Published Online: March 25, 2009

Teaching Secrets: Find the Job You’ll Love

Spring is in the air, and there’s no better time to start looking for the teaching job you’ll love. Maybe you’re dissatisfied in your current position, or a newbie jumping into the field straight out of school. You’re entitled to work in a place that "gets" you and wants what you have to offer. Your goal is not to take the first job offered, but to get offered the job that will make you happy.

Looking for a teaching position in March or April signals to a potential employer that you are not the bottom of the barrel. Avoid the last-minute job lottery and be in control of the interviewing situation. Start now.

This advice list is not for the faint of spirit, those compelled to follow the school district hiring system. These eight steps are reserved for you maverick job-seekers who are ready to hunt high and low for your dream position, leaving nothing to bureaucratic chance.

Step 1: Make Lists About Yourself

To help you narrow your school search, write down the activities, classes and electives that you’ve taught in the past—then make a separate list of activities, classes, and electives that you are interested in teaching. Create a master list you can pitch to a principal in an interview.

Step 2: Make Lists of Areas/Districts That You'd Want to Work in

Starting with your state department of education Web site, investigate the school systems in the areas you’d be happy live in. Look at maps of counties and draw circles around areas you are willing to commute to and from. Determine a list of districts based on drive time. Quality of life, after all, starts with downsizing your commute—whether you’re fighting traffic lights all the way, or spending too many lonely hours on rural back roads.

Step 3: Target Certain Schools

Return to the Internet. I went to sites like greatschools.net that compile school data from many different sources. These sites were invented for school-shopping parents, but they are also great resources for savvy teachers searching for jobs. I searched out the middle schools in my circled districts and focused on certain criteria. Yours might be different, but here’s what I zeroed in on:

• Demographics – I wanted a diverse population, so I made sure there were many slices on the subgroup pie charts. I’ve also had great success with English-language learning students in the past, and I wanted to continue teaching in a school with ELL populations.

• Teacher Turnover – Too much or too little? Too much turnover could be a sign of weak leadership. Too little could signal tiresome times ahead, with plenty of same-old same-old.

• School Awards/Recognition – I was coming from a California Distinguished School, and I figured that if I found another Distinguished School, I could use that as a pitching point.

• API/AYP – API is California’s Academic Performance Index for schools. Most states have something similar. I know these indicators aren’t the best ways to judge schools, but it would be irresponsible of me to enter into a school interview without knowing the school’s circumstances and likely goals. Each individual teacher must gauge honestly whether you are up to certain challenges in a school setting or whether those battles just aren’t yours to fight. Remember, you want to be happy, not just employed.

Step 4: Scout the Territory

Drive around the areas of most interest to you. You will learn a lot about the community and school by just cruising the nearby streets. Walk into neighborhood restaurants or stores. Have a cup of coffee in a popular diner. Do your homework and pay attention to your gut reaction to the environment. Remember, if you love where you work, you might one day consider moving closer to it.

Step 5: Send Out Your Applications to Both the District HR and the Principals

Let me say that again: do both. School districts will tell you that the proper process for hiring is to send your application to their human resources office, then interview with HR, then let them recommend you to a principal, blah-blah-blah.

That method is too passive for my tastes. Here’s what worked for me.

Don’t totally dismiss the HR department. Send them their application package, then call them for an interview. (Don’t wait for them to call you.) But the minute you have narrowed down the list of schools you want to pursue, start contacting the principals yourself. Make an appointment with the head honcho, even if it’s just a handshake meeting or resume drop.

If a principal likes you, he or she will call HR and make sure you are theirs for the hiring. On the other hand, if all you’ve done is meet with HR and the interviewer there doesn't like you, you’ll never get into the principal’s office. In the vast majority of districts and schools, the principal has final say over the selection of new teachers. But principals can’t insist they want you unless they meet you.

Also, don’t despair if you meet a principal for a handshake and they end up not calling. Later, they may remember you as the teacher who took the time to meet with them. Sometimes a principal finds out in August that a teacher is not returning, so make yourself as memorable as possible.

Step 6: Make Nice With the Office Manager

The office manager is the person who puts your package on the principal’s desk with an “I just met the nicest teacher!” or a “You’ll never believe the doozie that just walked in.” Watch out with office managers. They can be beautiful, loving, nurturing people or they can be incredibly “turfy.” As Gump would say, “they’re kinda like a box of chocolates….” You know the rest.

Step 7: The Actual Interview

The most important tip for interviewing is: don’t BS. Yes, it’s useful to insert certain words and philosophies (“student-centered,” “multiple-intelligences,” “collaboration,” “differentiation”) into the conversation, but if you don’t buy into something, don’t bring it up. It's like entering into a relationship with someone. Don't tell them you like romantic dramas if you really like sci-fi, or you'll be stuck watching "The Notebook" on Saturday night.

Remember, your interview is a pitch. Make sure you are sharing your successes, perhaps even the challenges you’ve conquered, but you’re not there to confess your failures.

Keep in mind that a principal will want to know how you will work with colleagues, how you will interact with parents, how you will handle multiple types of learners in the classroom, and what your thoughts are on discipline and content. Be prepared for a panel of interviewers as well, perhaps even members of different departments.

Step 8: When You Get the Call...

Make sure the school district agrees to take all of your education units and teaching years. Sometimes a public system won’t want to acknowledge years spent in the private sector, or they might say they’re unwilling to accept college credits from certain programs. If you’re a candidate who brings specialized qualities to the job, stand firm. Your future salary and benefits are at stake.

And if you’ve already earned tenure at your current district, I think that should always travel with you. You can decide if you want to insist on it, but don’t avoid the question. Often it’s just about asking. Don't shy away from these important career issues in the negotiations stage of the hiring process, only to have your hopes dashed later when your contract is put on the table.

Good luck with your search, and remember: You are interviewing a district and school as much as they are interviewing you. Keep your ultimate goal in mind: To love where you work and enjoy what you're doing every day.

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