The process of recruitment is one part of being a headteacher that I both love and loathe in equal parts.
I love it because I really enjoy meeting new people and getting the best people we can into our schools to make them even better is a real privilege.
I loathe it because they can be stressful affairs for both parties – the stakes can be high and the recruitment market is a very tough one where I work – and because the process can feel very artificial.
But there is one thing we can do to make things easier for all involved, and better: give candidates the interview questions before the actual interview.
The things that I have got candidates to do on interview days has evolved over the years, but whatever else is in the mix for a day (or two or even three days for some headship interviews) you can be sure that the classic panel interview will be waiting at the end for the mentally and physically tired candidates.
I am conscious that this fatigue can affect performance, so it is incumbent upon us to help the candidates to give of their best.
Putting them through the wringer to test their stamina might seem an attractive approach in a "survival of the fittest" kind of way, but does it really help us select the best person for the job?
I cannot remember when I started doing this, nor can I recall why – I certainly didn’t see anyone else do it – but at some point in my first headship I started giving the candidates copies of the interview questions at the start of the day.
I reasoned that I wanted candidates to be relaxed and to perform well, and that a formal panel interview – three, four or five versus one – that demanded almost immediate answers to multi-part questions about complex issues might not help them to do that.
I recall candidates’ surprise at being presented with the questions, as if it was some sort of trick. I would explain that I wanted them to do their best and that, as the questions would normally be competency-based, requiring examples of things they had already done, this would allow them to think of the best examples in their career so far. (I avoid “If you were an animal, which animal would you be?” questions like the plague.)
I also explained that there would inevitably be follow-up questions from the main ones based on the answers they provided.
A common challenge from fellow headteachers when I discussed this with them was "Couldn’t the candidates just Google the answers?"
Well, yeah, but I reckon it would be fairly clear if a candidate was making up an example, plus the follow-up questioning would test that. That’s why the judicious choice of questions – more competency-based (“Can you give me an example of when you…”) and less opinion-based ones (“What would you do if…?”) – makes cheating redundant.
It does not follow that someone who is good at being interviewed – and I think that I am one of those people – is good at the job they are applying for, so letting candidates see the questions beforehand, even 20 minutes beforehand, goes some way to levelling the playing field.
The quick-thinking smooth talker will still likely perform well, but this process can allow other candidates to put themselves in the best possible position of securing the post.
Give it a try next time and let me know how you get on.
(The answer, by the way, is giraffe. I have a complete overview from up here all the way to the horizon, yet I still have my feet firmly on the ground.)
Jarlath O’Brien is a headteacher and the author of ‘Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers’ and works in special education in London. He tweets at @JarlathOBrien
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