Job Interview Tips
If you’re searching for a teaching job in 2016, this page will help you prepare for interviews and put your best foot forward. The main purpose of this page, though, is to help you really evaluate whether a school will be a good fit so you can get the right teaching position for YOU.
Who am I to give advice?
I’ve changed schools a lot and have been on 14 job interviews during my teaching career: I was offered every position on the spot except two. An uninformed person might conclude that I’ve just got it like that, but the truth is, I was fortunate to have sought positions during extreme teacher shortages. It’s kind of like getting excited about selling your house in 2 days…in a seller’s market. Who would have expected anything less? If teachers are the ‘buyers’, then it was definitely been a buyer’s market when I was job hunting in Washington, D.C. and South Florida. Teacher turnover in both places was extremely high and the colleges weren’t producing enough graduates to fill the positions. Therefore, rather than having to ‘sell myself’, principals have always spent the majority of the interview trying to sell ME on their school.
My advice on this page comes from that perspective, so I’m really not the best person to advise you on landing a position that hundreds of other teachers are vying for. At the bottom of the page, I’ll recommend some more resources to help you. But, even if you’re in a tight job market, it’s still important to think about what YOU want and need in a work environment, and I hope my ideas will remind you to consider that, as well.
What to wear
My personal opinion is that a prospective teacher should dress more formally for an interview than for the actual job itself. A pants or dress suit for women almost always makes a good impression. If you are a creative person, it can pay off to express that a little bit in your clothing through jewelry or unusual prints or fabrics, as it can set you apart from other candidates. On the interview for my most recent teaching position, I wore a black skirt, turquoise and black top with a thick black beaded belt, purple heels, and a deep tangerine bag. I love to take fashion risks and wanted to show that I think outside the box. Floridians aren’t afraid of color, and the principal loved my shoes!
That worked for me in Florida–and I was a highly-recommended veteran teacher at that point, so it was definitely safer for me to look different than your ordinary teacher. Back when I lived in D.C., I interviewed in a business suit every time. It definitely depends on where you’re located, but in general, it’s probably fair to say that your overall look should be modest and not a distraction from what you are saying. Clothing is a very personal preference, and I believe you should wear something you feel like yourself in and that will make you feel comfortable during the interview.
Tips for landing a job interview
The advice in the this section was getting pretty extensive, so I moved it to the new Finding a Teaching Job page. Look there to find info on choosing the right school and teaching position for you, getting an interview for a teaching position, questions to ASK about the school you want to work in (don’t skip this step!!!), things to look for when you visit the school, and tips and advice from other teachers. You can also read tips from other teachers and principals.
4 tips for answering interview questions
1. Smile, smile, smile! Good teachers are friendly and warm with their students, and you want to convey that during your interview.
2. Be a good listener. Pay close attention to what the principal is saying. Maintain eye contact and don’t be afraid to ask questions–it shows you are interested.
3. Pause to think before answering. Don’t feel rushed to say anything that comes into your head. Give yourself a moment or two to reflect on the question, take a breath, and then reply.
4. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know how to answer. You can laugh good-naturedly and say, “Wow, that’s a tough one. Let me think about that for a moment…”. If you still feel unable to come up with a satisfactory answer, say something to the effect of, “I think my actions would depend on the specific situation and child involved. I might ___, or maybe even ____”. If you’re really stumped, you could explain, “I would really try to utilize the experience of my co-workers on this one. I would confide in an experienced and trusted team member and ask for his or her advice and support. I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t have all the answers, and if asking for help would bring the most benefit to the students, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so.” Or, you could say, “I would need to give this situation a lot of time and thought so I could make the best decision for my students. I would research the issue a little more by talking to the parents/ my co-workers/ principal/ going on the internet before deciding on any actions.”
Often-asked teacher interview questions
There are thousands of questions a prospective employer might ask, but I would suggest thinking out your responses to the following, as variations of them are used often. Interview questions usually fall into the following categories, with at least one asked from each section.
Philosophy of education
- What is your philosophy of education? Here you’ll want to talk about the approaches you like. Child-centered or teacher-centered? Hands on? Incorporate play? The role of parental involvement? Brain research?
- What are the components of a lesson? This is a basic knowledge-type question, and if you’re a new teacher, you’ll probably hear something along these lines. The terminology will vary from district to district (so do your research!), but essentially the components are: anticipatory set (introductory activity), warm up, direct instruction, guided practice, independent practice, assessment, and closure.
- What is your approach to reading instruction? Balanced literacy? 4 Blocks? Small groups? Flexible or set groupings? What do other students do while you’re teaching small groups?
- How would you help a struggling reader? Have a number of strategies ready, since each child’s needs are different. One on one instruction? Small groups with similarly-abled students? Send home activities for parents to help? Bring it up in RtI or tell a reading specialist? Research strategies online, with co-workers, and a reading specialist?
- Do you use centers, and if so, how? These went out of favor for a few years but now with differentiation, centers seem to be more on-trend educationally speaking. Research your district carefully! What materials would you use? Objectives? How often/ how long?
- What are some strategies you would use to teach math? Hands on? Manipulatives? Variety of strategies? Tech integration?
- What kind of classroom discipline plan would you use? You will almost certainly be asked some variation of this question. I would mention a pro-active approach, meaning that I set my students up for success by making expectations, rules, and procedures clear to try to solve discipline problems before they start. I would also mention that I spend a lot of time in the beginning of the year establishing specific procedures, with extensive modeling and practice. Another approach is to talk about helping kids develop intrinsic motivation and giving them real-world, authentic tasks, since high-quality activities and lessons often negate the need for discipline. Some principals would prefer a response focused on that, but if you’re interviewing for a high-poverty, urban school, you will probably need to convey very strong classroom management abilities and a clear approach for responding to unruly students.
- What would you do for a constantly disruptive student? Find out what’s causing the behavior? Conference with student and parent? Set up an individual behavior management plan with set rewards and consequences? I would stress pro-active techniques: establishing effective routines and procedures.
- How do you check to see if each student understands the material you are teaching? Individual wipe off boards? Special classwork assignments? Ask students to explain how they got their answers and how they know the answers are right? Require that students show their work? Assess frequently? Tech tools?
- What kind of assessment methods would you use in your classroom? Informal vs. formal? Be familiar with the district and state assessments for the grade level you’re interviewing for. I would stress using a variety of assessment methods to ensure that no matter what a child’s strengths, s/he would have frequent opportunities to excel. Ideas include tests, quizzes, classwork, homework, monthly projects, group work, internet research projects, participation, oral discussions, etc. I would also mention using assessment to guide instruction.
- How would you incorporate technology into your lessons? Web quests? Internet research projects? Digital cameras to make class books, etc.? Class website for homework assignments and spelling words, etc.? Interactive whiteboard activities? Class blogs and wikis? Be prepared to share a specific project you’ve done that was successful.
- How would you describe your own technological skills–beginner, intermediate, or advanced? Be honest! And if you know this is a personal weakness, address it right away by taking a class or getting on the computer and experimenting. (No one ever taught me how to use a computer, create documents, do web design, use HTML programming, create a blog, use social networking, etc.–I just got on the computer and played around until I got it, and researched stuff online. You can do it, too! Being tech-savvy is really a non-negotiable in education now.)
- What computer programs are you familiar with? This question is falling out of favor now that principals assume teachers can use basic Microsoft Office programs, but be ready to explain your familiarity with Microsoft Word, Word Perfect, Excel and other spreadsheet software, children’s software and online programs (check to see which ones the school/district subscribe to), the internet, and email. More tech-savvy principals will want to hear about Google Apps and other online resources, as well.
- How would you utilize your team members’ experience to benefit your students? I would emphasize the importance of working together as a grade level team and sharing ideas. Regular team meetings to share what’s working and what’s not are very important to me. Additionally, I like to be part of a team that is constantly developing and finding new materials, and then sharing them with one another.
- What is your philosophy about team teaching? This is another place where it is essential to be completely honest. If you like it, explain why (kids can benefit from multiple teaching styles, teachers can bounce ideas off one another, etc.). Initially when I wrote this article in 2003, I didn’t like team teaching, and I would have admitted this because I would not have been happy sharing my classroom with another teacher. I would have explained that while I love being part of a collaborative grade level team, I like to provide the consistency that comes with having only one teacher’s ideas about rules, routines, homework, etc. in the classroom. In 2005, though, I was actually asked this during a job interview because I would be sharing a classroom with another teacher due to overcrowding. I wanted the job so badly and I really felt like it would be the right one for me, so I told the principal that while I would look forward to having my own classroom, I knew the benefits of team teaching and the importance of communication, etc. I did get the job and ended up LOVING team-teaching because I had such a fabulous partner! So, you never know–hopefully as teachers we are always learning more about ourselves and our practice. You might be asked this question as it relates to push-in services by special education teachers, so consider what response you could give that would assure the principal you’d be in close communication and collaboration with that teacher.
- Where do you see yourself 10 [or 20] years from now, professionally speaking? Still teaching? At other grade levels? Administration? Masters or doctorate degree? National Board Certification? Mentoring?
- What committees have you served on, or are you interested in serving on? Try to mentally list all of these before the interview so they are fresh in your mind. Chances are, there are more than you think! Include a list in your portfolio, if you want. Try to come up with at least one committee you would be interested in serving on in your new school (a content area committee such as social studies, school improvement team, yearbook staff, parental outreach, etc.).
- What role would you like to play in school improvement? See the answer above. Pick something that you’re passionate about, and let that passion shine through.
- What experience have you had with students who have special needs? In the classroom? Other jobs? Summer camp? Siblings? Which disabilities? Are you familiar with the RtI process?
- How comfortable would you be with students who have special needs in a general ed setting? Emphasize that you are prepared to handle special needs with the right support systems in place. (Some principals want to hear you say essentially, No problem, I can handle any kid with no support from you at all!) Tread carefully. You want to sound capable and confident but also aware of the fact that creating interventions and accommodations for kids with special needs is a team effort and a school-wide responsibility.
- What would you do to help a child with ADHD in your classroom? Sit them in the front of the room? Have them repeat directions to you? Give them jobs so they can move around? Try to keep instruction fast-paced and varied? Use hands-on activities as often as possible? Pair them up with a buddy? Prepare your response to other specific disabilities the principal might mention–ADHD was a buzz word a few years ago, but now principals are just as likely to ask about Asperger’s, autism, oppositional-defiance disorder, etc.
- What would you do if you had planned a lesson but the students just weren’t understanding what you were teaching and were not ready to move on to the next activity? I would answer this by saying I’d re-teach using another approach. For example, if I were teaching a math concept and the kids didn’t understand, I might get out manipulatives to try to make it more concrete. I would also try to identify what information the kids did not know that I had assumed they had known. If I were teaching 2 digit multiplication and their answers were consistently wrong, I would look to see if they knew their multiplication facts and were computing correctly. I would address the problem during the lesson by passing out calculators or multiplication tables so the kids could focus on the new skill, rather than trying to recall basic facts, then add basic fact review activities to our daily routine.
- What would you do to help a child who was unable to finish work on time/ stay focused during your lessons/ refrain from hitting other students? Individual behavior plan? Parent/student conference? Specific rewards/consequences? Try to recall a real situation you once faced and how you handled it.
- What would you do to encourage parents to be more involved in their children’s education? This is a tough one, and I often admit that to the interviewer. Personally, I think the most important thing is to establish a good rapport at the beginning of the year. Providing positive feedback is important, too–not calling home only when a child is in trouble. If there are any ideas from the Creative Family Outreach chapter of my book that you plan to use, mention those, too.
- How do you establish a good rapport with parents? My answer usually involved something like: “I try to establish contact right away, even if they don’t attend Open House night, just to introduce myself and see if parents have any questions. When a parent has a concern, I try to let them get everything out while I listen quietly, and validate their opinions rather than immediately jumping in to defend myself or the school. At the end, I always ask if they feel the situation has been resolved to their satisfaction so I can be sure we are on the same page.”
- What are your two biggest strengths and weaknesses? Ideas for strengths: creativity, energy, enthusiasm, strong work ethic, patience. Ideas for weaknesses: over-thinking things, perfectionism (although some people will say that the latter is a cliche, it’s true for me!), particular concept/topic/subject area you’re not as strong in but are working to learn.
- Why would you like to teach at this school? Proximity to home (you’re part of the community)? Good reputation? You really want the grade level available? You have a good feeling or gut instinct about the school? Be authentic in your response.
- What is your grade level preference, and why? I would give a grade range here, in case the principal can’t hire you for the grade you want. I would also specify any grades you are certified to teach but would NOT want to. You could say that your gift is for grades ___, and you think it takes a special person or different personality type to work with kids that are younger/older than that.
- Why do you think you would be a good match for this school/ what can you offer us that no other candidate can? My personal answer to this question is that I am always learning. I never teach a lesson the same way two years in a row. I am constantly bringing in new ideas from the internet, other teachers, my co-workers, and original concepts. I am open to change and like trying new things in the classroom.
A note about personal questions: You do not need to reveal your sexual orientation or marital status during an interview; in fact, it is illegal for any employer to ask.
Don’t forget to ask your own questions of the interviewer! This page gives advice on what to ASK the person you’re interviewing.
Many employers are now asking “tell-about-a-time” questions, known as behavioral interviewing, which research shows are more predictive of actual on-the-job behavior than traditional interview questions. Personally, I hate this behavioral-based line of questioning because it’s hard for me to think of good examples on the spot. However, if you’re prepared for this line of questioning, you should have no problem! Examples: Tell about a time when…
- You went above and beyond what was required of you
- You encountered resistance from a colleague/parent/student
- You overcame a crisis
- You created a unit/project that went really well/incorporated technology
- You took initiative and led the way
Key phrases to integrate (and which ones not to)
Find out what the “buzzwords” are for the district you are applying to. Buzzwords are the latest educational jargon for techniques that are really being pushed in school systems, and are often very regional. Buzzwords for your area might include differentiation, differentiated instruction, Response to Intervention (RtI), balanced literacy, hands-on learning, cooperative learning (now often referred to as collaborative learning), inclusion, print-rich environment, real world learning, pro-active discipline, standards-based learning, flexible grouping, assessment-driven instruction, and so on.
There may be certain teaching techniques or terms that have become outdated in local schools. Consider carefully the terms round robin reading (replaced by popcorn reading or other techniques which don’t involve calling on students in order); individualizing (has been replaced by differentiation, a very different concept, in many places); emotionally handicapped or severely emotionally disturbed (now called emotionally involved–and, actually, I think they’ve changed it again to emotionally impaired, which proves my point), etc.
Spend some time talking to teachers in the district you are applying to, or at least spend some time on the district website. While buzzwords may not make or break an interview, being up to date on current trends in the school system can only be an asset for you.
Portfolio or no? (and how are you supposed to use those things, anyway?)
In the past, I’ve told teachers this: If you have the time to make a portfolio, do it. It can’t hurt! If you don’t have time, don’t worry. I’ve gotten job offers with and without a portfolio, and there are plenty of employed teachers who have never created portfolios in their lives.
However, in 2012? I would say definitely have one, and make sure it’s a digital/online portfolio. Not just because the job market is tough right now, but because it’s easier than ever to showcase your ideas and accomplishments with pictures and video. Chances are, you can pull out your phone right now and show a picture of a meal you ate last month or something cute your pet did. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of that technology to show a principal what an awesome teacher you are?
In my opinion, the purpose of a portfolio is to support your interview answers. In other words, if the principal asks what kind of centers you do, you should have pictures of your centers to show. If s/he wants to know how you involve parents, display the monthly activities you created for families to do together. Very rarely does a principal have the time to sit and read a portfolio, and personally, I don’t think most of them are interested in the things that colleges require teachers to include, such as philosophies of education, evaluations, and research papers done for courses. I think a principal would much rather hear you describe those things and show ‘props’ than read a five page paper.
So, what should you include?
- worksheets and activities you created
- photos of your classroom, centers, special projects, and events
- examples of completed student work on a project you designed
- evidence of something creative you’ve done in the classroom (a postcard exchange, Mystery Reader program, program for parents, etc.)
- lesson plans that you can use to help you as you describe what you did and what the objective was (not for you to hand to the principal to read)
Organize your portfolio in a way that makes sense to you. You want to be able to navigate to the item you’re looking for quickly, so use simple section headings that you’ll remember how to get to. You could use the categories of interview questions I listed above (Philosophy of Education, Instructional Strategies, Classroom Management, etc.) so you are prepared with evidence for any type of question. If you had to create a portfolio in college but hated the sections they made you use, you don’t have to make a new portfolio, just rearrange things so you can easily find them.
Another nice thing about online portfolios is that interviewers can read your resume, see photos of activities you’ve done, view lesson ideas and your philosophy of teaching, watch videos of you teaching, etc. before they even meet with you. You can email them to confirm the interview time and share your link. This is an incredible asset and definitely worth offering to an administrator. Then, bring an iPad or netbook with you to the interview and showcase your website and online resources on the spot! If you are proficient with technology and can create a really nice website yourself, you’ll get bonus points for sure. But even if you’re not, pulling out a laptop to illustrate your points with an onine portfolio will still go over well with the principal (who will probably be either a tech dinosaur who is wowed by the fact that you are showing him/her pictures online, or a tech lover who expects and values tech proficiency among staff).
Do your research BEFORE you interview!
Go to the school system’s website. You want to know as much as possible about the school BEFORE you agree to spend the next year working there. Find out about test scores, ESOL population (English learners), Title I populations (low income), racial backgrounds of students (so you understand the school culture better), average class size (not always indicated accurately on the website), school boundaries (so you know which neighborhoods the kids come from), the feeder schools (which middle/high schools the kids will eventually go to), etc. If you’re not familiar with the school district, look up statistics for it as a whole, including how many schools there are, where the higher-achieving schools are located, how test scores have compared over recent years, etc. Ask other teachers what they’ve heard, as well: schools and administrations have reputations that may not be accurate, but are worth hearing about, especially if you can get multiple opinions. You want to combine as much information as you can.
If you love data analysis like I do, you won’t have a problem. But if just reading the above paragraph has bored you to tears, let me explain: the more you know about the school you’re interviewing at, the more knowledgeable you’ll sound while interviewing. And, the more intelligent and informed questions you’ll be able to ask, and the more you’ll be able to tell if the school is a good fit for you. If most of your kids won’t speak English as a first language, wouldn’t you want to know that up front? Don’t depend on the principal to disclose this information! If you discover in advance that half of your students will come from a mobile home community and the other half from single family homes that start at 600K, you’ll be prepared when the principal asks how you would address the needs of families from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Being informed may set you apart from other candidates who walk in blindly with no knowledge of the community or school’s history: it shows you are interested in the job as well as the families and students you’ll be working with.
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