Well, it’s that time of year – teacher job interview season! In my eight years of teaching I have held four different full-time teaching positions in three school districts. My first teaching job lasted a year, and I resigned because it was not a good fit for me. My next position was for two years, and I would probably still be there today if I hadn’t been a victim of district-wide cuts. Next, I was hired as a one-year replacement for a music teacher on family leave (I had to write a letter of resignation and post-date it before the district would let me sign a contract). In that same district, a brand new elementary school was being built and was scheduled to open the following year. I interviewed for the music position created by the building opening, and that is where I am teaching today. My school is now in its fourth year of operation, and I love love love teaching there!
I have also been on the other side of the table, serving on interview teams several times. After honing my own interview skills and seeing some really stellar interviewees, I have compiled this list of tips. I have given this to my student teachers for a few years, and they seem to have benefited from the suggestions (all of them are gainfully employed).
Planning ahead for the interview
- Most school districts have online application systems. Make sure your application is up-to-date with the districts you have applied to, and remember to update if any of your information changes. Have electronic versions of as many documents as you can – resume, cover letter, reference letters, transcripts, license, etc. Your resume and cover letter should be in pdf format so that they can’t be altered, and so that the files won’t open with little red lines under anything the computer thinks is spelled incorrectly.
- Not all districts post jobs externally. If you find one of those districts, make a friend on the “inside” who will let you know if a job does open up that you might be interested in.
- Sometimes job postings say not to contact a building or principal directly. In that case, send a very brief email to the principal with your resume and cover letter attached. If you know the principal or someone in the building, call the principal to state your interest. In my opinion, nobody can be too motivated when it comes to looking for a job.
- Look at the school’s website to try to come up with questions based on the school’s philosophy or activities – something to show you did some research.
- You can also call the secretaries and ask them about the school if the website isn’t helpful. Secretaries usually don’t mind taking a few (brief) minutes to talk to prospective teachers…and they will probably drop your name to the principal.
After eight years of teaching, my portfolio is massive. I keep it in a 3-inch binder, with each document in a clear plastic sleeve. I update it periodically whether or not I am anticipating applying for a job, just so I know that it is current when I do choose to apply.
- If you don’t already have a portfolio, start one immediately. Items that absolutely MUST be in your career portfolio include: resume, a generic cover letter, transcripts, teaching credentials, letters of reference, sample lesson plans (preferably with photos and student work samples), statement of your philosophy of music education, and classroom management plan. You might also include recital programs, copies of assignments you completed that show some aspect of your preparation that you feel might not be represented in your field experience, letters from students or parents, and any other items you feel are relevant.
- Use your portfolio to highlight your answers to the interviewers’ questions. Know it backward and forward. Not all interviewers will ask to see it, and those who do usually don’t know what they are looking at or looking for. If you can use your portfolio as a tool to make your verbal answers come alive, that’s the best way to use it. If your portfolio is electronic, bring your laptop but assume there will not be internet access in the interview room.
- Take a mini-version of your portfolio that the interviewers can keep and look at again later. Include copies of your resume and cover letter, a few really great reference letters, a sample lesson plan, copies of your teaching license and transcripts, and any other information that you feel are pertinent. It will also help the interviewers remember “which one was he?” if you have a photo of yourself teaching on the front cover. DVDs, CDs, and websites/blogs are great additions to that, but just remember that not every administrator is tech-savvy.
When I was on an interview team, the candidates who went above and beyond always made the most lasting impact.
- It probably goes without saying that you should dress über-professionally and arrive early.
- Be prepared for a single administrator to conduct the interview or a whole panel of teachers, parents, and administrators. Each person on the interview team is selected to be there for a reason. Don’t feel weird about writing down their names and positions so that later in the interview you can direct questions to the person to whom it most directly applies.
- Don’t be afraid to sing songs you might use in a lesson (but don’t expect the interviewers to sing back). I’m a general and vocal music person, but if you’re an instrumentalist, it probably couldn’t hurt to bring along your instrument (unless it’s something gigantic like a harp or a marimba or something – that might be a little awkward).
- Talk as if you already have the job. Instead of, “If I get the job, will there be…” try, “When I am the music teacher here, will there be…” Some administrators might think this seems overconfident, but I think it helps the interviewers actually envision you in that position. Do not think of it as an interview, but instead a meeting about the job.
- Answer questions honestly. If they ask what pieces – titles, composers, etc. – you would program for a seventh grade boys’ choir that will prepare them for a contest choir in high school but also addresses changing voices (yes, I have been asked that one), and you have no clue, tell them you have no clue but then prove that you know where to start looking for appropriate repertoire.
- ALWAYS have a list of questions prepared ahead of time. People I interviewed who had NO questions seemed like they did not really know anything about the job, did not care enough to plan ahead, or could not think on their feet. Some areas that you can ask about are the daily schedule, curriculum specifics, extra-curricular duties, fundraising and budget, student demographics, and building-wide discipline policy.
- Take notes during the interview. Use the list of questions you prepared on which to take notes (you don’t want to ask a question that has already been answered).
- ASK WHEN A DECISION WILL BE MADE AND IF YOU COULD PLEASE BE CONTACTED EITHER WAY. Then you won’t be sitting around wondering if somebody has already been hired, if you will be called, etc. Seriously. Put it on your list of questions, or you will be kicking yourself later.
After the interview
- Send a thank you card if you feel the interview went really well and the job would be a good fit. Take thank you cards with you and write your note in the car right after the interview, before you even leave the premises. MAIL it though…do not just leave it with the secretary, unless the timeline is too short for it to reach the interviewers in time for it to impact their decision-making.
- Sometimes, the interview proves that a job is just not going to be a good fit. In those cases, I just assume I will not be offered the job and don’t take any more steps (if I felt it, I am pretty sure the interviewers did too).
- Try not to get discouraged if you get a “Dear John/Jane” letter now and then. Sometimes these are sent to applicants who are not even chosen to be interviewed, sometimes to interviewees who are not chosen for the job. Some jobs are “filled” before they’re even posted externally. It’s not you, it’s them.
- It is OK to ask what you could have done better in an interview or what skills/qualities you were lacking that they were looking for.
- An interesting idea from MusicEdMajor.net (I think this is a great idea, and I can’t believe I never thought of it myself!)
“If you don’t get hired after giving an interview, call them back and ask who was hired and which school district they are coming from. Not all schools will give out that information, but if they do, you have another school to apply to. Chances are that the district the other person is leaving hasn’t posted their opening yet.”
A great interview is a lot like a great lesson plan – each detail planned and every scenario considered. Good luck!
*Addendum, May 30, 2011: Dr. Kathleen Kerstetter from Florida International University has these additional great interview tips for teachers of all disciplines. Interview Questions for Recent College Grads
*Addendum, July 3, 2012: Joe Guarr at The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece has some more excellent advice for music educators interviewing for an ensemble director position that involves a teaching demonstration element. What DO Those Interview Committees Want?