakes and your application (however impressive) is likely to find its way into the reject pile.
  • Make your application stand out (in a good way). Firstly, remember that everything you send to a school is part of the selection process – so your cover email should be formal, polite and accurate. Never write a letter to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ – a few seconds on Google will tell you the name of the Head, and schools know this. Also, avoid the ‘comic’ email address – it makes you come across as a bit of a prat if the school have to contact mrbigboy@ or mzsexy@. Consider Theogriff’s advice from the TES and include an ‘Executive Summary’. This is basically a grid which outlines the person requirements and shows where your skills and experience meet them. This is a useful exercise even if you choose not to send it, as it helps you clarify why you are the right candidate for the job.
  • The internal candidate does not always get the job. I have heard so many people say that there is no point going for a job if there is an internal candidate. Frankly, that is rubbish. In interviews I have attended, and in some I have been part of the interviewing panel for, the focus has been getting the right person – I have seen internal candidates who have not been successful. To be honest, there may be schools who do interview for the sake of it and take on the internal candidate, even if they are not the best, but you need to ask yourself whether you really want to work at a school that does this. If you are the internal candidate don’t assume you will get the job, and never assume that your SLT know your CV and skills (they can be worryingly clueless) – treat the application and interview in the same way that you would treat an external post.
  • It is possible to get a job with a ‘neutral’ reference. Twice in my career I have worked for schools that (putting it euphemistically) were not the right school for me. As a result, I had a ‘neutral’ reference – schools have to stick to the facts, so it is highly unlikely that a ‘bad’ reference will be sent out, however badly the relationship has broken down. I have been interviewed and got jobs (one of them a promoted post) with this type of reference. Heads generally know that this type of reference means some kind of breakdown in relationship, they may ask you about it and you should think carefully about your reply in case they do. If they do, keep it brief and keep your response neutral – a 10 minute rant about the failings of your current/previous school is not going to endear you to your interviewers, however, remaining professional and calm will at least show that you can behave in a professional manner.
  • Use your lesson to show your skills. The sample lesson is a strange beast, they can last from 20 minutes to a full hour, they can be focused on a specific topic or be left up to you. If you are starting out in teaching, chances are you will be asked to take a group who are lovely. If you are going for a promoted post, you may be given a more challenging group to see what your behaviour management is like. Most classes will behave well for the interview lesson, especially if there are members of staff watching – if they don’t (and it is more than just very low level behaviour), ask yourself whether you want to work in a school where pupils don’t behave when SMT are in the room. Try to do something that you have done before, ask about the ability of the group and whether they have covered the topic before, and make sure you know you subject well. When I have observed lessons for interview I have looked for a range of things. Firstly, was the lesson well planned and organised (a lesson plan for your interviewers is useful here)? Did the teacher have good subject knowledge, use questioning and tasks to challenge the pupils and draw out what they knew? Did they have a good rapport with the pupils, e.g. use some of their names (ask if there is a seating plan, if so refer to it as it really freaks the pupils out if you know their names; if not, when a pupil answers a question, ask for their name), or smile? Did the lesson go as well as can be expected for an interview lesson, and did the teacher have a realistic view of how it went and how it could be improved? Don’t be afraid to say that a lesson didn’t go as well as you had hoped, that is far better than saying it was brilliant when it was a disaster. Finally, if you plan on using technology: check what is available in advance and have a (non-technical) back up plan – it is very impressive if the network goes down and you can switch seamlessly to an alternative task.
  • Trust your instincts. If possible, I like to get to the school early enough to see the pupils arrive, this can tell you a fair bit about the place. I also expect to spend time in the staff room, the department office (if there is one) and meet some of the staff – if this doesn’t happen, alarm bells start ringing. Twice, when interviewed, I have been kept in a conference room and only met the other candidates and the interviewing panel. Twice, I have left the interview day with a niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right and twice, I have accepted positions ignoring those feelings. It should come as no surprise that I have worked in two schools that I wished I hadn’t. That links to another myth, that having several schools on your CV is so bad that you need to stay somewhere awful for a couple of years – no job is worth that. For these two schools, I left after a year, for a new post – for one of them I should have left earlier. Both jobs taught me a lot, about SMT, about my capability as a teacher and about my resilience as a person – however, in hindsight, I should have avoided both schools.
  • Listen to the interview questions carefully, think about your response and answer it. Some candidates freeze in interviews like a bunny in the headlights, others get verbal diarrhoea (I have a tendency for the latter, but as I am aware of it I make efforts to stop talking before I start withering nonsense). Remember, the interviewers want to see the best of you and know that you are nervous. The key thing, besides preparing well for the interview, is to take your time, ask for a question to be repeated or ask for clarification if you are not sure. Whatever you do, make sure you are answering the question and explaining, not just what you have done in the past, why it is relevant to this school. I have been part of an interview panel where a candidate spoke for 10 minutes about irrelevant past experiences, without answering the question. The Head rephrased the question and the candidate did the same again. Make sure you have some questions to ask, these are useful to find out about NQT support, opportunities for promotion, or to show your wider skills by asking about extra-curricular clubs.
  • Don’t take it personally. Sometimes it is them! While most schools are organised and professional, some, sadly, are not. In others, things may happen in the course of the interview day which throw a spanner in the works. Many years ago I attended an interview, there were 3 candidates, and, after the lesson, the tour and the interviews we were told that they didn’t actually have a job available – very strange! During another interview, the process was stopped before the actual interviews because, over the course of the day, two other members of the department had resigned and the school needed to take some time to review their new staffing needs before taking on anyone else.

I haven’t provided a list of possible questions or copies of application letters – to be honest, you need to do these for yourself. What I hope I have given, are some lessons I have learnt from the process which I hope you find useful, especially those of you embarking on the application process for the first time. Good Luck!

What did my first job teach me?

As any teacher will tell you, your PGCE (or other training route) is only the start of you learning to be a teacher. Most trainee teachers heave a huge sigh of relief at finishing their course and securing their first job – and rightly so, but the way ahead is steep and difficult. I would be lying if I didn’t say that your first teaching job makes your PGCE seem, relatively, easy.

I attended three interviews before I secured my first job. It was in an 11-16 school in my home county of Somerset, a rural school, totally different from the inner city I trained in. I was so pleased to be offered the job I almost cried – most unlike me. Then it was back to finish the course and graduate.

September 2001 arrived and I started my first term as an English teacher and form tutor. Luckily, I had a Year 7 tutor group who were as nervous and wide eyed as I was, which meant that, for the first day I didn’t really have time to worry. My timetable was a mixture of groups including Year 10 and Year 11 GCSE groups, some ‘nice’ and some ‘challenging’. Having this mix is important. Sometimes, new teachers are kept away from exam groups and difficult classes – this isn’t helpful as they have to learn to teach these groups at some point. All it does is put more pressure on those who end up with large numbers of exam/difficult groups and creates a situation where these groups are taught by a select few due to the fear of a dip in results.

The department was small, a head of department who started at the same time as me, three part timers and two NQTs. There were filing cabinets full of ‘resources’, many of them printed on Banda machines (one to Google if you have never heard of it) and newspaper articles from the early 80s. Schemes of work were almost non-existent. This was a blessing and a curse as it forced me to produce my own resources and schemes – tough work but I believe it set me up for my teaching career. My planning and lesson delivery improved (to see the gaping chasm between these two read @tstarkey1212‘s blog post on planning).

Being part of a small department, and a small school meant that I got the opportunity to take on extra responsibility. This included being the first in the department to get an interactive whiteboard in my second year. A classroom was built from a section of corridor and part of a toilet block (I kid you not) and the board was installed. As is often the case, it didn’t occur to anyone that I might actually need a traditional board as well – especially with a relatively new, untried piece of equipment (this was eventually sorted out). I had to teach myself how to use the board and its software, as well as having back up lessons for when it broke down. I learnt to wing it, when necessary, and rely on my subject knowledge and my teaching ability.

I eventually moved to another school, for promotion, after three years and was genuinely sad to leave.

So, what did my first job teach me?

  • There is no substitute for doing it yourself. Although there was support and guidance, most of the schemes I taught were created by me. This made me a much better teacher and improved my subject knowledge. I am all for sharing resources, but I think there is a danger of going too far, with whole schemes produced on powerpoint, lesson by lesson. Teachers need to make the lesson their own and the danger with this is that they don’t. I have observed a lesson power point, which I had produced and shared, being taught by someone who thought all they had to do was show the slides to their class – they hadn’t even read the text fully – needless to say, the lesson was a disaster. Yes it takes longer to create new resources or tweak existing ones, but that is what a good teacher does.
  • ‘Bad’ groups have sometimes been short changed. My first GCSE group was one which was a terrifying prospect. Year 11, lots of SEN, challenging behaviour – you know the type. I was given them, I suspect, because if I didn’t manage to get results out of them it wasn’t the end of the world. The class had had three teachers in Year 10, one of whom had walked out mid-lesson never to return. When I looked at their ‘coursework’ I was horrified – none of it was acceptable and mostly there were just a series of posters made after watching films. The group had been failed – by their teachers and by the previous head of department. Over the course of a year we worked hard to complete the missing work and prepare for the exam. It was not plain sailing. I had to convince the group that I was going to stay and that they were capable of GCSE work. There were tantrums and upturned tables (a pupil, not me), but eventually it was done – all but one achieved a pass, and two got a C grade. Those C grades mean the world to me as I know just how hard the pupils worked for them. From that point on, I was careful not to judge a class by their data and reputation and knew the importance of high expectations.
  • Sometimes you have to go with your instincts. The more observant of you will have noticed that my first teaching position coincided with a tragic time in world history, 9/11. My new Year 8 class were doing a scheme of work on the media. We had covered the difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet, looked at the layout of a front page and the questions an article aims to answer. Homework was to bring in a tabloid or a broadsheet newspaper for analysis in the next lesson. I went home that night to see the news full of the horrible events in New York. The next day, I met my Year 8 class again – almost every child had brought in a newspaper, some had brought in two. At the start of the lesson I had had a vague plan of getting the group to write a newspaper article on a completely unrelated topic, or to pull out the textbooks. However, the group wanted to explore the front pages, naturally they were shocked and frightened by what had happened but also curious. Nervously, I decided to go ahead with the planned lesson. We looked at the front pages and the way the headlines were written, the choice of images and the difference between the tabloid and broadsheet coverage. The class were brilliant – fantastic, probing questions; thoughtful comments and a solid understanding of how newspapers cover a major international event. When I spoke to other members of the department about the lesson some were shocked and suggested that parents would complain – not a single one did. It was a tough lesson emotionally for all of us, but I’m glad I went with my instinct.
  • Life sometimes gets in the way. The danger with teaching is that it can be all encompassing. However, sometimes you need to prioritise ‘real’ life: your family and friends. During my first teaching position, this was reinforced by three events – my father having a (thankfully non-fatal) heart attack, my grandmother dying while I was on an overnight school trip and a friend being shot and killed in the local pub. What I learnt from these three incidents was that you need to let someone in school know (however private a person you are), and that ‘good enough’ teaching, whether it be use of worksheets, textbooks or whatever, is good enough until you are in a position to get back to your normal standard of teaching. No one, will criticise or blame you (and if they do then, frankly it is not a school you want to work in) if your lessons are less than brilliant and the books not marked for a while. Concentrate on what is important and let HoDs and SLT deal with the rest, after all, that is what they are paid extra for.
  • School politics can be bizarre. Schools can be a hotbed for all sorts of odd behaviour – you probably have all kinds of stories (real and exaggerated) from your own school days. My first job reinforced that: the ‘reserved’ seats in the staffroom, mugs and the all too common rivalry between the Maths, Science and English departments. However, I also experienced the minefield that can be departmental politics. My new HoD was in the unenviable position of having to work with his predecessor, a lady nearing retirement who had given up the head of department job to teach part time (not entirely voluntarily, I suspect). They did not see eye to eye. She wanted to hoard the old resources (Banda sheets and all, many of which hadn’t been touched for years) and was reluctant to make any changes to ‘the way things have always been done’, even when a change was desperately needed. Pupils had been set in Year 7 and then remained in the same class throughout their school career, she never saw the problems this caused in the lower groups as she only taught the top ones. In departmental meetings, she was vocally against any suggestions that were not her own – it was clear that she had become totally disillusioned with teaching and did not enjoy what she did. Eventually she made the decision to resign (to the relief of the rest of the department, who were sick of the tension) and left after giving a speech to the whole staff about the awful state of education and that children should not have to attend school after 14 years of age. My advice, if you find yourself caught in a similarly bizarre situation, observe, listen but keep your own counsel (in public at least).

Your first teaching job, good or bad, is something that helps shape you as a teacher. It will be hard (realistically it should be) and it may convince some that teaching is not for them, but for those who stay in the job it is unforgettable.

What did teacher training teach me?

Reflection is a key tool in any teacher’s arsenal, so with that in mind, I am going to write a series of posts reflecting on the lessons I have learnt from different parts of my teaching career. There seems no better place to start than the start of my teaching career.

I came to teaching slightly later than many do, I had left university 7 years previously and worked in a variety of jobs including finance, journalism and the military. However, in 2000 I decided to stop resisting the career that everyone I knew told me I should follow.

I applied and was accepted on a PGCE course through a SCITT in Birmingham. SCITT stands for School Centred Initial Teacher Training – this was a PGCE course validated by the Open University but based in a consortium of schools rather than a university. The course appealed to me as I would be based in schools for the bulk of my training, with one day a week of lectures and twilight sessions.

In some ways, this was a real trial by fire. We were a small group of trainees, which inevitably got smaller as the course progressed, based in some of the toughest schools in Handsworth. We would spend our time in two different schools – my two were a mixed comprehensive and a non-selective girls’ school. We were encouraged to teach before our ‘official’ placement, and expected to continue teaching afterwards, each lesson having a 2 page A4 triplicate lesson plan – to be completed several days in advance.

I had two mentors. One was bubbly, disorganised and totally supportive. She encouraged me to teach Chaucer to Year 10 and experiment with my teaching. I remember attending a parents’ evening with her. No appointments, a large proportion of non-English speakers and few of the pupils attending – it was chaos, I had no idea who anyone was and I suspect she didn’t either! My other mentor was almost the polar opposite. He was a stickler for detail, not particularly supportive and used to lock away every item of stationery – even the board pen and eraser. However, I learnt a lot from both of them.

I planned and taught lessons at all Key Stages, some went well, others were disastrous. I wrote essays, lesson plans and created schemes of work. I attended staff meetings and parents’ evenings. It was a hard slog, weekends and holidays were spent working, I barely saw my partner but eventually, finally, I passed.

So, what did my training teach me? Beyond the basics…

  • The first time a pupil swears at you is a big shock. In my first placement I had a very difficult Y9 class (why do they always seem to be Y9?). They were tough and reluctant to complete any tasks I set – I had to grit my teeth to build up the courage to come out from behind the desk. Then one of the little lovelies decided to swear at me. It was like a punch to the gut – not because the words offended me, or my feelings were hurt, but because I wasn’t sure what to do. Your normal reaction may be to swear back, leave the room, thump them – none of which you are allowed to do! I stood there like a goldfish opening and closing my mouth. However, the next time it happened the spell was broken, I knew what to do and was (relatively) calm.
  • Always check your resources. Towards the end of my third placement, with a sense of demob excitement in the air and a plan to show a video, I failed to check my resources carefully enough. For part of a scheme on satire, I planned to show an episode of The Simpsons. I had watched it before so all should be fine – but it wasn’t. I had chosen what is now etched into my mind as the ‘bastard’ episode – where Homer meets his illegitimate brother and Bart says ‘bastard’ about a million times. I had to brazen it out or it would have been all too obvious that I had cocked up. I still shudder.
  • Good behaviour needs good managers. Beyond the classroom level, pupils behaviour needs a strong and active SLT. I was based in two very different schools, both challenging but one SLT were in the corridors, they taught and the pupils knew where the line was drawn. The other school had two locked doors between SLT and the rest of the school and they were rarely seen – unsurprisingly, behaviour was much worse.
  • Take time to wind down. This is something that easily gets forgotten, but it is essential for your mental health. Every Friday we would meet up for a drink to discuss the triumphs and disasters of the week. Once a month we met up in a Chinese restaurant and ate and drank ourselves silly – it really helped.
  • Some training is rubbish. Not every ‘expert’ gives useful advice. I had to sit through ICT ‘training’ which started with how to switch on a computer. I also remember a session on behaviour where it was obvious that the teacher had not been in the classroom for years, and when he had been, it was in a selective grammar – totally unlike the schools most of us had been placed in. Take it with a pinch of salt and move on.

Teaching is a tough job and teacher training needs to be tough to prepare you. But it is worth it!