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If you really want the job, you've got to ask them the questions

A few months ago, I attended an interview for a teaching job. One pleasant young NQT was very eager. She was articulate. She buzzed with enthusiasm. On her side was youth, energy - and a low starting salary. Five boring hours later, she was in floods of tears. The job went to a more experienced candidate who was "outstanding" at interview.

I wasn't surprised - his face fitted with the school's needs. He had realised this, and had strenuously promoted himself throughout. He had interviewed the school through meticulous questioning. He sized up his quaking opposition then annihilated it.

Sadly, our NQT didn't do this. Always remember: there should be two interviews taking place. Interview them as much as they interview you. It's a war zone out there.

Many interviewees are afraid to give as good as they get. Teaching interviews are a curious mixture of academic, pastoral, and personal questions. Some test general suitability, while others assess what special qualities you can offer. And you can gauge the abilities of your interviewers in the same way. For example, I would worry if any interviewing panel failed to ask a prospective teacher about pastoral care.

Prepare yourself. Have a mental list of the usual things asked at interview - and be clear in your own mind what your answers are. If they don't ask you one of those questions, ask them yourself. Challenge, prompt, and chivvy your interviewers. Our NQT told me that she "ran out of answers". Never be short of something to say.

Doing your own private assessment of interviewers allows you to relax. You're so busy analysing the style and content of the head's welcoming speech that you don't have time to worry about the qualities of the other candidates, who are probably sweating just as much as you and making notes in the toilets on the sly.

Keepig an open mind on your prospective workplace stops you from getting stressed about needing the job. Instead, you find yourself thinking: "Do I want this job?" First impressions count. We put on suits, get haircuts and try to look as employable as possible. But has the panel made a good impression on you? Have they allocated specific staff to look after you and answer all those questions? Or have they just pressganged the students into guiding you around? (I think a good place does both.) If you can, talk to the students - will they give their honest opinion of the place?

Subtle questioning works wonders - it can give you essential information about the school or college they'd prefer you didn't know, it reveals the main strengths and weaknesses, it can even give away what they want to see in the successful candidate. Keep your eyes and ears open. Careless talk gives you ammo!

Learn from all your interview experiences. Although our NQT didn't get a job, she did learn the importance of "selling" herself honestly yet persuasively. She got "feedback" from the panel at the end where they explained to her how she could have done better. And I gave her a crash course in interviewee interview technique.

As we waited for our feedback, we worked out that there had been a hidden agenda - the school was really desperate for a male teacher with extra strengths in drama - skills none of us had, and skills which were not advertised.

As we said our goodbyes, we both said we were glad we were "rejected". The NQT had realised that she could and would do better. She knew she would find something more suitable. And me? I'd worked out early on it wasn't the place for me. The poorly conducted interview confirmed this. But I had gone for the experience.

Cassandra Hilland teaches at a sixth-form college in Surrey

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