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On Sitting Both Sides of the Interview Table

Over the past thirty years I’ve sat both sides of the interview table; seven times being interviewed, five times successfully, and literally hundreds of times interviewing people.  In reality I’ve interviewed so many people over the years that the “hundreds” is a bit of a guess. 

Photo Credit: Pexels

Photo Credit: Pexels

There isn’t a tick list formula or set of behaviours to be turned on in interview that link all the successful candidates together; the successful ones bring a professional whole career approach to everything they do and interviews are just gateways along that path.  For promoted or leadership posts the application process starts a long time before the job you want appears in the press or on a website.  Prepare for your next post everyday by being successful and showing impact in your current one.  Hone the skills you are currently using; think about and develop the knowledge and skills you will need at the next stage in your career.

Starting with a familiar theme; less is better.  The standard word-processed letter, sent to a whole series of different schools with the named changed, and sometimes not, or a cursory sentence thrown in about the school doesn’t impress.  The blunderbuss approach to applications isn’t the way to go.  The letters that grab my attention display a congruence with the schools values and show that careful thought has been given to the application.  Make fewer better applications and ensure you have researched the school well.  You will probably be there for years, ask yourself, “Will it make me happy working at this school?”  If not move on, life is too short, and look at the other adverts or wait for the right one to come along.  If at all possible visit the school and have a walk around but remember this is the start of your interview process whether you want it to be or not.

Photo Credit: Pexels

Photo Credit: Pexels

One of the best letters I have received was from one of the applicants to a leadership post.  The applicant visited the school and impressed me as we walked and talked.  S/he then spent considerable time looking at all the information on the website; the letter reflected this.  Head teachers and governors are looking for people who understand the school’s overall mission/priorities and are a good fit.  Make sure you are a round peg trying to fit in a round hole.  Too many letters I read are largely descriptive, they read like a curriculum vitae, containing very similar information to the actual application form.  Letters need to add value to your application.  Think about what you have learnt from your experiences and how you could use them in this new role, in a new school, for the benefit of the pupils and the organisation generally.  Then write about that.  Include in your application and discussions information you have picked up about the school that particularly attracted you to apply.  If asked “Why have you applied to this school?”  Saying “because it is around the corner” may well be true but it won’t exactly put you top of the list.  Don’t make things up but why did you apply to the school?

When preparing for interview think about the main features of the school – 11-18 or 11-16, faith school or not, selective or comprehensive, urban or coastal/rural, affluent or deprived area etc.  If there are obvious gaps in your experience the people appointing you already know this and you are still at interview; don’t panic, they are obviously interested in your application.  However, expect them to probe potential gaps, be ready.  Your experiences will provide the answers to a number of the questions but also think about what questions you may be asked or what task might they give you to do.  It’s worth planning out a few points, in advance, that will give you the backbone of a great answer.  At interview, it isn’t simply about what you say but also how you present yourself.  When appointing to leadership posts I want to ask a couple of questions that will challenge the candidate and put them under a bit of pressure.  How will they react; they’ll be under pressure at times when leading?  The people who impress remain calm, maintain eye contact, smile and consider the challenges being put to them either maintaining their position or rethinking it carefully.  In short they act like leaders should.

Of the two interviews where I didn’t secure the job I had applied for one I consider a success; it would have been a disaster to be appointed for both me and the school, we were a mismatch.  The other was a real disappointed; I was beaten to the deputy head teacher post by someone who was already a deputy head.  Sometimes there is a candidate who is better or more ready.  These things happen; learn from them and move on as the right job is out there somewhere for you as I soon learnt.  Good luck.

 This blog post first appeared as an article in UKEDChat Magazine 



6 thoughts on “On Sitting Both Sides of the Interview Table

  1. This is such an important aspect of moving forward in a career – also important to try to gauge the mind set of the Head teacher as there needs to be a congruence of goals. You may not always agree with the boss but you need to always back them up, so understanding where the boss is heading and how she/he wants to get there is critical. Scouring the school website and preparing questions which will tell you whether you share the same vision as the Head are real musts. Thanks for the food for thought, Stephen.

    Posted by Stuart Robathan | April 24, 2016, 8:26 am
  2. Thank you for this very informative post. From your experience would you say that majority of governors and heads on appointment panels suffer from unconscious bias? I’ve been very vocal in saying that majority don’t. The panel wants the best person for the job. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Posted by governingmatters | April 26, 2016, 5:21 am
    • Difficult one; tend to think governors and Heads want the best person they can find. What “best” looks like may vary from person to person. Could be argued that would be our “bias”.

      Posted by LeadingLearner | April 26, 2016, 6:17 am
      • True, but when, for example, appointing a member of tbevSKT team the head and governors would have a agreed vision for their school, would agree on the job and person spec and what the school needs so they will, hopefully, have an agreed idea of what’s best. Plus, it’s a panel decision so the final yes or no will be the whole panel decision which means they all need to agree if the candidate is indeed the best person for that post and that school.

        Posted by governingmatters | April 26, 2016, 7:02 am
  3. “Too many letters I read are largely descriptive, they read like a curriculum vitae”. Chimes in with my experience too, Stephen – including some of the letters I now see from aspiring leaders at all levels who ask me to comment on their drafts.

    I’d say beware of offering ‘a list of what I have done’. Focus on why you’re a match for this role/this school and what you COULD do in the future, given the opportunity. Then just use past experiences and achievements as examples of your relevant skills.

    Posted by jillberry102 | April 26, 2016, 3:01 pm

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