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!