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Ace Your Preliminary Interview

Before you land that important face-to-face interview, you often have to get past a screener. Here’s how to tackle those important first questions and sell yourself!

By Dr. Mary Clement

Most people visualize an interview as one interviewer seated across the table from the job candidate. However, in today’s educator job market, preliminary, or sorting interviews, take multiple forms and are necessary for winning on-site, one-on-one final interviews. These preliminary interviews may take place at job fairs, by telephone or online and may be as short as one question, or as long as one hour. 

Sell yourself with an elevator speech

One typical preliminary interview question is “Tell me about yourself.”  How can a simple question be so hard to answer! No matter the format of your interview, your answer to a basic question like this should put you in your best professional light. You need a succinct answer, prepared in advance and rehearsed, that showcases your education, work and experience. Your answer can start with the professional profile you wrote for your résumé. Now, expand upon that to sell yourself!

In other words, you need a one-minute explanation of why YOU are the best person for the job. In the business world, this is referred to as the “elevator speech,” as one could sell their product, or company, in a minute while riding in an elevator!

Be sure to include the following when answering the “tell me about yourself” question: your certification, your teaching experience and at least one vignette of a successful lesson or of success with a student. For example:

  • After completing my junior year abroad at the University of Salamanca, I finally knew that my command of Spanish was strong enough to teach. My senior year has been filled with methods classes, a 50-hour practicum, 15 weeks of full-time student teaching at Monticello High School and passing the state certification test. Being full-time in a school prepared me to teach 9th through 12th graders, but also gave me insight into the very busy world of today’s high schools. Now, with full licensure, I want my own classroom!

Another example of a one-question interview is, “Tell me about your best teaching experience.” You need to have an example of a good lesson, or unit, that you taught that provided students with success. For example:

  • Since graduating a semester ago, I have held two different long-term subbing jobs. When working in a fifth-grade classroom, I prepared the students for the state’s standardized tests. I didn’t just make students complete practice exams, but rather I developed interactive lessons on the topics of the exam – reading comprehension and math. Each day I used the students’ regular books, supplemented by online lessons I showed on the Smartboard, and then I related what we did to the testing, reminding them that they knew so much. The tests were not overly stressful for my students because of this approach.

Sometimes a job fair interview runs longer, and you should be prepared to answer questions such as:

  • Describe a model lesson that you have taught and why it went well.
  • Tell about the routines and procedures you have used to organize a classroom where you have taught.
  • How have you implemented a classroom management plan with rules and consequences that worked?
  • Describe the methods you have used to teach ______________________.
  • How have you differentiated a lesson to reach students at varying levels?

Tips for phone interviews

While a job fair interview is used to sort attendees into piles of “review résumé later” and “no need for further review,” a phone interview indicates that your résumé has already been noticed and you have made the first cut towards an on-site interview.

A phone interview may last 20 minutes to one hour and multiple people may be on the call. Each interviewer should introduce himself/herself, and you should write down the names and positions so that you may address each person throughout the call. It is common practice for a personnel director, an administrator and/or teachers to be included on conference calls.

The general questions listed above are typical, but there may be more questions that are specific to the school or position. Be prepared for questions about your experience teaching at-risk students, English language learners or students similar to the demographic population of the school district. Some questions reveal much about the school itself, such as, “We use a reading program called ‘READ On’ here.  What is your experience with that?”

You will fare much better in a telephone interview if you know about the school’s demographics, enrollment and location before a phone interview. You should be prepared to ask the interviewers a question at the end, as most phone interviews end with that opportunity. Consider questions about professional development opportunities, mentoring or new teacher orientation. Do not ask questions that are answered on the district or school website, as that indicates that you haven’t done your homework.

Tips for online interviews

Some online interviews take the form of a conference call, but with video included, such as “GoTo Meeting.” In this case, you do need to dress up, just as for a job fair or on-site interview. Career clothes are important! There will be an interviewer, or a group of interviewers, and you will be asked to tell about your work and experience.

Some school districts use online hiring packages, such as AppliTrack, where you make a video of introduction, describing your qualifications and work. With some job positions, you may be given a list of questions and be asked to answer the questions in a video that you make on your own time. This is not interactive.

Another way that district administrators can assess your ability to speak is a program called ViewYou. With ViewYou, you create the online video and send potential employers the link so that they may view it. This is a non-interactive introduction to you and your work.   (See, for example, and )

Final key points for acing your preliminary interview

  • Preliminary interviews are short. Do not take up time talking about your personal life or childhood. Talk about your teaching qualifications.
  • Always talk about successes with students.
  • Include special training or field experience that sets you apart from other candidates.
  • Know something about the school and the district where you are interviewing.
  • If you are at a job fair, show samples of lesson plans, management plans and pictures of a well-organized room from a small portfolio that you carry with you.
  • If interviewing through a video/online connection, dress professionally.
  • Get the business cards of those who interview you, or at least the names of those on a phone interview. Address interviewers by their names in the interview (usually with their title, Mr., Ms., or Dr.).
  • When asked if you want to visit the school or district, always say yes.
  • Smile, have a firm handshake and be professional at job fair interviews.
  • If on a telephone call, make sure that there is no background noise (crying child, laughing roommate, barking dog)

Dr. Mary C. Clement is a professor of teacher education at Berry College, northwest of Atlanta, Georgia. Her research on the hiring of new teachers has received national recognition.

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