It's hard, but someone has to do it

10th June 2005 at 01:00
One aspect of my job which seems to have enlarged over the years is interviewing.

In the past few months I have interviewed applicants for a broad spectrum of positions in the world of education, including the most important job of all, that of school janitor.

I believe these fine models of the ethic of hard work are known in one Scottish authority as facilities assistants, or FAs for short. Presumably, those who do not frighten the living daylights out of staff and pupils are known as sweet FAs.

Actually, f* a* was what we ended up with in Dyce Primary, as the janitor's post was not filled.

Interviewing for a French-speaking classroom assistant gave me a great boost. One applicant had difficulty expressing herself adequately in English and was invited to answer in French. There ensued a rapid exchange with the principal teacher and I was delighted to be able to get the gist of it, enough to nod sagely and make murmuring sounds as if I was likely to join in at any moment.

I found that I was almost lost for words when we were interviewing applicants for relief teaching and had before us a lady of indeterminate age, who had been away from teaching for 18 years. We ditched the usual questions and struggled to find common ground. She expected to find that nothing had changed since she had last been in a classroom, that children would behave for her if she offered them interesting things to do and appealed to their better nature and, by the way, she needed to be told well in advance if she was required to work.

"Have you heard of the 5-14 curriculum at all?" I ventured to ask. "No, but I could read the book."

We tried to ensure that she would not turn up for work in any school near you.

I have cringed during interviews with applicants for the post-graduate diploma in education course, when an acrostic from the letters of the word "teacher" has been used to demonstrate insights into what they think the job entails. Some seem to have alarmingly few insights and cite their experiences of bringing up their angelic family, running the Brownies and organising Sunday school as useful forerunners of managing children in school.

How often does a Sunday school teacher find herself with the class from hell, from which there is no deliverance?

Those who have spent time in the real world alongside teachers as adult helpers or classroom assistants have a different view of the job. They tend to dwell on the amount of planning, paperwork and organisation involved.

The tables were turned recently when I was interviewed by pupils in Primary 5 as part of their portrait of Britain topic, which includes learning about democracy, hierarchies and decision making. Some of their questions showed an understandable naivety about how the system works, for example: "How do you decide how much to pay teachers?" However, some questions caught me unawares. "What is the most difficult decision you have made? What do you do when teachers make you angry?" I can't remember exactly what I said but I definitely lied.

They were very interested in how I decide how many children go in a class and which teacher they get. I explained the teacher:pupil ratio as best I could and described my meetings with teachers at the end of each session to discuss preferences for being placed in any particular stage the following year.

For a bit of fun, I asked them to imagine a teacher pleading with me not to give him a P7 or a nursery class, as he really did not want to teach at that stage. I asked what they thought I would say to that teacher. "Tough!"

offered one lad, demonstrating management potential.

Helping nervous interviewees to give of their best in a stressful situation is not an easy task but I know on which side of the table I prefer to be.

On my performance, I wonder if the P5 children would have offered me my job.

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary in AberdeenIf you have any comments, email

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