Keep calm? That's a joke

19th January 2001 at 00:00
There's no point giving job applicants advice they don't need, says Sofia Koutlaki

I can't stand interviews. I just can't perform well. I am painfully aware that it's like being on stage. And it's hard to get an audition once you've been off the boards for a while. If, assuming you do get one, you get stage fright and the role you were aspiring to will be taken by somebody else, bigger and better - sorry, that should read younger and cheaper.

Take me, for example. I left teaching three years ago after getting a higher degree and went to one of the less affluent countries in the Middle East to lecture. At some point last summer I decided I had had more than my fair share of polluted air, honking cars and work that would be completed "inshah-allah" ("God willing"). So I packed my bags and came home.

I heard about teacher shortages, applied for two part-time maternity cover jobs and was invited for interview.

Reality hit me when I got to the first one. I don't know about shortages, but when a school advertises a part-time maternity cover and gets four applications, it doesn't look like a shortage to me.

One of the applicants (let's call her Mary) had been out of teaching for a long time and this was her first interview after more than a decade. She was, understandably, nervous and told me while we were waiting for the panel's decision that she had tried to think of an excuse to withdraw before the interview. The second candidate had also been out of teaching for 10 years but had taught for the past two terms in a secondary school and had been doing supply since the beginning of that term. The third candidate, the youngest of us, had five years' teaching experience and had done a few days' supply since the beginning of term. I was pleased with the interview, but the youngest was offered the job. During the debrief I was told I had performed well and had come a close second. The head identified the question I culd have answered better and suggested I put myself on the supply register of the borough.

In her debrief, Mary was told that, having been out of teaching for so long, she was rather out of touch and the best way to return would be to do some supply work.

Now comes the interesting bit. I met Mary again the following day, when we both went for an interview at the second school. I was pleased to see she had overcome her stage fright and was not as nervous as the previous day.

But that day it was my turn. Under this head's steely eye, my lower lip began to quiver at the start of the interview. It went from bad to worse, until a question I should have been able to answer comfortably drew an absolute blank. I knew then that the rest was a formality.

When I was asked what I felt I could contribute to the department, I did not even think of mentioning my higher degree in linguistics, relevant to the teaching of the new ASA2 English language syllabus. When I mentioned it during the debrief, I was told I should have referred to this. I should not expect other people to read my mind.

I was also told that I shouldn't be so nervous, and that I should have answers to questions about specific texts up my sleeve. The panel had no doubts that I would be able to do the work well: "It was just that you couldn't persuade us that you could." And, "You have to try to sell yourself better." Mary was appointed.

The point I want to make is that debriefs are based on a performance on a particular day. They are valuable only if they help candidates identify their weaknesses and offer realistic and meaningful advice. There is no point in identifying faults candidates are usually aware of. Comments such as I received are unhelpful and may trigger serious feelings of low self-esteem and futility.

Sofia Koutlaki lives in Middlesex. She was a secondary teacher for seven years before lecturing in Iran for two years

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