Listen out for the alarm bells

13th January 1995 at 00:00
Getting a job of any kind may not be easy, but choosing the right school is as important as being the chosen candidate. Mike Fielding offers some advice. You can tell a lot from the way a school manages its appointments and anyone looking for a first job needs to weigh the evidence carefully before accepting an offer. The appointment process is as much about the candidate choosing the school as the school selecting the candidate, although it's not always easy to see it that way, particularly if it's your first job.

The first task is to decide what you want. You could just trawl through the vacancies until you spot something you fancy. Much better is to draw up a check-list of parameters: North or South, town or country, large or small, strict or relaxed etc. For many people that's an unaffordable luxury - even getting a job of any kind anywhere may not be easy - but it will provide a guide if you are able to choose.

The real work starts when the job and school details arrive. First, what do they look like? Has time and care been spent on putting together genuine information to help the applicant? Does it all ring true? Head teachers compiling job specs may not be quite as adept at varnishing the truth as estate agents but they can use some of the sarne tricks. For instance, is "an ambitious department" a disaster that can only get better or a producer of consistently high test scores? Reading between the lines is a key skill for the job hunter.

School details should include a clear statement of aims or philosophy. Reams about the size of the labs or the geography resources with nothing about what the school is trying to achieve should be treated with caution. Equally, obvious pie-in-the-sky "visions" or "mission statements" probably are the waffle they sound like and may bear little relation to reality.

The tone of the information can also be a good indicator. Is there a letter addressing you by name, for instance? Is the language positive? Does it sound as though whoever wrote the details actually likes working there?

All these things need to be assessed and if there is anything that strikes real alarm bells (and those will be different for different people) then have the courage to bin the the material (or else preserve it as an example of "the school I wouldn't be seen dead in" so that even when you're getting desperate for a job you still have some reminders of your intentions).

If, however, you do apply, there follows one of the potentially most stressful periods of your life: waiting to know whether you've got an interview. The best advice is "forget it". Try to have several applications in at the same time so you're not completely focused on one. Calendar the short-listing dates so you know the earliest a reply might come from each one. If the details don't include that information, there's no harm in phoning to ask.

When the magic day arrives that the letter begins "I should like to invite you. . . " instead of "I'm sorry to tell you. . . " then you can begin the next stage of preparation for choosing your school.

Most schools still select by interview and make the appointment immediately so you've probably got a maximum of five hours in the place before you have to respond to the crucial question: "are you still a firm candidate?" The aim is to ensure that when the appointing panel chairperson shakes your hand and says "I'm pleased to offer you the post" you will feel a surge of joy and not the sinking feeling of "do I really want this?" which is the worst way to take any job.

You will want to get a sense of the area around the school. There might be some clues as you travel to the interview but it may not give a full picture of the catchment and a lunch-time stroll might be more illuminating. First impressions of the school's buildings are also important. Are they in a good state of repair? Is it obvious that staff and students care about the environment? Do the classrooms reflect a commitment to leaming?

When you reach Reception (and whether or not it's easy to find may also say something about the school) you should be made to feel welcomed and expected. If there is embarrassed confusion before you're left to sit in a corridor while the rest of the school walks by, then either they're uncaring, disorganised or, most probably, both.

Relationships between the candidates require sensitive handling by the school. These people can have a profound impact on your future and, for this one day, you will develop an intense but contradictory group identity before going your separate ways. Although in competition for the post you will, if the situation is handled properly, become mutually supportive. So be aware of the school's role in this.

Good selection programmes allow plenty of time for candidates' research. Use it. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Make sure you spend some time away from the "Official" party. Listen carefully to the way staff respond to you - most particularly, of course, in the department you hope to join. Ask yourself "will I be happy to spend every working day for several years with these people ?". Pose the same question about the students you meet (and make sure you do meet some ).

If you're doubtful about either, then much better to withdraw than starting to fret after you've accepted the job. Caring schools make no issue about candidates who change their minds. They know the chemistry has to be right and will make it easy for anyone who has doubts. The school that makes a fuss when you want to withdraw probably wouldn't have suited you anyway.

Beware, too, of the competitive "I've got to win this" syndrome clouding your judgment. Sometimes the day can become so intense and the prospect of not being offered the job assume such alarming proportions that candidates lose sight of what is right for them. Make sure there's a moment in the day when you ask yourself "Do I really want this?" And if the answer is yes then work out why and check the reasons against your original specification. That way you avoid being swept into something that you might regret.

Your final basis for choosing is the interview itself. The way it's conducted; how your views are listened to; how you're treated when you flounder; how honestly your questions are answered - all say something about the school's values and ethos. By this time, it's harder - but not impossible - to withdraw and you will need courage to say "I'm sorry, I've made a mistake". But better then than after you've been offered the job.

Travelling home with the offer of a job you really wanted and the prospect of working with people you really like is one of the great moments in a teacher's life. It vindicates, for the successful at least, our "sudden death" approach to appointments which usually amazes people in industry.

And if you're not the lucky one, then you should treat the whole experience as a professional development opportunity. You've spent time in a school, met some fellow candidates and should have an even better idea than before of what you want from your working life.

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon.

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