THE TEACHER INTERVIEW…Some useful responses to the most frequently asked questions.
“If someone ever asks you if you can do a certain job, say, “Of course I can!”, then quickly go and learn how to do the job!”
– Theodore Roosevelt
The research indicates that about 10 seconds after you enter the room for your interview, the employer has already made a mental judgment of “Yes” or “No” about you as the successful candidate. Now, you would not have gotten this far in college if you weren’t a pretty sharp individual, so you might be asking this question… If the decision about me has already been made in the first 10 seconds, why should I worry about suggested answers to the most frequently occurring questions? An astute question. We believe the we have some responses that the average interviewee does not make, which, if he or she made them, would cause people’s eyes to widen and their jaws to drop. Many of our students have come back and told us that some interviewers were amazed by these answers- and told the job seeker as much. Having lead interviews for teachers for 19 years, I guarantee that the people asking the questions will talk about you in a positive way after you leave the room if you answer questions that include these suggestions… Will it get you the job- Maybe. If there are callback interviews – will they call you? Probably. So what are we saying? Our suggested responses can change the Zeitgeist so to speak. In other words, we believe that our suggestions disrupt the tyranny of the “10 Second Rule.” Therefore, unless you arrive at the interview late, wearing jeans, and say “What’s up Dude” at the handshake- you will still be alive and kicking at the conclusion of the interview regardless of the a priori decision that might have been made about you 10 seconds after you walked into the room…That being said, let’s take a look at the questions that appear most frequently at interviews for teaching jobs. Here the list…
1. Tell us about yourself.
2. What is your Philosophy of Education?
3. What can you tell us about your classroom management skills?
4. What would you do if a student told you what you can do with yourself?
5. What is one of your strengths, and one of your weaknesses?
6. What do you know about assessment?
7. What can you tell us about Special Education Law? (follow-up) What’s the difference between an accommodation and a modification?
8. Do you have any thoughts about School Climate?
9. Do you have any other questions, or anything else you would like to share with us?
Tell us about yourself.
This is not an actual question, but it serves as a nice ice breaker. Here, the interviewers are checking out what you look like, how you are dressed, what your personality is like, how warm, passionate, humorous, you are, but most of all, they don’t really care that much what you say at this point, as long as you can string sentences together in appropriate English. Remember that only seven per cent of one’s message is effective based on the information dispensed. The rest is based on how you said the information- your face-eyes-smile-gestures-posture-dress, etc. So what do you talk about?
In the Clint Eastwood movie Heartbreak Ridge, Eastwood plays a tough, grizzly old veteran Gunnery Sergeant who has to get a group of less than gung-ho Marines ready for combat. His Captain, a bespeckled, nerdy but nice, college boy says to Eastwood… “You know Gunny, I was President of my college ROTC Club!” Eastwood’s facial expression is priceless, and his comment is something like, “I’ll sleep better at night knowing that sir…” The bottom line- don’t talk about when you were head of the cheerleaders or president of the student government- sorry, but nobody cares. Talk instead about general qualities of personality in one or two minutes and give a couple of specific examples. For example, talk about your passion, your dedication, your respect for the chain of command- all of which can be shown by my volunteering to save the Emperor Penguins when I was a volunteer for Greenpeace… Make sure to bring the plane in safely in about 1-2 minutes without complaining or criticizing your last place of work, school, or boss, because that will immediately translate into YOU being the problem.
What is your Philosophy of Education?
For the most part, you don’t have one yet- you just want a job. They pretty much know this, but they want to hear how you think. The biggest mistake you can make here is to paint yourself in to the corner with some dogmatic philosophical point about education which you adopted after hearing a political candidate on TV last week who might espouse a position totally opposite of what the decision maker believes. Sinclair Lewis gave this definition of a politician… “One who is ample and vague on all subjects!” Here, we don’t want to be ample, but you should definitely be vague. The answer should include most of the following thoughts: As a young educator, its logical to assume that my Philosophy of Education is an EMERGING ONE. As I develop it, I try to take an ECLECTIC APPROACH, meaning that I try to incorporate the best strategies and ideas from the many fine teachers I have been taught by. That being said, I endeavor to take an approach that is both SCHOLARLY and HUMANISTIC. The research on what one’s favorite teacher was like always focuses first on the personal qualities of KINDNESS, PATIENCE, and HUMOR combined with providing a STIMULATING & CHALLENGING ACADEMIC ATMOSPHERE. That is my goal right now as I develop this philosophy. This kind of thoughtful response will raise a few eyebrows.
What can you tell us about your Classroom Management Skills, especially as it relates to Disciplining Students?
Here, school administrators are looking for teachers who will not write up hundreds of students and merely send them to the office. They love it when teachers regularly contact parents and involve them in the process- making sure to send positive notes home- not just negative ones, and they love problem solvers because most of their days are spent solving problems caused by others. So what are some things you should say here? Finally, administrators are fanatics about student engagement or time on task- so mention you goal to keep students engaged from bell to bell.
1. Include something simple like a point about positioning and time management… I have tried to make myself a student of Classroom management strategies because the politicians seem to think that all that is necessary to teach is that a person have brains. If you have no tools, however, your class will become chaotic. So, for example, I am always careful to position myself so that I see as much of the class as possible and never have my back to students- even when I am talking to one student. I never take the bait, and seldom if ever confront a student in front of everyone if I can speak to a student privately and deny him “the stage,” so to speak. I try to always start class ON TIME, by having something for the students to do the moment they walk into the room. Those are just a couple of examples.
When it comes to disciplining students, I will try to involve PARENTS in the process where possible. For example, suppose YOU were acting up in my class (Look straight at the group leader forcefully). I would ask to see you privately and I might say, “Johnny, this is my cell phone. I have your Mom’s work number. The next time I have to talk to you about hitting other kids, we are going to call your Mom right here from class and you can tell her why she is getting the call. Do you think she’ll be happy to hear from you? Right, she won’t. So I know you are going to stop behaving this way right? Good. See you tomorrow. Tomorrow, or several days later when YOU(Johnny)are acting up, I might just hold my cell phone out and wave it at Johnny from a distance- or point to it….and if the word got out that I actually made you do it- (ask the interviewers the rhetorical question) “What do you think would happen to the frequency of my discipline problems?”
At this point, your interviewers will be laughing their heads off or they will be speechless. They will have basically fallen in love with you by this point. They may not want to let you off the property without your signature on a contract! Well, that is a little overstated, but you get my point. NOBODY is answering a question like this- NOBODY!
Which brings up another important tip… Always provide examples that include the people in the room in your hypothetical. We did that in the above response. Look them right in the face and say, suppose you Dr. Smith and Mr. Jones are pushing and shoving in my class… I would not overreact, but I would tell you to sit down and that I will talk with you after class. After class, I would write up a disciplinary referral for both of you. Then I would say that I could send this down to the office, but I am such a nice guy, I am going to keep it here in the drawer. If you guys ever do this again though, it goes down to the office with a second referral- it’s all up to you, boys. Include the people in the room in the hypo- make them the crazy parent or the misbehaving student. However, keep the Principal in his role as Principal. Thus, “You(pointing to him) are my boss.” “I am going to follow the CHAIN OF COMMAND, and I will try to follow your suggestions and I am going to keep you informed when I have spoken with parents of these two individuals here who were in a scuffle, because I know that they will no doubt be calling you or the Superintendent, so I don’t want you being caught with no knowledge about some issue. Then all you need to do is tell me to “take care of the problem”, and I will do that to the best of my ability.” I may lack experience, but I try to be a PROBLEM SOLVER, not a HAND-WRINGER.(Oh dear, what do I do now?) Your questioners will be getting the “Bends” by now from hyperventilating about your answers!
What would you do of a student told you what you can do with yourself?
This question is not usually on the list of prepared questions that the interviewers are going to ask everyone. Usually, an irreverent question like this is asked by some macho character in the room, and if you are a petite female, it is even more likely to be asked of you. Did I hear you say, “That’s not Fair?” Get over it- they will be plenty more and worse things that are not “Fair.” So how do we answer this? The first suggestion is to make them squirm just a little by providing your own clarification- something like this… “Oh you mean like where a kid tells me to go F— myself?” This will bring a sheepish nod of the head by the questioner, or perhaps a cough followed by a quiet “Ah, Yea…” The others in the room will know that you just zinged him back too and will respect you for saying it, and the first thing they say when you leave the room is, “Boy she got you on that “what you should do with yourself question, Bob”…did you hear how she jumped right on that- I LIKE her!”
Well, you just scored some points, but you have not actually answered the question yet, so here is a suggested approach to the irreverent question. Remember, first, that it is being asked for its shock value, so keep an absolute poker face on the matter. As they say in court- act as though you expected a question like this and be stone-faced about it. Then say that you would not overreact, but I would remind the student that what he said was inappropriate, and that the school discipline code expects teachers to write a student up for this kind of language, but let’s start by you seeing me for a few minutes after class and we’ll discuss it. If the student does not stay after class, then I send the disciplinary referral down to the office- end of story. My goal, however, is to CHANGE behavior, so if the person does stop in after class as requested, I might try one of two things. 1) I would show him the disciplinary referral and show him in the discipline code what will probably happen to him. Then I might- depending on whether he in contrite and apologetic- tell him that I am going to keep this referral in my drawer. Any further behavior like this and I write the next one up and send them both down to the office.
2) If the student is younger, I might have him write down what he did on a piece of paper. I then, with a flourish, put it in a business envelope and tell the student that I am going to put a stamp on this and address it to your father’s place of business so you can’t intercept it. However, since I am such a nice guy, I will keep it here in the drawer, and next time you talk like this, I put the letter in the mail- along with the new incident. Boy, won’t Dad be surprised to read this?! That will likely be the end of the problem.
Once again, you will leave them speechless- or laughing maniacally as they say “Why didn’t I think of that?” to themselves. They will be impressed by your dispassionate, business-like approach to the matter. What started out as a rogue question will wind up scoring heavily in your favor.
What is one of your strengths, and one of your weaknesses?
This is a question generic enough to be handled by practically every book you read related to the job search and interview processes. Sometimes it might be asked, “What are three mistakes you have made?” or What was your biggest mistake, and what did you learn from it? or “What have you learned and what changes have you made based upon your weaknesses?” You can get better advice on this non education-specific question by checking the most popular online sites. One we recommend is JobInterview.net. Among a wide array of strategies and ideas, they have an interview question index listed by a key word like “Weaknesses” in alphabetical order. Matt and Nan De Luca, authors of several books on interviews suggest that you tell a story. Since you can be sure that you will be asked a question like this, you can think of the story in advance, and keep it concise. The story should tell an incident in your life, what happened, and how you overcame the problem and learned from it, made appropriate adjustments, etc. Since the most important thing in the lives of us imperfect individuals as regards mistakes is not that we make them, it s that we learn from them and do not repeat them.
Matt and Nan DeLuca assert that these kind of questions are asked because the interviewer is looking to determine how well you know yourself, your credibility, and how you react to different situations. The questions are coming. Remember the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin on preparation…”Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Prepare for your interview by consulting Job Interview.net and other sources for those non-education specific questions.
What do you know about assessment?
Nobody likes this topic, but everyone acts like it is the most important thing in education. The people talking to you hate it also, and have others doing the work for them as regards the process, preparation and reporting of scores in the State Standardized Testing. You need to convey your belief that accountability is important in education and if we are going to assert that we are doing a good job, then there must be documentation to support the claim. Since your role in the state-wide process is to serve as a proctor for exams, you can move right to the assumption that they are referring to teacher made assessments based on what is going on in the classroom.
You will tell them that the Curriculum Triangle is an important concept to embrace. Imagine a triangle with each point entitled “Written”- “Taught”- and “Tested”…Therefore, what is written in the curriculum guide should be what is taught, and what is taught is what should be tested. This is how we achieve validity and quality control. Then you ask a question out of the blue- For example, has anyone heard of IPSATIVE ASSESSMENT? Of course, no one will have heard of it, but you say, that, as a student of assessment types, you just learned this one yourself and it means an assessment where a student is competing against himself- in other words. He is trying to better his score or time from a previous time when he took the test. Assessments can range from “Informal Assessment” to “Rubric-Based Assessment”, and you want them to know you are aware that you may have students with disabilities in your classes so some form of “Alternative Assessment” may have to be used. Can you give us an example they might ask? Yes, I may have to have an open ended time limit for a student or I might have to read the exam to him, would be an appropriate answer.
What do you know about Special Education Law? Also, what is an IEP?
Relax, most of the people in administrative positions know a little about Special Education Law and dread all of the issues and concerns, lawyers, child advocates, meetings, constraints, and changes that occur in this process. There is an answer which you can give which I explain to all of my students. If you give this answer, it will show the people in the room that you might just know more than they do about special education law. It will also tell them that, by hiring you, the district will have a person that will keep them out of court. Here is the one sentence response…write it down.
Here’s is what I know about Special Education Law and it is the foundation on which everything rests, namely, Under the IDEA, all children are entitled to FAPE in the LRE, and this is placed in writing in a legal document known as the IEP. For all of these acronyms, you say the individual letters, except for FAPE where you say it as though it is a word like “TAPE” except for the F. What do these mean? You probably won’t be asked this since you will have “stopped the show” with this answer- the interviewers will be in shock that a person so young is so aware of the law. However, it is important to know what these mean so as not to be disingenuous, so briefly the acronyms mean the following:
1. IDEA- This is the law, passed by Congress and signed by the President known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It has its basis in the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
2. FAPE- All children are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education. This means that if your child has Rhett’s syndrome and must be transported to a special school each day for children with similar special needs and the child needs an adult to be with her all day, you the parent don’t have to pay for it because the education for all children is supposed to be free.
3. LRE- This refers to the Least Restrictive Environment. It means that, to the extent possible, your child with special needs is going to be in 1) The same classroom as the other kids in the neighborhood, or 2) The same building as the other kids but in a special class for some of the day, or 3) the same building but a special class all day, or 4) A different place that can focus on the child’s special need, or 5) a residential setting, or 6) at home. The point being that the target destination for all children starts out as the same classroom same school as everybody else, or there must be appropriate documentation to support a lower level placement. This is a simplified explanation of a complex process.
4. IEP. This means Individualized Education Program. This is an acronym identifying a legal document as well as a process outlining all of the things that will be involved in the education of a child with special needs. Determine today to make yourself an expert on the IEP process. The people interviewing you will not be experts, but compliance with the law is required and you need to be able to say accurate things when giving your answer.
Here are some important aspects of an IEP presented in a list fashion. Your preparation for the interview should include speaking intelligently to the question and incorporating as many of the following facts as you can.
1. Under the Handicapped Act of 1975 (PL 95-142),Every child in the United States is entitled to FAPE (Free, Appropriate, Public Education)
2. This act mandated that the IEP (Individual Education Program) is the cornerstone of the student’s education.
3. In every school, a team meets to create the IEP. That team consists of the Parents, an Administrator with the ability to commit district resources/time/money, the child’s teacher or teachers (This is where you come in!), and a guidance counselor or school psychologist.
4. No changes may be carried out without parent approval.
5. Meetings are held once a year and once agreed upon and signed, the IEP becomes legally binding.
6. The IEP lists the child’s current status and ability levels in school and clearly spells out with express(written) goals, where the people involved expect the student to be by the end of the year.
7. An important question that will be asked is whether the setting is appropriate to the goals of the IEP.
8. Any special accommodations in testing, for example, or with assistive devices are also listed.
9. Where there is disagreement, the parent is entitled to a hearing and may bring appropriate legal representation.
Now you know about IEP’s. You won’t need a book. Learn this information well and you will know as much or more than the people in attendance unless one of them is the Special Education Coordinator. Additionally, today, not tomorrow, sign up for a free newsletter that comes to you weekly online from Wrightslaw. This is an organization which provides legal and practical strategies for parents and teachers related to all matter of Special Education issues. With a little bit of reading and preparation you will know more about Special Education Law than 90% of the people in your school district. With the information above, you are already in the top 25%!
What suggestions would you have to improve school climate?
This is more of a question for administrators, but teacher involvement is important to this process, because, all too often, the decisions and strategies involved are being promulgated by those furthest away from the kids. Your only suggestion would be to increase the number of positive announcements and mailings that go home to parents, For example, does your school announce everyone that gets accepted to college or who receives a scholarship? Tell them you volunteer to do that because positive reinforcement is essential for students and staff alike and provides lots of positive PR for the school and the district. Besides, why should only sport successes be trumpeted in the morning announcements? Don’t scholarly achievements deserve equal or better amounts of time? Everybody will be shaking their heads in the affirmative on this one. How can they argue with it? You can add, “and I say this as one who is an athlete and has played sports all of his life- academics must be the focus!”
Do you have any questions for us or anything else you would like to share?
This is an important moment. Think about those people who are interviewing you. They are stuck there until you are done. They are your prisoners! They have asked you an open-ended question and have given you the floor! Don’t blow it! Also, don’t take up more than 3 minutes. Here is a suggestion:
Instead of the usual “Ah, Nope!” or “How soon will you be arriving at a decision?” you now play the Ace you have up your sleeve in the form of a letter from a special person who was speaking about you in glowing terms. We all have one of these. You say, “Yes, I have two things I would like to bring to your attention…” Here, you stand up which puts your head higher than everyone else- the power position- and with a bit of drama added you say that, you don’t want to take up too much of their valuable time, but you would like to share one important point about yourself that you have highlighted in yellow as you give a copy of this letter to everyone in the room… “Notice here in the highlighted area where Professor ____ stated that of all students he has ever worked with, my passion and intellectual curiosity were by far the best he has ever seen at this level, etc… Returning slowly to your seat, you now mention that you would also like to add the following:
This is where you say something along these lines… Once again, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today. I know that you have many fine candidates for this position, so how do you distinguish them since they all have a degree and a fine transcript? Well, I also bring to the table my willingness to get involved in extra-curricular activities such as (don’t mention coaching first, we want them to look at you as the “Renaissance” person that you are!) Student Government, Class Advisor, Dramatics, Coaching, etc. I think it’s important that kids get to see you in a different setting than just the classroom, so I welcome the opportunity to get involved with extra-curricular things.
At that, you tell them that, unless they have any other questions, you are finished. They will thank you and tell you that you will be hearing from them soon. It’s OK at this point to shake hands with the people in the room and thank them individually. There you have it. If you provide answers like those shown above you will be called back- or offered the job- that is, unless some unforeseen political matter dictates that the board has to select another person. This happens more than people want to admit, and if it happens to you, know that it was not your expertise but other factors beyond your control. Get ready for the next interview!