Last year I wrote a post about topics that one should be prepared to speak about in interviews for teaching positions. That post is still the most read post on my blog. It doesn’t tell you how to answer the questions, nor any specific questions. I simply made a list of topics that I, and my colleagues, remember coming up over the years in our interviews.
But that post was written by me – a teacher – and I’ve always been interested in hearing about interviews from a Principal’s perspective. So I reached out to a highly respected former principal from my school board, Mark Lafleur, who kindly agreed to share his thoughts on the topic with me.
About You: Tell us a bit about your career in education and the work you’ve done hiring staff.
For three decades I have worked in public education. I have been an administrator in three schools and I have worked centrally as the Student Success Lead for the Ottawa Carleton district. As an administrator I have interviewed and hired hundreds of staff.
Portfolios: Should a teacher bring a portfolio? What format do you like to see? What content do want to see in it?
This is a great question because it deals with an aspect of interviews that is tricky. The difficulty is that candidates are not sure about the use of the portfolio or the effect its misuse can have on the interview. So, here is my answer. Yes bring your portfolio, but understand that walking an interview committee through the portfolio will turn your limited time into a “show and tell” session that will answer questions only coincidentally. There is a way to use your portfolio to an important advantage and it’s not about format. Typically a candidate will have time to prepare answers to the specific questions. When you are preparing your thoughts, there may be an artifact in your portfolio that helps you be clear about your answer. A carefully selected artifact should provide evidence of what you have done in your practice. Pull it from your portfolio and have it ready to share as you articulate your answer. An example might be an assignment you created that helps demonstrate your understanding of inquiry based learning.
So your portfolio can be with you, but never put the “BFB” on the table. The “Big Fulsome Binder” will derail the flow of the interview. Refer to the notes you just prepared and share an artifact only if it helps you speak directly to your answer for that specific question. Ultimately this has everything to do with timing and I will come back to that later on.
First Impressions: What are some of the details about a teacher that create a good & strong first impression?
Most candidates are a bit nervous. Figure out what your tendencies are in these situations and deal with it. Looking the panel in the eye, saying hello and shaking their hands is important. It’s a social convention that matters and you should know that it sends important messages to the panel. So does your appearance. It is not about what you wear as much as how you wear it. For me it’s about comfort and authenticity. These are tough moments. If you’re comfortable in your own skin and how you have presented yourself through your clothing that will help. I have seen people be both comfortable and clearly uncomfortable in a suit and tie. Be authentic and dress comfortably. Finally, you should presume that how you present yourself will result in the panel drawing conclusions about how you will appear day by day if you are successful in getting the job. What messages are you sending? Are they professional and authentic?
Look Fors: Overall, what are you looking for in a candidate? Qualities, experience, etc.
Passion! The best candidates have passion about public education and they know how to articulate it. So, get comfortable with your own narrative. What do you love about teaching and learning. How can you tell that story in a concise and authentic way that speaks to the specific question at hand? This is the great equalizer when it comes to experience. Passion trumps experience almost every time for me as a Principal.
When it comes to qualities my answer is less than clear. People are diverse and we need that diversity in our schools to speak to the diversity of our students. There is no specific set of qualities I am looking for. But, I can tell when someone is who they are and when someone is trying to be who they think they should be for the interview. Don’t waste that time. Be you; tell your story.
When it comes to experience I would remind you that there are many ways to glean wisdom from this life. Candidates these days often have genuine and important experiences outside of schools. Again this is part of being you. Where have you been and how have those experiences resulted in your understanding of the role of public education and the necessity of a passionate commitment to teaching and learning? Your most significant learning comes from the path of your story. Tell that story. This will lead to the comfort and confidence of a strong candidate. Finally, it is not about the experience itself, it’s about what you gleaned from it. Are you a good learner? Do you know your strengths and your challenges? Are you comfortable talking about where you are right now on that journey?
Answer Format: Is there a format for responses that you find works well or that you are specifically looking for?
No, I’m not looking for a specific format but good answers have some important components in common. First, I want to know what you believe. There will be little passion in your voice if I don’t hear from you about your core principles and how they drive you. The second component is what have you done about these beliefs. In response to the specific question, tell me what you have done. Do you have an artifact to share to make your actions clear? The point is, what you believe may be very interesting but not very helpful if it has not translated into specific actions in your practice. The worst candidates often talk at length using all the buzz words but it is never clear that these interesting ideas have driven their practice to the benefit of students.
The final component for me is about your learning. Once I know what you believe and what you have done, I would like to know what you have learned. In other words, what was the impact for students and families and for you as a learner?
Many times I have prepared candidates for interviews. This ranges from long term occasional assignments to Principal competitions. I would like to suggest a method of dealing with questions that will help you get where you want to go. Assuming you have five minutes to answer a question, divide your time in this way. One minute to tell the panel what you believe, three minutes to tell the panel what you have done in your practice based on this belief, and one minute to reflect on what learning resulted. Caution! Make sure that what you say is an answer to the specific question. I have called this model the “BDL” model for believe, do, learn. I have also called it the “1-3-1” model because of its timing.
I think the model can be helpful for a couple of reasons. You can prepare your answer to any question quickly and efficiently with this approach. Divide your page up and jot down some key ideas. What is your core belief about assessment and evaluation? Why is it so important? Is your narrative ready? Great, now what have you “done” about that? Are there artifacts and examples to demonstrate that your beliefs drive your practice? Next, what have you been learning through your practice? Are you a life-long learner who is aware of your journey as an educator? What’s next for your learning and your practice?
This model can also help with nerves. When we are nervous, we can get caught up in our own heads and ramble without really dealing with the question. Worse than that, sometime we lose track of time and undermine the structure of the interview making the panel uncomfortable and making the candidate appear to be lost. If you can control the timing of the interview by controlling the pace and length of your answer this will allow you to make your best case. It will also allow for clear answers that are easy to hear. This also produces answers full of your best evidence from your personal narrative.
Answer Content: What are you looking for in a teacher’s responses generally?
I have addressed many aspects of the question above but I would add this: Authenticity is everything. If you are a new teacher candidate with limited classroom experience that is fine. Speak to the experiences you have had in a genuine way. For me this is more important than talking about hypothetical situations. Experience matters only if you have learned from the experience and allowed it to grow your practice. Speak with conviction about where you have been as a learner. This is the best chance of being you and being well received regardless of your level of experience.
Key Words: Are there “buzz words” or “key words” that you are looking to hear explicitly or is it enough for a teacher to speak to that topic without saying the exact buzzword? How do you suggest new teachers become familiar with the buzzwords & trending ideas of the moment in order to prepare?
I don’t mind if the common buzz words turn up in an interview, but there is a real danger here. Candidates sometimes choose to talk about “as, of and for” when it comes to assessment and evaluation. The danger is that sometimes they are repeating rote phrases that do not tell me about what they believe or how this has affected their practice. There is no shortcut to the development of competence or mastery as a teacher. It’s about your intelligence and your humility as a learner. It takes time and you have to accept where you are and be thoughtful about that. The use of buzz words seems inauthentic because it can make a candidate sound like they are checking off a list rather than providing thoughtful authentic reflections on their journey and their learning. You’ve got to be you!
Trouble Spots: Are there questions on which candidates tend to perform poorly & what advice would you give to teachers in order for them to improve their responses?
The short answer is yes and there are two reasons. First, some questions are not well worded and a candidate can answer the question they perceived when the panel had something else in mind. If you are not clear on the question, when you answer it you can share your understanding of the question by saying something like “for me this question is about…”. At least the panel will know why you have taken a particular approach.
The second problem is that sometimes candidates talk at length about what they think and we do not know how this has affected their practice. Regardless of the question, you have to talk about your experiences and what you have learned as a way of responding to the specific question.
Improvement Plans: Do you expect teachers to be familiar with the school & board improvement plans? If so, how do you suggest teachers find out about each school’s improvement plan?
If a candidate talks about a school or a district improvement plan that is fine but I need to know how they connect. The people in the room know the plan. Any comment you make must connect directly to you and your experience. How does the plan support your thinking? There should be a clear reason you referenced the plan and it should have to do with your practice.
Other: Any other words of advice you’d like to share?
This work you are choosing is an extraordinary thing. The fundamental structure of our democracy in Canada is dependent on a solid public education. If this work is in your heart it will drive your efforts and these efforts will be noticed. Your time will come.
If you want to talk more, please feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank-you so much to Mark for taking the time to share his wealth of knowledge and experience with our new teachers. Best of luck to all of you as we head into the hiring season!
– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)