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Thirty Minutes To Sell Yourself

No need to be intimidated by those first job interviews

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Across the country last year, newly minted teachers armed themselves with résumés, dressed to impress, and interviewed for their first teaching jobs.

They were grilled and graded, tested and inspected--and the vast majority landed jobs. Sixteen hundred of them then filled out a detailed survey and became part of the first nationwide study of new teachers and the interviewing process. (The survey was funded by the Association for School, College, and University Staffing and completed with the help of more than 30 placement offices and five school districts nationwide.)

What the new hires had to say could fill volumes--and it will, when principal investigators Rebecca Anthony, a placement associate at the University of Iowa, and Steve Head, assistant director of education, placement, and career services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pull all the data together and create training packets for recruitment and placement officials. Here, in the meantime, are some of the reassuring (respondents liked their interviewers) and myth-busting (teachers don't have to pound the pavement) findings from the survey, as well as a look at seven questions that caused the sweatiest palms. We took the latter and turned the tables, grilling employment and placement experts on what they're looking for when they ask these zingers and what the "best" answers are.

No need to print hundreds of résumés. "Fifty percent of the teachers we surveyed were hired after just three or fewer interviews," says Anthony. Fifteen percent found themselves employed after their first interview, 20 percent were hired after the second, and 15 percent after the third. Slightly more than a quarter of the respondents made four to six calls before landing a job. Only 3 percent really wore down their soles, interviewing with 15 or more districts.

It'll be over before you know it. Forty-five percent of the teachers surveyed reported their average interview lasted 30 minutes or less. Forty-four percent said theirs averaged half an hour to an hour. Only 10 percent met with employers longer than one hour.

Principals are the principal interviewers. Candidates for a teaching job typically meet with more than one interviewer. The official most likely to be in on things, however, is the principal, with whom 85 percent of the survey participants interviewed. A district-level personnel officer is likely to be involved, too; 50 percent of the respondents said they were interviewed by one. Thirty percent were interviewed by a superintendent, and 27 percent interviewed with either an assistant principal or a committee.

Here's what you'll be asked. Topics most often brought up by interviewers include: classroom management, student teaching, strengths, weaknesses, teaching philosophy, future plans, teaching style, motivational theories, employment history, and lesson design.

That wasn't so bad after all. New teachers were asked to rate their interviewer. "All [of the scores] were phenomenally high," Head says. In addition, he notes that 90 percent felt they were able to effectively communicate their qualifications.

But not everything about the interviewing process was a picnic. Some of the job candidates ran into questions that, although not psychologically intimidating like those sometimes asked in the corporate world ("So tell me, Johnson, if you were an animal, which one would you be?"), caught them off guard and left them wondering if they had said "the right thing."

While hiring officials claim they're really not looking for one "right" answer, they are looking for certain "key indicators" in responses that tell them the candidate would fit in well at their school.

The following interview questions, judged to be the toughest by nearly a quarter of all the survey participants, were put to hiring and placement experts to see what they tell the interviewer about the interviewee. (Keep in mind that not all interviewers see things the same way, and, as Head points out, the suggested responses should be individually tailored and not repeated verbatim to the interviewer.)

What if... Hypothetical-situation questions threw more teaching candidates than any other. Nancy Brown, director of the Riverdale Nursery and Early Childhood Center of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, which serves special-needs children in New York City, uses "what if...?" scenarios often. One of her favorites is, "What would you do if a kid spilled red paint all over your new skirt?"

"I'm looking to see if this person can put her [classroom] children's needs above her own," Brown explains. A candidate "doesn't cut it" if her first response to the question is a furrowed brow and a lament for the skirt, rather than concern for how upset the child might be at what he or she had done. This type of question also helps Brown look for the "humanitarian values" she wants in her teachers, and, with its impromptu nature, shows her if the teacher "has orderly thought processes and is clear minded." Special education, she says, "is frequently chaotic, and someone who's not organized and who can't think fast won't be able to handle it well."

Describe your philosophy of education. "This should be a very easy question," says Constance Webster, director of career development and placement with the National College of Education in Evanston, Ill. She suggests talking about how and what you hope your children will learn, and giving "a mini-story on how you've taken that philosophy and integrated it into your student [or regular] teaching. "She also suggests talking about "one or two philosophers from your studies who model your own ideas about education."

How would you set up a program? Dolores Dawson, assistant superintendent for human resource services with the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Public Schools, asks interviewees about a specific program such as reading. "I look to see if the person remembers to talk to students one-on-one, and if she has a set of quick checks and balances to assess what each student knows and doesn't know," says Dawson. "I want to hear if she mentions a plan to monitor and adjust her program; if she tells me she'd go to an administrator to find out what resources are available to her; and if she tries to incorporate ways to bridge the learning gaps that exist between kids of different cultures."

What are your weaknesses? "When you're interviewing, you have no obligation to put your head in a noose, which is what this question directly invites you to do," says Martin Yate, author of the bestselling book, Knock 'Em Dead with Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Bob Adams Inc., 1988). Steve Head agrees: "If you're preoccupied with yourself and lack confidence, they'll take this chance to uncover your faults."

An example of a productive answer, Head believes, is to admit that, as a new teacher, you have lots to learn. "They already know this. Plus, it gives you a chance to talk about how you're looking forward to learning from colleagues," he adds. "This shows that you're not coming in thinking you know everything."

Define the principal's role. Former principal Colin Williams, who is now director of human resources at the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Community School District, says that when he interviews teacher candidates, he looks for those who can see the principal fulfilling multiple roles. These roles may include a resource for data, research, training, and staff development; a facilitator or referee when committee members get bogged down on a particular issue; a provider of objective observation, guidance, and instructional leadership; and a mentor to student teachers.

"Especially in schools with team management, a question like this is important to find out if the person is comfortable with shared decisionmaking and negotiating," he explains.

How would you handle a discipline problem? Dictators need not apply to Arlie Beckendorf, executive director for elementary personnel services with Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston. "Someone who is there to tell everyone what to do won't do very well in today's classroom," he says. "I want teachers to let students be involved in the ongoing process of discipline. When an infraction is committed, can the child discuss it with the teacher? Does she explain how the student can do better? Does she get the whole class to jointly come up with the rules of good behavior? If the teacher does all this, and role plays and models the rules, positive behavior will become second nature to the kids."

Describe yourself. Just the (professional) facts, advises placement associate Shauna Sutliff of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. She suggests tailoring this answer to reiterate what was included in the cover letter that landed the interview in the first place. "I'm enthusiastic, and I hope to bring out the same attitude in my students about learning" works, as does talking about why you went into teaching in the first place. "That's personal," she notes, "without being silly."

Interviewers frequently noted that they look between the lines of a candidate's replies for positive "extras" such as:

  • "A trace of enthusiasm, warmth, caring. I want to know that the person will actually hear kids' concerns and joys."
  • "Emotional maturity. Also, the ability to comment on, and even analyze, things such as curriculum. Stupidity hits you in the face--you can't miss it."
  • "Leadership skills. Even past experience putting together something like a fraternity or sorority function can show the ability to create and organize."
  • "A willingness to train in new areas and learn new approaches. This can sometimes make up for a lack of experience."

Finally, one hiring expert noted that confidence scores points every time. "This is the time to sell yourself, not to be humble. You've got 30 minutes or so to convince the employer that he or she is lucky you stopped by."


--Maria Mihalik

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