How to Get a Teaching Job: Advice from a Long-time Education Leader

How to Get a Teaching Job: Advice from a Long-time Education Leader
Brian Gatens October 5, 2015

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There’s a great scene in the movie “Jerry Maguire” where Tom Cruise, the high-powered sports agent, is trying to convince Cuba Gooding Jr., the reluctant pro football star, to cooperate with him and his negotiating strategy.

“Help me to help you,” Cruise says over and over in the hope that Gooding will finally step out of the way and pay heed to Cruise’s super-sports-agent skills.

I’m saying the same thing to you right now. Please help me to help you by considering the advice I’m offering in this four-part series on landing a teaching job. I’ve screened thousands of resumes and conducted hundreds of interviews, so I know what works and what doesn’t work.

Let’s start with the resume

OK, here’s the disturbing news: Every resume, with the exception of a special few, looks exactly the same. The traditional resume format is a holdover from a time when information had to be crammed into a single page so the reviewer could speed through it quickly. I’m not saying “go away from a resume to some sort of diorama or DVD,” but I do recommend using the resume — your single shot to impress your potential employer — to sell who you are. Do the following:

Show what you can do: List your school and GPA, then go immediately into the things you can do as a result of your teacher training. Employers want to know your “turnkey ability.” In other words, how much training and coaching will you need when you start? If you immediately convey your instructional skill set (learned during your observations, student teaching and coursework) you are much more likely to win the favor of the resume reader.

Don’t overload the resume: Some candidates list every single thing about their coursework rather than focus on making a positive impression. This “carpet bomb” approach just overwhelms the reader. Instead, focus on the courses and activities that have the greatest connection to the classroom: instructional strategies and classroom management.

Emphasize your teaching experience: As part of your teacher training, you most likely completed classroom observations and student teaching. Make it a point to emphasize those experiences in your resume, as they offer the strongest indication of what you will do as a classroom teacher. Be sure to list what you actually did in those settings. Be specific and clear about what you can now do as a result.

Go deep into your work history: I take great interest in the candidate’s entire work history; nothing catches my attention more than seeing a work history that stretches back into the candidate’s teenage years. I also like to see volunteer activities that involve children. I am a huge fan of hiring people who care deeply for children and then giving them the training to grow into their teaching ability. They are far better for children than teachers who can rattle off all the instructional strategies but don’t appear to care much for students.

Write a strong ending: Most resumes trail off and end with a whimper. I suggest finishing with a short (no more than four-sentence) statement encapsulating what you will bring to the school district that hires you. It’s a non-traditional way of wrapping up, and it may catch someone’s eye.

Preparing for the first interview

Some of these suggestions may seem like common sense, but it’s amazing how many candidates just don’t seem to “get it.”

Do your homework: Before you even begin the job search, sit down with someone you trust and run through possible questions that you may be asked. Be sure you can discuss your classroom preparation history, student teaching and approach to education with ease and comfort.

Also, do some research on the school where the interview will happen. What’s the baseline data? How many students? What’s their approach to teaching and learning? Find the schoolwide goals on the school’s website and be able to discuss how you can help meet them.

Be relaxed (as much as possible): I tend to begin my interviews by pointing how the job interview is a very odd construct. Here we are complete strangers brought together to discuss the life, education and work history of only one member of the conversation. Then I encouraging the candidate be as relaxed as possible, noting that high nervousness and the subsequent rush of adrenaline tends to skew the ability to answer our questions.

Keep in mind that your only goal during the interview is to convince your interviewers that you can meet and exceed their expectations for the position. If you have been well-prepared, then that fact alone should offer you comfort.

Be engaging: Nothing is more painful during an interview than when a candidate responds to a long and detailed question about teaching and learning, and then proceeds to answer with a single sentence that sort of just. . . trails. . . off. . . DON’T DO THAT! Instead, restate the question in your own words (this will give your brain a chance to work as you develop an answer), and when answering the question, try as best as possible to lean on your experience (student teaching and so on) while explaining what you’ve come to believe from your coursework.

Being able to mix your classroom work with your learning sends a strong message to the interviewer about your level of preparation for the job. Look the interviewer in the eye, and don’t hesitate to share more rather than less. I sometimes think many candidates fear they’re taking up my time during the interview. Please remember that the interview is all about you and who you are.

Ask questions: Almost all interviews give the candidate a chance to question of interviewer. Don’t waste this opportunity by lobbing a softball question about how many students the school has or what kind of programs it offers. Use this time to engage your interviewer and show you are the best candidate for the position.

A good question to ask: “I’ve had the chance to read over your school goals and I think that I can help you meet them. What would you need me to do in order to help you get there?” Or, perhaps: “I see you’ve been focusing on [insert school goal here] and I think that I can help you achieve it, but can you tell me what support and professional development I would have to help the school get there?” A well-played strategy like this will most likely open up other avenues of conversation with your interviewer.

Don’t be a headshaker: Not to belabor the obvious, but a job interview is a really big deal. You have the opportunity to make the case why you should be hired. As a result, I highly encourage you to treat it as such.

I’ve seen candidates do amazing things in job interviews: chewing gum, wearing jeans and a T-shirt for the interview, using profanity (stunning, I know), speaking poorly about children, using slang, carrying in a bottle of water, even little things like slouching or not making eye contact.

Instead, you should wear your nicest suit, sit up straight, make eye contact, do your best to project an air of confidence and rest assured that your preparation has given you the abilities and attitude to succeed in the position.

How to demonstrate your skills

Congratulations on making it through the first two parts of being hired as a teacher. The next step in the process will most likely be a demonstration lesson, which allows your prospective employers to see you operate in a simulated classroom. Many times I’ve seen strong candidates with quality resumes and good interviewing skills completely flame out during this stage of the process. Yet, I’ve also seen many candidates put their candidacy over the top with a strong demonstration lesson. Here are some suggestions:

Let the demonstration lesson stand on its own: The school will most likely give you a broad topic and grade level to work with. Rather than attempt to present a lesson that will synchronize with the current class activity, it is best to present a lesson that will stand independent of other classroom activities.

On that same note, avoid printing out and using a canned lesson from the Internet. While there are many solid lessons out there for your consideration, and you should certainly use them for inspiration and guidance, be sure to make the lesson your own. A quality observer can easily tell what you’ve created and what you’ve gathered from an outside source.

It’s not about you; rather it’s about how effectively you facilitate students’ learning: Too many candidates mistakenly think the lesson is designed to see how well they can “perform” for the observers. In my experience, the observer is far more interested in the strategies and activities you use to help the children meet the lesson goals. If your lesson has anything more than a three- to five-minute introduction, it is far too long. Introduce the lesson, check for understanding and then have the children go immediately to work on the lesson.

It’s also best for the children to be as active as possible during the lesson. You should definitely employ cooperative learning strategies and group-work skills during the lesson. Remember, it’s not about you, but you helping the children grow as learners.

Be a little ‘meta’ during the lesson: Don’t hesitate to comment on the progression of the lesson to the observers while the children are active and engaged. It doesn’t hurt to offer an observation or to spend a moment discussing why you made a certain instructional decision in preparing the lesson. This shows the observer that your lesson was well thought out and you were conscientious in its creation. Making an astute observation about a child also shows you understand how children learn.

Nuts and bolts: Here are a few things you can do to smooth out the delivery of your lesson:

  • If possible, ask the teacher for the first name of each child and create an easy-to-read desk sign to display during the lesson. Addressing a child by first name assists with classroom management and is a positive signal to the observer.
  • You will most likely be given a time frame for the lesson. Be sure to stick to it, as respecting the time of the observer sends a strong message on your thoughtfulness toward others.
  • Bring extra copies of the lesson plan and materials for the observers to have during the lesson. Distribute these during the lesson and, if possible, ask if any of the observers have any questions after the demonstration lesson has concluded.
  • Lastly, be certain to follow up your demonstration lesson with short notes (either email or handwritten) for each person involved in the process. This once again shows them your high level of thoughtfulness and consideration.

Meeting the principal

First off, congratulations. If you’ve made it to this part of the process, then the district is definitely interested in bringing you on-board. Nobody makes it this far by accident. Now, how can you seal the deal?

Up to this point, you’ve been expected to prove who you are. By the time you get to the principal, the district has moved beyond learning about your teaching skills and now wants to measure how you will fit into the district.

Here are some questions the principal will want to answer about you:

Will you be a good fit?

By this stage there are no concerns about your teaching skill. If there were, you wouldn’t be invited to this interview. Instead, the principal is attempting to ascertain how well you fit into the grade level (if there are multiple teachers teaching the same thing) and the overall school structure. The best way to answer that question is to refer back to your previous success working with others as well as your student-teaching experience.

How open are you to growth?

The days when schools would hire teachers and leave them alone to fend for themselves are long gone. With all the pressure to meet the expectations of the Common Core State Standards as well as the accompanying state tests, schools today will continually evaluate and work with their newer staff members. It is imperative that you convey to the principal that you are open to constructive criticism and that you want to take advantage of opportunities for growth.

What can you offer the school beside your classroom work?

Principals are always looking for staff members who can add to the overall school experience for the students. Don’t hesitate to offer examples of extra-curricular activities you can supervise, and if the principal asks you if you are interested in advising a club or coaching a sport, be certain to say yes. Don’t worry if you’re lacking the initial skill set: You’ll be able to figure it out and you’ll be amazed at how much your new colleagues will want to see you succeed.

Remember: Enthusiasm and engagement go a long way

The one thing that principals most want to see in their new hires is energy and enthusiasm that they believe will become a part of their school. Don’t hesitate to convey this to the principal. You’ve already sold them on your teaching skill. Now you can sell them on how much you can bring to the school. Doing this will be another positive step in your goal of being hired as a teacher.

Good luck!

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.

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