Steer clear of Heartbreak High

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Don't let the pressure of applying leave you stranded in the wrong place. Ian Whiteling advises on making the right preparations

Your first teaching job will be the most important of your career - because in it you will learn how to teach. It's that simple. It will equip you with the skills you'll need in the future, so it's vital that you make sure your first job is right for you.

If you're afraid, you won't be alone. Fear is one of the biggest obstacles to newly qualified teachers finding their ideal post.

Vicki Colclough is an advanced skills teacher at Waldegrave school, a girls' secondary in Twickenham. Being involved with trainees for two days a week means that she is familiar with their apprehension.

"One of the biggest worries is timing - when it's best to apply for jobs," she says. "Many students feel that no sooner have they begun their PGCE course than they have to think about applying to schools. And with an increasing number of mature students with families taking teaching courses, the time pressure is becoming even more acute."

One way to overcome this fear is to ask yourself a few simple questions early on. Is there a particular place you would like to teach? Would you prefer a certain type of school - single-sex, church, independent? Do you want to teach a particular age group?

Of course, you might have to compromise on your ideal post, depending on the job market at the time. But there is plenty of information out there to help you to make up your mind - from local education authority (LEA) and school websites to reports by the Office for Standards in Education.

Find out from the experts when it's best to start applying for jobs. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers publishes a guide for NQTs called Apply Yourself. This makes it clear that this should be done sooner rather than later.

"It's never too early to start looking for the ideal teaching post," it says. The autumn term of your final year is a good time to begin. The earlier you start, the more time you will have to get that first teaching post. You don't want to be rushing at the last minute and have to look for jobs while also having to contend with the pressures of the latter part of your course. Some LEAs run a "pool" service whereby first-time applicants (usually for primary posts) apply to the pool rather than individual schools. Pools have their own application deadlines, so find out when these are."

Preparing in advance will relieve the pressure later. But if you haven't found a job by the new year, it is not the end of the world. Many heads prefer to work outside the LEA pool and recommend starting your job search in January at the earliest.

Ms Colclough agrees. She stresses the need to avoid "job panic". "When a fellow trainee lands a job, many trainees start to worry that they'll be left behind," she says. "But they need to recognise that they have until the summer to get a job. Panic and you could end up in the wrong job in the wrong place."

When you've found what you think could be the perfect post, you must give yourself the best possible chance of securing an interview. For this the application form is all-important - and knowing exactly what heads are looking for will make your life a lot easier.

"NQTs are getting worse at completing application forms," says Len Holman, head of Angel Road middle school in Norwich. "A well-presented application form is essential. If it is scruffy, handwritten in pen with no care taken, it is unlikely to be followed up. Applicants often use a word processor, which is fine if carried out properly. But it goes against the grain to receive a computer-generated application which bears the name of another school or refers to another school in the general text."

Eileen Dowd, head of Manor Park primary in Aston, Birmingham, says she often feels annoyed with "applicants who don't specify the job they are applying for as there could be more than one vacancy".

Many application forms include a section for a personal statement, where you should list your skills, experience and achievements. "Include details of hobbies, travel and voluntary work," advises the ATL, "always relating them to the applicant profile and job description."

As for the covering letter, don't rewrite War and Peace. Richard Weeks, head of Teddington school, a boys' secondary in Richmond-Upon-Thames, looks for "good presentation, succinct style and no more than one side of a piece of A4 paper".

Make sure your letter is polite, correctly addressed, uses the right language and makes all necessary references to the relevant details. But also make sure it conveys something of your personality.

"I want it to exude enthusiasm and see key phrases such as 'excited' and 'love working with children'," says Mr Weeks.

All being well, after you've won over your prospective employers with your application form, it will soon be interview time. Not surprisingly, this is near the top of teacher trainees' top 10 fears list, and throws up the most horror stories.

"Many NQTs are afraid of offending people in an interview," says Ms Colclough. "But this can make them come across as bland, and this is not what the interview is about. Interviewees need to show who they are and what they have to offer. Schools are looking for enthusiasm, commitment and an affinity with children. They do not want interviewees to hold back."

Roger Kaye, acting head at Tiverton school in Devon, says: "Laid-back people don't im-press," he says. "We want energy and a willingness to learn. We like it when interviewees bring a portfolio of work and use it to answer questions. It could include pupils' work or lesson plans."

Another key factor is appearance. Judging by what heads say, NQTs may be afraid of offending verbally, but not always visually.

"Interviewees must be appropriately dressed," says Ms Dowd. "I'm sick of seeing boobs, bellies and bums. This is not a leisure centre. Teachers won't get the respect they deserve if they dress inappropriately."

Most heads want their NQTs to look professional. As Richard Weeks puts it:

"You're leaving the world of studenthood and entering the teaching profession."

On the other hand, you can overdress. "In some schools, arriving in a suit wouldn't be at all appropriate, yet in many others it would be expected," says the ATL.

Visiting a school before your interview won't guarantee you a job, but it will provide a source of informed and pertinent questions to ask at interview, and show that you have taken the trouble to find out about the school and the locality. It will also help you to know the dress code. You can do further research by tracking down the school website to find out more about the school's strengths and its catchment area.

"Candidates should observe how teachers at the school are dressed, gain an insight into the ethos of the school, know where the school hopes to go, find out how important standards are - in academic achievement but also in the way pupils behave and present themselves," says Norwich headLen Holman.

"The greater understanding they have about how a school works and thinks, the more chance they'll have to answer questions well when the interview gets under way."

Most schools will spend time showing you round before an interview, so you can pick up a lot then, but a little research beforehand can really help.

Finding your first job is all about being well organised. It is a good idea to arrange a mock interview. This may be part of your course. If not, you could stage one with a colleague.

It's your future that you are preparing for, so make sure you give it your best shot - for your sake and for your pupils'.


* Do a dummy run - complete a photocopy of the form first.

* Word-process the form or write clearly in black ink.

* List skills, experience and achievements in the personal statement section.

* Type the covering letter.

* Address the person you are sending the form to as they addressed themselves on the school letterhead.

* State what items you have included in your application, such as a stamped, addressed postcard for acknowledgement of receipt.

* Make sure you include your full contact details.

* Succinctly and enthusiastically describe why you want the job.

* Photocopy the whole application to keep for your own reference.


* Dress appropriately.

* Find out about the school and the area beforehand.

* Don't hold back too much - show enthusiasm, commitment and an affinity with children.

* On meeting interviewers, shake hands firmly, make eye contact and smile, and wait until asked before sitting down.

* Work on your posture - sitting forward slightly makes you look interested.

* Avoid using colloquial language and pace your speech and tone of voice.

* Listen closely to what is being asked.

* Don't start to answer a question until you know how you will end your response.

* Lead the questioning, where possible.

* Never criticise a school, even if you don't want the job.

* If you find you don't want the job during the tour of the school, end the day there before going through the interview.


* It is unlikely that you have been rejected for personal reasons. It is more likely that the situation suited someone else better. It could be due to balance of subject knowledge, expertise, departmental style and what is needed on a particular occasion.

* If you have been through an interview, always ask for a debriefing session to help you find out why you didn't get the job. Try to arrange this immediately after the interview. Listen carefully and take note of what the people in question have to say.

* Try to be prepared for rejection at the beginning of the interview.

* Talk to others about it - college staff, school staff and fellow trainees.


* Richard Davidson of the Independent Schools Council Information Service (ISCis) says: "Apply as soon as possible and visit some schools if you can." The independent sector is much more diverse than the maintained sector, so it would be worthwhile getting inside a boarding school, a single-sex school, a small school, just to experience their distinctiveness. Most heads will welcome approaches from genuinely interested student teachers who want to find out about independent schools.

There is also valuable information on the ISCis website (

* Virtually all independent schools use The TES to advertise vacancies. Many also use online recruitment services, especially ISC Vacancies Online (also accessible through the ISC website). If you do visit schools, some will keep your details on file, even if they don't have a vacancy at the time.

* There is no difference in the application principles between maintained and independent schools, but the latter will be looking for a greater degree of engagement with the total life of the school, including extra-curricular activities. This is especially true in boarding schools and specialist schools, but the advice applies to all independents.

* Don't expect to put in your teaching hours and nothing else. In junior (prep) schools, especially at key stage 2 and beyond, you will be expected to have a specialist subject which you are keen to teach. The hours and the days will be slightly longer. This will be compensated for by slightly longer holidays and a conducive teaching environment with motivated pupils and supportive parents.

* Independents welcome applications from NQTs and you can undertake your statutory induction year in an ISC school. The Independent Schools Council Teacher Induction Panel is the largest approved induction body in the country - nearly 800 NQTs are undertaking their induction in ISC schools this year. There are opportunities to meet and communicate with other young teachers in independent schools across the country.



Julie Warne. The City school,Sheffield


Interviewees showed a genuine liking for young people, a passion for their subject and an absolute certainty about the value of education. They brought examples of work they had produced during their teaching practice.

Their attitude to everyone they met was positive, warm and enthusiastic.


Interviewees showed no understanding or prior knowledge of our school - it was just the next job on the list. They were indifferent to our students, offered monosyllabic responses to questions and seemed to assume that the job was theirs - and of course it wasn't.


Eileen Dowd. Manor Park primary, Aston, Birmingham


When asked about her favourite lesson, one candidate said it was the one in which she had sat in a cardboard box holding a teddy bear with a colander on her head to illustrate flying to the moon to her class. It showed imagination, no fear of looking silly and a certain craziness - and those are all useful attributes.


Someone who applied directly to our school for a PE vacancy, but didn't expect to have to teach other subjects as well.


Richard Weeks. Teddington school, Middlesex


Two interviewees were so enthusiastic and put across their desire to teach so powerfully that I employed both, even though we had only one vacancy.


An interviewee said he wanted the job to improve his English.


Len Holman. Angel Road middle school, Norwich


One candidate was a breath of fresh air, dressed to impress, and asked questions about aspects of the school mentioned in the interview that were not simply pre-prepared. The candidate also showed politeness and humility.


A candidate whose skirt wasn't just short, but quite dramatically revealing. She had researched well for the interview, but the governors present were nor prepared to disrupt the smooth running of the school with such unnecessary diversions.


Heather Flint. Waldegrave school, Twickenham


Candidates can talk about themselves, the position they are applying for and lessons they have learnt themselves, as well as ones they have taught to pupils.


Candidates who don't say much and leave all the questioning to the interviewers. This is not good in a prospective teacher, for whom the ability to talk fluently is essential, whatever the subject.


Roger Kaye. Tiverton school, Devon


One interviewee showed energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, was smartly turned out and produced a portfolio of work.


One interviewee did not have a clue about current educational initiatives and only talked about what he was going to do in two years' time when he planned to leave the profession.

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