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Professional development: interviews

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By Gerald Haighwriter and consultant, former headteacher and school governor

A job interview can be a daunting experience. Gerald Haigh provides top tips for helping you make the best impression possible

Under the spotlight

The interview is where the job is won or lost, where favoured candidates blow their chances, and unfancied contenders come from behind. The exact arrangements vary enormously. At one end of the scale is the full-house ordeal, comprising of a presentation, an observed lesson, an in-tray exercise, an encounter with a group of children, and, of course, the formal interview. At the other end is the relaxed talk to the Head, with perhaps a subject leader and a governor present.

Always, though, three basic principles apply: one – do your homework; two – present yourself honestly and well; and three – bear in mind the golden rule set down in last month’s article – it’s not about you. It’s about the job and whether they think you can do it.

Pay a visit

Even if time and distance make it difficult, you really should make a preliminary visit to the school. Often there’s a tour built into the interview day, but an earlier visit enables you to absorb some of the school’s atmosphere, which hopefully includes classes on task, cheerful and polite children and friendly, welcoming staff. It’s also a chance to clarify any uncertainties about the job, and to notice features, strengths and/or specialisms, that you can bring up in your interview. And, of course, you can check out the area, and any commuting issues.

But remember – while you’re looking at them, they are looking at you. Assume that any encounter with the school in the run up to interview – be it via visit, phone, email or letter – puts you under scrutiny.

Bear in mind the golden rule – it’s not about you. It’s about the job and whether they think you can do it

On the day

Don’t be distracted from the basics on the day – having the right clothes ready, giving yourself time to get there, making sure you take everything you need (and yes, you can take a portfolio) all help to make the day go smoothly. In terms of appearance, aim for a classic business look – crisp, clean, modest, muted, polished, buffed, trimmed and minimally bejewelled. Wear nothing that will gape, fall down, ride up, strangle any part of you, trip you up or shout ‘look at me!’.

Throughout the day, behave yourself. Don’t make inappropriate jokes or honk nervously, use your mobile phone, brag loudly about your experience, criticise your own school or patronise adults or children. Be modest, focussed, politely enquiring, clearly thoughtful and obviously – quietly intelligent.

The interview

Carry this quietly confident, pleasantly thoughtful demeanour forward into the interview room. Sit still, make eye contact with everyone, listen carefully to questions, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification of anything you don’t understand. In some interviews, governors will have shared out questions between themselves, and the person asking may not be very familiar with the topic. Treat the interview as a professional conversation, picking up points and feeding them back – using phrases such as: I agree, but we shouldn’t forget… and As your colleague was saying a moment ago…

Try, too, to feed in observations, backed up with evidence, from your tour around the school. So, if you’re asked about SEN, something along the lines of: I know you’re already very committed to this. On my visit I saw Mrs Smith, one of your TAs, with a group, and… is sure to score you brownie points. But – and this is always important – don’t gabble on. Watch for the signals – paper shuffling, sideways glances. If you really can’t draw it to a close, just stop and say: I could go on, but I’ll stop there unless you want me to add anything.

Incidentally, don’t bluff, or pretend you know things you don’t. Be frank. A new entrant, in particular, can actually gain respect by saying, in effect, I don’t know, but I’m keen to learn.

If you take a portfolio in, tell them about it in advance. And, most importantly, mention children. Refer to them smilingly when you talk about your work. Show your interviewers that you enjoy their company. One of the basic unspoken interview questions is, simply – is this someone we want to put in front of our children?

It’s all over

Well done, you got the job. Now, is the time to clarify your salary, perhaps try to have it pushed up a point (on the basis of your experience, not because you have a mortgage to pay). If you didn’t get it, don’t despair. You’ve been seen by influential people, and something may come of it – local authorities like to know about good people, and Heads talk to each other. You may well be offered a de-brief (it’s worth asking for one if not) and that can be extremely useful. So, either congratulations, or better luck next time. Remember, good people get there in the end.

There are more brilliant ideas in Gerald’s book the Jobs & Interviews Pocketbook. It is priced at £6.99 and can be ordered from the Teachers’ Pocketbooks or by calling 01962 735573.

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