Archives For The Young Teacher’s Guide to the Classroom

Part Two: Interviewing

I’ve been spending some time recently coaching some younger friends of mine on the interviewing process. I’ve probably interviewed at least fifty candidates for teaching and directing jobs over my 15 or so years in education and youth theatre, and not too long ago I sat down as an interview candidate myself. How you conduct yourself during the interview, and how effectively you answer the questions is obviously the most crucial part of getting a job. You can make that resume look as fancy as you’d like, and that may get you in the door, but its all about what you say in that chair as you’re grilled by administrators and teachers. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

Don’t Memorize a “Scripted” Answer

In an education-related interview, you know you’re gonna get the following questions, in one form or another: “What is your educational philosophy?” “What is your classroom management plan?” “How would you engage students, connect with parents, etc?” And it can be very easy to rehearse a well-written response to that, making sure you hit all of the current buzzwords and trends that we educators love to fall over.

Please don’t do that.

If you really want to stand out, you’ve got to get across a sense of self. Who are you? What is your teaching style going to look like? What do you believe in? Have that dialogue with yourself and truly ask yourself these questions. This is your one opportunity to differentiate yourself from all the other candidates, so make it count. Spend some time thinking about what you liked/disliked about your own educational experience. What did you do to stand out during student teaching, or in your education classes?

I’m amazed at the fact that after all these years, my basic philosophy of education hasn’t changed from when I took the course in grad school and we discussed people like Dewey, Bloom, and Gardner. A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a school in the U.K. saying, “I think you’d be great here.” And it was A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, the exact person I latched onto the most back in school.* I had never discussed Neill with my friend, but she knew me well enough to know what kind of teacher I was. In other words, my educational philosophy is a part of my overall worldview, and is an essential component of who I am as a person. I know what I believe education should be. Do you?

Start with the General, but end with the Specific

When you get those questions I mentioned earlier, your answer should start with your general worldview/philosophy/beliefs, but then follow it up with something specific. Give examples from your own time in the classroom, limited it may be. And if you can’t give good examples of your educational philosophy from your time in the classroom, then think about when you were a student. A certain teacher that either inspired you or enraged you. What did they do to help in your development as a teacher? This is another opportunity to showcase yourself, and not just an empty statement you memorized with your roommates the night before your interview.

What’s your “Stuff” that you’re going to teach?

I know a lot of young people trying to get jobs teaching secondary English. Part of me wishes I could go back and tell them, “Look, I know you’re really excited about teaching Austen and Hemingway to groups of eager high schoolers, but there’s a line stretching around the back of the school for those jobs. And you’ll be lucky to have maybe one section of kids that really gets into comparing Gothic fiction versus Modernism. What are your thoughts on teaching Science and Math?”

Hey, if I had my choice I’d rather teach history and literature over algebra and chemistry, so I get it. But it’s tough out there for English majors. So think about what can make you stand out above the others. If you’re interviewing in front of an English department, and they ask you about content, what would you teach? Are you going to rattle off the same five books that everyone else mentions? When I spoke to some of the young teachers-to-be and asked them what would be on their curriculum, I was surprised at how traditional their answers were. Not that there’s anything wrong with The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Great Expectations. But if I was sitting in that interview, my ears would prick up a bit if someone mentioned newer works. Here’s a suggestion: go to a Barnes & Noble somewhere near one of the big suburban high schools. Find the table with the high school Summer Reading lists. Look at some of the stuff they’ve got sitting there. It’s a fairly diverse and exciting collection. (Lots of Dave Eggers.) And once again, have that dialogue with yourself about what you like, and what you would like to teach.

Oh, and don’t show up to your interview sunburned and hung over. And yes, I’ve had people roll in like that.

*You can read all about Summerhill, and Neill’s philosophy, here, but this quote sums him up nicely: “The function of the child is to live his own life, not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.”

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A lot of young people I know are heading into teaching. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

 

Part One: Voice and Personality

Go to any teacher’s website, or read a copy of their newsletter. Listen to some of them teach. What do you notice?

We all sound depressingly similar.

We’re all thrilled and excited to be teaching, we all encourage our students to be life-long learners, and we all have fun and exciting things planned in our safe and caring classrooms. And when you step inside that classroom, it can all too often be a chorus of identical phrases and commands learned from teacher manuals and institute day workshops. We “appreciate” the way students follow directions, we “appreciate” a parent’s suggestion or request, we “appreciate” a staff member’s comment in a meeting.

I’m not sure why this is the case. Maybe we’re too addicted to the step-by-step curriculum that’s been forced on us over the years, too used to following specific instructions that encourage the use of common and easily identifiable words and phrases. Maybe we’re afraid to talk like regular folks, with our own personalities and senses of humor, and instead we hide behind safe teacher phrases in order to avoid the shock and potential backlash of daring to talk like a real person. We all hear the horror stories of an irate parent or a student who misinterprets something said in class, and it pushes us towards a bland and toothless way of communicating so as to avoid any controversy.

Most teachers who choose to speak and instruct this way go through their entire career cheerfully following orders, teaching the curriculum exactly as its prescribed, providing their students fun and exciting life-long learning opportunities in a safe and caring learning environment. They are a committee-produced mission statement come to life. Years from now, former students will strain to recall their names, one bland unimaginative teacher melting into the next.

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Playing with your snack break was encouraged in my classroom.

If you hope to develop any sort of positive relationship, or gain any measure of respect from your students, their parents, and your colleagues, one of the most important things you can do is to develop and maintain a clear, individual voice and personality. If you want to be one of those teachers that inspires and encourages kids to do great things, then figure out who you are, and what makes you unique in that classroom and in that school. When you are talking in class, or sending out information to parents, or even updating your classroom website, you need to communicate in your voice, not the standard playbook of a million other teachers.

While this isn’t the only Secret To Being An Amazing Teacher, it’s where you need to start. And don’t be afraid to mess up sometimes; occasionally, you’ll get strange looks from kids or puzzled parents and principals if you stumble while developing that voice. Just defend yourself, explain what you meant, and don’t revert back to that robotic persona so many teachers are forced to adopt out of fear of trying anything different. Be funny, be irreverent, be strange and weird and nerdy and enthusiastic about strange and weird and nerdy things. Share your love of rugby, or the outdoors, or Loudon Wainwright songs about dead skunks in the middle of the road.

Remember: it’s your room, your methods, your students, and your voice.

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Wearing odd hats and having baby chicks as sidekicks was also encouraged. Photo used with permission.

Coming Soon: Part Two, where I reveal that Actually, No, It’s Not About You