Bought wisdom

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Emma Goldman recalls her painful lesson in how to write applications.

In March and still on a Postgraduate Certificate in Education course, I received my first application form for a job. I read it through and frowned. What exactly was meant by a "statement of support"? I asked around. Definitions at college were nebulous. Deciding that it must simply be a jazzed-up plea for acceptance I filled out the form and sent it off.

Hard-up for candidates (presumably) the mixed 11-18 comprehensive in an outer London suburb invited me for interview. I answered all the questions carefully, trying to match them to the liberal theories we had been taught. I thought it was going OK. At the end the head of English asked me if I had any questions of my own. I said no. Immediately I realised my mistake. The governor's hand shot to her chest as she led the incredulous laughter. Who on earth turned up for interview with no questions?

Horrified at my slip, I knew I hadn't got the job. At 2.30pm we six interviewees were told to wait in the staffroom for a decision. It would take about 20 minutes, they said. We sat. The deputy head came back at 5pm. "Ladies and gentlemen," he announced. "We're not going to appoint any of you." But he did debrief us.

"Don't come into schools spouting on about 'understanding' in the classroom, " he said. "That's just for the teacher trainers, who are all stuck in the Seventies. Here in the real world we look for rigour."

Partially enlightened but still confused I continued to apply. "Looks fine to me," my tutor said of each statement produced. "Just keep sending it out. " But it wasn't fine. However much I re-wrote it no more interviews came.

Job after desirable job passed me by. Sometimes a consoling letter would be sent, more often not. I couldn't understand what the problem could possibly be. Was it the fact that, although a literature graduate, my degree was not actually in English? But then I'd done a masters degree afterwards to try to compensate for that. Was it that I'd had articles published? I'd assumed that that would be an advantage, but now thought perhaps it could be read as hinting darkly at other commitments, an alternative career. I withdrew all mention of them from my forms. Still no luck.

I worried about the fact that I was a postgraduate. Were they thinking I was too academic? One version of my statement was described to me by a teacher at my practice school as, "too timid. You've really got to sell yourself. Out there it's dog eat dog". A subsequent version was shown to the National Union of Teachers representative, who had sat on selection boards. "Hmm," he said. "Over-confident. Sorry. Try the softer approach."

"Don't mention anything about your writing," somebody said. "Do make sure you draw attention to anything you've had published," another advised.

"Acknowledge straight away you don't have an English degree and that your qualifications are unorthodox," said a third. "Self-awareness is an important commodity." "Don't point out that you haven't got a degree in English," countered a fourth. "It sounds negative. Concentrate on what you have got. "

I went again to the head of education at my college. "Um," he said when pressed. "Well. Try and darken the print. Or switch from double to single spacing."

Many versions and non-replies later I telephoned one of the schools to which I'd applied and got hold of the head of English. "Could you possibly help me?" I asked. She fetched my application form. "Ah yes. Nothing wrong really. Just not specific enough." What? "A statement of support should focus only on the selection criteria sent to you. Then under equal opportunities we are bound to interview."

It was so simple. I had scrambled around in the shadows and missed it. My letter had raised all the standard issues expected by an educational establishment but it had not been tailor-made for each one. In retrospect it looked ridiculous, of course. But then a former lack of knowledge often does. Surely, though, teacher training colleges could issue guidelines on how to apply for jobs?

Armed with my new information, I applied for a lone post in the holiday-thin TES. It was at an inner-city boys' school where the majority of pupils were statemented and an average of 18 per cent managed to score three GCSEs. On the day I was called for interview 700 of these 900 boys were out on field trips.

"Incidences of physical violence," mused the deputy head in response to my question. "Yes we do have them. But it's usually from teachers to pupils, you know. In the past two years we've had to dismiss three members of staff for assault."

We passed a cluster of boys outside an empty room. "What are you doing here?" the deputy head asked sharply. They scowled. "Mr Pyle said he was going to whack Dermot," one offered. She bristled. "Well, I'm sure Dermot must have deserved it."

Waiting for the interview decision I phoned my friend Jon. "Invited in when most of the pupils are out?" he asked. "What doesn't the school want you to see?" "Half the staff aren't here either," I said. He guffawed. The job was given to a young man from Surrey. I console myself with thoughts of supply agencies and the January vacancies.

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