Six ways to succeed in teaching interviews

One headteacher gives his top tips for a successful interview

Mike Buchanan

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Interviews for jobs are notoriously inefficient and inaccurate. This is often as a result of confusion by those conducting the interviews as to the purpose of the exercise and similar confusion among interviewees as to how best to sell themselves.

The purpose of the interview is less about testing someone's technical knowledge and understanding and more about trying to get under the skin of the person. As an interviewer, I need to be able to imagine how this person in front of me will behave in the school and classroom and the attitudes they will adopt in their new position.

So, for example, if I am appointing a senior leader with responsibility for teaching in the school, by the time we get to the interview I am less interested in their knowledge of what makes great teaching than in the ability to inspire colleagues and coach them to be great teachers. They can’t do the latter without knowledge of the former.

This means I need to understand how the person sitting in front of me will behave when dealing with people. In particular, I need to know what motivates and drives them, because this will be key to their success.

Hence, most of my questions to candidates in interviews are designed to elicit an understanding of what makes them tick. If you want to know how you can answer such questions to maximise your chances of success, here's some simple steps you can take. 

1. Know thyself

One of my favourite questions is to ask the applicant to tell me how their work colleagues would describe them, if told they could only use only adjectives or adverbs. This gives me an insight into whether they know how they are seen by others and whether they understand themselves.

Generally, people are reluctant to describe themselves. Interviews are not a place to be shy and this is why, in part, they can be flawed as a means of selection. So it’s my job as the interviewer to give permission to the applicant to be honest. 

I am worried if people are unable to describe how others see them, as an ability to be self-critical is, in my view, essential to high-performance and personal fulfilment. If handled well, these conversations are the most insightful. If you don’t know yourself, how others see you, what drives you and how to express all of this in simple terms, then you need to find out and practice.

2. Don't hide the dirty bits

I also tend to ask the what their friends, families or colleagues would say is their most frustrating characteristic. Again, the purpose in asking is to see how well they understand themselves and how honest they are prepared to be. Most people try to put forward a characteristic that can be described both positively and negatively. For instance, “I work too hard”.

What I’m really interested in finding out is how do their personal characteristics and behaviours impact on other people and how they deal with it. For example, I know people see me as incredibly self-contained (and I am). This means getting to know me, what motivates me and how I think can be quite difficult because I don’t naturally reveal that.

However, knowing that is one of my characteristics, I have a number of strategies that are designed to enable people to get to know me. Not least among these is to tell them straight up what motivates me and what doesn’t. Being open with people about your personality, attitudes and behaviours makes you vulnerable, which is why most people reserve that for close friends.

3. Paint a picture

Lots of interviews involve the applicant responding to scenarios. So, for example, “How would you deal with a colleague who was underperforming?”.

The purpose of posing a scenario is to get an understanding of how you will behave in the new position. This means you need to imagine you are in the new position and even adopt the language of that position. Talk as if you are there. You need to paint a picture for those who are listening of how you are thinking and how you will behave.

This is a critical stage in any interview. Of course, you will rely on your experience and knowledge to date in order to paint a vivid picture for those who are watching. The least convincing answer starts with something along the lines of “Well, in my current school we would do…”.

The most convincing answer starts with something like “Well, the key principles here are…”.

If they work well, scenarios are designed for you to demonstrate your analytical thinking and to show the values and attitudes that underpin your behaviours in your new position.

4. Be real

Anecdotes are great ways of illustrating a point, but lots of applicants reel off dozens of anecdotes without ever getting to the point. Yes, I want to hear real examples that illustrate your experience, your personal characteristics and the values that underpin your behaviour. Those are important because I’m trying to understand how your values and your behaviours match those I’m expecting of people who work at the school.

But bear in mind that, as the head of the school, I am the guardian of the culture and values that exist. So, do give me real examples, but do select them on the basis that they illustrate your values and attitudes.

5. Probe the interviewer

Interviews are a two-way process. They are as much for you to assess the people with whom you are going to work as the reverse. Are you going to blindly walk into a position without having done due diligence on the people on whom you depend for success and fulfilment? Probe, probe, probe!

Interviews are conversations, so don’t wait to the end of the conversation to make your contribution. If you want to query something that has been said or seek clarification, then do so in the same way as you would in any other conversation. This demonstrates that you are really actively listening and it shows me a level of curiosity and engagement that I would hope for from anyone I employed.

I’m really interested in your ability to critically analyse the requirements of the role you have applied for, the school you’re seeking to join and, most importantly, the people you’re seeking to work with.

Oh, and please don’t ask me a question at the end of the interview that is either trivial or you already know the answer to. If the rest of the interview has gone well, this will entirely undermine the picture of yourself that you have painted.

6. If necessary, walk away

At the end of the day, the fit has to be right. Right for the school at that moment in its development and according to its needs, and right for you as a person and as a professional. It often all too easy to feel that you’re on a treadmill of application, visit, competency test and interview that only leads in one direction and that you cannot get off. Well, you can.

If you feel the fit is not right for you then you have a duty to get off the treadmill. The earlier you can do this the better, but I absolutely understand that it’s often only where you are faced with the offer of a job that the reality crystallises. Even at that point, you should not hesitate to say "Thank you but no thank you". To do otherwise is disastrous for everyone.

Mike Buchanan is headteacher of Ashford School in Kent and chair of HMC.  He tweets at @Ashfordhead

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Mike Buchanan

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