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Cutting an edge in the interview stakes

Alan Combes argues that since schools hardly ever publish detailed job descriptions of new appointments, the prospective candidate can turn the situation to their advantage. Your first teaching appointment is like no other you will have to face. In the first place, your inexperience will mean that anxiety levels are at their peak; as well as being your very first interview, this is to be your benchmark for all kinds of things like dress, tone, manner and attitude. "Be yourself" is philosophically the right approach but can be taken too literally.

A common difficulty you will face is the lack of definition of the job. It is rare for a school to expect specialised areas of expertise from a beginner-teacher. What so many departments require of the successful candidate, after establishing that they possess competence in the classroom, is a willingness to be a dogsbody and mop up some of those administrative tasks which hitherto have been ignored or done badly. The crunch is that very few schools publish job descriptions to go with new appointments and this tends to heighten the angst for the interviewee. Possibly the only consolation lies in the fact that everyone up for interview is in the same predicament.

And yet I think it is possible for the candidate to turn this situation to advantage. By taking the initiative and being positive, you can put out feelers to find whether this is the job for you and, if so, have a say in the terms on which you will be employed.

The first reality to accept is that there are run-of-the-mill tasks which all departments have to carry out and which no one much likes doing. It is an unavoidable fact that, as a new teacher, you will eventually get your fair share of such chores. However, a sensitive and responsive head of department is likely to allow "running-in time" before burdening you.

The kinds of task I have in mind include stock-taking, issuing stationery, putting departmental information on computer, taking minutes at departmental meetings and controlling issue and return of course books. During the pre-interview look round the department, it is worthwhile making note mentally of what needs to be done in this department and which of those tasks you can do best. If you are shrewd enough to pick out the routine tasks with which the department appears to be struggling, this reconnaissance will be particularly useful.

Don't be afraid to jot down a few notes while your are being taken around the departmentschool. After all, during the interview it is highly likely that panel members will themselves be scribbling down candidates' words.

Once in the interview room, find a natural opening in which to show your new knowledge and willingness. The logical time is when you are invited to ask your own questions: "I notice the department has access to the school's computer: will I get the opportunity to input information for the department?", or "Will I be given the chance to take responsibility for some departmental tasks, like stock taking?" You are showing the head of department that you have weighed up the operation and perceived a contribution you can make, that you have initiative and that you are unafraid of hard work. So long as you can convey these things without allowing your enthusiasm to turn into pushiness, (or your assertiveness into aggression), then the department head will see you as a very positive candidate for the post.

But willingness to assist with routine tasks alone will not land you the job and, even if it did, it wouldn't lead to very much by way of job satisfaction. You also need to be able to offer something which represents a new area of development for the school and to which you feel you can make a full and original contribution. School heads (and departmental ones, too, for that matter), are constantly looking to improve the range of extra-curricular and cultural activities on offer. There is no reason why, for example, a geography teacher shouldn't offer to set up a school debating society, but it would be a better idea to suggest something which has a more direct link with geography.

What you should be looking to offer is something which will mark you out as an enterprising candidate with a sense of realism. In my own department, one of my new teachers is taking on the responsibility of organising an audio centre. She will have direct control over stock and, although the activity will run three lunchtimes a week, its resources may well be used to complement the classroom teaching of literature.

There are many advantages which flow from taking on such a commitment, such as the opportunity to meet students other than those you encounter through time tabled teaching. It also enables the new teacher to experience resourcing and organising an activity in a way that will give insight into one day managing a department.

But a cautionary note must be sounded to all this. At the interview don't promise the earth. Rash promises will be seen for what they are, and you will only be making a rod for your own back. The key element which will make your first year in teaching successful or not is the maturity with which you approach the matter of pacing.

After a full year's training and a lengthy summer break, so many newcomers to teaching are over-excited at the prospect of finally running their own classroom. They want to get everything up and running now. This is a temptation which should be resisted at all costs. You are running for 39 weeks in all. This is not a sprint, it's a marathon and, like a shrewd distance runner, you should spend the first four weeks (at least) doing nothing more than weighing up the situation.

Nowadays the teaching profession has so much more accountability than the work it does in the classroom and no amount of well-intended training on PGCE courses can properly prepare a student teacher for what is to follow. Spending the first term assessing the extent of one's workload and working out the when, where and how associated with extra voluntary commitments makes sense. Showing awareness of your full professional responsibilities at interview should not go against you, providing you make it clear that you will fulfil extra-curricular promises and so on once your life is set on an even keel.

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