Things they don’t tell you about interviews

I was 22 and facing my first job interview panel. This was Gdansk, 1990, and I was hoping to move there to follow my dream of learning Polish. “How you do expect to live on this salary!” was the only question, and note the tone of incredulity. I got the job by convincing them that I had every intention of moonlighting as much as possible.

No one has the monopoly on experience, so no one person’s advice can be taken as gospel. Since then, I have had 6 interviews, from which I have been awarded 4 jobs. I have sat on a number of panels, but more than that, I have ‘mock interviewed’ dozens of candidates – mainly student teachers going for their first posts and more experienced colleagues vying for internal appointments. This blog passes on some of the questions they have asked me, and a few personal observations. Not everyone I have advised has been successful, but, for what it’s worth, here goes…

  • Prepared Answers. You do not want to trot out a pat answer, and you do not want to appear over-rehearsed. Panels will have heard candidates before, who ‘know’ the answers in interview but cannot deliver in reality. On the other hand, if you are asked a predictable question, and you appear never to have thought about it before, you will be perceived as naive at best. I would conclude that you had not taken the process seriously and reject you. You should anticipate the sorts of questions you will be asked, and you should know in advance what you need to leave the panel with.
  • What questions might come up? Obviously this depends on the particular role you are applying for, but you should be ready for all/some of these:

– Why do you want to teach? Why here?

– What are you good at? What do you need to be better at? How do you know?

– For you, what is ‘outstanding’?

– What are your preferred ways of tackling poor behaviour? assessment? differentiation? gifted and talented? group work? EAL? (The question here will often reflect the current priorities of the school, and you may anticipate these by checking their website, or asking questions during the morning.) This may be asked in the form of a scenario.

– What aspects of your subject do you enjoy the most? How would you convince a reluctant student? Why should it be on the curriculum?

– Explain good practice in Child Protection, and your role in safeguarding.

  • How long is long enough? Candidates I speak to worry about this a lot, and they are right to. A panel may not interrupt you, even if they think you are prattling on, and they might not give you those non-verbal signals that indicate that enough is enough. Your answer is long enough only when you have answered the question. When you have done that, it is time to stop. If you are worried you have not answered it all, you can ask.
  • Is there a perfect structure to an answer? Obviously not, but then again… I advise people to answer big, then small (or the other way around, for variety.) E.g. “I try to deal with low level disruption before it happens, by making sure my lesson is well-planned, engaging and properly differentiated.” (‘Big’) “For example, last week, with my year 9s, I noticed Jake was annoying the girl beside him. So I…etc.” (‘Small’) The first part of the answer tells the panel that I know what should happen in theory; the second part tells them how I have done it in practice. The illustration is the most important part – it is your evidence, your way of convincing the panel that you really are good – and reflective – about what you do.
  • Be reflective.  Yes, when you have given your example (the ‘small’ part of your answer) there is no harm in saying what you learned from it, what you wished you had done, what you would do differently next time. This stuff really stands out, because so few candidates will risk it. It shows humility, it suggests you are still learning and that you know what it is about your own practice that you are still perfecting.
  • When I get nervous in interviews, my voice becomes monotonous. You’re right. And everyone gets nervous. Symptoms vary: profuse sweating, babbling, curtness, giggling, amnesia. Obviously, just as you would tell a student before an exam, your best defence is revision. But this might still lead you into those long, prepared responses where you give the panel the answers you assume they want. To avoid this, remember the Big/Small structure. I have seen it time and again: as soon as the candidate starts talking about their actual experience (especially if it is recent) their body language changes and their voice takes on more urgency and variety. In other words, they become interesting to listen to.
  • Do you have any questions? Other sites have dealt with this question recently. For what  it’s worth I can add a few thoughts of my own. Firstly, whatever you say, don’t say too much: the panel has asked their questions, they have another candidate to quiz, and there is a clock to obey. Secondly, don’t be a smartarse: don’t pose a question that puts a panelist on the spot (e.g. ‘As Head of Faculty, what is your view of the new National Curriculum?’  You are testing the HoF in front of their boss, and they won’t thank you for it. Thirdly, don’t ask a question you should have found out the answer to already, either by reading up or keeping your eyes open during the day. If you must, you could suck up a little by asking something like, ‘Will there be opportunities for me to run an after-school astronomy club?’  Frankly, I think the best thing is to say, with confidence, ‘No, I have no questions, thank you.’ 
  • Would you accept this post? The answer to this must never be No. It’s just rude, to go through the process that far, only to tell a school you like them so little. If you have had a chance to look around, if you have had your lesson observation – if then you feel this is not the place for you, then you should pull out before interview. Be polite about it. One of the issues often faced by student teachers in particular is that they get invited to more than one interview in the same week. Should they accept this offer, before they have been to the other school? I have talked this over with several colleagues over the years, and my advice has varied, but usually it comes down to this: how great is the risk that, by turning down one offer, you will end up with no job at all? If it is March, you could safely predict that other opportunities will arise. If the ‘other’ school is high-performing, well-equipped or otherwise attractive, you might find the field a bit more competitive. Really, if you like the school well enough, and they like you well enough to offer you the job, then I’d say accept it.
  • £££. You have the right to ask about money, but it is hard to find the right moment to open the dialogue. I wish schools recognised this and sat the candidates down during the day with someone from personnel so that all that stuff could be discussed in the open. They don’t. I have thought of a few ‘openers’ that you might try out: ‘I will need to move into the area, so will need to approach an estate agent. Can you just clarify…?’ ‘Being a poor student, I have an appointment with my bank shortly to discuss my overdraft. They will want to know…’ Perhaps with the abandonment of national pay scales, headteachers will be more up-front about this, and will explain what their local remuneration structures are. Short of that, and if it really matters to you, then just come right out and say it: ‘I have 5 years previous experience in industry, and I wonder what allowance you would make for that in my pay?’

There are certainly pitfalls best avoided. Dominating the other candidates with all the clever ideas you have had just means you are a wanker. Making jokes about the school’s motto is likely an assault on the headteacher’s life’s work. I personally recoil from candidates who spout my school’s latest Ofsted report, as if I had not noticed the criticisms buried within. Swearing, farting, turning up late or dressing as if the nightclub is your next stop are mistakes in life as well as in interview. And telling your panel you have two other jobs lined up besides this one is usually a no-no, although for me in 1990, in Gdansk, it did me no harm.