12 Tips for a Successful Teaching Job Interview
Getting Ready for the Big Day
I've been a high school teacher for many years now, and over that time, I've been on several hiring committees, looking at a range of candidates for a range of positions. I've seen applicants in the no way, possibly, and absolutely categories. The trick of interviewing for any job, never mind teaching, naturally lies in knowing what your interviewers are looking for. That said, with a teaching position in particular, you should ask yourself if you really want to fit that mold. You shouldn't go into teaching just because you need work. You shouldn't necessarily become what it is your interviewers want, because there's no way to sustain that pretense once the school year begins. You don't have a cubicle to hide in, and there's no way to "duck" your clients when you're in a bad mood. Being a teacher is a quick way to find out what you're really made of; it's preferable to know yourself before going in to an interview. Those interviewing you want to feel like they're talking to a real human being, not a facade.
So, with that out of the way, here are the top twelve tips for successfully interviewing for a teaching job. Keep in mind that my experience is at the secondary level, so I may be biased towards that age range. I'm also discussing this process from a fellow teacher's perspective, not necessarily an administrative one.
Go Through the Checklist
1. Clean Yourself Up. This is true for any interview, of course. You wouldn't believe how sloppy some candidates appear during interviews. Iron your clothes, trim your nails/beard, floss. Make sure you have acceptable breath. Use perfume and cologne sparingly (a better idea is to simply smell "clean"). My advice for men is don't overdo the fancy suit. Teachers work "in the trenches," and frankly, I'm always slightly suspicious of an interview candidate who is over-dressed for the interview. A shirt and tie are expected, but I'd avoid the full suit. Wear a sport jacket instead. Over-dressing suggests inaccessibility and excessive formality, and neither are usually qualities sought after in a teacher.
2. Do a Small Amount of Research. Know something about the school district you're applying to, but don't overdo this, either. Come across as interested and informed, not full of it. I have never appreciated an applicant telling me all about the school or the town I've worked in for years. It seems arrogant, and again, this isn't wanted in a new teacher. Use your knowledge of the district as the basis for questions, not answers. A great idea would be to find one consistent strength of the school district, and then ask about it when the opportunity arises.
3. Be Punctual. Once again, this is key for any interview, but when applying for a job as a teacher, this is imperative. People on the outside fail to understand how much teachers live by bell schedules. We diligently plan ahead for everything: when to pee, when to drink water, when to breathe. Being late for your interview, unless there are extenuating circumstances, is a deal-breaker 95% of the time. Get there early...chances are you'll get to sit in that row of chairs outside the principal's office.
4. Bring Copies of Your Resume and Original Lesson Plans. I can't tell you how many times a group of us on a hiring committee have been forced to pass around the one "advance" copy of an applicant's resume. Even if you aren't asked to, bring four more copies of your resume, printed on high-quality paper. Along with this, bring copies of a few original, successful lesson plans. Even if you're brand new to teaching, this still can be valuable to show potential employers what you can do with a class period. Of course, this is assuming that you haven't been asked to bring a full portfolio with you. I have seen many applicants bring portfolios, but usually interviewers are looking for is a "boiled-down" version; there is no time during an interview to read a portfolio. Heck, there's no time for us to read your portfolio even if you send it ahead of time. If asked, great, bring it. Just don't expect your full portfolio to get much of a viewing if you haven't been asked to bring it to the interview.
5. Shake Hands and Make Eye Contact. All right, so now I'm starting to feel like your Dad. We're still in the "this is important for any job interview" zone, I know, but as with punctuality, the importance of this is tenfold for a teaching interview. Teachers must be good with people. Those interviewing you (including me) will evaluate your ability to connect with people genuinely in the first fifteen seconds of the interview. It's acceptable to be a little nervous, but make the effort ASAP. As soon as you walk in, shake everyone's hand quickly and smoothly, making eye contact with each interviewer as you do so. Do this, if possible, even if those in the room don't extend their hands towards you first. Avoiding direct eye contact makes you appear shady, and no one will hire a shady person to work with children (as a side note, no one wants to hire someone who does the crazy-stare-at-you-directly-for-10-full-minutes, either).
6. Be Aware of Standardized Testing. It's the reality of education today. Know what tests are being given at the level and the subject you're applying for. Know the names, history, scoring rubric, and expected results of these tests. Read up on strategies for increasing the likelihood that your students will score highly on these tests, even of you're brand new to teaching. I know of districts that view this as their number one concern. If you find that upsetting, you're not alone, but you need to be prepared, because you will be asked about it. You're not helping yourself by appearing ignorant.
7. Have a System of Discipline in Mind. You will also be asked, in one form or another, about classroom management. The are two reasons for this: one, out of concern for the students; two, other teachers and administrators don't want to have to clean up your mess. My suggestion is to adopt a firm policy that also allows for improvement. Don't be "palsy" about it. It's off-putting to interviewers when you discuss students (especially teenagers) in a way that suggests you're a friend first. This is especially true if you're straight out of college, or still in your twenties. Be a grown-up, but don't translate that to mean you're a drill sergeant. Whatever you settle on for a system of discipline, make sure that it's fair but firm. Don't personalize it by ragging about individual students you've had in the past, but don't be so generic that no one in the room knows how you'd apply your principles. Yes, in other words, this is tough one, so prepare ahead of time.
8. Be Humble. Many other types of job interviews require you to speak endlessly about yourself, but when interviewing for a teaching position, strike a balance between what you can provide as an individual and what you're willing to learn from the school. I've heard applicants drone on about their favorite classic works of literature (and if you're looking to be an English teacher, you'll most likely be asked about your favorite book), and the result isn't usually a job offer. A good teacher listens more than she speaks; the amount you say speaks volumes about the amount you're willing to listen. Don't let your nerves turn you into a jabbering mess. Be humble and thoughtful, without appearing to be the introspective, misunderstood poet (this is another terrible role to take on during an interview).
9. Know Your Subject Content. Similar to issues of classroom management, teachers and administrators alike dread the idea of having to teach you the curriculum. If you want to increase your odds dramatically of landing that teaching job, you better know your stuff. I always ask a couple of content-related questions during an interview, and while I don't always need to agree with an applicant's interpretation of a concept, they better get the objective stuff right. If you're asked about a coefficient or a gerund or the Renaissance, depending on your discipline, have a sensible and correct response. This, hopefully, is the one tip you've been working a long time on already. If you get caught off-guard and simply don't know the correct answer, don't pretend to. You're being interviewed by people who have likely taught that point for years; you'll never be able to fake your way through successfully. At the very least, you can use this as a chance to appear humble.
10. Have Questions When Asked. Effective teachers are tremendous at asking questions. As suggested in #8, don't overdo any kind of talk, but when your interviewers ask if you have any questions, the answer should be yes . You're trying to be hired as a teacher, for crying out loud. I can never understand those applicants who have zero questions of their own. Other types of jobs may require a more pointed exchange, but teachers are expected to be thoughtful, and being thoughtful means that you always have a question at the ready (note this for your impending career, too). Ask two questions: one about the school as a whole, and one about the department you're hoping to join. Examples might include What's the book budget like? or How has the block schedule been received by teachers and students ?
11. Be Positive Without Scaring People. I've seen giddy applicants and I've seen morose ones. I've seen prospective teachers who come across like they've swallowed some crazy pills. The best candidates are those who exude an easy, positive self-assuredness. Children feed off of "vibes"; teachers need to calm and lift a class simultaneously. Teachers need to seem in control of themselves at all times, and being too up is just as unsettling as being too down. All this makes for a tough balance to strike in an interview, especially when you're nervous, but it's worth the effort. Maybe this is in you or not in you, I'm not sure. In any event, don't overwhelm your interviewers with happy joy-joy energy, just as you wouldn't frighten them with bleak, dark despair.
12. Know When to Say When. Read your interviewers' body language. At some point, they will appear slightly restless and ready to end the interview. Don't keep questioning, and don't keep discussing your personal classroom pedagogy. Remember, this is a group of people who most likely live by a bell schedule. Naturally, your interviewers will end the interview if allowed, but I've seen applicants ruin their chances by dragging out a final point. If you do this, every person on the interview committee will be imagining a group of twenty-five students trying to tolerate your oblivion. Be aware of when your time is up. Every established teacher in the world seeks to work alongside other teachers who understand the value of a minute. When your time is up, shake hands once again, secure in the knowledge that you've done everything possible to earn that teaching job.