Teaching is not just a job
As I am reading probably my one hundredth CV and letter of application, all for one teaching position, I am reminded about how it is so often the smallest of things, the attention paid to the most obvious of details, that can influence the greatest decisions we make in our lives. I make no bones about how much I love my job. I love the variability, constant challenge and excitement working with children every day offers, and I am thankful that I have had colleagues and employers who have taken a chance and given me the opportunity to pursue my dream job.
But as we all know teaching is not just a job, it is a long term commitment to ensure that every day, every student in our care has the very best opportunities for learning. And by “long term”, I mean that teachers need to constantly improve, to always get better and to prepare for where their career may take them.
Preparation, at a higher level, is why every country in the world invests in education, to prepare for what 1960s UK Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, famously called “Events!”, which in 21st century growth-mindset speak, perhaps translates as “opportunities and unexpected challenges”.
Preparation is the reason that schools create, monitor and constantly update their 3 to 5 year improvement plans.
Preparation is one of the major reasons why schools invest so many resources into professional development opportunities, research and recruitment.
Preparation is also one of the major reasons why teachers invest so much of their time and energy into the above too. But there is often, one exception – recruitment, and this might explain why so many of them let themselves down when new opportunities present themselves, both internally and externally.
Looking at the many applications I have already handed off towards the bin, I am starting to again appreciate how much preparation and work I put in to ensure that at least I got myself in front of those very colleagues and employers and gave myself the best opportunity to be successful.
I want the right people on my bus
In the business classic Good to Great that researched and highlighted the tenets of good companies that became great companies, Jim Collins concluded that getting the right people on the bus was the most important thing great company CEOs did.
I believe this is the same for Headteachers who want their students to benefit from great schools too. But getting great teachers is hard, and it is made harder when those who could be excellent do not put themselves forward in their best light during the recruitment process (this is also true of the Performance Management process, but that’s another blog entirely!) It makes me feel sad because I know that many of the applications I have today passed over, do not truly reflect to their best, the people who wrote them.
There are many websites out there that give concrete advice about how to build a good CV, write a first rate letter of application and present yourself in the best light at interview, so I’m not going to repeat their great content here (although I have added a few to the resources section of this site). Rather, I will share with you the key points that came out of a series of workshops I ran with a group of teachers this time last year, and share the view of one recruiter, me, about what it is school leaders are looking for, specifically what I need to get from an application, and what I want to see in an interview.
But before that I want to explore why it is that I believe many great teachers don’t do themselves justice when applying for new jobs.
Why you’re not ready to get on the bus
It is emotional
You are considering leaving a long term relationship that has, usually, been a happy one, from which you have learned a lot and grown. Spending time deeply reflecting on what you have learned, how you have developed as a teacher or leader and what it is you really want to go on to do is emotionally really testing.
But it is also a very rewarding process and can be hugely cathartic. Clearing the decks, taking stock and gaining clarity on your next move, whether it is to stay or to go, is something I believe we should all do regularly.
It is tough
The “should I stay or should I go conundrum” can give teachers a continued headache, and as much as the thought pops up that you should be preparing for the next appropriate internal vacancy or external move, something much more pressing pops up alongside it – like the planning for tomorrow’s maths, or termly reports, or the update you need to complete for your mid-year review and the decision remains unmade.
If you believe, like me, that teaching is more than just a job, then you have a responsibility to constantly reflect and improve your practice. How often do you take the necessary time to do this? I wonder how many of you actually take the time to prepare thoroughly for your performance reviews, let alone use these reflections to update your CV? Do this, and you will then have the groundwork prepared for when opportunities open up, often unexpectedly, and often internally, and you will be in a solid position to clear the decks, focus and to take best advantage of them.
It takes time
Writing a good CV and application takes time and usually a good 3 or 4 drafts. Getting the pitch correct in terms of selling yourself without sounding arrogant or egotistical; ensuring all the details are correct and dates are aligned and easy to read; matching your skills and experience to the job description or person spec you have been sent is not always straightforward, so you need to take time to get that right.
It takes commitment
Deciding what your next step should be is a challenge in itself, and achieving it is not always easy either. Sometimes the job on paper sounds perfect, but you visit the school and it doesn’t feel right, or your commute is just too difficult, or it is in a country that wasn’t top of your places to work – I could go on. Finding your best “next step” takes commitment.
You may not get the first job you apply for. Or the second. You may not get the third, but let me remind you that getting your next great job takes commitment:
- How much feedback have you asked for from these previous interviews?
- How much time have you spent re-writing your application to match it to the person spec you have been sent?
- How much research have you done about the schools you are applying to or the individuals who will be interviewing you?
- How much effort did you put into your appearance?
- How much time did you leave to get there on time and with time to get yourself settled and calm before the interview?
- Did you prepare a portfolio to share with prospective employers?
Some of the candidates who also went for the same interview as you will have done all that and one of them got the job!
What I need to get from your CV and statement/letter of application
Now I’ll explain what makes me want to meet the person behind an application and bring it to life. In short, to get you into the interview hot seat. I have already touched on many of the things I am looking for, but in terms of practical advice, here’s what I think…
I think of a CV as a tool box. When I read a CV I want to know if the person who wrote it has the tools they will need to do the job I need doing, and do it well.
How long should it be?
There’s heaps of advice out there about getting your CV down to 2 pages, but unless you are explicitly asked to do this then don’t! It is much better to have 3 or even 4 pages that are in a readable font size, clear and flow well, than to produce 2 pages written in impossible-to-read, tiny font with virtually no margins which only gives the reader a headache. When there are 30 more to read, believe me, no one will take the time to struggle over yours. It is sadly headed for the reject pile!
I actually advise you to have two CVs; one two page summary containing a short personal statement and your key employment and educational details. The second CV can be longer, and include a lot more of the information you want to share about yourself professionally. The first makes you really focus in on what is important about you, and decide on what key things you want to get across. I suggest you write the long one first, then summarise clinically, to get a 2 page version. You can then be sure that your key message is focussed but remains detailed
Check your dates!
Check your dates are concurrent, correct and that there are no gaps. Gaps make me nervous and wonder if you are trying to hide something, and they also tell me you pay little attention to detail – and detail in teaching is important! Please don’t put 2013-2013! What does it mean? I read that and think you must be someone who either can’t remember or doesn’t want to tell me why you couldn’t last one academic year in one role! If it is teaching practice, then say so and give me exact dates; January 2013 to June 2013, PGCE Placement. Now that tells me everything I need to know.
Give a context to your school
Being a Deputy Head of Primary in a five form entry, multi cultural inner-city school is a very different role from a class based, DHT in a one form entry rural primary school. Both demanding and difficult jobs for sure, but giving a very short summary of your school adds real context to your experience, and it is even more helpful if you hyperlink your school’s website to this description.
E.g. Discovery Bay International School is an inclusive, 4 form entry, international, community school in Hong Kong. The curriculum is based on British characteristics and gives our 1,100 students a broad and holistic international education.
What are your key achievements?
Writing about the main responsibilities in your role is OK, but you are describing your job description to me which actually tells me what you are supposed to do, rather than what you actually do.Tell me instead, about what you have done well and what your key achievements are in each role. If you add that, then I instantly get a picture of what you have achieved, and that helps me clearly visualise what you may go on to achieve in my school.
After a short paragraph summarising your role, I suggest that you pick one or two of your key achievements and briefly outline these with specific evidence of impact as appropriate.
E.g. I introduced a Peer Supporters Programme, training Year 5 students to support a restorative justice approach to resolving incidents in the playground which led to a decrease in logged behaviour incidents during playtimes of just under 47% over the previous year.
(This works if you have space, but if it is a 2 page summary CV then don’t crowd it out!)
Statement/letter of application
Who are you?
After I have checked your tool box by reading your CV, I then want to know who you are;
- Are you the right sort of person for our team?
- Are you excited by what you do?
- What will you bring to the role?
- How will you engage with our students?
I want to see what makes you tick;
- What your passions are?
- How you strive to be better?
- What latest research has inspired you as a learner?
And I want to see that you know my school and can tell me why you would be a good fit.
In order to do that well, you need to be sure about what it is I am looking for – have you thoroughly read the person spec? Think about how you can show me you have the qualities I am looking for? Don’t repeat what is in your CV though – I will have already read that! If I am looking for someone to lead on the development of teaching through enquiry, then tell me how you have already worked in this area, how you have already made a difference by teaching through enquiry or how you have read research that supports why it is great for student learning. And tell me about the impact your actions have had on the children’s learning.
Get it reviewed
Once you have written your statement of application, get someone who knows you well to read it through and share with you the message they think you are trying to get across. If you are really brave, ask someone who does not know you so well to read it and tell you what they take from it. Is the message you are trying to get across, actually getting across to the readers? Does it show me why you are a teacher, how much you love teaching, and how much you enjoy working with amazing young people every day? If not, then I am not likely to long-list you.
Do your research
I can spot a generic application a mile off. Please don’t think that I can’t – it is easy. It is easiest when you have inserted the wrong school name into your letter (believe me this happens more than you can imagine!) or you leave the XXX in the space before you have inserted my school’s name. And actually, it is much easier to see than that. If you are not continually referencing my school, and showing me the similarities in your beliefs and ours, your approach to student development and ours and how you have had a positive impact in areas I want to develop, then I kind of already know this application is more about you and what you want, rather than how you are the best person to help us achieve what we want. Remember, I am looking for someone who shares our belief that by working together we can further improve the learning opportunities and outcomes for my students. I need to see clearly what passions and enthusiasms you have, and how you want to help us grow and be better because you have joined us.
If your current employer is not one of your referees mention why up front! Don’t think we won’t notice! There are many valid reasons why this may be the case, but you need to be clear about what they are. If you are looking to leave your school during your first academic year, then you are going to have to have a really good reason for that.
What I need from your interview
So, what makes me want to commit to you emotionally and visualise you in my school if you are an external candidate; or in the role if you are an internal candidate? In short, what do you need to do to get onto the shortlist for a job offer. Remember, I love my school, and I only want to be appointing teachers who I believe will love it too.
Skype basics – I need to see and hear you!
All too often these days, and particularly with international schools, initial interviews are carried out over Skype, so if you are not used to Skyping you need to practice:
- Have you checked your Skype link and microphone work, and are on time to start the call at the agreed time? Please think about what is behind you – what we can see – I am instantly put off when I can see your overflowing laundry basket! And please make sure you are in the room alone. I know I am talking to you in your living room, but only because I have to. I would not normally expect to meet your family and your dog during an interview if it were happening in my office.
- Make sure you are appropriately dressed – this is the first impression you are creating.
- Check you can be seen and heard – and I want to see your whole face, not just your forehead! Spend some time practicing so you know how far away from the screen you should be when being interviewed!
Think and decide
It is vital that you prepare carefully for interview. This applies as much, if not more, if you are an internal candidate – see “Internal Candidates” below. Think about the questions I am likely to ask you, and then decide how you will answer them, sharing with me the information you want to get across.
- Have you thought about how you will demonstrate the positive impact you have had on the children you have taught, or the colleagues you have worked alongside?
- Have you got examples of how you have grown and improved your practice?
- What mistakes have you learned from?
- Can you talk about initiatives you have led, or risks you have taken?
In the interview
Remember, I want to know who you are as a person by the time we get to interview. I want to know:
- How you are likely to support our students?
- How you will work within our teaching teams?
- How you will relate to parents and develop links across the wider school community?
Most importantly perhaps, I want to know what your drivers are. What gets you out of bed in the morning ready to come to school? What gives you the most satisfaction? How do you go about engaging your students and colleagues and encouraging them to move out of their comfort zones and make a difference? What are your non-negotiables? How do you want to grow as a professional? What are you currently learning about? What is your ‘Why’?
And, because you have researched my school already, or as an internal candidate you already work here, and thought about what our main areas for development are, how would you contribute to achieving these?
What questions do you have for me?
It is hard and it is often public
I personally have huge respect for colleagues who put themselves forward for internal promotions. It is hard. And it is often public. Even when the vast majority of your colleagues want you to do well, there will always be the one or two with a little schadenfreude. They may secretly want you to fail, and of course this is much more about their reflections on themselves than you, however it can be hard to deal with colleagues who damn you with faint praise.
Don’t ever let that put you off.
Don’t make assumptions
Do not underestimate the effort you need to make as an internal candidate. I have seen too many great teachers underperform during the internal interview process because they fail to celebrate wholeheartedly all they have achieved in the current school, mainly due to the assumption that those interviewing them will know this already.
Prepare as thoroughly as you would for an external interview
It is imperative that you prepare just as thoroughly for internal interviews as you would for external ones. Yes, it can be much more difficult to “sell” yourself to colleagues who already know you, but you need to. But don’t underestimate the things you can do that external candidates can not:
- Ask colleagues to give you feedback before you go to interview and use their words to make this an easier process for you.
- Refer back to your performance management reviews and feedback from previous internal interviews, look at the comments that your reviewers have recorded there and highlight the great points and show how you have improved on those needing development.
- What parent testimonials do you have? Share them.
Really focus on 4 or 5 things you want me to know. To remember. What is it that you need me to really know about you so I can see you successfully in role?
There is a prize for coming second
So, plan diligently, prepare thoroughly and interview positively, and you’ll get the job! But sometimes you won’t… so what do you do then?
Here’s two examples from colleagues I have worked with:
One was “knocked back” from internal interviews, and felt that they had “done their time” and were ready for the next rung on the ladder. They felt that the leadership team had made the wrong decision, and set about sharing this view with their colleagues. None of their reflections were about their own performance, rather all about ours and how unfair we had been. Fixed mindset yes – and proof positive of course that we made the right decision in not appointing.
Conversely the other went for an internal promotion three times before being successful. They showed amazing resilience, a real growth mindset and took every positive out of the feedback requested. Each time they interviewed, they demonstrated how they had taken on board the advice they had previously been given and grown from it. When they were successful they were ready to do an amazing job, and they did.
Although I believe internal interviews are emotionally and executionally harder, they do have one major positive over external ones, because if you want it and seek it out there is a fabulous prize for coming second – ongoing feedback. Yes, you can get feedback from external interviews, but it will be a one off, whereas it is in your own school’s interests to “reward” you for trying, pick you up, and help you develop for the next internal opportunity to come along.
So, take every opportunity to ask for feedback, whether successful or unsuccessful, so that you can do more of what is working well, and develop or strengthen the areas that have been identified as needing more experience or improvement.
What not to say!
My final piece of advice is about what I don’t want to hear (and a recap of what I do), and this should resonate whether you are looking to work in a new school, new town, or in a new country.
Please don’t tell me that you:
- Are not entirely sure why you are leaving your present school but you feel you ought to be looking for something new.
- Are at the age where everyone is telling you should be going for leadership positions.
- Are looking for smaller class sizes.
- Want an easier job – a better work life balance.
- Love to travel or love the idea of living in Hong Kong!
…not at the very start of your interview anyway!
I am not looking for backpackers, or lazy teachers who want an easy life. Teaching is HARD. And it is HARD anywhere if you are doing it properly!
I want the right people on my bus, so rather, I want to hear about your uniqueness and your excitement. I want to hear how you will make a positive difference in my school and how you will bring the best out of every child and teacher you work with everyday. I want to know that our school ethos matches yours and that you will go the extra mile to make a real difference every day.
And I want you to know that it is OK not to be the complete package – not to be entirely ready. Your passion to improve, your track record of going the extra mile, your willingness to take on board constructive criticism and grow, your resilience, your ability to stick with it when things get difficult, these are what make it easy for me to take a risk. To make you an offer because I want nothing more than to have you as part of my team.
Conclusion – Opportunities and Unexpected Challenges – Events!
I started by talking about the importance of preparation, and I end in the same way.
Preparation for an uncertain future, teachers preach it, but when it comes to their own career development too many let their schools, their prospective schools, and themselves down. At best they are not modelling (“do as I do”) to students and parents, at worst they force their school or prospective school to appoint someone who may not be the best candidate and neglect the development of their own teaching journey by scorning job opportunities.
So, even if you do not want to move schools, or even into a new role just yet, as a minimum what you do by being prepared is model what you tell your students and parents about preparation, while at the same time gaining clarity on how you are growing as a teacher and a learner and how you continue to have an amazing impact on the young lives you help shape and grow every day.
As you’ve read to the end of this blog I suspect I got you at “Teaching is not just a job” and you want a long term career journey of professional development and discovery, and believe that preparing for your next job is of huge value to both you and your current school. So, the earlier you start preparing for your next move the better that move will be. The more focus and effort you put into the mechanics of the recruitment process now, the more likely it will be that your passion, your value and your commitment will be not only be clearly communicated to recruiters like me but you’ll also be prepared for all possible “Events!”