From the Interviewer’s Seat: What to Do and Say to Win Your Next Job 

I just announced my retirement after 45 years in education. For the past six years, I’ve been the head of lower school at The Bolles School (FL) and am currently part of a team that’s hiring for my position. As I close this chapter in my professional career, I’m reflecting on my time in independent schools and the important people I’ve met along the way. I’ve learned a lot about hiring—and that not everyone knows the basic interview tips that could make or break the time with the hiring committee. I hope to impart some guidance and insights to teachers or administrators who are going through an interview process to share what hiring teams expect, notice, and consider.

First Impressions

In my experience as an interviewer, seeing candidates who dress professionally, walk with confidence, and shake hands with all interviewers, gives me hope. It shows they are taking the interview seriously and that they’ll be able to engage with constituents in a similar way. But not all interviews, particularly in the early rounds, are in person. I’ve had several on Skype, and I’ve seen that what a candidate wears and virtual backgrounds are equally important. Candidates should dress as if they already represent the school at which they’re trying to work. Backgrounds that are clean and simple are least distracting (one candidate sat in front of an unmade bed with laundry in the background—that wasn’t a good first impression.). And eye contact—looking at the small camera at the top of the computer, not at the screen—can help candidates better connect with the interviewers.

Another good start, from my perspective, is when candidates bring notebooks. In addition to another copy of their résumé, some applicants have shown their eagerness to get the job by including their educational philosophy, some letters of recommendations from parents and other constituents, lists of awards, and other materials. They want to show the interview committee that they are the best candidate for the job.

Time to Shine

As you prepare for your interview, there are a few things to practice. First, when you’re answering questions, make eye contact with all the interviewers so they see that you value all members and that you are able to talk to many people at the same time; your job will require this. And I’d recommend keeping your responses short. Interviewers have quite a few questions so be sure to answer in a sentence or two, and then pause. If they want to know more, they will ask.

Candidates who speak confidently and proudly about their accomplishments will express how they will help in the new position. I take note when candidates use language from the job ad, tailoring their responses to the position requirements (if the ad says “flexibility,” share examples of the times when you had to change course).  Keep in mind that interviewers want candidates to talk about the job they want, not the one they have.

Share important things about yourself, both professionally and personally. For example, after noting professional qualifications for the position, a candidate might add that their grown children have chosen to be teachers. It helps the interviewers get to know who they are and what they value—and whether they will be a good fit for the organization and the people already on the team.

If you feel a need to point out concerns, turn them into positive statements. For example, in one recent interview, the applicant said she was young and inexperienced.  This did not sit well with the committee. We wanted her to know that these statements could be turned into a positive. We were able to coach her and suggested that her path to leadership has been diverse, and all her experiences make her a well-rounded leader.

Lastly, please don’t bash or trash-talk anyone from your former school. Another applicant recently said that their former boss did not motivate the team. It came off as very judgmental of the former school leader, when in reality, the candidate wanted to express that he could be a motivator and was looking for a school that embraced that.

Bringing It Home

Before your interview, get to know the school as much as you can through the school’s website—try to understand its mission, values, and everything it stands for. This will help you throughout the interview, but particularly at the end, when it’s your chance to ask questions. Remember that you are interviewing the hiring team, too; you need to know whether the school and the position are a good fit for you. The “second-level” questions, such as “What is the salary?” or “How many vacation days do I get?” typically come later as you move on to become a finalist with a tentative job offer, so tailor your questions to the job requirements, school mission, or overall values and future of the school.

Some of the best questions I’ve heard include:
  • Who supports this position, and who can I turn to to ask questions?
  • What do you see as the future challenges for the school, and how will my role help to move the school forward?
  • What are your dreams and hopes for this new leader?
  • What future opportunities/projects will present themselves to the next administrator?
As the interview winds down, don’t forget to deliver a closing statement, which highlights the key reasons this school should hire you. Be concise and impactful. Leave them wanting to hire you. A good closing statement might be: “I want to end by thanking you all for your time, and I want to highlight a few of my qualities that I want you to remember. I am a compassionate leader who never strays from my values and the mission of the school. I will be a great administrator on your team.” Follow up the next day to say “thank you” via email, note, or phone call. Keeping it short and as soon as possible is the best way to go.

Every interview is a chance to learn and grow. People often don’t get a chance to practice interviewing, and your last interview may have been five to 10 years ago. These are just little reminders to help with the little things that can have a big impact.
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Peggy Campbell-Rush

Peggy Campbell-Rush is head of the lower school at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida. She is the author of seven books, including I Teach Kindergarten!: A Treasure Chest of Teaching Wisdom and Tricks of the Trade: In & Out of the Classroom.