Under the interview microscope

14th January 2005 at 00:00
What goes wrong when you face a panel? We put one bright, intelligent candidate before TES experts to find out why she's not getting appointed. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

She has submitted countless applications and attended nine job interviews.

But five months after completing her PGCE in primary education, Judith Thompson is still out of work.

"It's soul-destroying. Well-meaning family and friends remind me that there is supposed to be a teacher shortage. But what can I say? So far no one has offered me a job and it is getting more and more difficult to keep up my spirits."

Judith is 39, has a degree in biochemistry and worked as a scientist before starting a family. She decided on teaching as her children entered their teens because she fancied a career change. She worked in a local church playgroup and knew then what she wanted to do.

Judith isn't alone. Hundreds of newly qualified teachers all over the country are still looking for full-time work months after ending their courses. "At least twice I have been told that my interview was fine but they wanted someone with more experience. Once they decided not to appoint any of the interviewees. That really was disheartening. Sometimes I wonder exactly what it is they are looking for."

What's the problem? Is Judith just having a bout of bad luck, or is something else stopping her getting her first job? We decided to put her through her paces, and find out just how she performs at the all-important interview stage. She agreed to go through a mock interview at The TES offices and take some honest feedback on her interview technique .

The interview The First Appointments interview panel is experienced in hiring and firing.

John Howson, a former teacher, is now a teacher recruitment consultant. Jo Davey is head of history at Parliament Hill school in Camden, north London.

The questions they asked

* What was the most useful thing you learned in your teacher training?

lWhat interests and skills can you bring to the job?

* How would you deal with inclusion and discipline; how would you handle teaching the most able children, and those who don't want to learn?

* Why do you want to be a teacher?

How did she measure up?

You have to make a strong first impression. Judith arrived wearing a pale grey sweater and a grey suit. She hadn't met the people on this panel before.

So what does pale grey say about Judith? Jo Davey comments: "Wear something a little more vibrant with some colour. Primary schools in particular like bubbly people, so wear something bright".

Sell yourself Judith has actually got a lot going for her, but the panel nearly didn't find out how capable she is because she failed to promote herself. When she was asked to list the skills she brought to the job, she mentioned only in passing that she plays piano at grade 4 and the clarinet to grade 7. It also transpires that she's proficient enough in French to be able to teach it. Judith said sport was her weakest area, but then admitted she had taken a course to become a netball coach.

John Howson: "You aren't selling yourself to your best advantage - we've had to dig for information. You mention skills in passing that could easily make you stand out from the other candidates. You undersell yourself to the point of self-deprecation. It's a buyer's market - so focus on your unique selling points in interview."

look confident When asked about the most important aspect of engaging with a class, Judith said discipline. It might have been her honest view, but her answer rang alarm bells with our panel.

John Howson: "A candidate should never, ever mention discipline in this context because it will count against you. It has a Pavlovian effect on interviewers, who will think that this person cannot control a class. It would be much more positive to say that you want to establish a good relationship with the pupils and give examples of how you might do this."

Choose your words When you're a teacher, you need to show you can be in charge. But when Judith talked about team work in the interview, she sometimes referred to "helping" or "working for" someone.

Jo Davey: "Say 'working with' or 'working together' and you create the impression that you're a team player."

Use your initiative There's nothing wrong with taking a few seconds to consider your response, instead of babbling, but there were too many long pauses between being asked a question and Judith giving an answer.

"I was thinking about the best answer to give," said Judith. "Some of the questions were long and convoluted."

Jo Davey's advice: "In that case, take the initiative and narrow the question down. Focus on the aspect that you feel confident in answering. If the interviewers don't make themselves clear, take control of the situation to your advantage."

so how did she rate? The feedback Analytical and capable, but uninspiring Jo Davey: "You're too reticent and reluctant to promote the things you excel at. You are also quiet, which begs the question: could you establish a relationship with your pupils?"

Forgot to point out the blindingly obvious Jo Davey: "When I asked about your skills you should have made more of the fact that you had raised two children of your own. What greater experience can there be of working with children than having your own? Show more empathy. You don't give the impression that you like children very much, and I'm sure that isn't the case."

Too detached Jo Davey: "You made good eye contact with both of us, but you must smile more. Show more warmth and humour, because those are the qualities teachers need to have, particularly in primary schools."

John Howson: "You were well prepared, and you drew on what you had learned on your teacher training, on your experiences of teaching practice and the research you had come across during your studies. You presented examples of your work from a portfolio when it was relevant, even showing us teacher assessment records you had kept from one of your training schools.

"But that's only a small part of your interview. Experts say that what we say during interviews accounts for just 5 per cent of the impression we create. You relied too heavily on this 5 per cent."

Take your feedback on the chin Truth can hurt, but Judith took the criticism well.

"That is the first time I have received such comprehensive feedback, as schools rarely have the time to go into such detail," said Judith.

"I'm glad I did it. Now I know what I need to work on."

11 things to remember on the day

1 Look smart and professional, but in a comfortable outfit. A little colour in what you choose will make you feel good.

2Smile when you arrive. The receptionist's opinion of you might count for a lot.

3Eat breakfast - it could be a long day.

4A firm handshake and eye contact when you meet the panel shows that you mean business.

5 If you've been asked to take a class, have a two or three copies of your lesson plan, one for each of the panel.

6 Be warm and friendly. If you meet other interviewees.

7 If you meet pupils, remember you're a teacher. Chat to them and ask about their work.

8If you don't understand a question, don't panic and say the first thing that comes into your head - relax and ask the interviewer to repeat it.

Don't feel intimidated.

9Have a couple of questions to ask the panel after their questions - it makes you look interested. If your questions got answered, then smile and tell them what you had wanted to ask and that they've already covered the points, thank you.

10Find things that you can make complimentary remarks about if you get a chance to have a chat with your panel: work on the wall, the school atmosphere, lively playground, industrious looking classes . Don't overdo it, but senior managers love to hear good things about their school.

11Ask yourself: do you like the school and can you see yourself working there?

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