The right place at the right time

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Finding the best school to launch your career is not a matter of luck. Mike Fielding shows how to raise your chances

It doesn't matter how good you are, getting your first job as a teacher takes organisation, determination, thick skin and the ability to sell yourself to strangers.

There may be a recruitment crisis but schools are still looking for the best people they can get and will only make offers to those who present themselves well and show they have the potential to be good teachers. What happens over these next few months will shape the rest of your professional and personal life. To be successful you need a plan and to understand what the process involves.

* Be clear what you want. The TES is crammed with jobs for new teachers, but most of them will be no good to you. They'll be in the wrong area, the wrong type of school, the wrong subject. But you'll only know that if you have carefully thought through what you're looking for. Do you have any restrictions on where you can move? Do you want to be in town or country, inner city or suburb? Do you want a large or small school, single sex or mixed; (if you're in secondary) with or without sixth form? What subject(s) are you interested and qualified in? And, crucially, what kind of school ethos are you looking for - strict and formal; friendly and relaxed; exam and test oriented; individually focused?

By writing down a description of your ideal school you will have some criteria for judging the many jobs on offer.

* Go through the advertisements as they appear each week. Most schools will give you two weeks to make your application from the date the job is advertised. Obviously, the later you see the ad the less time you have to apply. Get into the regular search habit.

u Read the school's material critically. Most schools send out a lot of information to job applicants. Don't be fooled by the glossiness. Try to get a feel for the school: it's philosophy; the relations among staff; attitudes to young people; response to parents; the position of governors. You can tell a lot from the kind of language used in the prospectus. You can tell from the tone of the letter you're sent whether its a school that really welcomes new teachers and is determined to ensure their professional success. Does it sound like the school you want to work in?

* Prepare a standard application letter. As well as the application form, schools usually want a letter or statement which tells them about you and why they might consider employing you. Most of that will be the same, whatever the school - your experience and your ideas don't alter. But by keeping a standard letter on a wordprocessor it's easy to tailor your application to include something specific about the school to which you're applying.

* Get someone else to read your application. Either in school or in college there will be someone prepared to help with your application - preferably a fairly senior person who is used to seeing letters of this kind. Take their advice - particularly if they point out one of the common failings: too much emphasis on experience and what you've done and not enough about what you believe, why you want to be a teacher and what will make you a good one.

* Present your application well. Busy headteachers won't bother with messy, badly scrawled pages that look as though they've been flung together at the last minute. The application form will probably have to be handwritten so take a photocopy and do a dummy first, just to make sure you put information in the right boxes. Check your syntax, punctuation and spelling. For the final version, use your best handwriting and most attractive layout. The application letter or statement should be typed, unless your handwriting is impressively tidy on an otherwise blank page.

* Keep to the closing date deadline. Usually, the closing date is part of a carefully planned process and an application which arrives late may not be looked at. Get yours in the post at least a couple of days before. If in doubt, fax the application and follow with the hard copy. You might even get some points for initiative.

* Have more than one application in the pipeline. Applying for jobs is like being a writer - you have to expect rejection slips. If you pin all your hopes on one job the disappointment of not even being called for interview is much greater than if you can say: "Perhaps tomorrow's post will have better news."

* Be sure what your referees will say. There's no point asking someone to be your referee if they're not going to say something positive. Colleges should have an open reference policy and, if they don't, you're still entitled to ask the person writing your reference what it will contain. Likewise the head of your teaching experience school, who is the other obvious person to ask to be your referee. If they have serious reservations about supporting you they have a responsibility to tell you and help you overcome the problems.

* Keep a progress check on your applications. Most schools will tell you when they intend to short list and when you can expect to hear about an interview. If that date's past, forget it - you simply didn't meet their requirements in some way. If you are making a number of applications it's helpful to keep a progress chart to show when you applied, when you can expect to hear and when the interview is for each of the jobs.

If you've got the application right and your referee has said good things about you then the next stage should be appointment day. This will involve an interview but may have other activities - including a spell of teaching. The invitation letter should detail the programme for the day. Remember to let the school know you can attend and then work at the appointment day as thoroughly as you did the application.

* Prepare carefully. The appointment day is not just for the school to decide if they want you but also for you to decide if you want them. It will pass very quickly so you need to be prepared with all your questions. Go through the information and back to your "ideal school" sheet and write down everything that's not covered or you don't understand. Also decide whom to ask - the head, for instance, probably won't know how your department manages textbooks - and organise your questions under those headings.

* Check the terms and conditions. This can be difficult for a new teacher but, whereas it was once clear whether a job was temporary or permanent and where on the scale it would be paid, schools have more flexibility now and before you accept a job you need to be sure exactly what's being offered. Don't be afraid to ask.

* Don't be late. Not only will it notch up a black mark in the eyes of the appointment panel, it's likely to leave you flustered all day. Check out your route beforehand and leave more than enough time.

* Dress for work. How you look will affect both the interviewers and yourself. Adopt the wrong style and you'll all be embarrassed. There may not be a staff dress code but try to gauge from the prospectus or other material the sort of thing most staff will be wearing. If in doubt, err on the conservative side. If your natural style is markedly different from the school's, it's probably not the place for you anyway.

* Don't be put off by the other candidates. Being in a group with people competing for a job can be disconcerting. Don't, though, be worried because the others appear brighter, more knowledgeable or more experienced. They're probably thinking the same about you. Be careful, too, of the ones who try to put you off. They're likely to be noisy, ask lots of questions as you're shown round the school and give the impression they have some inside information. It may be nervousness, it may be deliberate; but don't let it get to you. And don't be sucked into the "I must win this at all costs" situation. It could cloud your judgment.

* Remember you're on show all the time. Some appointment panels stick strictly to "we're only assessing when we say we are" but nobody can totally ignore impressions gained over coffee, and the crass statement at lunch might just be remembered when the panel's trying to chose between you and one other person.

* Think before you speak. This is particularly true in the interview. A good panel will put you at your ease because they're genuinely interested in what you have to say. You owe them your best. Be succinct but get across everything you want to say. If you suddenly realise you're talking nonsense, stop and start again. If a question's not clear ask for it to be repeated.

* Be aware of your body language. What we do in interview can be as important as what we say and many panels pride themselves on being able to judge the implications of candidates' body language. You should be relaxed but attentive, as open as possible and smile whenever you can.

* Don't go on with the interview if you don't like the school. There's no disgrace in saying "I'm sorry it's not what I want". Any good school will allow you to withdraw without embarrassment and, if they make a fuss, you wouldn't want to work there anyway. If you have doubts, air them as early in the process as possible. A question to the right person may be all you need to make up your mind one way or the other. Don't accept a job you're not sure about.

* If you don't get it go on to the next job. At the end of the day, one candidate will be offered the job. If it's not you, bad luck. You will be offered some feedback. Take it (although you might suggest it will be more helpful in a few days when you're less emotional). But then, stop thinking about this particular job. It's the next one that counts and, with what you've learned, you'll be better prepared.

* Accept with pleasure if it's what you want. There are few moments in a teaching life more enjoyable than being offered your first job. Enjoy it. You are no longer a candidate, you're about to become a teacher. The panel will be pleased and happy to welcome a new colleague. There are many practical issues to be considered but those can wait. A moment's thought perhaps for your friends-for-a-day who are going away disappointed, then it's time to celebrate your achievement.

Mike Fielding was formerly principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon

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