Getting your interview observation right

Whether you are a student teacher applying for your first job, or an experienced teacher looking for a promotion, there are plenty of places to go for advice. The TES recently posted a set of short videos – you probably saw them. http://www.tes.co.uk/teaching-resource/Top-Tips-for-Trainee-Teachers-Job-Hunting-6046756/

The problem with any of this advice is that it misses one important aspect of the process: the person observing on behalf of the school has an idea of what they are looking for, and you don’t know what that is. Do they want a strict disciplinarian (because behaviour at their place is challenging, or because it is a very traditional setting) or a friendly, engaging type (because the ethos is that students learn better when they enjoy what they are doing)? Do they expect you to discuss levels (‘If you add an opinion in the future tense, you get Level 5′), or would they rather you didn’t? Would they taken agin’ you if you had the students working in silence, or would this warm the heart of the headteacher? You might suppose you should plan a starter, a plenary or two, plenty of assessment for learning and at least a nod to differentiation – but will you do this in 20 minutes, 30 or 60?

This week I have watched a total of 9 interview lessons, from candidates vying for a HoF job and an NQT post. I offer the following suggestions:

  • Whatever you do, don’t make out like you don’t like our kids. In a couple of instances, the candidates decided to challenge what they thought of as low-level disruption. In one case, she tackled stuff which would have been much better ignored; in the other, some students were getting restless, so she needed to address it. Where they both went wrong was that they allowed these exchanges to stick in my mind – the overall impression left was that they worried more about perfect behaviour than exciting learning. 
  • Sometimes there are kids in the room who are a little short of self-starting geniuses. They need to be encouraged  too. A smile helps – show you know this stuff can be hard, and that getting things wrong is also part of eventually getting things right.
  • Whatever kind of teacher they might be looking for, you need to show them the kind of teacher you are (at your best). If you are passionate about VAK learning, getting kids out of their seats and getting them to talk to each other, then you need to be working in a school that welcomes it. Show them who you are: if they want that, then they will want you.
  • All the lessons I observed this week were billed as 20 minutes. People may object, but 20 mins is long enough for an experienced observer to work out what they are looking at. If there are several candidates for a post, then it is not uncommon for two of them to go in, one after the other, to the same class. If you are the second of these, you can assume that the class has already rehearsed the material you are about to do. Check this, and when they get it right, heap praise on them and then endeavour to stretch them further: you will come across as the candidate who had the higher expectations. On the down side, the second teacher in might well be ‘inheriting’ a class that, by then, has had enough of that topic. You will need to get them quickly and keep the pace up.
  • Being the observer, it was my job to call time on the candidates. The stress of this is that I had to ensure one candidate got out of the room (having cleared away all their kit) to allow the next one in, in time for them to set up and have their 20 before the class would have to move on to their next lesson. Candidates who insisted on stretching out their plenary, or who claimed their 20 minutes but did not allow for clear-up: these did not impress me. Remember, schools want to appoint team players, not people who insist on having their slice of time at the expense of others.
  • Whatever length of lesson you have been told to plan for, plan for it. There really is no point setting a beautifully constructed lesson plan before the observer, full of peer observation and self-reflection, blah, blah, if you don’t get around to teaching it in your allotted time. This is not a good plan: this is a very poor plan.
  • When you have the students doing some independent or pair work, there is always the dilemma: do you spend the intervening period setting up the next task, or do you circulate the classroom, listening in, assessing and praising as you go? Yeah, no prizes for working out which.

You might be a great teacher, and you might have planned a wonderful lesson, but things can still go wrong, especially if you are nervous. Read the self-help books if you have a real problem with this. But, if you really are a good teacher, this will be because you know how to engage quickly with young people: that’s your greatest skill. So, just do that: allow yourself to enjoy their company, and maybe some of those nerves will dissipate.

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