The aftershock

Nicholas Wong

Following bitter experience, Nicholas Wong voices criticisms of interview day

The rigours of teacher training are many. And rightly so. Being a teacher entails battling on several fronts, and often at the same time. The training year, with its heavy course demands as well as teaching practise obligations is a necessary trial by fire. And the process of becoming employed which most enter at the end of the year is the fearful final step.

It is made doubly fearful because of the selection procedures that have been built into it. By Easter a small clutch of people on any PGCE course will have already secured jobs for September. This leaves the rest to friendly group hysteria at first; anxiety by June; and outright dejection - if still jobless - in July.

Like all aspiring young professionals, teachers know they have to compete. However, the standard procedures most state schools adopt at interview puts applicants into a forum where the concept of "competition" takes on excessively brutal overtones.

When applicants become candidates after being sent letters containing the magic words, "we would like you to attend for interview on . . ." there is such a flush of success that I, for one, virtually had the bags packed ready for the big move (be it to the wilds of Northumberland or the inner-city) every time I got an interview. But the thrill subsides soon after for the following reasons.

Blocks of candidates are invited for interview on the same day. The assumption being that one will prevail. If by chance one of those candidates has been invited for interview at another school he or she must forego one of the opportunities. Which means, in turn, one of the schools is denied the chance to meet an attractive, and potentially suitable candidate. Under this unyielding eitheror scheduling everyone loses.

What is most objectionable is the corralling of candidates together on interview day. It is simply antisocial. There is a conflict of interest in the air and everyone politely knows it. To me, the experience always felt like a combination of high tea and Russian roulette: at the end of the day one person would remain standing - everyone else having at least been fed and chatted to.

After an early tour of the school "the group" usually meets the head of department over coffee. Nothing is achieved here because everybody knows the real questions and answers will be stated later. But it does not stop perfectly respectable people from descending to new lows of obsequiousness and points scoring. When individual interviews finally come around - after a soothing school dinner - they do so as a relief from the morning's diplomacies.

Facing the interview panel is daunting enough. But being left sequestered with a strange bunch of people in a room, all wishing you well and trying to mean it (for hours) is something else. After a few such sessions I became convinced we were being secretly filmed for an ad lib version of Waiting for Godot, each act halted as the door flies open and another nervous wreck is whisked away for a grilling.

With your own interview over you find yourself back in the room; some people are still trying to memorise bullet points from the national curriculum. The last drop of gallows humour gone, the beleaguered members of "the group" (by now best mates) are left staring at cracks in the ceiling. Conversation is barely possible as the panel make their final decision.

The door flies open. A member of "the group" is selected with a look, a pointed finger or a few mumbles and disappears off to the Elysian fields of gainful employment. The rest is, as they say, silence. Some schools offer the opportunity of a "de-briefing" but that only seems to confirm one's sense of "group failure".

The interview is an opportunity to bring new professionals in with a warm helping hand. But most schools appear to follow a routine which forces them to practise a bizarre version of the cold shoulder. Like all things, it is a question of power. In the interview dynamic the school staunchly retains all of it.

Yet it is the candidate's day as much as it is the school's. If a choice must be made on a particular day couldn't interviews be staggered just enough to keep candidates apart? And, as in other industries, successful candidates should be given time to consider an offer when it comes. The established routine, however, demands an answer on the spot. Schools might be reminded that it is, after all, the start of someone's new career. Surely, it must be worth thinking about.

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Nicholas Wong

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