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Get a Teaching Job: Interview Disasters and How to Avoid Them

Meghan Mathis

You’ve landed the interview! Congratulations! In our current job market, just getting a first interview is quite an accomplishment on the way to hopefully get a teaching job. You’ll be competing with several other educators who are likely to be as qualified as you – if not more so – which means you’re going to have to bring your “A” game if you want to get the job. While there are other articles out there that will tell you how to calm your nerves and prepare, this article is going to address some of the most common mistakes interviewees make … and how you can avoid them!

Check Your References!

A teacher I know well once sailed through an interview. Although she was meeting with the superintendent of the district, the principal of the school with the opening, and a teacher she would be working with if offered the position, it felt like a chat between friends. Her answers came easily and she walked away feeling as if she couldn’t have answered any question better. It was by far, her best interview experience ever. She couldn’t help but feel that the job was hers.  She was called back to do a sample lesson and it went equally well. It was no surprise when the principal of the district called her several days later and told her that she had been the clear leader out of all the teachers they interviewed and the clear first choice after her sample lesson. 

Her happy dance ended quickly, however, when the principal continued the conversation by stating that in spite of this, she was sorry to let her know that they would not be offering her the position because one of her references had been less than complimentary and that it was district policy not to hire a teacher with a poor reference. The principal ended the conversation with a recommendation that the teacher remove this reference immediately because her other references had been stellar. The teacher was shocked and stunned.

In hindsight, however, the teacher knew that she bore some responsibility for this disaster. The reference was a principal at a district she had worked for very briefly. She had acted as a long-term substitute teacher and, while the principal had been pleased with the job she had done, she had left early due to complications with her first pregnancy. While she had asked for permission to use the principal as a reference and he had agreed, several years had passed between when she left the position and this interview. The interviewing principal had let her know that the reference had stated that while she had not done anything wrong, she had left the position suddenly and he did not feel she was 100 percent committed to teaching. It was unfair and inaccurate; the teacher admitted that she should have included a reference who knew her better. “I thought it would be better to have someone more local on my resume since I was fairly new to the area,” she stated. 

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Avoid this disaster by checking your references carefully. Don’t put someone’s name down unless you are sure, absolutely sure, that they are willing to sing your praises. Additionally, if you think it has been awhile since you worked with a reference, take the time to contact them and ask if they are still willing to speak on your behalf. It is worth the extra time to make sure that your references are people who think you’re terrific.

Know Your Subject!

My very first interview was for a special education position. The interview went fairly well, although I definitely felt my inexperience as I stumbled through one or two of the questions. As things wrapped I breathed a huge sigh of relief … until they handed me a page full of special education acronyms and proceeded to ask me to go through the list, define each acronym, and to discuss its importance to a special education teacher. While some of the items on the list (IEP, for example) were instantly recognizable to a fresh-out-of-school education major, I wound up drawing a complete blank on many of the others. I was sure that I had heard of them in my classes, but the shock of seeing such an extensive list right when I thought I was in the clear wiped my mind clean. I could think of no other strategy other than to laughingly explain that my mind had just gone completely blank but that I would explain the IEP process in detail to them and hopefully, the rest of the acronyms would come to me as I went along.

Luckily, many of them did.  Amazingly, after what I was sure was a terribly unsuccessful interview, I was offered the position. So when faced with a question that stumps you, don’t be afraid to take a deep breath, admit that you aren’t sure you can offer a perfect response and do your best.

Avoid this disaster by preparing thoroughly for your subject area. If there are “hot-button issues” being discussed (for instance, the push for nonfiction texts in English classes), be ready to answer questions about them.  Brush up on your special education acronyms, because all teachers, regardless of subject area, are going to come into contact with students IEPs, GIEPs, 504 plans, etc.

Do Some Research!

“Why do you want to work for our district?”  This question is one of the most common and often, one that can really make you stand out from your competition (both positively and negatively). While the truth might be, “because I really need a job and your district is one that I’m willing to work at and that has a job in the area I’m interested in teaching,” it doesn’t necessarily inspire a principal, department head, or assistant superintendent to choose you from the pool of qualified candidates. Additionally, not being able to answer this question effectively will land you at the bottom of the candidate pile. 

Avoid this disaster by taking some time to research the district before you get to the meeting. Search the website for tidbits of information you can weave into your answer. Is it a small district? Discuss how much you like neighborhood schools where teachers are better able to be community members with the families of the students they teach.

Does the school district’s mission statement discuss the importance of creating global citizens? Highlight your commitment to utilizing technology to bring the world into your classroom. It may be cheesy, but the message it sends your interviewers is that you care enough about getting this position to take the time to learn about the district.

Additionally, prepare one or two questions about the district that you can ask when the interviewer throws you the, “So, what questions do you have for us?” question. While it is fine to ask what the next step in the interview process might be or when they think they will make a hiring decision, it will help you rise above the rest when you ask a specific question about something you saw on their website or learned from talking to teachers already working in the district. Is parent-teacher communication a strong suit of yours? Let them know by asking how active their teachers are with their PTA. Do they have after-school homework programs or tutoring programs you’d be willing to be a part of? Let them know! Tailor your questions so that you are able to provide additional insight into the type of teacher you are and how you would be an asset to their district.

Check, Double-Check, Check Again … and Have a Backup!

As you go through the interview process, you will most likely be asked to prepare and/or present a sample lesson. Often, the hiring district will provide you with a list of required elements they are hoping to see, including the use of technology in the lesson. Hopefully, you are comfortable doing this and see it as an opportunity to show off a bit. If utilizing technology makes you uncomfortable, keep it simple and don’t make yourself overly nervous by trying something new or unfamiliar during an interview. The most important thing to do is prepare thoroughly.

Avoid disaster by checking that you have what you need to present your lesson successfully.  Will you need access to a computer, Internet access, a projector, a DVD player, speakers, etc.? Get in touch with the district as soon as possible to ensure that all of the needed items will be available for you. If you are bringing your own laptop, make sure you ask for anything you’ll need to connect your laptop to their audio-visual devices. Check that everything is working well at home, check again ... and then, prepare your lesson one more time – as if everything you were expecting to work failed. Imagine you were getting ready to start your lesson and every piece of technology refused to work. Disaster! If this happens during your interview and you can’t proceed, you’ll look unprepared (even if it isn’t your fault). If this happens during your interview and you are able to say, “No problem, you always have to be prepared for the unexpected when working with technology so I always am ready with a back-up plan that doesn’t require a computer/the Internet/etc.,” you’ll look like a rock star.

Remember the Little Things!

Although it is stressful to think about, it is likely you’ll be competing with numerous other highly qualified educators who are just as interested in the position as you are. With that in mind, it’s important to not make little mistakes that could disqualify you before you’ve even had an opportunity to share why you’re the best teacher for the job. Some of the horror stories about things prospective teachers have done or said during interviews are shocking, funny, or downright unbelievable. 

Avoid a disaster by taking a minute to prepare yourself mentally (and physically!) before you go into your interview. Chew (and finish!) a mint so your breath is fresh but you aren’t chomping on gum while talking. Double check that your outfit is appropriate (better to be over-dressed than underdressed) and you don’t have stains, deodorant marks, bra-straps showing, etc. If you are someone who gets emotional when talking about certain students from your past, how important education is to you, why you became a teacher, or if there is something going on in your  life that is causing you stress, try to prepare yourself to stay calm when discussing it.

While your interviewer will understand that you are nervous, crying while talking about a former student doesn’t make you look dedicated, it makes you look over-emotional and too attached to your students. If you’ve had negative experiences in past positions, either plan a way to discuss them positively (For example, “I learned a lot about myself as an educator in my last placement.  While I respected my co-teacher very much, I would have liked him to have been more accepting of my desire to have a larger role in planning our lessons” sounds much better than, “My co-teacher at the last school I worked at was a real jerk.  He never let me do anything!) or avoid them altogether. If it helps, write yourself a list of the top 10 reasons why any district would be lucky to have you and read it before heading into your interview. Remember, they’d be lucky to have you – but it’s up to you to show them why.

Interviews are rarely, if ever, stress-free, but by taking the time to prepare for the best (and the worst) case scenarios you can give yourself the best possible chance to shine. Good luck in trying to get a teaching job !