After interviewing dozens of candidates for English teaching positions, I developed some approaches and questions for seeing the best in each candidate. I’m mostly interested in figuring out if the candidate is a good person with an educator’s instincts, even if those instincts are not yet fully developed.
I try to avoid context-specific questions. For example, I don’t like to ask about school policies. Candidates cannot be expected to be current on the policies within your school, so questions about late work, grading scales, detention, etc. are not particularly fair or important. After all, those policies change from time to time, so do we want to hire people based on their alignment with a temporary policy?
With that in mind, here are my favorite interview questions.
What were you like in high school? How are you still the same, and how have you changed? This will give you some hints about the candidate’s reflective capacity as he talks about his growth, as well as a picture of which students this candidate is mostly likely to relate to easily.
Tell about a writing challenge you dealt with and how it can help you as a writing teacher. Writing teachers should be writers. Writers struggle. The ability to articulate ways to handle those struggles is a good sign that the candidate will empathize with and develop student writers.
What have you been reading lately that wasn’t required for a class? If a teacher is going to develop lifelong readers, she must be a reader. College students nearing graduation are busy, busy, busy but readers are always reading. If the candidate says, “I only have time for textbooks these days, but I hope to get back to pleasure reading soon,” that’s a candidate who won’t light fires for reading in her students. If the candidate claims to “only read the classics,” that’s a potential danger sign too. Although it’s possible that you have a Renaissance-level candidate, it’s also possible that you have one who only reads what is assigned, and maybe not even that. If a classics-only answer comes out, ask what contemporary books might be considered classics a hundred years from now. It’s OK if a candidate is reading what you might consider fluff. That’s a person who gets that books are not just for school, and she has the authenticity to engender that understanding in her students.
How do you engage reluctant learners with poetry? This question not only gets at the candidate’s ability to differentiate instruction but is also likely to reveal some attitudes about engagement. The poetry angle provides a specific context for that engagement.
If you could design a classroom starting with bare walls, what would you put in there? This will tell you a lot about the candidate’s actual philosophy, as opposed to the “educational philosophy” carefully crafted for his portfolio. What the candidate chooses to include or exclude, and how he arranges those elements will tell you a lot about the philosophy he puts into action. This question isn’t intended to see how closely the candidate can match the physical attributes of your school’s classrooms; it’s more about the candidate’s ideals.
What are you pretty good at as a teacher, and what are you still working on? The second part of the question is more important than the first part. In addressing the latter part, a humble candidate will probably say a version of “Everything,” but you should press for more specifics. A candidate may equate “still working on” with weakness, but a mature candidate will be more specific: “I’ve seen master teachers conduct a whole-class lesson while simultaneously touching base with individual students. I’m not there yet, but I want to work on developing that ability.”
Do you think boys learn differently from girls? There is no perfect answer to this, but again it helps you see the candidate as a thinker and problem solver.
What are factors affecting student performance that you cannot control? This will give you an understanding of whether or not the candidate has the big picture. Someone who has a lot of classroom tools might not understand how what goes on outside of his class can affect a student’s learning and behavior.
How would your students describe you? One time I asked a candidate this question, and she said, “I think they hate me.” Then I tried very hard not to start staring at the door I hoped she would soon use as an exit. In fairness, it’s a hard question, but it gives some sense of how the candidate perceives herself in relation to her students. As you listen to the answer, look for some signs of emotion: “I think they like me,” or “They know I care.” You may also hear things about fairness, respect, and rigor. That’s fine, but listen for whether or not she has any emotional commitment to her work.
Which would you rather have: the ability to jump really high or super-bendy limbs? Again, no right answer, obviously, but watch the reaction when you ask the question. If the candidate’s eyes light up and she smiles, that tells you something about how she will handle surprises and her comfort with spontaneity. If, on the other hand, you see blind panic, that tells you something too. Either way, the fact that you ask this question will let the candidate know that you like to have fun and are likely to encourage a friendly working environment.
Here are some post-interview considerations. As you reflect on a candidate’s responses, factor in your own answers to these questions gleaned from a former principal with whom I conducted many interviews: (1.) Would you want to go on a four-hour car ride with this person? and (2.) Would you want your own children to be with this person for an hour a day for a whole year?
Before making a hiring decision, seeing a candidate interact with students is also extremely helpful, but it’s not always possible or practical.
Receiving some kind of follow-up from a candidate always makes a good impression on me. Something in the mail is fine, but an email is just as good and much quicker. I remember finishing an off-site interview with an appealing candidate and thinking, “She has other offers. I hope we made a good impression on her.” By the time I got back to school, there was a thank-you email from her. I responded positively to it, and we hired her within a couple of days.
I hope these thoughts are helpful as you make important decisions that will impact your school, colleagues, and most importantly, the students in the new teacher’s classroom. Thanks for adding your favorite interview questions and experiences in the comments section.