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Education Opinion

First Place Teacher: Do you have what it takes to be a gold medal winner?

By LeaderTalk Contributor — November 28, 2010 10 min read

Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful, and in this job market, no matter what you do for a living, it is safe to say we should take a moment and be thankful for the jobs we have. Simply put, today’s job market is a gloomy one, and this does not exclude the market for teachers. Instead, of focusing on the lack of positions available, however, we would like to share some advice about how candidates can make themselves more marketable and more successful from the posting of their resumes to the appointment by the board of education.

Let’s put things into perspective, first. To all the teachers out there, though it may sound crude, the truth is, you are a dime a dozen. If you don’t believe us, read this fact: Currently, there are 1,475 teachers who have applied for one of six leave replacement positions--in ONE district! We can only assume that the same holds true for other districts, as well. Do we have your attention now?

Imagine, for a moment, that you have spent countless hours preparing and training to race in a triathlon. This multi-sport endurance event is equivalent to the various stages of the application and interview process. Just like an athlete trains for each sport, teacher candidates must be prepared to endure the challenges that come with swimming, cycling, and running, with little recovery time in between. Triathletes who come in first place are not lucky. They are prepared. They have trained their bodies and minds to withstand the physical and mental stressors they encounter throughout the journey.

When you are standing at the starting line amongst dozens of other applicants, all of whom have been prepared and trained to win first place--AKA classroom teacher--ask yourself, Why are you the best applicant for the position? Why, out of all the resumes, will your resume stand out? What knowledge will you bring to the interview? What lesson will you teach that reflects your teaching style and philosophy? Why are YOU going to win first place?

Resumes... Read, Review, Revise
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Always assume that your toughest English professor from college is reading your work. Before you click the template on Word for resume writing, take the time to research the proper formatting of an educator’s cover letter and resume. Avoid things such as centering a resume or using the word “FANTABULOUS” (Yes, in all caps!) anywhere in your cover letter. These are terrible things to do. Doing these things make you stand out--but certainly not for the best, and your resume will most likely be fed to the shredder.

A resume without a cover letter is like an athlete without proper clothing. The cover letter serves not only as a place for you to highlight your experiences, but it also serves as a writing sample. Make sure your cover letter is succinct and clear of errors. When you think your resume and cover letter are finished, put it away and wait a day before reading it again. Still think it’s done? Ask someone--preferably someone who is proud to be called a grammar geek--to review it, and then make any necessary edits and revisions.

Do Your Research: Learn the course on which you will compete.
When applying for a specific position at a specific school, use the Internet to learn everything you can about the school and the district. Practically every school has teachers’ websites linked to their homepage, and you should familiarize yourself with them. Look at the page created for parents and students. What information do these pages contain that can help you learn more about the school, the teachers, the administration? What questions do you have based on what you are seeing and reading that you can ask if you are called for an interview? Do you have knowledge of, or experience with, any programs offered at the school? For example, if the school has an advisory period, and you have experience in advisory, add that to your cover letter and resume, and don’t forget to read, review, and revise when you think you’re done!

Accepting the Interview: On your mark, get set, GO!
Many employers use email to contact applicants, so it is imperative to use an email address that you check regularly. On that note, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to create a professional email address. ilovehappyhour@aol.com may have been funny in college, but it will probably keep you from ever being employed in a classroom. The same holds true for voicemail messages. Keep voicemail simple and professional, and think about changing your ringback tone to a traditional ring instead of an unedited (or edited, for that matter) version of an Eminem song.

When you accept the interview, refer back to the “Read, Review, Revise” advice. If you are using an email that is professional, but also one you use for social reasons, be sure to delete any signature lines that could be misconstrued. To have faith in God is a wonderful thing, but using bible quotes to share your beliefs could stop you dead in your tracks and have you questioning your faith when you don’t get any calls back after the initial contact!

The Interview: The Swim
Realize also that this is just like the swim in the triathlon--the first round will have anywhere from 10-20 applicants, so you start off on a very crowded field. The interviewers will probably only give you 15 minutes in the first round. Something about your cover letter and resume was attractive, and now you have to do what you can to sell yourself in person. Two tips that may seem obvious but need to be stated: 1) Dress for success, and 2) brush your hair. Some people may have different images of what it means to “dress for success.” My advice is that you look at some of the models at stores like Banana Republic, J. Crew, or Brooks Brothers. You do not have to buy suits or professional attire from any of these places, but if you struggle with not knowing what is appropriate for a teacher interview, they will at least give you a sense of style. Looking professional, however, is only a small piece of the whole.

Many candidates ask, “What should I bring to the interview?” Avoid asking this question and just bring your portfolio with your certifications, transcripts and extra resumes. If you have an electronic portfolio or a website, make that known during the interview. If you have business cards, put the Web address on the card. Also in the age of ipads and ipods, you may want to show a page or two.
While waiting for your interview to begin, observe the environment around you, review your notes, and breathe. There is nothing more you can do to prepare at that point except prepare to present your best self and answer the questions honestly.

Confidence and knowledge stand out in interviews. Most interviews begin with a general question about yourself, so share whatever relevant information you can with the committee that allows them to learn about you and why you chose to be an educator. Throughout the interview, there will be questions you feel certain and uncertain about answering. When you are asked a question such as, “How do you teach reading?” include your honest answer, but, more importantly, support it with an example from something you have actually done. Perhaps you have this lesson documented and it happens to be in your portfolio! This is an ideal situation.

On the flip side, however, when you are asked a question that you may not have an answer for, dig deep to think about how you can connect something relevant to your answer. It is admirable to say to a committee, “Although I haven’t had the experience of writing IEP goals from scratch, I did work with my cooperating teacher on reviewing goals and learned how they are written, implemented, and monitored.” This is assuming you actually did have that experience. Don’t make up a story just to have an answer. Find a meaningful connection and work from there.

Your Questions: The Bike
The best advice for the Q&A part of the interview in one sentence: Answer honestly, with confidence, and provide supporting details from your experiences. When the committee asks you, “Do you have any questions for us?” your answer should be yes, and your questions should be just as thoughtful as your interview answers. Asking them, “How many periods do you have in a day?” or “What time does the school day begin/end, so I know what to tell my daycare provider?” are not only inappropriate, but they are details that a) can be found on most websites, and b) can be sorted out later if they are not. Remember that you want the committee to have their “wheels spinning” when you leave so finish off strong. Make sure you give a firm handshake and look them in the eye as you leave.

The Demo Lesson: The Run
If you have made it to the demo lesson, you are probably among the top three or four candidates. You are “running strong,” but you still have a long way to go. Many candidates are excellent interviewees but then trip and fall during the demo lesson process. When confirming your demo lesson appointment, if the information you need to know is not provided, ask questions. Some questions you may need answers to in order to create a lesson include:
What is the content I will be teaching? What grade? How long is the teaching period?
What information can you provide to help me understand what students have learned about the topic thus far?
How many students are in the class? Are there any modifications or interventions that certain students are familiar with that I should also be aware of?
Is the classroom equipped with technology, and, if so, what kind?
Will I be able to reconfigure the desks/tables if necessary?
May I show up early to get access to the room to set up for the lesson?

After you have the necessary information, begin planning your lesson. This is where your knowledge about the district and school can be helpful. If the school is technology centered, plan to incorporate your tech skills, and, as a side note, PowerPoint is not considered a good use of instructional technology. Use technology as an instructional tool-- not as a glorified blackboard. If you answer yes to the question, “Could I do this on the blackboard?” then you are not using technology in the way it is meant to be used with 21C students. That being said, if you are unfamiliar with using technology as an instructional tool, your demo lesson may not be the best time to attempt it.

When you design your lesson, focus on student learning and student engagement. Of course you are a pro at this because you have experience with structuring and designing lessons for your student teaching practicum, and while you have been job searching, you have used your time wisely by substitute teaching, asking teachers in your certification area if you can observe them, and reading any and every teacher journal that keeps you current. Therefore, you are fluent in the delivery of best practices, and, based on what you have learned in the interview, from the district’s and school’s website, and from observing the school environment, you know who your audience is, and you are well-prepared to engage students in learning.

Believe it or not, there are mindless things candidates do that may impede their progress in the race to the finish line. These may include, but are not limited to: 1) being late for the lesson, 2) making all your copies at the school, 3) not having a clean version of your lesson plan for the observation committee, 4) standing in the front of the room and delivering your entire lesson from one spot, 5) apologizing to the students for the work you are asking them to complete, 6) allowing students to leave the classroom (could be a sign of weakness or bad classroom management), and 7) structuring group work and then standing off to the side, disengaged. 8) and last but not least, not dressing appropriately.

The bottom line with the demo lesson is this--If you put your time and energy into developing your teaching style throughout your college years, and you were a dedicated, hardworking, reflective practitioner throughout your time as a student teacher, the demo lesson process will be a somewhat effortless and rewarding experience for you. If you are the kind of person who went into teaching because you “thought it would be fun” “like summers off” “think the hours are good” “think the job is easy” or simply could not think of a better career choice, you will drown.

Winning the Gold Medal
Congratulations! You have crossed the finish line and have received the job! What now? Let us know what you think so far and we will give a nice holiday gift to our readers in a month’s time about what to do once you get the job!

Teresa Ivey and James Yap

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.