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Interview Tip for Teachers: Be Prepared to Be Specific

2976451403_e42639a363_o.jpgFor schools across the country, hiring season is beginning, and many teachers are in the midst of job searches. Whether this is your first job search or you are in the difficult position of finishing the year at one school and looking elsewhere at the same time, I have a few tidbits of advice I've been saving. 

Two summers ago I was a member of a hiring committee at my school. Along with two administrators, another teacher, and a parent, I was--for the first time--on the receiving side of resumes, cover letters, interviews and demo lessons for a single open teaching position. The range of personalities, levels of experience, and teaching styles in the many candidates was wide, and like all teachers have, they showed varying areas of strengths and limitations. 

Yet, despite their striking differences, I noticed some trends in how applicants presented themselves and the ways that some fell short, while others stood out. Based on these observations, I thought I'd put together a short series of advice posts for job-searching teachers. Here is my first tip. 

In an interview for a teaching position, be prepared to be specific. 

I was surprised at how many candidates with plenty of experience and skill at teaching didn't offer enough specificity in their responses to interview questions. We want to be able to imagine your classroom. While it would be impossible to share everything, make sure what you do share has some relevant detail.  

For example, you may be asked a question like, "Can you tell us about a unit (or lesson) you've taught that you feel was particularly successful?" This question requires a quick decision about which unit or lesson to discuss. I myself have had trouble making that choice on the spot, and I watched many teachers fumble around as they decided. However, after making the decision (hopefully quickly!), it's essential to really describe the unit or lesson, offering details about what you and students did. It was painful to see teachers I felt in my heart were doing great things with students not share anything concrete about their practices. Also, share why you were proud of the students' work. 

Even if you are very inexperienced, with only student teaching to draw from, you can be just as specific as anyone with the single example you choose to discuss.

--What did you do? Why?

--What did student(s) do? (Bonus for dialogue from a specific student!)

--Why is it important / what does it show / what made you proud?

--How did you (or would you) build on the success of this example?

Another question that requires specificity is "How do you respond to challenging behavior?" or "What's your approach to discipline?" To answer this, it's great to open with a statement about your approach (most teachers did this), but then describe an example of a technique you actually use or a student who has challenged you and how you responded. It's okay if the student did not miraculously become an angel at the end of your story; interviewers want to get a picture of how you work with students in your classroom. 

[Of course, it isn't a term paper or a TED Talk, so, be specific, but try not to go on and on.] 

Why can it be so difficult to come up with examples on the spot?

As I watched teachers struggle to offer specifics, I felt pretty certain that they DID have real, valuable experiences to share, but that they got bogged down in the complexity, interconnectedness, and often ambiguous nature of teaching, and under pressure, had trouble pinpointing specific techniques or experiences to describe. I understand this completely; and yet, I also know this mistake can truly cost you a job. 

The good news is that no example needs to be the perfect embodiment of your philosophy. It just needs to be relevant to the question and help interviewers fill in the huge blank spaces we have when it comes to your teaching. We are blank canvases. Fill us in with anything that you can stand by as a positive piece of yourself as a teacher. It need not be perfect, but it must be more than a vague list that suggests that you do "a little of everything."  

Preparing some concrete examples to common interview questions would be worth your time.  That way you won't be caught off guard and struggling to find a good example. 

Don't script your answers, but think about 

  • a unit or two you could talk about in detail
  • a lesson within that unit that you would like to share. 
  • an example of an individual student with whom you worked closely
  • an example of a time you collaborated successfully with a colleague 
  • an example of a contribution you made or would like the opportunity to make to your school community (eg. serving on a committee, starting a club, etc.) 
  • an example of how you've communicated with a parent around their child's learning

Creating an updated portfolio (not one you made five years ago in your credential program!) can be a great way to prepare mentally, and have a wonderful tool to help you be more concrete in an interview. 

Become articulate about your work. 

My mentor at Bank Street College, Madeleine Ray, always said that, in addition to learning to teach children, it was equally important that we learn to "be articulate about the work." In other words, learn to talk about what you do, and reflect on what works and what needs work. I've often felt that what makes an expert teacher is one's own awareness of self, and the confidence to claim an area of expertise. 

A move into a new teaching position is a great time to reflect, connect to your purpose as a teacher, and mine your experiences for those specific, positive examples that will show strangers what you are capable of in the classroom. 

Stay tuned for Tip #2, coming soon.

[Image credit: Nathan Russell @ flickr]

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