Your new job is practically in the bag. You’ve found a school that you like the look of, managed not to disgrace yourself during the visit, written a stellar letter of application and now they’ve invited you to interview. You’re good at interviews. You’ve got this.
Or have you? Teaching job interviews are different. You are expected to tour the school, face an interview panel, meet the staff, deliver a crowd-pleasing lesson to a group of pupils you’ve never met before and spend all day with your rivals. It’s a bit like meeting your in-laws for the first time while also performing on stage and simultaneously taking part in a team-building day with a group of bitter opponents.
“It’s nerve-racking,” says Kat Metcalf, a primary school teacher in Lancashire. “But teaching interviews are different because teaching is different from any other job out there. The panel needs to see you in these situations in order to make the best decision for the school.”
You can do it, though. Take a deep, calming breath and read on for our school interview advice.
The worst part of an interview is often the anticipation of it. On the night before, butterflies can overwhelm you and you can spend so long rehearsing your answers to potential questions that you forget something really important, such as writing down the address of the school. But if you keep calm and use the time wisely, you’ll improve your chances of success.
“I use the night before to get everything in place for the morning,” says Sarah Millington, an early years foundation stage (EYFS) teacher in Cambridgeshire.
“Knowing that I’ll wake up with everything ready to go helps me to sleep well and concentrate on the interview itself, not on whether my suit is creased.”
This is advice that Laura Ellis, a geography teacher in a secondary school in Liverpool, wishes she’d taken when seeking her first teaching post.
“I had a wardrobe crisis on the morning of my first interview,” she explains. “I put my suit on to discover that it was too tight, and the only other smart item of clothing in my wardrobe had a stain on it. I spent my first 20 minutes in the school trying to get the mark out of my shirt and holding it under the hand dryer. I was a mess.”
And she’s not the only one. Primary teacher Tom Fraser, from North London, has a similar tale of woe. “I made the mistake of thinking I’d quickly gather up everything I needed before heading out in the morning,” he says. “In the event, I was so rattled that I forgot my lesson plan, which did not go down well with the panel. I also forgot to research the school, meaning that while I was answering questions, I confused it with another school I’d applied to.”
Unsurprisingly, Fraser did not get the job.
If these stories are anything to go by, getting your outfit and resources organised seems to be a sensible way to spend the night before. Ellie Jones, head of year at a primary school in Kent, agrees that this kind of preparation is key, but she also has an even more important piece of advice.
“As an arrogant student teacher, I thought it would be fine for me to go out and get drunk the night before my first interview. Long story short: it was not fine. Just don’t do it,” she says.
Here’s a handy checklist to make sure you don’t fall into the same traps.
Your ‘night before’ to-do list
1. Iron your interview outfit and hang it up. Check that your shoes and bag are clean.
2. Check your lesson plan for errors.
3. Pack everything that you need for your interview lesson. Never assume that the school will provide anything you need without prior arrangement.
4. Put any paperwork you’ve been asked to bring in a folder.
5. Prepare a question or two to ask the panel at the end of your interview.
6. Have a look at the school’s website, noting any events that it has recently held or any areas that it is currently focusing on improving or excelling at.
7. Check your route to the school carefully, noting down train or bus times or an alternative route in case of bad traffic.
8. Re-read your application letter. You’ve been invited to interview on the basis of what you wrote, so refresh your memory and prepare to expand on it when asked.
9. Do something relaxing: read a book, have a bath – whatever keeps you calm. Then have an early night. And, whatever you do, don’t go to the pub.
Create the right first impression
We’ve all heard it said that an interviewer will make the decsion on whether they want to hire you within the first few seconds of meeting you. That may be a slight exaggeration, but first impressions count. The panel’s opinions may change after they witness you in action, but a bit of professional love at first sight could swing things in your favour. Here’s how (and how not) to do it.
1. Be on time
“Never be late,” says Sally Bryant, a primary school headteacher in West Yorkshire. “But please don’t be too early, either. You know what schools are like before the kids arrive – it’s carnage. Let us fix the photocopier, set up our classrooms and catch the escaped school guinea pig before you appear.”
Take note: no more than 10 minutes before the stated time is acceptable, while being even slightly late is frowned upon.
2. Don’t wear that!
“I’ve seen it all,” sighs Tim Aston, a deputy headteacher in North Yorkshire. “Can we all agree that flip-flops are never appropriate interview attire?”
Your interview outfit should be professional. According to Aston, it’s not essential to wear a suit, especially for a primary school interview, but a jacket and tie is recommended for men, while women should look smart and practical.
As for what to avoid (besides flip-flops), these items of clothing are also on Aston’s list of interview style crimes:
• Comedy ties;
• High, pointy heels (especially in primary schools – you could have someone’s eye out on the carpet);
• Short skirts;
• Low-cut tops;
• Anything that doesn’t fit you properly;
• Loud shirts (“Someone wore a shirt emblazoned with Santa Claus faces at an interview we held near Christmas,” says Aston. “He’d have had to have been a seriously impressive candidate for us to get past that. Alas, he wasn’t”).
3. Look happy
Nobody on the interview panel cares how awful the traffic was, that you had a bad night’s sleep, or that your relationship just ended, so whatever might have happened to you prior to your arrival at the school, now is the time to suck it up and smile. Being polite and friendly to everyone and looking pleased to have the opportunity to be there will go down well. “I’ve started trying to guess who’s going to get the job when we hold interviews,” says Ellis, “and it’s nearly always the candidate who looks the happiest to be there.”
4. Keep your foot out of your mouth
It’s not only during the interview itself that you need to be careful what you say. Your potential employers will be taking note of anything that they overhear in conversation throughout the day, so don’t let any of these gems slip out:
• “God, kids are a nightmare, aren’t they?” Yes, some certainly can be. But as a teacher they should be at the heart of everything that you do.
• “9am-3.30pm and school holidays off? Result!” You’ve just made yourself look lazy and seriously deluded.
• “This is a load of bollocks, isn’t it?” Don’t swear. Be enthusiastic.
• “Can I have your number?” Don’t flirt with fellow candidates or teachers at the school, no matter how sure you are that you’ve found the love of your life.
• “That behaviour is completely unacceptable.” Unless you have to deal with poor behaviour in your interview lesson, don’t discipline any children you meet. You don’t know the school behaviour policy, so trust that the existing staff have got it covered.
Get the interview lesson right
I know that teaching job interviews are long, drawn-out, arduous affairs, but we’re really very lucky (stay with me here). There are not many other jobs that ask for a practical demonstration of your skills at interview and, if you love teaching and are confident in your abilities, the interview lesson gives you an opportunity to shine.
But how do you stand out from the crowd while giving the panel what they want? Read the lesson brief very carefully. And once you have done that, read it again. It is essential that you feel 100 per cent clear about what is being asked of you.
“I’ve never been asked to do the same thing twice,” says Jones. “Sometimes the brief is really specific – teaching a Year 1 phonics lesson using a scheme I’d never come across before was my worst one – but sometimes it’s open, allowing you to play to your strengths.
“There will always be a strict time limit, and often a theme or learning objective provided, and you must stick to those.”
If a specific learning objective is not provided and you have to come up with your own, Simon Alcott, a science teacher at an Essex secondary school, suggests picking something that you love teaching rather than planning a lesson around an objective that you think the panel would like to see.
If you are teaching a topic that you enjoy, your enthusiasm is bound to show. “But don’t go off topic if they do provide one for you,” Alcott warns.
Sticking to the topic is important, but it also pays to read between the lines, Jones points out. So, if you’re asked to read a story to a class, the panel wants to see how you approach this.
Using props, role play and discussion to engage the children may go down better than a straight reading – it depends on the school in question. And if you know that the school is renowned for something in particular, such as its use of technology or drama, you should try to incorporate this into your lesson if you can.
But if you are planning to break out the bells and whistles, don’t assume the school will provide the resources you need. Bring everything with you or call in advance to ask if they can provide something.
“Our headteacher was unimpressed when a candidate turned up and requested cotton wool, balloons and tin foil 10 minutes before their observed lesson. They should have brought it with them,” says Jones.
Bearing this in mind, Alcott suggests that the safest option might be a “less is more” approach. “I’d keep it simple with resources,” he says. “Schools will provide some if you ask first, but getting hold of the right person in a busy secondary school isn’t easy, even if you phone or email well in advance.”
To get off on the right foot, remember to introduce yourself and write your name on the board – pupils like to know your name and will feel less awkward about asking you for help if they know what to call you.
Alcott suggests memorising the names of a few easily recognisable kids at the start of the lesson and asking them to hand things out, or calling on them to answer questions. This is a good way to fake familiarity with a class you don’t know.
“Don’t ignore the rest of the class, though,” he warns.
Jones advises taking name labels with you for all the children to wear. “It saves time and feels more friendly than constantly having to ask for names,” she says.
Whatever shape your lesson takes, remember that the interview panel will always be looking for you to demonstrate progress. This is the tough one. How do you show the progress children have made in a 20- to 30-minute lesson?
Jones has a good tip: “When I introduce the learning objective, I ask the children what they already know and write their answers on the board.
“At the end of the lesson, I ask them to add anything they’ve learned since I made the list – you can’t argue with a clear demonstration of progression like that.”
Alcott, meanwhile, relies on questioning to demonstrate progress in a short time.
“I have an ongoing dialogue with the class throughout, asking them probing questions – which I detail beforehand in my lesson plan – and giving constant feedback,” he says. “This gives me a good idea of whether progress is being made, and the panel hear everything so they are aware that I’m doing it.”
You should always provide the panel members with a lesson plan, so that they know what to expect. This can be a really effective way for you to signpost your teaching strategies, as Alcott suggests.
But do not stick so rigidly to your plan that you are not able to react to anything unexpected that happens on the day. And no matter how confident you are in your lesson, it always pays to have a plan B. “For my first interview, I planned an amazing lesson for Year 10. Then on the day, in walked Year 7,” says Alcott.
“I had to think quickly about how to adapt my fairly rigid planning to suit them. Always expect the unexpected.”
Jones agrees that you should take a flexible approach to the interview lesson and expect to have to think on your feet, just as you would in a normal lesson.
“Anything can happen,” she says. “My colleague had to abort an interview lesson recently when a child had a febrile convulsion. He ended up getting the job because of how he reacted to the situation.
“So, my advice would be to deal with interruptions, behaviour problems or illness calmly and efficiently. Don’t let anything faze you.”
Ultimately, the panel will not only look at the content of your lesson but also how you respond to events that unfold and how you interact with the class. After all, that’s what you’ll be doing on a daily basis.
Being friendly and enthusiastic should not be underestimated. You could have planned and delivered the most fantastic, Ofstedpleasing lesson that the school has ever seen, but if you look miserable and bored, nobody is going to be impressed.
“I come out of interviews with my face aching from smiling so much,” says Jones. “But it’s so effective; if you smile at a child, they smile back. If you sound interested and enthusiastic, they get caught up in it, too. And I love being a teacher, so why wouldn’t I smile?”
Tips for facing a student panel
This advice is just as crucial if you have to face a student panel as part of your interview. Yes, it can be slightly disconcerting to face a group of interviewers when one of them is foraging up a nostril with a pencil and you can clearly see that another has spilled baked beans down their jumper. But the pupil panel is not the soft option. Its members have got a list of questions for you and they mean business.
They’ve also got the adult panel hiding in the background watching your every move, so don’t write it off as the easiest part of the day. Instead, follow these tips to make sure that you are down with the kids.
The pupils will be impressed by someone who’s easy to talk to and has a sense of humour. So, try not to be too tense and don’t be afraid to engage in conversation with them. This is something that the adult panel will be looking for, too. They want to see that you can relate to young people and don’t feel intimidated by them.
2. Be honest
Kids are experts at spotting phonies. If you’re not genuine with them, they’ll feel uncomfortable. Give real-life examples in your answers to their questions and don’t be afraid to talk about times that you’ve messed things up – nothing fills a child with glee like hearing about adults making mistakes. Just follow up with what you did to put your mistake right.
3. Remember that they’re children
You’re not addressing a panel of teaching professionals, so leave the teaching jargon and acronyms until later. Respond to their questions in language that they will understand – but don’t dumb it down too much as nobody likes to be patronised, especially secondary-age pupils.
4. Ignore any adults…but don’t forget that they’re listening
Always respond directly to the pupils rather than to any adults. But remember that they’re listening to your answers, so watch out for anything that could trip you up.
I once lost out on a job by telling the pupil panel that science was my least favourite subject to teach. I should have remembered that science was the whole-school area for development at the time.
In my feedback, the head told me that it had been the only thing that stood between me and the successful candidate.
5. Refer to your time at school
If you want to get a group of pupils hanging on your every word, tell them about when you were their age. Weave in your own experiences of teachers, lessons and what made you bored or keen to learn.
6. Be ready to think on your feet
Pupil panels are notorious for asking bizarre questions, so make sure you have a quick retort to “tell us a joke”, “what’s your secret talent?” and “what’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you at school?”
Clean answers only, please. Now is not the time for the “nuns in the bath” joke or to admit your aptitude for guessing bra sizes correctly.
7. Enjoy it
It’s always a pleasure to meet these funny, serious, friendly and downright strange characters. The kids make the job what it is, so have fun with them.
How to keep your cool when answering interview questions
This is it: the interview itself. You’ve been ushered into the headteacher’s office and introduced to the panel. This part can bring even the most confident candidate out in a cold sweat, but if you prepare your strategies in advance, you should be able to keep cool while answering those tricky questions.
1. Start with what they know
Your application is a good place to start. You were asked to interview on the strength of your written application, so think back to what you wrote. The panel liked what they saw, so it’s a great starting place when answering questions. Take the opportunity to elaborate on what you have already told them, making sure that you always use solid examples to back up your statements.
“I usually ask candidates about their successes with their current class. It really helps if they’ve brought some photographs or examples of work from a successful lesson to illustrate this,” says Bryant.
At the very least, she suggests, give specific examples of children who achieved beyond expectations and say why you think this happened.
2. Take your time
Whatever you do, don’t rush your answers, suggests Elaine Williams, headteacher of a secondary school in Cheshire.
“It’s fine to ask for some thinking time, although we’re talking 30 seconds rather than five minutes, here,” she explains.
“And if you don’t know what a question means, ask someone to clarify rather than tying yourself in knots trying to answer something that you don’t understand. We do not want you to feel uncomfortable,” she adds.
3. Tell the truth
Bear this in mind when you are asked how you thought your interview lesson went. The panel are not trying to catch you out or make you feel awkward with this question, so be honest.
If the lesson was a miserable failure, they noticed anyway, but your reaction to that and what you say you’d do to ensure success next time could still impress them. If it was a success, tell them what went well and why.
And don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself, says former primary school teacher Mike Bowen, from Nottingham, especially if you are asked that classic teaching interview question: “Tell me about a lesson you’ve taught that went wrong.”
“Everybody has taught a few shockers, so do feel free to admit to the full horror,” he says. “But always state why it went so wrong, what you did to put it right and what you did to make sure it didn’t happen in the future – that’s what this question is really about.”
“Be yourself” might be a cliché but it really is the best piece of advice for a teaching interview, because interpersonal skills count for so much in this job, says Metcalf. Remember that the school wants to employ an individual, not a clone. “These days, I have the confidence to go into an interview without putting on an act,” she says.
“I put up the best fight I can and know that if I don’t get the job, it’s not a poor reflection on me. I might just not be what they’re looking for right now.”
4. Be selective about your hobbies
That said, it doesn’t hurt to make sure that you have an answer prepared to that obligatory question about what you like doing in your spare time.
The honest answer might be “going to the pub”, but this is one instance during the interview where a little white lie won’t go amiss. Don’t invent a fictional hobby, but do be selective about what you mention.
There’s no definitive right answer here (although anything that will benefit the school, such as coaching a sport, playing the piano or voluntary work with children will always go down well), but “watching Netflix” is definitely not it.
Finally, remember to breathe and to smile. The importance of both should never be underestimated.
It’s so easy to get caught up in worrying about exactly how to convince the interview panel that you’re the right person for the job that you forget that this is a two-way process. Yes, you’re there to show them what you’ve got to offer but you also need to discover whether it’s the right school for you.
But how are you going to find out? By approaching it like a private detective, that’s how. Trench coats and magnifying glasses at the ready…we’re going in.
1. Do a background check
Every good sleuth starts with research. Begin with the basics: the location, the size of the school and the socio-economic groups in the catchment area.
This will quickly clear up whether you’d struggle to get there every day, whether you’d be expected to work independently or as part of a year group team, and whether you think that the school’s intake would be a good match for your skills.
Now go deeper. Check out the school’s website and read the letters to parents. Are they positive? Aggressive? Despondent? Is the website well managed and up to date? Does it show off any recent school events that inspire you? If so, make a note of them to refer to at interview.
Check out the Ofsted report but remember that this only tells half of the story. A school can be “outstanding” but still a poor fit for you, and a school in special measures will currently be receiving expert advice that could be valuable in your NQT year.
Finally, hunt down some insiders. Do you know any teachers or students who’ve had a placement at the school? What was their experience? Ask them about the staff turnover; if it’s high, it can be a red flag.
Getting an opinion from parents with children at the school can be helpful if you happen to know any. Be careful, though – you need reliable witnesses here and some people may have a hidden agenda.
2. Case the joint
On the day of the interview, keep your eyes open for deal breakers in the layout of the school. For example, if you’re an EYFS teacher, a poor outdoor area for the pupils might put you off.
I was once interviewed for a position at a school that I loved but came away knowing that I’d hate teaching there because it was open plan with no walls between each classroom. The noise from other classes would have driven me to distraction.
Look carefully at the classrooms, particularly those for your subject or key stage. Are they well resourced and cared for? If they’ve seen better days and resources are sparse, it could be a sign that the school’s management is unwilling to make improvements or invest in your subject.
Now look at the shared areas of the school. What are the displays like? Is there anything to suggest a united front? Are pupil achievements on display? The hall and corridors are where schools display what is important to them and what they’re proud of, so take note.
However, you should also try to look beyond what they want you to see. I once accepted a job at a school where I had been impressed by the large-scale, whole-school artwork in the corridors. If I’d looked closer, though, I’d have seen that the classrooms were bare and that the school was not keen on creativity in the classroom.
It soon transpired that the teaching assistants created the majority of the corridor art along with a few heavily directed children. It wasn’t a bad school but, as an arty and slightly chaotic teacher, I was a terrible fit for them.
3. Questions, questions
The way the school staff interact tells you far more than you’d think. Are managers friendly and approachable? Are there cliques lurking in the corners of the staffroom? Do you overhear friendly conversations or is everyone ignoring each other in favour of the newspaper?
Likewise, teacher-pupil interactions can give a lot away. Take note of whether there is easy banter and respect between staff and pupils or whether the teachers tend to keep their distance. Consider what kind of culture would suit you best.
Use your interview lesson to gather more clues. Are the pupils familiar with using discussion and interaction during lessons or are they expected to listen and absorb information? Are they used to formal learning or a more hands-on approach?
You may think that a formal school could benefit from your more creative approach, but this could backfire if the kids see it as an excuse to misbehave because they’re not used to it.
Finally, consider what the behaviour is like and, more importantly, how it is dealt with. Do you witness any bullying? Do the children look happy?
At the end of your interview, you’ll be asked if you have any questions. This is your chance to gather any missing information about the school. Try some of these:
• What support can I expect during my NQT year?
• Will I be team teaching with anybody?
• How supportive are the parents?
• What links do you have with the local community?
• What is the biggest problem you face in this school?
• How do you promote good relationships among staff?
4. Trust your intuition
If you follow all the above tips, you should be able to get a pretty accurate impression of a school. But still take time to listen to your heart.
Sometimes, a school can give off all the right signals but, deep down, you know it isn’t right for you.
So weigh up the evidence, tune into your gut and make your decision based on what your instincts are telling you.
Lisa Jarmin is an EYFS teacher and freelance writer. She tweets @LisaJarmin
*Pseudonyms were used for some of the interviewees