I write as a former English teacher who now works as a freelance copywriter in the education sector. To keep my hand in, I still tutor; I also teach employability workshops in schools: presentation and interviews skills, in the main.
I’m always amazed at how different not just every school is, but every classroom, every corridor, every nook and cranny. Each is a world within a world, with its own atmosphere and way of doing things.
And teachers are acutely aware of this. Furthermore, they know that teaching, in the right school or department for them, is the best job in the world.
So, what does a teacher look for… exactly?
Quick proviso: some things aren’t within the school’s control. Some teachers may wish to move closer to the coast – I did just that for my last teaching post. They may need to be closer to aging parents, as I did for the post before that. They may want a livelier place to live, or somewhere rural. The list goes on.
Word of mouth matters
Along with location, reputation matters hugely.
And behind every ad, there’s a story or subtext. As soon as a vacancy appears, teachers will phone around colleagues and contacts, past and present, and quickly find those who have experience of the school. The world of education is surprisingly small. Many marry teachers and come from a family of teachers – I did and do. Six degrees of separation? For teachers, it’s far fewer, especially for schools in the same region.
Conversations will touch upon staff morale and staff turnover, teaching experience, and what the pupils are like. Teachers take great pride in their school communities. They want to join a school whose values they share.
Following a flurry of phone calls, online enquiries ensue. We live in an age when the latest Ofsted report is just a few clicks away. Teachers are a canny lot. They know where to look and what to look for. Staff absenteeism and comments about leadership will be of particular interest, as will whatever Google/News retrieves from the local press and social media.
It’s worth saying that bad news stories are not necessarily deal-breakers. Teachers are realists. No one appreciates more than them that schools, along with other frontline services, bear the brunt of society’s challenges. Teachers know that every school has its problems. The best teachers want to be part of the solution. Teaching remains a vocation for the majority.
I know full well that these are all things that schools manage rather than control completely. I’d add, however, that there are means to accentuate the good, and detract or distract from the not so good. Some schools do the little things before, on and after the day that make all the difference. Other schools miss a trick.
Before the interview
Applying for a teaching post is time-consuming and stressful. Chances are the candidate has their hands full with their current employer. Good schools take this into consideration. Clear communication oils the wheels, over the phone, and online. This is where the headmaster’s PA is worth their weight in gold. The invitations to interview are warm and welcoming; and the brief for the interview lesson clear, concise and realistic. These early communications say so much about the school, its leadership, and their way of doing things.
One thing marketing and HR departments can arrange is that school magazines and brochures sent to applicants present the school in the best possible light. They do matter. Flicking through pictures of the new lab or school trips or the library, the teacher begins to place themselves in that setting.
On interview day
Good schools know how to look after their applicants on the day. They don’t leave them hanging about. They give them a comfortable, light, pleasant base to hang out. They keep them well fed and watered. Nothing is too much trouble, and all this provides a glimpse for how they would be treated as new members of staff should they join the school.
Lunch is so important. Reserve a table; get the whole department together. (After all, don’t you want their opinion on the candidates?)
Pick your tour guides carefully: eager, engaging staff – or indeed pupils – who will be the best advocates for what the school is about.
How the day is timetabled says a lot. My last school ensured everyone taught their lesson early in the day: “We know that’s the thing that makes people jittery.” I can’t emphasise enough, little touches like this go a long way. Everyone wants an empathetic employer.
The interview lesson
Where is the interview lesson based? I remember one girls’ school where I taught a small group of sixth formers in a glass-fronted upper storey room overlooking a riot of greenery. It was the perfect backdrop to my lesson on Jane Austen’s Bath; I can picture it to this day. I was sorely disappointed when I didn’t get the job. I would have happily seen out my teaching days with that view, and with that eager bunch.
The school will be judged on its pupils as much as its teachers. How they conduct themselves in that trial lesson and how they move about the school are of the utmost importance. Do they hold doors open or barge through them? You can tell a lot about a school from the atmosphere in corridors between lessons. Is there chaos or calm, a sense of pent-up restlessness or purpose?
These aren’t easy things to choreograph, but a common, clear behaviour and sanctions policy goes a long way.
People matter most of all, but they are helped along by policies.
I was a PGCE mentor for many years, helping trainee teachers with CVs, cover letters, and interview practice. We would pore over policy small print. For instance, marking expectations vary hugely. How often is written feedback required? For some, it was every three weeks, and yet I have been in schools where policy dictates it’s weekly, with many teachers then marking twice weekly, making for a marking arms race, and later, burnout.
Similarly, the frequency and nature of whole-school assessments and reporting significantly affect workload. Some schools are wisely scaling back here to protect their staff.
My oft-repeated advice to PGCE students was: “Don’t forget, you’re also interviewing them.”
Further to that, is it a school you see yourself thriving in? Did you enjoy the interview? Did you feel listened to? So many interviewers focus on the school and its requirements, with scant regard for the interviewee and their ambitions and aspirations. It’s a two-way street.
Of course, the best candidates will wish to contribute outside the classroom and feel a valued member of a team. They will also be interested in CPD, the chance to teach A Level, mentoring, excellent IT support, and a varied, stimulating diet of extracurricular offerings for staff and pupils.
Within the department, candidates will be looking for a mix of ages, experiences, and approaches to the teaching and the subject. They want departments that share ideas, enthusiasms and resources. Singing from and sharing the same hymn sheet take the stress out of the day-to-day, as do people who watch your back. Candidates will also be listening out for inspirational leadership from the head of department.
Communication after the interview
This is where many schools, and employers in industry, fall down, I feel.
I guess time is a factor, but it seems so short-sighted when a quick feedback phone call can make all the difference to the candidate. While a candidate may not quite be the right fit now, they may well be down the line.
The human touch
Whilst outlining this article, I consulted my wife, who still teaches full time. We agreed it is the human touches that stay with us. She remembers the people she met on interview days, and the little things they did to put her at ease. She reminded me of the flowers and chocolates on her desk on her first day of a maternity cover. (Then again, maybe that was also a hint to me – Valentine’s Day isn’t so far away!)
I, too, remember the kindness, wit and wisdom of those who interviewed me, that and their eccentricities. A Benedictine monk, who was the head at my first school, asked me who my favourite Spice Girl was: he had just met them at some red carpet event in London. (For a monk, he was showbizzy and well-connected!) I can’t remember whether he himself had a favourite.
There was another head who interviewed me with his feet on his desk the entire time, which could have been off-putting but put me strangely at ease. He had been hoicked out of retirement to steady a troubled ship. He was completely at ease with himself, in an unshowy and unassuming way. There was something about his demeanour that said, “I like you. We’re just having a chat here. There’s nothing to worry about. We got this.”
I all but bit his hand off when he offered me the job later that afternoon.