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Professional Development Opinion

Response: ‘Tips to Land Your First Teaching Job’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 05, 2019 20 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your suggestions for people applying for their first teaching job?

Part One included recommendations from Valerie Ruckes, Sanée Bell, Dr. PJ Caposey, Candace Hines, Mary Cathryn D. Ricker, and Rinard Pugh. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Valerie, Sanée, PJ, and Candace on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s guests are Marquitta Mitchell, Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, Susan Lafond, Julia Thompson, Joe Mullikin, and Sean Ruday.

Response From Marquitta Mitchell

Marquitta Mitchell is a teacher-leader at West Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, N.C., and she will be entering her 2nd year as a Hope Street Group fellow. She has two bachelor degrees from North Carolina State University and a master of arts in English from National University. She has been an educator in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district for 12 years:

5 Tips to Land Your First Teaching Job

You’ve submitted the application for your first teaching job and you’re preparing for the interview! Be a standout with these four practical tips:

#1 Lead with Passion

While it may be cliché, it has to be true if you want a job teaching students. True passion results in a positive attitude, optimistic spirit, and persevering nature. Your interviewers will be looking to see if you’re pumped about trying new things and tackling the challenges ahead of you. Make it obvious that your passion is in the right place. Talk about your methods for supporting students and keep the focus off of personal success. Refrain from discussing your desire to make money, secure employment, start fresh, or climb the professional ladder. While you may have aspirations of your own, your passion for education must shine through.

#2 Make Time for Reflection

As a new teacher, you will not do everything perfectly. Even veteran teachers make mistakes! You will have have dozens of students under your care, so you will have to maneuver carefully and learn as you go. The ability to self-reflect is a necessity for educators. At the end of my busy day, I sit at my desk and review every decision I made. What words of encouragement did I fail to say? Which students didn’t get the support they needed? In interviews, my assistant principal often asks candidates about a time they received feedback and what they did in response. Just know that as a teacher, you won’t always receive feedback or have someone to tell you what to say or do differently. Your interviewers will be looking to hire someone who can do that thinking for themselves and show up ready to do things better than they did the day before.

#3 Dress the Part

Far too many times, I have interviewed candidates and was immediately turned off by their appearance. You don’t have to wear a three-piece suit to make a good impression, but your dress says so much about you before you even speak. A wrinkled outfit and messy appearance show that you may not pay attention to detail or time constraints. Dressing too casually, in leggings, shorts, or sweats tells people that you don’t take this work seriously, which could cause an administrator to question your professionalism going forward. Finally, remember that you are working with students, so articles of clothing should be appropriate for the workplace—not too short or revealing. Teaching is a profession, so professional attire is a must!

#4 Know the Students & the Data

As a new teacher, you will want to get to know your students—their hobbies, pet peeves, and goals—but those won’t tell you the full story. Educators also spend time looking at students’ data to see what their test scores reveal about their knowledge, work ethic, and skills. Sometimes teachers can be too data-focused, only seeing the numbers instead of the students. Other teachers don’t pay attention to the data at all—focusing only on their students’ happiness. An effective teacher will try to find a balance between the two, and it will show in the classroom’s culture. In your interview, provide specific procedures you will put in place, like having frequent, individualized data conversations with students to talk to them about their performance. Relate their test scores and the work you assign to their postsecondary goals. Help them figure out what they can do differently, and ask how you can help. As a teacher, it will be your job to nurture your students while helping them learn new things and reach new heights.

Response From Luis Javier Pentón Herrera

Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, Ph.D., is currently a high school English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, and he is also an adjunct professor in TESOL, Spanish, writing, and education at different colleges and universities. He is serving on the Maryland Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (MDTESOL) board of directors as its 1st vice president. His research focuses on bilingual education, Spanish, ESL/ESOL, literacy studies, and Hispanic pedagogues:

Applying for your first teaching job can be a stressful and enigmatic process. There are many factors that you cannot control, such as the grade, content level, and even school where you will teach. To make this process easier, my five recommendations to consider when applying for your first year of teaching are:

  1. Learn about the culture and leadership at that school/institution

    . The top/leadership impacts the daily modus operandi of the institution and is the one that directly shapes the school culture and motivation of teachers. Your first year of teaching will mark your career as an educator. Make sure you equip yourself with enough information about the school/institution you are applying to before you devote your first year of teaching to them. Remember that, for many new teachers, what they experience during their first year of teaching will decide whether or not they stay in the field.

  2. If at all possible, substitute at that school/institution before applying.

    Substitute teachers have the opportunity to experience firsthand the reality of the school/institution. There is no better way to learn about student behavior, the administrators, teachers, and resources available in the school than substituting. If possible, substitute more than once to get an overall well-rounded experience of what to expect when working as a teacher for that school/institution. When substituting, ask students about how they feel in school and what they like the most about that particular institution; students often answer to these types of questions with candor.

  3. The idea of networking is all about making connections and making you feel like you are not alone in the world during your first year of teaching. The truth is that your first year of teaching will be challenging because you are learning about your students, your institution, the curriculum, and how to better teach your classes. All of these experiences could prove to be alienating if you do not have anyone to reach out to inside and outside of your school. In your first year of teaching, network with colleagues, become involved in local/state organizations to meet people with your same interests, attend networking events, and build a web of collegial support to lift you up emotionally in your tough teaching days and guide you professionally when you need an academic advise.

  4. Do not close the door to other opportunities too soon.

    During your first year of teaching, you will be more than likely very anxious to secure a job and/or teaching contract. The administrators interviewing you at different schools know this and, if they are very desperate to fill in teaching positions, they do their best to get you a contract from human resources as soon as possible. My recommendation is to stop yourself from jumping to the very first opportunity that comes to you; at least give yourself the chance of interviewing at two or three different institutions before you commit yourself to one school.

  5. Even veteran teachers are all still learning. During your first year of teaching, there will be lots of information that you will have to learn (acronyms used in your school county, how to proctor standardized tests, Standard Learning Objectives, observations, etc.). All of this information can (and is!) truly overwhelming. My advice to you is to not worry. I continue to learn every year that even veteran teachers are still learning. Every year something changes or something new comes up. Just enjoy your new experiences and take them in for what they are, new knowledge; after all, we became educators to teach and continue learning.

Similar to many educators, my first year of teaching was very challenging, and I almost changed careers because of that experience. However, if I would have read these five recommendations, I would have done things a little differently. It is my hope that, after reading my suggestions, you feel more prepared about your first year of teaching and what you should expect from it. Best of luck!

Response From Susan Lafond

Susan Lafond, a national-board-certified Teacher in English as a New Language (EAYA ENL), has 20 years of combined experience teaching ESL and foreign language. As an assistant in Educational Services with New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), she focuses on regulations and educational issues related to English-learners (ELs) and ENL/Bilingual programs, as well as creating and organizing professional development across the state on ELs. Susan has been serving on the AFT National English Language Learner Educator Cadre since 2004 and is an expert practitioner and adviser to Colorín Colorado:

My advice for people applying to their first teaching job is to “get their ducks in order.” This includes reviewing your resume and cover letter to eliminate any grammar and spelling errors. Your first impression is made on paper, and there are no do-overs! Ask multiple people to read them and give you feedback. A well-written resume or cover letter will increase your chance of getting past the door for a face-to-face interview.

Another “duck” to address is to critically scrutinize your social-media footprint. What is out there on you on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. (e.g. pictures from parties, links, graphics, pages you Like or Follow, tweets) or that you are tagged in on other people’s pages that could work against you? Check your privacy settings of who sees your posts and can share them and consider cleaning house by starting new accounts.

Before the Interview

If you have been asked to come in for an interview, there is still work to be done when it comes to preparing for this opportunity. Before you go, do some research on the district where you are applying. Use your networking skills to identify people who currently work there. Pick their brains, as they will have the true understanding of the district from the inside. Go on the district’s website, find out what the district’s initiatives are, and incorporate some of that phrasing in your responses to their questions.

Anticipate or ask others for potential questions you might be asked and carefully craft your responses. Again, ask for feedback from veteran teachers. You can expect the following topics to make an appearance one way or another:

  • Working on a team (may include co-teaching)
  • Instructional strategies
  • Knowledge of state and English-Language Proficiency standards
  • Testing students (familiarity with mandated process and exams, formative assessment)
  • Parent engagement and student advocacy
  • Challenges and strengths—Remember you want to sell yourself. Share what you have to offer, such as special skills or extracurricular activities you do after school.

During the Interview

You will want to prepare your own questions ahead of time and bring them with you along with a copy of your resume, credentials/certification, references, and a notepad. Jot down notes at the interview. If anything, it gives you a chance to gather your thoughts and be deliberate and strategic with your response rather than speaking too quickly or ... um ... hesitating while ... uh ... you think. Answer questions honestly since you don’t want to mislead interviewers. If you don’t have certain knowledge, skills, or experience, let them know you would be eager to learn. We all know that an interview is stressful, so be positive and remember to smile!

Questions you may want to ask at the interview:

  • “What will my teaching schedule look like?”
  • “What kinds of classes or periods will my schedule include?”
  • “Will I be working in multiple buildings?”
  • “What are the next steps after this interview, and when do you anticipate making your final decision for this position?”

After the Interview

In order to not be forgotten and to leave a positive memory of you, send a thank-you note within two business days to the lead interviewer. Reiterate your interest in the position and working at that school. Now is the time to add anything you forgot to say due to nervousness.

For more ideas, check out the article I wrote, How to Prepare for an ESL Job Interview.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is currently a teacher trainer for the Bureau of Research and Development. She is also the author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide, Fourth Edition. Thompson offers practical advice for teachers at her website, www.juliagthompson.com, her blog, www. juliagthompson.blogspot.com, and on Twitter @TeacherAdvice:

Applying for a first teaching job is one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking events in any educator’s professional life. Eager anticipation combined with the anxiety of wanting to perform well can prove daunting to even the most confident potential educator. With just a bit of effort and preparation, though, you can successfully manage this. Here are a few tips for making that memorable time of your life as productive and stress-free as possible.

  • Be flexible about your grade placement or the ability level of the students you would like to teach. Even though as a student-teacher you may have worked with only a certain grade level or type of student, be open-minded and willing to try other teaching positions if you are certified to do so. Few educators teach only one grade level or type of student during their careers. Be willing to explore new areas and let that willingness be evident during the interview.

  • Present yourself as a team player. Schools are communities within communities, and being able to work well with a diverse faculty and staff is a definite asset in today’s education job market.

  • Dress professionally for the interview. Even if the other people present for the interview are in their Casual Friday attire, you show respect for the profession and for yourself when you dress up for an interview. Your effort to dress professionally will be noted favorably.

  • Be sure to be thoroughly prepared for the interview itself. There is a wealth of interview advice waiting for you online. Use a search term such as “interview questions for teachers” to see potential questions that you may be asked. Also, find out as much as you can about the school district and the specific school where you are applying so that your responses and reactions are insightful and knowledgeable.

  • Be prepared to let your strengths as an educator shine. While you may lack experience, you have appealing qualities such as enthusiasm, a sense of humor, being unafraid to ask for help, a willingness to work hard, and an enjoyment and appreciation of students. While you don’t want to come across as arrogant, it is OK to let interviewers see that you have lots to offer in lieu of experience.

  • If you have been asked to submit a portfolio of your work, be sure that your portfolio presents you as a serious professional. The work should be well-organized, neat, and obviously of high quality. The same goes for any writing samples or other work that you may have to submit.

  • Have some questions prepared just in case you have a chance to ask them. Here is where the research you’ve done about the school or the district can help. Formulate questions that cover real concerns that you may have such as “Is the staff friendly to new teachers?” “What are the qualities of the best teachers in the school?” “What can I do to fit in and be an asset to the school right away?”

  • After the interview, be sure to write a thank-you note or email immediately. While it is tough to be the interviewee, it is also hard and time-consuming to be on an interview panel. A thank-you note is a courteous recognition of that effort by the people who interviewed you.

  • Finally, it’s OK to be nervous. If you find yourself being very nervous, take three deep breaths right before the interview. Interviewers may not look favorably on candidates who are too cocky or sure of themselves, but they will be understanding of sincere candidates who are not as at ease. Being prepared by doing research in advance of the interview will go a long way to settling your anxiety.

Response From Joe Mullikin

Joe Mullikin is an award-winning educator, consultant, and speaker. He currently serves as the principal at Highland Elementary School in northwest Illinois. You can find Joe on twitter as @joemullikin86:

Chances are if you’re looking for your first teaching job, you’ve already Googled the entire top 10 lists of things to do. As I sat down to write this, I actually thought about what my top 10 list might be, but as I thought about the feedback I’ve given to candidates over the past couple years, I came back to one thing. Stage the house.

If you’ve tried to sell a house, bought a house, or watched HGTV lately, you know exactly what I am talking about. The likelihood of selling an empty house, no matter how nice it is, is lower than if you stage it. Simply put, people must be able to envision themselves living in, or in this case with, what it is that they are buying.

Oftentimes when it comes to first interviews and first jobs, I find that aspiring educators come in with all of the “right” answers. They’ve been so entrenched in current research, best practice, and educational theory that there aren’t many questions they don’t have an answer to. The problem is that oftentimes they are selling an empty house. I’ve also read many of those books and know what the answer is, but the classroom isn’t a textbook. Every year, every classroom is a new culture within itself. Each building has its own culture. Having all of the “right” answers oftentimes doesn’t communicate what is most important.

When you’re applying and interviewing, it is important to stage the house. What will it be like to teach with you? How will you interact with students? What will you do to build relationships with staff? Much like selling a house, when you see furniture in the living room, it’s a lot easier to picture where you will put yours. When you interview, it’s important to bring that same mentality. For me there are a few key things to do to do this well.

  1. Be yourself:

    At the end of the day, you should be looking for a school that you are a good fit for and a school that is a good fit for you. You have strengths, passions, and should have an individual vision for the future of education. Make sure that shines through and make sure that you will have the opportunity to grow that light wherever you’re hired.

  1. Do your homework


    Staging the house is as much about providing examples as it is about knowing your market. Before you apply for a job and interview, you should do your homework. Learn what that district stands for. Does their mission align with yours? How will your strengths and passions support the demographic of students and families? How will your strengths support initiatives they’ve taken on? You wouldn’t buy a house without learning about the neighborhood; do your homework.

  1. Have specific examples


    I can’t stress this enough: Don’t just answer questions with philosophy, answer them with specific examples. I didn’t say they had to be your examples, though. Talk with veteran teachers, reflect on your student-teaching, and reflect on your clinical experiences and think of specific examples. Stage the house.

At the end of the day, people have to be able to picture you in the classroom in order to hire you. Providing specific examples of how you will act or behave, or have behaved, in situations allows this to happen. Articulate your strengths, passions, and vision for education. Having all of the “right” answers might not get you the job. Stage the house.

Response From Sean Ruday

Sean Ruday is an associate professor of English education at Longwood University and a former classroom teacher. He has written eight books on teaching, all published by Routledge Eye on Education, including The First-Year English Teacher’s Guidebook: Strategies for Success, published in 2018. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanRuday and find his professional website at www.seanruday.weebly.com:

As an educator of preservice teachers, I field a lot of questions from my students about getting a first teaching job. When preservice teachers ask me for advice about the job hunt, I emphasize the importance of ensuring that a particular school is the right fit for them. The most important part of the job-search process, I tell my students, is finding a school that aligns with your values as an educator and will give you the support you need to grow as a teacher. To achieve this goal, I recommend that prospective teachers ask themselves an important question: “What do I value as an educator, and how do those values align with this school’s beliefs?”

Different schools that preservice teachers interview with will have different values, missions, and instructional practices. Sometimes these are clearly stated on the school’s website or can be easily discerned from an introductory conversation with an administrator, but at other times, they can be much subtler and best determined by interviewing with school staff, visiting the building, and observing classes. For example, if you value students having a great deal of choice in their work, ask about this topic in your interview and try to find examples of it in the school’s instruction: Take a look at student work hanging on the bulletin board and consider if it contains evidence of choice in the students’ assignments. Try to visit a class and look for additional evidence of this topic.

Similarly, if you place a high priority on collaboration between teachers, look for evidence of this in the school: Ask if teachers of the same grade level and/or subject plan together, how the instructional decisions are made, and who makes those decisions. If you are interested in incorporating technology into your instruction, ask what kinds of technological resources the school has, how teachers typically use those resources to enhance student learning, and what kinds of professional development is offered to help teachers integrate technological into their teaching.

It’s tempting as a new teacher to take the first job offer you receive—the job hunt is stressful, and it’s tempting to want to end the process as quickly as possible. However, looking carefully at how a school’s values align with your own will go a long way toward your success and happiness in your new position, allowing you to thrive in your teaching career!

Thanks to Marquitta, Luis, Susan, Julia, Joe, and Sean for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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