In the last few years, I’ve become a bit of an interview veteran and come out variously surprised and triumphant, quietly victorious, and bitterly disappointed. Viewed from afar, it’s quite fascinating how different school approach the process. On the front line, as a candidate, the experience, whether successful or unsuccessful, has the potential to be enriching and empowering or entirely frustrating and bruising. The words used in feedback can stay with the candidate forever. ‘I was told I was too driven for the school’, a friend said she was told once.
It occurs to me that little is written on the subject, and there are probably good reasons why. Broadcasting an unsuccessful application isn’t likely to appeal to many people, whilst boasting our successes just isn’t very British – and there’s also the survivors’ guilt to consider. But it’s peak interview season, and I think it’s a subject worth exploring – from the applicant’s perspective and in terms of what it says about a school.
Below, I’ve reflected on some of the best and worst elements of interviews – of course many, if not all, of these have existed within the same process. Some of the best elements have been within interviews where I haven’t got the job – but have left feeling stronger – and the worse for jobs where I’ve been successful. I’ve chosen my words carefully – ‘difficult’ and ‘gruelling’ aren’t necessarily negative things – an interview should really test and candidate’s metal.
Clear success criteria, clear vision
Absolute transparency around school’s vision and ethos and the kind of candidate they’re seeking really helps us to know if we’re matched properly to the school. Knowing that the process is fair and challenging is good – knowing how you’ll be judged and on which criteria, for each activity is great too.
The forms, the forms: is there another way?
School application forms: they take HOURS! And they seem to be arranged in entirely different format every time, necessitating hours of intricate cutting and pasting. Some give blank sheets for statements, others prescribe headings. Whilst I understand schools pride themselves on their individual identity, surely there’s a way these could be standardised?
To tell or not to tell?
It reminds me a bit of the first three months of pregnancy. I’m all for open communication and transparency, but having to track back through fifteen people to tell them you didn’t get it, but you’re ok, honestly, is a little difficult…
Where are the not-outstanding schools?
Not all of us want to work in outstanding schools, and yet these seem to account for 90% of those in the TES at the moment in the role I’m applying for. Genuine question – where are the rest?!
Making an impression
Many years ago, my HT started a conversation about ‘how I was perceived’. I found this conversation really unnerving. How, I asked my line-manager, do I control perceptions? ‘Do your job, and do it well’, was his excellent advice. But at an interview, it’s much harder.
To fraternise with the other candidates or not to? I can’t stand the tumbleweed silence (and am generally rather curious about people) so tend to chatter and joke and bond, but am never sure whether this is a good idea…
Enthusiastic or annoying?
Articulate or verbose?
Witty or crass?
Ambitious or arrogant?
Energetic or nervy?
And was it the dress that went against me?
I spend a bit too long wondering about these things, especially after unsuccessful experiences…
The interview day
The best interview days have left me feeling that I’ve had the best possibly opportunity to demonstrate an range of skills and really communicate my values and experience and my potential unique contribution to a school. Of course, some tasks come more easily than others – the letter to a parent over the data analysis, for example, but I fully appreciate the need to do them all.
The best experiences always include teaching – regardless of the level of the role. They include copious contact with non-hand-picked student who will always tell you how it is. They include a chance to meet lots of staff, including LSAs, canteen staff and caretakers.
The most frustrating have included lots of unstructured time, waiting around, and being placed on more than one occasion for undefined amounts of time in rooms without daylight. Recently, having committed the whole day, at great cost to my own school, the activities on which we were, apparently, judged amounted to less than an hour of the day.
The best have included opportunities to muck in and help out, to be part of the hurly burly of what we know are days no-less-challenging for there being interviews on.
Feedback, feedback, feedback
We know this, as teachers – we know how important this is. The Sutton Trust has told us. Most importantly, our students have told us. After the best interview experiences, I have left with a clearer understanding of myself, my values and how best to communicate them, and have gone into the next phase with confidence and a steady hand. In these situations, the HT has personally taken to the time to talk me through the process honestly and be very clear about ways forward.
Once, a year ago, I came second for a post. It was one I was very excited about, I really felt my values aligned with that of the school. Coming second wasn’t bad going – it went to an internal. I never did receive any feedback at all despite repeated requests. It still kind of haunts me, especially after another unsuccesful experience yesterday. It is, a my friend pointed out, a bit like being dumped by a boyfriend without knowing why…
I found myself wondering after my recent experience whether my scarified family-time, my hours of deliberation and effort and research, my emotional investment of my very self had registered as more than a slight blip in the day of the people who interviewed me. I’m old and ugly and resilient enough to know it’s for the best and that I’ll survive and flourish somewhere else, but to schools, I’d say:
Value your interview candidates as much as you would your own staff. Appreciate how much they’ve invested in choosing your school and what they’ve put on the line to apply, from their pride and self-esteem to the time sacrificed at their own schools. Don’t make them wait in dark cupboards. Expose them to as much of the school community as possible – and ask others for their impressions. Keep them busy with tasks – they may even be helpful! And give them feedback. In person if possible. Be totally honest. They deserve it, even if they weren’t right for your school at the time.
My key question now is, would I apply again to a school where I’d been unsuccessful if a similar post comes up? I hovered over the school with no feedback where I’d genuinely felt I could make a difference to young people, and decided, no. But there will be yeses out there. Stubborn optimism. As ever.