Express yourself

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
So what have they taught you at college about interviews? Some courses go to town on it, others do very little. You may get conflicting advice. Only one thing is certain: the key to success is preparation.

Read the literature in minute detail and tailor your letter, your curriculum vitae and your interview strategy to the situation. Rehearse answers to the basic questions, "why are you interested in your subject?", "why do you think it is worth teaching?" Make your answers brief but comprehensive, sensible but imaginative. Wear the right clothes. Smile, but don't be Uriah Heep.

There follow some useful suggestions from a teacher training course co-ordinator, a head of department and a headteacher. As they appear to be in complete harmony with one another despite never having met, we may take their advice seriously.

Oxford Brookes University's approach to the business of application and interview focuses on research and rehearsal. Training course co-ordinator Brenda Stevens speaks of the value of getting students "to deconstruct the advertisement, see what they can offer to that school, and that situation, and then write the letter, do their CVs and criticise each other's." Finally, they role play interviewer and interviewee.

This is sterling stuff, and Brookes students spend a couple of weeks on it. "The better prepared students won't be thrown by nerves on the day, " says Ms Stevens. "They'll have their strategies and questions worked out." She also says, a trifle disconcertingly, "the better the student, the worse the interviewee". She believes the most capable students are less able to put themselves forward, believing all other candidates are of the same capacity. Even if this were true, says Ms Stevens, you must still make your own case.

"Beware of informality," she advises, "you may have a pupil taking you round, or be invited into the staffroom for coffee. You must maintain a professional approach because in reality they will be making judgments all the time." One aspirant teacher, now a head of department at a smart secondary school, failed his first job interview because he took his jacket off while waiting for his appointment. It was hot and everyone in the staffroom was in shirtsleeves but at the end of the day they criticised his casual attitude, which they had deduced from the fact that he took his jacket off in the staffroom, even though he put it back on for the interview.

Incidentally, men really do have to wear a suit to the interview and women really cannot wear jeans, even if men never wear the suit again and women teach most days in jeans. Panels respond instantly to these indicators. But beware: it will not please them any better if you are too smart.

Find out about the people who will talk to you. In the early meetings they are likely to be heads of departments or heads of year. Often they may be concerned with pastoral matters. It makes sense to know their priorities and let them hear the things about you that they want to hear. "Unpick the philosophy of the department," says the department head. "What is the emphasis? What GCSEs are they doing?"

During preliminary meetings you may be seen in groups with two or three other applicants and you must demonstrate that you know your stuff without putting your companions down. The interviewers will be watching how you work with a team.

But remember the warning about informality: however friendly and co-operative the other participants are, do not give way to the idea that you are there just to be friends.

A successful freelance in television production is quotable in this context. She is in work, knows everybody, puts a lot of effort into letters and cvs. Returning from an interview, she was asked how she had got on. "Did they like you? " was the question. "I don't want them to like me, I want them to hire me," was the reply. Though, of course, the interviewers must also find an amenable personalit y.

Routine questions can be rehearsed, but "don't go on too long," advises the department head. They may well ask: "what have been your worstbest moments when teaching?", or want you to "talk about some good teaching you have done". The experts agree you should recognise your weaknesses and offer a strategy for overcoming them. "I know I've got to work on classroom management - I would hope for some help," perhaps. No one expects a new teacher to know it all, but they hope for an objective appraisal of capabilities.

Be warned against inexpert questioning. You may be asked questions in a such way that it seems impossible to present your best features. Some questions may be plain silly, asked perhaps by people on the panel who are from outside the situation. Do not be thrown, have ways of circumnavigating it, and never, ever let them see that you think they have said something daft.

You will almost certainly be asked how you see the future and it is important to have a good answer prepared. Some people are put off by being asked what they expect to be doing in five or 10 years' time. On your preliminary visit, says the department head, be sure to give them a bit of an interview of your own, to see the direction the department is going and what you could contribute to it.

The headteacher offers his thoughts in a nine-point plan.

* Iron the application form! Then it stands out from everyone else's, which have been folded and battered in the post. It gives an initial impression which may get your application to the top of the pile.

* Ensure that your application is tailored to the particular school. Make the head feel you are writing directly to him or her.

* Put yourself at ease before you meet the interviewing panel: if you are nervous, you will talk too quickly. Before you enter the room remember that the people are human beings too; take away the mystique of their roles. Take a deep breath. Smile.

* Listen. There is a danger of not hearing accurately what is being said. Make eye contact with the speakers, and with everyone in the room.

* Allow your warmth and humanity to be seen. A sense of humour is very important.

* Have a portfolio of your work that can link theory to practice. Many schools want you to show work. For a primary appointment, give examples from the range of the curriculum, not just art. (For this reason, taking pictures on your teaching practice is important.)

* Prepare yourself in case you are asked to give a talk. Have prompt cards ready, and don't waffle.

* Your speech must be clear and articulate, with correct grammar. This is important: they want to hear you and they want to hear how well you can communicate with children. Believe in yourself and have confidence. Some of the people asking the questions don't know much about what you do. Be ready to help them.

* If there is a chance to visit the school before the interview, do it and ask all your questions, so that when the chair of the governors says, "have you any questions?" you can say "no, I have not".

Thus armed, you should have no difficulty at all. Good luck, and keep your jacket on!

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