The job interview: Tips for schools

Written by: Kristina Symons | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As a school, conducting effective interview days will go a long way to convincing prospective teachers that this is the job for them. Having recently experienced the interview process at two schools, Kristina Symons offers some advice…

It was the best of interviews, it was the worst of interviews...

After 26 years of teaching in London, I am moving to the seaside. I have resigned with no job to go to. So far, I have attended two interviews. Both in state comprehensive secondary schools. Both schools have recently come out of troubled times. Both have recently improving from “special measures” to “good”.

The first interview experience was a dream. Despite it being a being a bitterly cold day in February, the school radiated sunshine. The receptionist smiled as I entered, the head smiled as she entered, I could hear laughter and see happiness on the faces of the students.

As I toured the school the teaching staff smiled and said hello. Two invited me into their classroom and showed me work produced by pupils that they were particularly proud of.

The teacher observing my lesson welcomed me, spoke glowingly about the class, gave me reassuring nods and even a thumbs-up at the end. Energetic and enthusiastic, the children were a delight to teach, all keen to share and respond.

But the head – she was something else. Picture the leader you have always wanted, then give her warmth, empathy, enthusiasm and ambition. Listen to her empowering speeches and her ability to make you feel that you too are really special.

“You are astute and impressive,” she told me. She told me that it was the best school in the world and I believed her. Did I get the job? No. But I would have accepted it hands down and I still fantasise about what my life could have been like had I been successful.

Meanwhile, I am still trying to recover from the second interview. I was ushered into a ramshackle reception area by an aggressive car park attendant in a high-vis jacket (I later learned it was a member of the SLT).

The 16 candidates being interviewed for four different subjects stood shoulder to shoulder. There were three seats. I edged through the bodies to the sullen receptionist who gave me the list of candidates to be interviewed for my subject.

“Your name’s not on the list, but you are the only one here,” she tutted and I found myself apologising for her error. The head arrived late to welcome us. His opening gambit focused solely on behaviour: “We don’t have discipline problems here, in fact, this year I have permanently excluded more pupils than ever before in my teaching career.” I was bemused.

During the tour, the classroom doors were shut. Worn out looking teachers passed me, but looked away.

The chairs were still on the tables as I entered to teach my lesson. “Shall I take the chairs down?” I offered and my observer nodded in silence. No introduction, or welcome. Luckily, I was able to replicate the same lesson taught in the first interview.

In truth, there were no discipline problems that I saw, but the children were glum. They looked bored and offered reluctant responses. At the end of the lesson, I was escorted in silence by the observer to the staffroom where I sat alone for 30 minutes. I felt like I was in trouble.

During the interview, I explained that I had not yet met any members of the department: “Oh they are all very busy and in another area of the school,” the deputy explained, “and there is no head of department, we are interviewing for that post next week.”

I asked about the salary: “You should have worked that out yourself before you came. I don’t do money.” They told me they would call that evening. They didn’t call. I decided to call them after three days.

“You weren’t successful because you rushed your plenary,” somebody in HR explained “and you weren’t able to elaborate on your weaknesses in the interview.”

Would I have worked in that school? Absolutely not. Completely out of the question.

How can it be that the same candidate, delivering the same lesson, in the same type of school can be received so differently? How can it be that one school inspired me to work there, while the other made me feel depressed?

So I humbly invite schools to analyse their interview process and question whether they are actually adding to the recruitment crisis by offering such a negative experience.

Practical advice

Based on my experiences, here are 10 interview tips for schools who want to avoid alienating candidates.

  1. Receiving the application: Thank the candidate for applying for the role and confirm that the application has been received. Be specific about the short-listing date and stick to it. If they have been unsuccessful, email them. There is nothing worse than hearing nothing at all.
  2. Before the interview: Make sure you send the candidate clear details of what to expect on the day and what to bring with them. It is no good assuming that they have brought their passport when you only asked for a proof of ID.
  3. Arrival: Remind your receptionist to greet potential candidates with a friendly smile. This is the candidate’s first impression of the staff at the school. Have their lanyard ready. If there are multiple interviews taking place, ensure that everyone can sit down. Offer them a drink. Have a prospectus or school magazine available for the candidate to read.
  4. Headteacher’s greeting: Headteachers should greet all potential teachers whatever their rank or status. Think carefully about the message you are sending during your welcome speech. You too are being interviewed and scrutinised and this is your time to impress.
  5. The lesson: If a PowerPoint presentation has been sent beforehand, email the candidate to confirm that it will be ready for them on the day. Make sure that it is ready for them. Ask the person observing the lesson to smile, introduce themselves and be welcoming. Say a few kind words at the end of the lesson. Thank them.
  6. The tour: It is not just the responsibility of the student conducting the tour to sell the school. Candidates are looking to potential colleagues to see if it will be a happy environment to work in. Open doors are always a good sign. Encourage staff to invite the candidates into the class, if only for a few seconds.
  7. The task: Question the validity of the task. Are you really going to use it to determine who gets the job? Is it really necessary or just a time-filler?
  8. Student panel: Make it short and sweet. The student panel should not be longer than the actual interview.
  9. The interview: Is it necessary to have more than one panel interview? If so, why? Have you considered that the different panels may be asking the same thing? Allow the candidate to ask about salary. Have a figure prepared.
  10. The call: If you say you are going to call, call. If you can’t call, email. Give useful, constructive feedback. Don’t just rely on “there was a stronger candidate” – tell the candidate why another candidate was stronger. Finally, be nice and helpful. If you know of a vacancy elsewhere, perhaps you could point the candidate in the right direction.


  • Kristina Symons is a specialist teacher and SENCO.


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