And for our next trick...

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Just the job: for interview confidence keep an open mind, says Ted Wragg, because you'll never guess what the panel's got up its sleeve. Opposite, Carolyn O'Grady helps out with a run-down of the questions that could make all the difference to your final decision

What can you expect to happen in the interview? Almost anything. Interviews follow no single pattern of questioning. After seeing many of them, I am unshockable.

The first important point is that there is no break. Some candidates forget that they are under scrutiny from the moment they arrive. "I don't reckon much to the blonde woman," a school secretary once said to the head, "she was so rude when she came in." The secretary was highly esteemed, so one boat was comprehensively incinerated, even before the conducted tour.

A few years ago it was not uncommon for interviewees to spend barely an afternoon in a school: an hour or so to look round and 20 to 30 minutes with the headteacher. Now that is rare. A whole day is commonplace; applicants may be asked to teach a class, or address the staff or governors. Some schools spend two days. The interviewing panel is usually a sub-committee of the school's governing body, so it will include people such as parents or local business representatives, as well as educational professionals.

One candidate being shown round confided that he would beat the British all-comers' sprint record down the drive at one minute past four each day. His Oscar-winning performance in the actual interview achieved nothing. The head had already asked escorting teachers their opinion of applicants and relayed this to the selection committee.

Each year, rumours circulate about real or imagined student teachers who have skilfully arranged a string of interviews at attractive seaside resorts along the south coast, just failing to get each one and so enjoying an extended tour of the English Riviera while their colleagues sweat away completing their teaching practice.

Since schools may not pay your travel expenses if you turn a job offer down, make sure your lottery ticket has come up before embarking light-heartedly on a trip to Carlisle or Truro. However, if you reject an offer because the conditions are not as advertised - for example, because the school has changed the year groups to be taught - then they should pay up, since you have acted in good faith.

The mixture of lay and professional people on an interviewing panel can lead to interesting questions, from the obvious to the unexpected. "What car do you drive?", one set of candidates was asked by a chairman of governors, enraged by a Renault covered in Greenpeace and Save the Whale stickers. It turned out it was the art teacher's car.

One local authority used to insist on interviews for pool appointments being conducted by the whole education committee. Each councillor was given a particular question to ask. Candidates came out telling those waiting outside that the "Why do you want to teach in Swineshire?" bloke was sitting third row up, fourth from the left.

Parent governors in particular may pose the plonkingly obvious question. Sensible applicants take each question seriously, rather than patronise one person or another. "Do you like children?" may be asked in all sincerity by a parent aggrieved that one of her children's present teachers clearly does not. To reply, "Is the Pope a Catholic?" demeans both questioner and questioned.

One problem that many interviewees face is whether to put on an act or be themselves. The only advice worth giving is: "Be yourself." That way you can sleep at night. If you act out some imaginary person, then you will kick yourself for being so foolish when you don't get the job, or you will be successful and have to let people down or live a lie.

One very common question is guaranteed to flummox at least one candidate. It is the very obvious: "If you were offered the post, would you accept it?". I was present on one occasion when, to everyone's embarrassment, the applicant actually leaped up exclaiming, "Oh thank you very much". Sit down, sunshine, it's only hypothetical.

The reason for the question, often put towards the end of the interview, is clear. The panel will eventually have to weigh up the merits of different people. Some may have decided the post is not for them, so a great deal of time could be wasted on telephone calls and correspondence. It is much easier to eliminate the disaffected and concentrate on those who want the job. Be prepared, and reply either "Yes", "No" (with reasons, if possible), or "I'd like a little time to think about it".

Another hazard is the chairman who debriefs unsuccessful candidates afterwards and makes a pig's ear of it. "Your trouble was the bad reference from your tutor," one dipstick explained, before quoting extensively from the confidential letter. Distant noises off of tutor and student locked in combat.

Let nothing throw you. Some rum people get on to interviewing committees, so dotty events do occur. A head once asked all applicants for a languages post to sing a song in French. He believed music was an important motivator. Perhaps Pavarotti got the job.

A chairman of governors stared people up and down as they came in, because she preferred tall people. The staff looked like a basketball team. Do not be surprised, either, if a school appears to be in complete chaos. One head started asking questions about geography teaching until the head of department reminded him it was a maths post.

My favourite shambles story occurred when I had acted as referee for a student. The girls' school concerned made a monumental bog-up and sent the "unsuccessful candidate" letter to referees as well. On receiving the missive telling me I had been unsuccessful in my application for the post of German mistress, I could not resist writing back saying how upset I was, even though I had never applied. I received an apology addressed to "Professor Wargg". You just can't get the staff nowadays.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University and a regular columnist in The TES

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