Leadership - The rules of good rejection

We owe it to interviewees to provide constructive feedback that will help them to improve

Geoff Barton

I once went for a job at a school in the South of England that ran a lucrative weekend wedding business. This was supposed to be its sideline, but actually - from listening to the governors - it appeared to be viewed as the school's core role.

Students were seen as a nuisance. How dare they stray on to the school field and damage the backdrop for photos! Worse still, what if they actually wandered into a photo should a wedding happen to occur during the school week?

I did not get the job. I assume the reason was that I didn't grasp the importance of the wedding business; I had no tent-erecting skills nor the required understanding of the marketplace for marquees. I say "assume so" because the feedback was non-existent so I really have no idea.

Of course, rejection always stings. Being interviewed for any teaching post is a high-pressure affair. It requires us to invest a great deal of emotional energy in the build-up and on the day itself. But rejection with poor feedback is even worse.

Unfortunately, schools aren't always as good as they could be at telling you why you haven't been selected for the final round of interviews or why you missed out on the job. Often they either decide that as an unsuccessful candidate you are no longer worthy of basic courtesy or they fire a limp volley of bland platitudes that won't help you to see what you could do better.

One candidate for a maths teaching post recently reported that his feedback consisted chiefly of being told he shouldn't have removed his jacket before sitting down. Another was told only to relax and smile more and to stop looking nervous.

Giving constructive, precise feedback can be difficult. And if you've read Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, which is all about how first impressions matter, you will know that sometimes it is the silly and intangible details that lead us to decide within seconds of meeting someone that they are - or aren't - the right person for the job.

No matter: we owe it to professionals who have committed time and energy to give them professional feedback. Here, distilled from more than 25 years of taking part in interview panels, are my three simple rules:

Every moment counts

Make sure that the candidate knows that every element of an interview day is important. At our school, we always ask interviewees to take a tour with students, teach a lesson, meet the school council, write a letter (we rather like the idea that teachers can write in sentences) and then be interviewed.

We get feedback from whoever leads each element on how the candidates perform - including in the student tour. It is rare that students do not make the right recommendation for who to appoint and, at our school, we give a high level of credence to their feedback. As a result, candidates can get some evaluative comments from each of the day's elements.

Avoid the instant debrief

Experience tells me that feedback on the day of the interview - either in person or by telephone - is rarely satisfactory. We therefore tell candidates at the start of the day that there will be a short phone call at the end of the process saying whether they have been successful or not, but add that the debriefing will take place the next day or later in the week. By this time, the candidate is far more likely to be attentive and no longer reeling from not having been appointed.

The what and the how

Feedback on interviews will rarely be better than the notes you take. I therefore jot down each candidate's answer to each question, so that I can talk him or her through what was said and explore whether it was a good answer or not.

I make my notes in two columns - the "what" of the interview (what was said) and the "how". The latter category covers all the stuff to do with how long their answers were, whether their eye contact was right and what their body language was saying. These things matter.

Taking all these aspects of the interview as a whole, I can give the candidate 10 minutes or so of constructive, precise feedback that covers everything from the tour of the school to whether they should have taken their jacket off before being interviewed. In this way, our aim is to give helpful feedback. It won't remove the sting of not getting the job, but it may help the candidate to do better next time.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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