Headteachers don't all drive the same car, drink the same wine, or listen to the same kind of music. So we shouldn't be surprised when it comes to choosing new staff, different heads want different things.
Take the question of academic qualifications. David Nichols, head at Littleover Community School in Derby, sets great store by them. They're one of the first things he looks for on a CV. He takes careful note of the quality of your degree, where it's from, exam results, as well as going further back. If you don't declare all your grades, he gets suspicious.
On the other hand, Ray Priest, principal at The City Academy in Bristol, will barely give your qualifications a second glance. He's more interested in a passion for teaching than a fancy degree. "Real commitment and enthusiasm will always make up for any gaps in subject knowledge," he says.
Trying to second guess what heads are looking for is tricky - but not impossible. A look at the school's website will give you some clues, especially if it has information about existing staff. And when you receive your application pack, be sure to study it carefully.
"I spend a great deal of time writing the person specification," says Norma Watson, head at Hillcrest Primary in Bristol. "I make it clear what sort of teacher I'm looking for, and I expect candidates to respond to that." With more than 100 applications for some vacancies, she takes a methodical approach, matching people against her list of criteria to see how they compare.
David Nichols also has an orderly approach. Faced with a pile of applications, he works by process of elimination. Firstly, he weeds out the letters that were clearly written for a different job, where the applicant has simply changed the name of the school.
"Sometimes they don't even remember to do that," he says. Next to go are the poorly written ones. All teachers know that spelling and punctuation are important, but it's still a surprise to find that some heads, like David, go through every letter with a marker pen, highlighting mistakes. "Even if you're a PE teacher, you're still going to be writing reports. You need to set a good example."
But do spelling mistakes really count against you? "If there are 50 applicants, then yes," says David. "But if there are only six or seven candidates, you can probably get away with it. I want to get the best person for the job."
No one wants to stand out for the wrong reasons, but how can you stand out for the right ones? For Ray, it's about getting across a sense of your excitement for teaching. "Most teachers have read a book on how to write a letter, so they all end up sounding the same. They all tell me that they like hill walking. Or they spout a lot of textbook jargon. Forget all that. Tell me about a project you've been involved in, something that excited you. That's what I want to hear."
Norma looks at letters differently. "I don't like it when people write too much about themselves, or what they hope to get out of the job. The question in my mind is always: 'What can this person do for me?'" Norma expects all applicants to have studied the school's latest Ofsted report, and she expects to hear how they intend to raise standards. "I want a teacher who will add something to our school."
The good news is that when it comes to interviews and teaching trial lessons, there's suddenly far more agreement about what heads are looking for. Once you get this far, it's not about what you've done in the past, it's about what you can show on the day. It's attitude that counts.
"I'm looking for someone who can engage with a class," says Norma. "Relate to the students," says Ray. "Make that connection," chimes David. They're not expecting you to teach a perfect lesson. In fact, it may even be to your advantage if things go wrong, because it gives you a chance to show you can think on your feet.
Heads also agree that they want teachers who are "professional" - in appearance and conduct. No one is bothered if your suit is Armani, just as long as it's a suit, and it's clean, and you've bothered to shine your shoes. And, of course, good manners and politeness can make a big impression. "We've had people who were rude to the secretary at reception," says David. "They've effectively ruled themselves out before they've begun."
Applicants often worry about what questions they should ask during the interview, but most heads say they're simply looking for indications that you've thought carefully about the job, and your role at the school.
It's a good idea to ask about continued professional development opportunities, or recent school events. It's less advisable to mention money. "It sets the alarm bells ringing," says Ray. "The time to talk money is when you've been offered the job."
But what about heads? Do they think of the money too? After all, going for a less experienced teacher can be a cheaper option. "It might be a factor, if two people were absolutely level," says David. "But I can honestly say it's never happened. When it comes down to it, there's always someone you prefer. I have to admit we have a 'house style' and quite often we just end up with a sense that a particular candidate is 'our sort of person'."
In the end then, it may come down to a headteacher's gut feeling and personal taste. All you can do is make your case as strongly as possible, and take comfort in the fact that if it's your kind of school, then there's every chance you'll be their kind of person.
TIPS FROM THE TOP
- Before you apply, do some research. Read the school website, Ofsted reports and press cuttings. Heads expect you to know about their school.
- Use your supporting letter to outline positive, practical ways in which you can contribute to school life.
- Don't cut and paste old letters. Start afresh, and use the job description to structure your application.
- Be professional and polite. You're being judged from the moment you make contact with a school.
- At interview, heads are looking for someone who is a good listener, as well as a good talker. Don't give prepared answers, but be open and spontaneous.
- If you get asked to teach a lesson, don't be too eager to shine. Just make sure the whole class is engaged and involved.
- Most heads are happy to haggle over salary - but only once a firm job offer has been made.