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Do your homework

Frances Farrer asks three headteachers what they're looking for in a prospective new teacher. A key message is to learn all you can about the chosen school.

Hurrah, it's interview day! You are in a positive frame of mind! You are wearing your smart (not sharp) suit. Your polished curriculum vitae and your interested, enthusiastic, well-informed letter of application have got you over the first hurdle and now your question is: what are heads looking for? More particularly, what is this head looking for?

What are the factors that will rule you out or get you in? Apart, that is, from being in the wrong place (a school which is too grand, rough or specialised for you) wearing the wrong clothes (it really must be a suit or equivalent) on the wrong day (no comment) .

There is common ground between all the heads I interviewed: all are keen to put interviewees in general and NQTs in particular at their ease, so they all try to be welcoming and friendly. This is not usually the arena, common in industrial life, for asking trick questions. All these interviewers want to get the best from you and find out what you can do, and all understand that you may be nervous. Don't be, there's no need.

You will be met at the school's main door, usually by the headteacher, who will talk for a minute and then introduce you to whoever is going to show you round. At Oxford's Peers School this will be a pupil; in many schools it will be the deputy head or a senior teacher. Whoever it is, you are at liberty to ask questions as you go. When you get to the interview you will be asked for your observations.

Your questions can be critical, but should be constructive or inquisitive. Heads genuinely want to hear new ideas, which may even be acted upon. Most heads would think it odd and discouraging if you did not ask for a tour of the school. Now that teacher-training courses include more information on writing CVs and going to interviews, heads say that NQTs are becoming better able to present themselves.

Heads' common concerns are mostly about how well candidates have prepared themselves for the particular circumstances of their school. The first and, you may think most obvious question is, do the interviewees really want to teach at this ruralinner citymixed school? Next come questions concerning what ideas interviewees bring, how keen they are, and even, do they blench at the sight of the school or its surroundings?

All categorisations are only approximate. A rural school may have many city pupils, with city problems. A city school may have green hills all around and easy access to the countryside. Candidates should use such definitions with caution.

Take note of variations, and modify your presentation and questions accordingly.

The rural school Newtown High School in mid-Wales is not exclusively rural: the town has expanded rapidly during the past l0 to 15 years, attracting many Midlanders to its light industries. However, it still has a farming community and is set in beautiful hill country: NQTs who have sophisticated city needs might think twice before applying.

The school is a mixed comprehensive with 1,092 on the roll, a uniform, and pupils of diverse ability, culture and background. Therefore, says headteacher Dewi Walters, what is needed from new members of staff is flexibility. "A gifted teacher adapts," he says, observing, however, that new teachers are not expected to have all the skills of experience. Assuming a good degree and competence in their subject, Mr Walters looks for teachers who put children first, for child-centred teaching. He'll ask, "What can you bring to the school to facilitate this approach?" Harmony with the school's aims and aspirations is crucial.

Next at Newtown come considerations like how well-organised you are, your command of classroom craft, what you've learned from your teaching practice. Further down the list, because it is expected that you are new to the area, what might you be able to offer longer-term in association with the community? What can you bring to enhance the school? Interviewees, says Mr Walters, sometimes ask, "How is the faculty financed?" or, "Will I be a year tutor?" (Not in your first year, though you may support someone who is.)

For his part, Mr Walters may ask what you can offer apart from your subjects. Many other questions will be framed as practical problems: given a certain situation, how would you respond?

What would be the indications that a candidate was not going to be successful? "Some part of their personality might not fit," says Mr Walters. "There's a gut feeling about it really. Lack of knowledge in fundamental things might become apparent, a comment might show up an attitude to race that wasn't right, or to equal opportunity. It's instinctive," he says.

Some candidates come with assumptions, such as the necessity for Welsh speaking (not the case at Newtown High), that show they haven't done their homework. Some betray a lack of interest or understanding.

Mr Walters emphasises that these are the minority. "We often have the problem of selecting from three or four who would be equally good, though they bring different qualities," he says. "I'm often quite happy when I hand over the final decision to the governors."

The city school Oxford's Peers School is in a sense an inner-city school since its catchment is mostly from housing estates, predominantly council, many in the famous Blackbird Leys area, and because it lies within the city's ring-road. And yet, arriving in the huge car-park serving the leisure centre, the library and the school, you see hills all around: Oxford's ring-road encloses farm land as well as the city.

The term "inner-city" may need defining whenever you encounter it. The roll of 13 to 18-year-olds at Peers is 620. There is no uniform. The atmosphere is friendly and busy. A visitor's strongest first impression is of quietness: pupils are not allowed to shout or yell, they talk quietly as they walk.

Headteacher Bernard Clarke says he sees himself as "no better than the youngest Year 9 student". Adults must adhere to the same rules as students; young people are seen, according to Mr Clarke, "as partners". Mr Clarke expands on this point. "The most important

thing of all, before subject knowledge, before teaching experience, is desire to work at this school - because we have a very distinctive ethos, culture, way of working," he says. "It's young people's education, not ours, we're here to serve."

Such an ethos does not mean that adults come second. "This is a place of work, everyone has the right to get on, no one must impede anyone else," he says.

Interviewees are expected to be enthusiastic on their curriculum area, to like young people, to communicate liking, to be able both to engender and show respect. And Mr Clarke's first impressions of interviewees? "Our role requires us to be neat and tidy," he says. "I'd object to slovenliness."

Preferred qualities include humour, the ability to be direct and open in the way one looks and speaks, lack of pretence - and strong views. "I don't like obsequiousness," he says, "or giving the 'right' answers. I respect questions like 'what do you do about litter?' or observations such as 'I saw unacceptable behaviour'."

Peers School is perhaps unusual in its approach to pupils - and indeed to the rest of the world. It has, for example, a regular exchange with a school in Tanzania. Again, pupils who were upset by the negative reputation of Blackbird Leys wrote spontaneously to the police (who had visited all city schools) explaining what it felt like to be so categorised. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in Oxford Mr Clarke invited him to lunch at the school, and he came. It was, he says, wonderful to see "these street-wise adolescents gaping at this saintly man".

What specific questions will he ask at the interview? "I'd want to hear about their teaching practice," he says. "I'd say, 'tell us something that went well' - and also 'tell us something that went badly'. The ones I warm to are the ones who point out a mistake they made - with or without a remedy. I'm looking for a concern to unlock whatever it is that makes children want to learn."

The inner-city primary school At William Patten School in north London's trendifying Stoke Newington, conditions are tough but lively. The school roll of 211 is about 50 per cent white, the other half is predominantly Turkish, Asian and Afro-Caribbean, with speakers of English as the second language representing approximately 30 per cent. You would be unlikely to put in an application if this was not where you wanted to be.

The school offers a preliminary visit, conducted personally by headteacher Subarat Sarkar. "It's important to treat people with respect," he says, "I don't hand them on to another member of staff." Your interview would be on a different day. Over the past eight years the great majority of appointments at William Patten have been of NQTs, felt by Mr Sarkar to be the result of high quality candidates. "If a new teacher has done the groundwork and is willing to learn, I prefer them, they're more open," he says.

Qualities in demand at this school are commitment, knowledge and understanding of inner-city children and multicultural concerns, the ability to work collaboratively with staff and parents - and above all, a calm, compassionate approach. "Quality of character comes first," says Mr Sarkar. Potential turn-offs would include abruptness on the tour "perhaps a sense of non-co-operation," he says. The ability to work as part of a team is crucially important.

If there is a message shared by all these heads it would seem to be: do your homework and be aware of particular circumstances. After that, in various ways, headteachers show such a strong concern to provide you with the opportunity to shine that it seems there is not much to worry about.

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