The final countdown

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Spare tights and polite smiles: Lindsey Thomas sets the scene for interview day. As with everything in teaching, don't worry if you don't get the first job you interview for, and there is no harm in considering your first couple as "practice runs".

Prepare the sort of things you are going to say. They are likely to ask you about your letter of application, so make sure you've kept a copy, especially if you've said different things in different letters. Ask someone who conducts teaching interviews the sorts of things that they want to know and work out answers.

Find out where the school is and how to get there. Working out your route in advance and actually trying it out is a good idea if you can: the only way you're going to find out the errors on the map or directions you get is by experience.

Decide on what to wear in advance. This gives you time to locate the shirt you'd forgotten you had in the bottom of the laundry basket (or behind the fridge) in time to discover that your oh-so-supportive housemate used it to mop up the bottle of red wine her boyfriend spilt at the last house party, have a row about it and then go out and get a new one. Left to the morning of the interview, this revelation will not be a good start to your day.

Just a couple of handy hints: women, take an extra pair of tights, if you don't you are going to rip them on the way. Men, check your flies religiously (but subtly). Someone on interview with me went through the whole day with his undone. It wouldn't have been so bad but he was wearing bright red undies with a pale grey suit. Difficult to miss? Not for him apparently.

When you get there you will probably be offered a coffee while you wait for the other candidates to arrive and the head to exclude Johnny Herbert's older brother for burning down the music block. (He or she is likely to tell you this, for some reason they seem to think it will break the ice . . .) Be careful about accepting the offer, it's a potential credibility risk. Can you cope with cup and saucer without clattering them together? Will you have any hands free to accept the extra wads of information that weren't sent out with the application forms? Are you likely to spill it down your new cream blouse? Beware also the little-documented syndrome "interviewee's bladder". I don't think that needs any further explanation.

You will no doubt, as you sit smiling politely at them, be weighing up the competition. This is not necessarily a helpful thing to do. First, you only have their suit to go on, unless they start to tell you their life history. And secondly, you are likely to end up convincing yourself that it's not worth staying because they're all much better than you, the only reason you're here is because the secretary was drunk and got the wrong name on the list. Ok, so there's a chance that this may be true, but it's unlikely (unless of course the typing on the letter inviting you to interview is slurred). You're here now and you might as well stay for the free lunch.

You may find yourself up against an experienced teacher, this could send you reeling into the valley of despondency but, and it's a big but, as a "post PGCE" you are fresh (mentally rather than physically here, though I'm not suggesting personal hygiene isn't important) and the head will know that you can a) bring lots of new ideas and approaches to your department and b) that you will have studied the latest thinking on the things that practising teachers just don't have time to keep up with. Your other not-to-be-underestimated attribute is, in fact, your lack of experience. No school will actually admit this to you but the fact that you are cheap is very much in your favour.

You will be taken on a tour of the school. Here is where you have to be really on your toes; this is where you work out what the school is like. Keep one ear open for what your guide (usually a deputy) is telling you, but keep your eyes peeled for evidence of the real place, as opposed to the educational Eden with which you are being presented. Look out for the pupils (I would never go on interview during the holidays) and watch how they act, not when in immediate proximity to you - and under the hawk-like glare of a senior member of staff, but with each other and other members of staff. Make sure you look carefully into the classrooms they don't take you into: there may be a reason.

You may well be shown inside the stock cupboards. This can be helpful in making your judgements, you can gauge how well funded the department is in some cases, but bear in mind that all the best resources are likely to be in use and therefore in classrooms.

Other things that can give you an idea about the atmosphere are the litter levels and displays etc but don't take it as conclusive proof - remember, you're in a suit too.

Observe the staff, they are going to be a big part of your day if you take the job: could you work with these people, ask them for help, share your ideas with them? Again, take as much notice of how they interact with each other as you do of how they are with you. Apart from the staffroom cynic and those who have been scanning the final section of The TES as avidly as you, they will be on their best behaviour.

As well as you sussing them out, they will be sizing you up. They may well tell you that the tour isn't part of the selection process, and the person taking you isn't on the panel. There are lies, damned lies . . . Rest assured there will be a number of cozy little chats throughout the day when anybody you have spoken to will be asked what they thought.

So. How to present yourself? You need to appear lively and energetic, but not hyperactive. You need to seem interested so ask questions. You'll have to be quick here: everyone else will be trying to get in with the best questions before you. Beware though of letting desperation get the better of you and asking questions that are too banal ("why did you choose navy and white as the colours for the uniform?"), too detailed ("does your department mark registers with ticks or diagonal lines?"), too sycophantic ("so how did you manage to get so far in your career at such a young age?") or too pretentious ("how is your school responding to the needs of children in the microelectronic age?").

Then there's the interview itself. Try to think quickly if you don't know an answer, but make sure you answer the question you are asked. If you don't understand it, ask for clarification: remember, the panel are not necessarily graduates from the Jeremy Paxman school of interviewing and it may be their fault if you aren't clear about what they're getting at.

You may be asked what seems like a bizarre question: "Are you still a candidate?" This is part of the ritual that is the selection process. You are not being asked whether you have metamorphosed after lunch but being given the opportunity to withdraw. If you are later offered the job and refuse it you may lose your expenses, so if you really hate the place, this is your quick route out. This question can be put rather badly. One candidate I know didn't meet the head until the formal interview and was convinced she must have blown the whole thing when the head walked in and said, rather curtly, "Is there any point in going on with this interview?".

When the results are known there are two options, either you get the job or you don't. It may be the case that the person offered it turns it down and you are "second choice". Don't get on your high-horse about this, it's still the same job, and if you want it, take it. You may be asked "If we offered you the job, would you accept?" This is not them playing "I'll show you mine if you show me yours first", it is your final opportunity to withdraw. Don't expect to be offered time to think about it, that's not the way it works in this weird world. Unless there are special circumstances you'll have to make a decision on the spot and stick with it.

If you don't get the job you should be offered a debriefing (sounds rather dramatic), where someone on the panel will go through your application and interview and explain why you didn't get the job. If you aren't offered one, ask, it's a good way to learn. If, for some reason, you don't want it then and there, ask if you can phone the next day.

Try not to be too disappointed if you don't get the job, in a lot of cases there will be specific experiences or qualifications or interests they are looking for to complement what they already have and there is also an element of your face fitting. There may not be any one reason why you shouldn't get the job, merely a question of "the right person on the day". Learn from your mistakes, if you made any, and move on to the next one (via the pub if it helps).

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