Job Application – Interview Stage


Leadership / Friday, November 2nd, 2012

I knew my last DHT interview was going to be a more enjoyable experience when the head sat down with the four candidates and said that the most important thing for us to remember was to be ourselves   The DHT position was his first senior appointment as a head and he wanted to make sure he appointed the right candidate.  ”Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear,” he said, “be honest.”  He then went on to say that there were no tricks amongst the interview, it wasn’t his intention to catch anyone out – to get the best candidate he wanted us to relax and be ourselves.  In all of the interviews I have had no-one has ever said this before.  I am sure that you can think of plenty of situations where you felt that you  were being tested unfairly  that there was a hidden agenda to the process.  If you cant, then can I suggest you read @teachertoolkit’s post for the Guardian Teacher Network on how senior leaders get their jobs.  Ross sums up a host of undesirable experiences for someone going through the strain of a two day interview.

This post has two purposes.  Ideally it would be great if aspirant leaders applying for SLT positions found this and my previous post about the application process useful.  If it helps more of you get short listed and give you the confidence to attack the interview with gusto then I will be delighted.  I would also like heads and governors to read this and consider the process they put together for interviews.  There is such poor practice out there in designing interviews and leaders really do need to consider how it reflects on them and their organisation.
For example, if, as a leader, you stand for integrity, reliability and moral excellence, as set out as key characteristics by Sergiovanni in Michael Fullan’s superb book on Leading in a Culture of Change, why would you put together an interview process that is at odds with this qualities?  Let me share with you some of the worst experiences you could encounter at interview and see how many you have come across.
  • Observe a lesson taught be an excellent teacher but delivering it poorly
  • Teach a lesson for one hour and be observed for 5 minutes
  • Be asked to give a presentation with no prior warning and get 30 minutes to prepare
  • Leave the second day invite phone call until late evening
Let me be clear that I am not against stress inducing activities for an interview – the very nature of the job means you need to be sure that the candidate can deal with stress effectively but what head would want their DHT or AHT to teach without using the latest resources?  Would you employ someone who says,”Great, I’ve never understood how to use those whiteboard thingies anyway.”  What head in their right mind would go up to their DHT mid-afternoon and say, “Can you deliver a 20 minute presentation to the parents this evening?” without some prior notice or warning.
There are many ways to induce stress during an interview and many of the techniques I will expand on later will do this superbly – the key thing to remember is do you want to appoint the best candidate or the candidate that deals with stress the best?  The two will not always lead to the same conclusion.

Interview tasks

I have experience all of the following tasks, although obviously not during the same interview.  Having said that, a two day interview is gruelling and you will be shattered by the end of it no matter how thoroughly you prepare and preparation is the key.  You can not go into these tasks blind.  It makes the disappointment more painful if you spend days preparing for the process but, if you get down to the second day or even the runner up, would you have done that without all the preparation?

Tour of the school

I have been on school tours when the head has said, “This is part of the interview” and been on tours when they haven’t.  You must assume at all times that when you are on the tour you are being watched!  You must make every opportunity to speak to students, speak to staff, find out what they are teaching and what they will do next.  All of this will be passed back to the leadership team whether they tell you so at the start or not.  Speaking to students is MASSIVELY important.  If I hadn’t made such an effort to speak to students on the first day of a DHT appointment that I didn’t get in the end then the presentation would have been a disaster (I will explain this later).  Get the students names and a bit about their story – it is very useful.
The worst thing you could do on a tour is meekly walk round, don’t ask any questions or just deal out one word answers when the students speak to you.

Staff panel

This is a hard one to prepare for.  It is difficult to predict what questions they will ask of you but over the past two years I have come across some common themes.  Staff will want to know how supportive you are as a leader.  What will you do to make their role more manageable and enable them to be better at their job. You will often have middle leaders in there so it helps if you have pastoral and departmental experience.  The key thing here is do not talk about being hard on staff – discuss accountability being about doing what you can to enable staff to be great at their job, show your empathy and willingness to listen.  If the staff think you will be a fair but sympathetic ear then you will score highly.

Student panel

This is my favourite part of any interview – if you find it easy to speak with a range of students and take them seriously then you have nothing to worry about this process.  It is worth pointing out that in any interview I have been involved in the appointing of a member of staff the students always pick the candidate who features in the top one or two – the students are rarely wrong.  You must appear honest and genuine.  Don’t be afraid to tell them you don’t agree – you will always get a question about detentions and homework etc – students will not respect staff who appear unrealistic.  Make the effort to use their names, if there are no badges, just ask them their name when they ask you a question, and treat them with courtesy.

In-tray exercise

I had a DHT interview two years ago when the in-tray exercise produced an absolute panic in me.  It was a great task.  13 pages of scenarios, all printed on different pages so managing them was a real effort, and an extension exercise of having to write three letters about specific events, health and safety issue with asbestos, PCSO seeking support for some unruly behaviour a the local park and a parent alleging racist beliefs for not allowing his son to move maths sets.  I spent so long dealing with the 10 shorter issues that I realised I only had 5 mins to write three letters!! Consequently I did not score highly on the phrasing of those letters.  The solution to this – if you have to write a letter as part of your in-tray – do this first.  Your success on these exercises is more down to can you prioritise the key incidents first, so long as you can explain your actions later you should be fine – but a letter to a parent or outside agency that is poorly worded or phrased will not reflect well on you at all.

Data task

It is likely that you will have a data task as part of a DHT role or an AHT if the post is about data.  The best example I have seen on this occurred during my NPQH assessment and a Headship interview.  I was given a copy of a RAISEonline report and told I had 50 minutes to review it and present, on one page of A4 a summary of the main points AND suggested actions to address the shortfalls.  It is a great ask as you really should know your way around a raise report at this level and 50 minutes is ample time to review it and come up with recommendations   It is likely that the report will be an exemplar one, not on the actual school, so you do not need to worry about what you put down and the likelihood of offending the school.  The raise report has such sensitive information that is is very unlikely that any school will release it to candidates.
It is a great task to get at interview as, so long as you know your way around the report, it is a great opportunity for you to demonstrate your competence with data and is not too taxing a task.
During my NPQH assessment though, instead of a raise report I was given an OFSTED report and 30 mins to summarise it with suggestions for improvement.  Either way, whether it is a raise or OFSTED you need to make sure you understand enough about school improvement to be able to argue why you would choose certain interventions based on data.

Goldfish Bowl

I really do not like this activity although it is a superb task to run at interview.  It pits the candidates directly against each other and test not only their knowledge of up-to date educational issues but also their ability to chair a discussion.
How it normally works is you all go into a room where you’ll find a circle of chairs with a slip of paper on them turned upside down.  You turn your paper over and that is your topic.  You normally have 5 mins to lead a discussion on that topic.  During this task there will be one to eight (in a recent interview I had!) watching and making notes.
You need to brush up on your current affairs in education for this but you can also prepare for leading the discussion.  Remember, if you chair a discussion you are not supposed to be putting your views over first.  You should collect opinions from everyone else, agree a summary and then put your view across.  Do you recall the phrase great minds think alike?  Well the next sentence says, and fools rarely differ.  Leadership texts are strewn with stories of how people reach terrible decisions by following the ideas and initiatives of their leaders without question.  Great leaders will listen to their teams views warts and all.  It is not poor performance on your part to let others lead a discussion on your topic so long as you chair it correctly, make sure all candidates speak equally and summarise their views correctly.  It is a great chance to show your listening skills, your confidence and control.  Don’t do what a candidate did recently and present a two page summary of their views, (we had been told of our brief for chairing the discussion when we were invited to interview) and then spent all the time justifying their reasons.  Meetings are for sharing and exploring.

Presentation

This is a bitter sweet task for me.  It should be fine as my experience as a lead practitioner means I have delivered loads of presentations to a wide audience so have complete confidence in writing and delivering a sold presentation.  It is bitter though as my experience leaders rarely focus on the right thing.  The topic of the presentation is usually vague and you will spend as much time trying to decipher the meaning as you will writing the thing.  Plus, there is an inverse law about the duration of the talk and the amount of time you spend preparing for it!
I’ll give you an example.  At one interview for headship I was asked to give a presentation to the staff (this is really common by the way – rarely will you give a presentation at DHT/Head level without speaking to the staff and the governors) as if I was speaking to prospective parents at an intake evening.  I prepared a presentation about the ethos of the school, what made it a great choice for parents, made sure I spoke to some students and got their names in as well (this obviously goes into the narration and not the slides/Prezi) and delivered it as well as I would have liked.  During the feedback though I was told that I got the presentation all wrong.  What they wanted was an overview of what the child’s first few days would be like at the school.
My nightmare scenario happened during a presentation at a DHT interview but, because I had spoken to students during the day I managed to turn it to my advantage.  The theme was how to turn school X into an outstanding school.  I have come up with a number of ways but focussed on staff training – my analogy was the two to three hours coaching Manchester United have each day and that if elite athletes need that input why were teachers not given better training and coaching.  However, it became really clear throughout the day that the school had already put a huge emphasis and it was paying dividends – so I had a presentation with no novel answers.  So, in the twenty minutes I had before I gave my presentation I made some notes and went into the staff meeting with a quick flash of the slide – an explanation that they already did what I would suggest and then said could I share with them my thoughts on the people I had met during the day and what they thought of the school.  Turns out I had met one of the heads favourite characters during the day and they were delighted I had talked about him during the presentation.  Meeting and talking with the students is a fundamental task and something that will really help your interview.
This is the problem with presentations.  They are so subjective and open to interpretation and leaders really get this wrong when the plan the interview process.  A presentation is a great task for interview – it is vital that leaders are able to speak with authority, presence, able to think on their feet and exude confidence – the actual content of the presentation should be the last consideration.  It is clear though that the presentation is the easiest target when giving feedback about not getting the job so you must bear this in mind when you get feedback that you don’t agree with.  It cut me up for days because I see this a strength of mine and it took a while for me to calm down enough to put it down to cheap feedback.

Panel interviews

You will have a number of panel interviews to attend.  These can range from 20 mins to 40mins and will tax your memory and ability to talk concisely and give the information you need to get through to the second day.  These panels are a great to arrange a carousel for a number of candidates so you will have them in a rotation, often with the staff and student interviews.  Examples of panels I have lead or been through are;
  1. Teaching and learning – pedagogy and experience of leading a curriculum and being accountable for the results.
  2. Leadership – questions on this topic range from resources such as budget experience and dealing with under performing staff.
It is vital when going through these panels that you conduct yourself with the utmost professionalism – it is easy to be tempted to dish the dirt on someone else but it demonstrates poor leadership and values on your behalf.  Never refer to staff in your own school by name and always be mindful of how you come across.  It is worth remembering that every head in an area knows each other and is largely supportive of each other as well.
There is no short cut to these panels – you need to know your stuff.  I suggest reading leadership texts if you do not already and try to get your school subscribed to The Key – an incredible resource for condensing all the aspects of school leadership into easily understood summaries.  In fact, the first time I came across the key was at an interview with a fast-track graduate – all the candidates on the programme were given subscriptions to the service.  Unfair?  Yes, but you need to keep up with the competition to get ahead.
In any interview it is worth remembering the STAR process.
  • Situation
  • Task
  • Action
  • Result
When answering any question always structure your answer around this – what was the situation, what did you do as a result and how do you know it worked?  Anyone who can answer along these lines will always do well at interview.

Assembly

This is common for the second day of interview although I have done one on the first day as well.  It is unusual as you normally want to cut the number of candidates before you get a year group in the hall – it can be a long day for a group of students if they have 6-8 candidates.  The outcomes for this are similar to the presentation.  Does the candidate speak with authority and composure in front of 200 students, do they address the SMSC that should be covered in assembly and do they relate the theme to analogies the students will understand.  A great task to get as it should be second nature to many aspirant leaders.

Final interview

Well done- you have got the the first goal of any SLT interview – the second day.  You have got through a short listing process that cut over fifty candidates to six-eight on the first day and you are likely to be in the last three or four on the second day.  In my experience you will be called in the evening with a title for your presentation and a time to come into school – not always first thing.  The interview consist of a ten-fifteen minute presentation and then a forty to fifty minute interview with a panel of the head, (or county advisers for a head interview) and governors.  You will be asked about everything here.  School improvement, budget experience, dealing with under-performing staff, difficult parents, engaging the community, leadership and your strengths and weaknesses.  The Key website has a list of many of the questions you should expect at interview and you would do well to write down your reply to all of them and rehearse your answers through the STAR model.

Summary

I had got every job at the first interview after my NQT year until I applied for an AHT post.  I got my AHT post at the third time of asking and my DHT at the second although I did have two headship interviews during this time as well.  It is clear that interviews take practise and you learn from your mistakes.  It will be crushing when you are not successful but then try to remember how you would expect someone else to deal with that disappointment.  You dust yourself down, take pride in your preparation and go at it again.  Ultimately the single most important factor in your success is something you can not control – do you fit what is there already?  Do you provide the skills they don’t have.  You might be the best candidate on the two days but if they already have one of you on the team already you will not get the job.  Trust in what will be will be and try not to let the disappointment get to you.
I was sure that if someone else said to me, “Things happen for a reason…” I would tell them what happens to people who trot out such useless phrases…but, I can honestly say that I really enjoy working where I do now.  I fit the school well and it is perfect for me and my development – we will learn together.  I have a head to work for who will challenge me to make that next step.
Things worked out well in the end…..

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