A Head of School’s 14 Tips on Interview Etiquette
January is the time when I, head of Laurel School (OH), feel like Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. With one face, I focus intently on the remaining six months of the current school year. With the other, my thoughts turn to the complex jigsaw that is staffing.
After winter vacation, I often learn of retirements and relocations. My team and I calculate enrollment and next year’s number of sections. We think about who might be ready for a change, and what new staff and faculty we might have the opportunity to bring into our school. Hiring is an exhilarating and exhausting undertaking.
As a head, I’ve hired a lot of people. Through my work for The Heads Network and my role as a faculty member for NAIS’s Aspiring Heads Cohorts, I’ve mentored many who seek new roles in schools. What I’ve learned is that sometimes we are so erudite. I’m reminded of something one of my mentors once referred to as “the common sense God gave a chicken.”
In that spirit, here are 14 tips on how to make a great impression in the interview process.
1. Be forthright. Whenever possible, let your current head know if you are searching. A few years ago, a colleague called me at home on a Saturday morning to inquire about a teacher in my school who had applied for a job. I didn’t know she had applied and did my best to cover my surprise, recommending her enthusiastically. On Monday, I told her of the conversation. “I had no idea you would know someone in another part of the country,” she told me. The independent school world is a small web. Certainly, there may be reasons you cannot share your plans, but when possible, give your boss the opportunity to support your hopes.
2. Proofread, proofread, proofread. I do not hire people who send ill-proofed résumés or cover letters. An electronic signature is better than blank spaces between your closing and your name. The speed with which we can dash off letters can sometimes work to our disadvantage. Be sure someone proofs each letter.
3. Do your homework. Death to the generic cover letter. When writing a cover letter, mention the school by name. Include evidence that you have taken the time to investigate that school. Also, be certain your educational philosophy aligns with the school to which you’ve applied. When I read an educational philosophy about the importance of coed education, I discard it because I run a girls’ school.
4. Be polite. Respond promptly when the school contacts you. If you are invited for an interview, be courteous to the person making your travel arrangements. It is frustrating and expensive if you change your plans or are flaky about flights. Keep your receipts, and ask the name of the person who should receive them and if you should bring them to the interview. Write to thank the people who interviewed you as soon as you possibly can. Handwritten is nicer than email.
5. Rehearse. Role play with a friend before any interview. We all get better with practice. Are you rambling? Do you need to work to eliminate verbal fillers? Are you gesticulating wildly or unconsciously playing with your hair? What are three strengths you hope to convey? Can you offer some specific anecdotes that reveal those talents? Remember to end your sentences by bringing your voice down. We all have speech patterns, but work to be as polished as you can be.
6. Avoid glitches that can be avoided. Test your technology before a Skype or Zoom interview. Quiet your pets and avoid interruptions during the conversation.
7. Be prepared. Ask to see your schedule ahead of time. Take the time to investigate who you will meet and learn as much as you can about the school from the website. Google those on the search committee, and search yourself so you are not surprised should someone reference information that surfaces about you.
8. Dress the part. Is this a dressy or casual school? The website will help you understand the school’s “look,” but don’t be afraid to ask before you arrive. Once you’re on campus, people will form impressions about you. You are “on” until you have left the campus.
9. Arrive early. If you’re not five minutes early, you’re late. I always recommend arriving a few minutes early to get a sense of the school’s vibe. If you are running late, call to let them know of your delay (make sure you have the phone number of the person organizing your visit).
10. Maintain your stamina. If it’s an all-day interview, eat breakfast beforehand. Schools will offer water and coffee, but over lunch, you may be expected to do more talking than eating. It is absolutely appropriate to ask for a bathroom break when necessary. You can sneak some chocolate or dried fruit if you feel your energy flagging.
11. Be curious. I don’t hire people who shrug and say to me, “All my questions have already been answered.” There must be something more you’d like to learn about our school or want to ask the head—demonstrate your curiosity and passion through follow-up questions such as: What do you see as the school’s big challenges over the next three to five years? May I see the strategic plan? Tell me about the great teachers in this school. What do you love most about the school? What keeps you coming to work? What keeps you up at night about school? Describe the faculty culture.
12. Tell the truth. Be straightforward about your salary requirements. If a school can’t afford you, don’t waste people’s time. But remember that while a salary in Cleveland may be lower than a salary on the East or West coasts, the cost of living is different as well. There are bargains to be had in the Midwest. Something else to be up front about: if you can’t move unless your spouse gets a job.
13. Seek feedback. If you are not hired, ask the person who took the lead on your process if there is any feedback he or she can offer that might help you in your next interview.
14. Celebrate! If you are hired, get excited. A new chapter is about to begin.