Calm Your Interview Jitters!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Happy Teacher Interview Season! {Party hats, cake, and wine are definitely in order here, right???}

I’ve read a lot of awesome interview posts out there.  One of my friends, Kristen, from Easy Teaching Tools, has an amazing post you can and SHOULD read here. 

I’m going to write about something I don’t see very often.  I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the best at interviews.  You know those people who are really smart, but are terrible test-takers?  That’s exactly how I am with interviews.  I know I’m a great teacher who has a lot to offer {just like you!}, but interviews are not my best moments.  Some people rock every single interview and get multiple job offers at once.  I envy them!  So if you’re anything like me, I hope this post will give you some tips that may help. 

Be prepared.  This is often the hardest part!  You never know what to expect during an interview.  Even if you are months ahead of looking for a new job, you can never start too early.  Start researching common questions online.  What helped me more than ANYTHING else was to find the most common questions and then type my answers out in paragraph form.  I feel like I am much more articulate on paper than in person, and it really helped to have something to practice and memorize.  Write out bullet points to study the day of your interview to condense everything.  That also really helped me to keep track of the most important things I wanted to say.

Do some trial interviews.  If you have a trusted friend or family member, ask them to do a mock interview with you.  I even know some people who have “over applied” to many districts, even some they didn’t particularly have an interest in, just to get more interview experience.

Study current education buzzwords.  Even though I’ve been out of a university setting for a while, I always try to stay current and on top of my own professional development.  Believe it or not, even Instagram has been so helpful!  I never would have known about Lucy Calkins had it not been for IG, because people were singing her praises all over the place.  Principals who knew that I received my credential years ago have been impressed with my knowledge about what is current in the teaching world.

Talk to your friends in the district, or your teacher friends online.  Teachers are friendly and helpful!  Ask anyone who may have interviewed recently to find out what kind of questions districts are asking out there.  I always check with people who are interviewing so that I can figure out what districts find relevant, and to learn any new buzzwords.  Even when I’m not interviewing!  Check out my “The Questions” section below for tons of sample questions and ideas of what else you might expect to do during your interview. 

Start strong and end strong.  First impressions really matter!  If you start off strong with the first question, it will set the tone for the entire interview.  They will almost always ask you to talk about your education and experience first.  Make sure you have your facts memorized, and also feel confident with talking about your background.  One thing I like to do when I answer this question is to quickly make sure I mention one thing that I learned or gained from working at that particular school/district before moving on to the next thing on my resumé.  For example, I might say, “I taught first grade for five years at XYZ School, where I received training in __________ and really learned how to utilize __________ in my classroom.”  This way, I was able to let them know about training or skills ahead of time, in case the opportunity didn’t come up for me to mention some important points. 

At the end of the interview, they will also almost always ask you if there is anything else you want to mention.  I haven’t always been asked this, which is why I like to get it over with at the beginning of the interview.  Have your answer for this memorized, as well.  They may also ask you if you have any questions for them, so know what you’re going to ask ahead of time.  Ask something specific to their school, and show them that you’ve already done research, but you want to know more about a particular curriculum, technology component, school event, professional development opportunity, etc. 

Be impressed...not just impressive!  Study the school/district beforehand.  Choose a few things that impress you, maybe something about the school itself, and mention it during your interview!  They’ll be impressed that you did your homework.  Say something like, “I know you use _________, which I have experience with.”  Or, “On your website, I noticed that you had an event for __________, and I was really impressed by the amount of parent involvement.”  Maybe you love technology {like I do, that’s always my angle!}, or maybe they use a particular curriculum you are excited to try.  I always research the district website and do some sleuthing on schools in the district.  I may or may not have perused my current school’s Twitter feed {and I have to say, they were super impressed that I knew how much they rocked Read Across America week that year}.  The Great Schools website is also a resource {it usually gives API test scores and parent reviews}.  You can also research schools even deeper by finding their SARC – School Accountability Report Card - reports from prior years {usually found on the district website.  I’m not sure if this is only a California thing, though!}.  Read about the school and district news and events, new curriculum adoptions, use of technology, school clubs, character education, school and district awards, ANYTHING that can show you’ve researched them.  Find something to be excited about and connect with, and then let them know just how excited you are!

It's show time!  On the day of your interview, it’s so important to focus on yourself and take the time to breathe.  Get up early and take time getting ready.  Some say you should meditate before a big event {for example, lay on your bed for 10 minutes and imagine yourself succeeding at your interview and then the feeling you will have once you’ve gotten the job}.  Others say you should do a Superman stance {thanks Grey’s Anatomy!} to get yourself pumped.

What should you wear?  They always say “dress for the job you want”, but thank goodness teachers nowadays don’t wear the um…interesting clothes my own teachers used to wear when I was a kid!  {Insert oversized cat sweater here.}  My best advice: dress professionally, but comfortably!  This isn’t a day to try something new.  If you don’t normally wear heels, don’t wear them!  If you don’t normally rock a red lipstick, don’t wear it!  If you’ve never worn a particular hairstyle, don’t do it! You definitely don’t want to be worried about any of those things while you’re there.  Stay in your comfort zone, but dress professionally.  I say even more professionally than you normally would wear in the classroom.  Most of the people I've seen during interviews wear some sort of blazer with dress pants or a skirt.  That’s perfect.  I’m not someone who usually wears heels or skirts, so I definitely wouldn’t wear them to an interview.  My go-to outfit is black dress pants, a black blazer, a colorful shirt {to give me something to stand out}, and nice, comfortable flats.  I try to always keep it simple and professional.

The jury is still out on the “right” time to interview.  I’ve read that being the first one to interview is best, and I’ve also read that being the last one is best.  Either way, accept any time they offer you, and know that usually they only have a certain time frame in which to interview {often just one day}, so they can’t always be flexible.  If you’re unable to make the time they offer, ask if there is another time available.  If you can’t make it at all, decline gracefully, and let them know that you’d like them to hold on to your resumé for the future.

Show up to their office about 10 minutes early.  It’s never a good idea to show up late {obis.} or more than 15 minutes early.  I usually arrive to the parking lot about 20 minutes early, but I spend a good 10 minutes in my car looking over my notes, listening to my favorite song, or calling a friend to distract me!

Be friendly to the office staff and anyone else who may be waiting with you.  I almost always start up a conversation with the people who are interviewing alongside me.  We talk about what grade we teach, where we teach, the weather, anything.  It helps to appear friendly to whoever may be walking by.  And who knows, maybe you both will be hired and you’ll make a new friend!  Stay positive, say hello, and smile at anyone who walks by!

Bring a small notebook and pen.  This is handy for several reasons.  They may not mind if you take some time to jot down notes for your answers.  They will let you know if you aren't allowed to write anything down.  I’ve even been given time beforehand to look at the questions and write down what I want to say.  That was amazing!  I always jot down the names of the staff members on my interview panels.  They will almost always do a very quick introduction at the start of the interview, or they will have nameplates with their names on them.  If I’m interviewing at a district with a large panel of principals, I’ll write down their last names and look up their school site as soon as I can.  If I’m at a school site with principals and teachers, I’ll just write down the name of the principal and vice principal.  See my “After Party” section below for why this is important. 

You might be interviewing by yourself, or you may share the time with other interviewees.  If you’re interviewing alongside other teachers, usually they will have a specific spot for you to sit, and they will let you know who can answer first.  You may or may not be the first one to answer, and the order could change for every question.  This can be both great, and not so great!  Sometimes, not answering first is awesome and it will give you time to formulate an answer or jot some notes down.  Sometimes, another person will say what you wanted to say.  If someone gives your answer, just say “I agree with what ________ said,” and either mention something you would do differently or something you would add to their already great idea.  Smile at the other interviewees while you’re in there, let the panel know that you get along well with others, even in stressful situations. 

Be respectful of their time.  Most of the time, you’ll have no more than a couple of minutes to answer each question.  They may even have a timekeeper who will give you a signal that time is almost up.  This is stressful, but it’s also a big reason why it is so helpful to practice ahead of time.

When they ask you if you have any questions {most of them will save this for the end}, be sure to ask when you should hear from them.  If I don’t have anything specific to ask, I let them know that I don’t have any questions because I have already researched everything I was interested in learning.  This is also a good time to show them your portfolio, or to leave a copy of your mini portfolio with them, if you have one.  I can honestly say that I’ve never once been asked to show my portfolio, but other people have.  Even if you just have a business card with a link to an online portfolio, it’s always good to have something just in case.  Speaking of portfolios, there are a TON of websites out there with info on creating them and what should be included.  I would suggest not leaving a copy of just your resumé since most likely they already have their own copies in front of them.  However, if you have something relevant with letters of recommendation, student work samples, and/or photographs, that can often set you apart.  {Photos can be of classroom setup, student work samples, photos of you teaching a lesson, etc. Side note: steer clear of showing student names and faces!}.

Fake it 'till you make it.  This is a saying that I always find easier said than done, but I do feel like when I try to project a positive attitude and appearance, I feel more positive.  So…smile, smile, smile!  They know you’re nervous!  They’re probably nervous, too!  Stay positive and upbeat, even if you make a mistake.

If you don’t know how to answer a question, just be honest about it.  They’ll appreciate your honesty.  If you don’t have experience in a certain area or are unfamiliar with a buzzword, let them know.  Don’t be scared to ask for some time to think {but again, be mindful of their time}.  They will totally understand if you are a brand new teacher and you don’t have a lot of experience.  In this case, talk about your “ideal” situation and what you would like to do in the classroom, plus any experience you do have from student teaching or volunteering in the classroom.

So what questions should you expect?  There are a TON of websites out there that give you interview tips and sample questions.  If you Google “Teacher Interview Questions”, you’ll find so many questions, it’s overwhelming.  They are super helpful, but the reality is that every interview is different.  Every school and district is looking for something different.  You may experience something completely different than any of the examples I give, as well!

It is impossible to know what they will ask you, but there are some standard questions that are almost always asked:

* Tell us about your background and experience.
* Describe what your classroom would look like if I walked in during a _____ {reading, math, balanced literacy, guided reading, etc.} lesson.
* Why do you want to work in our school/district?
* What classroom management strategies do you use?
* What qualities do have that make you an asset to our school/district?
* Do you have any questions for us?

Some other questions I’ve been asked are:

* Do you have experience with English Language Learners and/or Title 1 schools?
* How do you use assessments in the classroom? 
* What kind of technology have you used?  Are there any specific programs you’ve used?
* How would you help a struggling student?
* How would you help a student who is off task?
* How would you help a student with an IEP?
* How do you know your students have met their goals?
* How do you set goals and expectations in your classroom?
* What training have you had?  {They’ve also asked if I’m familiar with certain programs/curriculum.}
* How do you collaborate with your team? 
* How do you communicate with parents? 
* How do you differentiate instruction?

During your interview, you may be asked to do more than just answer questions.  They might want you to perform some type of task, create a lesson, or even do a demo lesson.  Demo lessons might be to the interview panel or in a classroom full of children.  You might have the freedom to come up with a lesson, or they may even give you a lesson that has already been planned. 

I was once asked to create a lesson plan on the spot after I was given a list of standards and grades to choose from.  I was given standards from K-5 in both ELA and Math, and I spent a lot of the time debating whether or not I should go with something more comfortable {like a guided reading lesson}, or something that I thought would be more fun and engaging {a shapes and geometry lesson}.  In that situation, I actually thought of an awesome TpT activity from Easy Teaching Tools, so I incorporated some of the fun things from that unit to add in to my lesson.  I’m not sure if they were wowed by it, but I was definitely confident in how I approached it and it was an activity I had done with my students already.  Choose something comfortable to you.  If they ask you questions about it, then you’ll be able to explain it easily.  Remember to have a “hook” or an opening {including a reminder of “yesterday, we learned…”} and an engaging lesson.  It’s ok to talk about your ideal situation, so you can include the use of technology, how you would assess, and if you have time, how you would extend or differentiate the lesson. 

Occasionally, you’ll be stumped by a question that will really throw you for a loop.  Like, really.  One question I was asked had to do with difficulties teachers may face with implementing Common Core standards.  Mind you, this was a few years ago when the CCSS were fairly new.  I had no idea how to answer, because I hadn’t used them at the time.  My answer was very vague, and I’m sure I used the words “Ummmm…I’m flexible” somewhere in my answer.  

I recently asked around on Instagram and Facebook for some examples of tricky questions and got some great responses!

* Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
* If I walked into your classroom, what would I see?
* What are three adjectives to describe your weaknesses?
* Outside of teaching, what hobbies or attributes do you have that would contribute to our school?
* How strong-willed are you?
* If you got the call tomorrow that you got this job, what would be the first thing you would do?
* How do you add rigor to your lessons?
* What would you do if a parent told you you were the worst teacher their child ever had?
* What would you have changed about your old school/district?
* Tell me about a time when (insert something negative here) happened and how did you handle it?
* When have you done something that was against district policy for the betterment of students?
* If most of your students showed no growth on a standardized test, who do you think the district should blame?
* Someone was even asked a problem-solving task that involved a piece of paper and a tape dispenser, and she had to raise the dispenser 8 inches off the table without having to hold either one when it was done! 

YIKES!!! Trust me, these are not common questions!!!  {If you’ve gotten any crazy questions, leave them in the comments below!}  And remember, you may have an interview that is completely different than any of these!

The After Party.  Congratulations!  You made it through your interview!  To me, that is a celebration in itself.  But you’re not done yet!  As soon as possible, send a thank you note or email.  Believe it or not, these can often set you apart or help them to keep you in their mind for future positions.  While a handwritten note is the most personal, many principals only have just a few days {or even a few hours!} to make their final decision.  An email will be equally appreciated and much faster.  I sometimes kept thank you cards in my car when I was interviewing, so that I was able to write them quickly and drop them off at the post office ASAP.  I always made sure that I had the names of everyone on my panel.  Sometimes, that wasn’t always possible, and I had to do some research of the school sites to make sure I had their names correct.  I felt like having the names of everyone was most important when I interviewed with a panel of principals, because I didn’t want anyone to feel left out if they mentioned me later on.  I didn’t worry about it as much when I interviewed at a school site, because I could send one note to the principal and made sure to thank him/her “and the panel”.  Always send their letters to their personal school sites, not the district office. 

If I didn’t have time to show my mini portfolio during the interview itself, I’ve even mailed {or emailed} one copy to each person on the panel.  I didn’t do this for every interview, but only for the ones I wanted the most.  I have no idea if they looked at it, but I think it helped me to stand out and it showed that I was serious about being hired. 

Also, to prepare myself for any future interviews, I always take the time afterward to write down any of the questions I was asked.

Treat yo' self.  Seriously.  You deserve something special the day of your interview!  Distract yourself afterwards by hanging out with friends, going to a nice dinner, or going to see a movie.  Exercise, get a manicure, do something that makes you happy, even if it’s only for a little while.  Try to plan this ahead of time, so that you have something happy to look forward to all day.

Just breathe.  The timeline for hearing from the school or district can range from one day to a couple of weeks.  In my experience, it’s usually Human Resources that has the responsibility of offering you the position, and it takes them some time to process paperwork, call references, etc.  If you aren’t the lucky one to be chosen, you’ll probably only receive an email if you weren’t invited to a second interview or offered a job.  Sometimes, it may take longer than two weeks to hear back from them.  Some people feel that it is appropriate after a couple of weeks to call or email just to check where they are in the interview process, but try to avoid being too persistent or pushy if you do this.

What’s next?  Some schools/districts ask you to only go through one interview.  Those are the easiest, but they also only give the principals a super quick snapshot of who you are.  Others have you do second, or even third, interviews.  If you’re asked for another interview, that's awesome!  That’s always a great sign, and I always feel much more confident going into the next round.  They may ask you to answer another series of questions, create a lesson plan, or even do a demo lesson in front of a panel or in a classroom full of students.  If they ask you to go through another round of questions, sometimes it’s a new set of interviewers who may ask some of the same questions.  The rest of the questions tend to be more specific to the school or district needs. 

It's not you, it's them.  Really.  If you aren’t offered the job, please don’t take it personally.  I’ve been told by principals before that they already had someone in mind, and sometimes they just go through the interview process because they have to go through the motions.  Sometimes it’s a VERY close race and it all comes down to who has the most experience in the grade they want to fill.  Sometimes, they have too many people on a team with similar personalities, and they want to balance it out.  Sometimes, they are looking for someone with specific training or skills that will benefit the team.  Sometimes, they want people who are brand new to teaching, and sometimes they want people who have years of experience.  I was told once that I was in the top three choices after the first interview round, but I still didn’t end up getting the job after the second one.  I totally understand how discouraging it is, but I know enough by now to know that there are often so many other things involved and it had nothing to do with me. 

It took me some courage to start doing this, but I started sending emails to the principals asking for advice on what they think might help me with my future interviews.  I didn’t receive replies very often, but the ones I did were very positive and nothing but kind and constructive criticism, if they even felt there was anything to criticize.  Most said it was because I didn’t have experience in that grade or that they were looking for a particular training that I didn't have.  It never hurts to ask!  They understand how difficult it is, and those who are kind enough to reply want to see you succeed.

Just keep swimming!  Keep trying.  If you aren’t able to find a job just yet, try to do something related to teaching.  Become a substitute, work in an after-school program or summer camp, or just volunteer at a neighborhood school.  Principals may really appreciate someone who is willing to work an after-school event, or help with copies or translating for the parents.  Do something to get your foot in the door if you are brand new.  Making yourself visible and known to some people who can recommend you is really helpful later on.  Sometimes, it's all in who you know.

The one thing I always take away from interviews is the experience it gives me.  Good or bad, I had the chance to practice doing something that terrified me.  It has only made me stronger, more confident, and infinitely more prepared.  Whenever things didn’t work out, I stayed positive and kept applying and putting my resumé out there.  Amazing things will happen if you just keep going!

I really hope that you’ve found some tips and tricks that will help you during your next interview.  I'm wishing you the best of luck right now, and I know you are an amazingly talented teacher who will find something awesome!  You’re gonna rock this!!!

Happy Teaching!