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Crack the Interview Code

Learn more about the strategies interviewers may use to determine if you are the best candidate for the job.

The days of teacher interviews beginning with “Tell me about yourself,” and ending with “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” are long over. Today’s savvy administrators use behavior-based interviewing (BBI) as a means to select the best candidates for teaching jobs. The more you know about this interview style, the better prepared you will be to demonstrate your teaching skills to a future employer.

What Is BBI?

Long used in the business world to create a more objective interview, behavior-based interviewing is built on the premise that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. School administrators decide the knowledge, skills and experiences needed for a candidate to be successful in each individual teaching position. They write a set of questions based on these qualifications and ask each candidate the same questions. BBI-style questions are built on the basic skills and knowledge needed to teach. So expect questions about curriculum, planning, teaching methods, classroom management, assessment, differentiation, communication with parents and professionalism. The questions will be phrased in a way that will require you to answer with anecdotal evidence based on your past experiences. For example, BBI-style questions begin with “tell me about a time when,” “how have you,” “describe how you have,” or “explain how you.” When interviewers ask a question, they are looking for you to tell them what you know about the topic by explaining your successes in that area. 

Sample questions include:

  • Curriculum: Describe how you have implemented a standards-based curriculum in a classroom.
  • Planning: Describe a typical lesson plan that you have used and why it was successful.
  • Teaching methods: Tell me about an effective method to teach _________ that you have found to work. (reading, writing, math, Spanish, etc.)
  • Classroom management: Explain a classroom management plan that you have used and why it was successful (rules, positives, corrective actions). Describe a classroom where you have taught and how it was organized for positive management (arrangement, procedures, etc.).
  • Assessment: How do you assess students formally and informally? How have you used assessment in a standards-based classroom?
  • Differentiation: Tell me about a lesson where you differentiated instruction for students and why it worked. How have you provided opportunities for all students to learn?
  • Communication with parents: What methods of communicating with parents have you used that worked? Why?
  • Professionalism: What have you done to stay current in your field?

Questions for specific teaching jobs are designed to ascertain if the candidate has the particular skills necessary for the position. For example, elementary teachers will be asked about methods used to teach reading. Middle school teachers will be asked about team-teaching. High school teachers will be asked specific questions about teaching their disciplines. Be prepared for any “hot topic” questions, such as the standards-based classroom, differentiated instruction or response to intervention (RTI). Additionally, future employers will ask about your experiences with students who match the demographics of the position opening. Be prepared to discuss your work with at-risk, special education or ESOL students if that matches the needs of the new job.

For more, see Sample Interview Questions with Helpful Hints for Answers.

The PAR and STAR Answer Techniques

PAR and STAR serve as acronyms for techniques that can help to guide your answers. PAR stands for Problem, Action and Result. When asked a question, describe the problem you have seen or experienced, then the action taken, and the result of the action. For example, if you are asked, “Describe a lesson that didn’t go well and why,” your answer should be something like this:

“While student teaching, I prepared a math lesson about adding fractions. As I taught, I realized my students didn’t know the basics of fractions and were confused. I changed the plan as I went, and implemented a review of the basics. Then, we went on to adding fractions. I learned to assess prior knowledge and not assume students know material that was supposed to have been covered earlier.” 

Hopefully, not all of the questions you will be asked will be about problems. When they are not, you can structure your answer around STAR—Situation, Task, Action and Result. When asked about classroom management, open your portfolio and explain how you observed the teacher with whom you student taught organize her classroom and teach a management plan with rules and procedures. Then explain how you used the same plan for your lead teaching and will start with that successful plan when hired—this constitutes the action. Using the visual to highlight specifics could help you tremendously while you deliver your PAR and STAR responses.

Should you be prepared with some “vignettes” and stories from your student teaching or early teaching experience to share in interviews? Absolutely. Think about experiences you have had that fit neatly into the PAR or STAR format, and say them into a mirror or to a friend. Time yourself, as a nice 1-2 minute answer conveys your clarity—a necessary skill for educators. Have a colleague ask you the questions listed above and practice answering all of them.

What if the interviewer doesn’t use behavior-based interviewing and asks hypothetical questions, or ones used to glean your personality characteristics? If you are asked a hypothetical question, and you’ve experienced the situation, answer with a BBI-style answer anyway, since this answer technique will allow you to sell your expertise. Since no teacher—new or veteran—has experienced everything, you can answer with a related situation, your field experience observations or discussions from a college class.

Questions regarding your age, country of origin, race, religion, marital status or children are not permissible by law. It is not recommended that you volunteer any of that information, either, unless doing so points directly to your professional teaching skills. For example, if you were a stay-at-home mom for 8 years, but during that time coordinated parent training seminars, it’s worth mentioning since it evidences teaching experience.

Lastly, have some questions ready for the interviewer, as most will ask you at the end of the interview if you have any questions. If not already explained by the interviewer, good questions include:

  • What professional development activities are available?
  • Will I be assigned a mentor and be offered seminars in a new teacher induction program?
  • Will I be able to work in my classroom before the orientation meetings for teachers?

Questions that demonstrate your knowledge of the district and of the position indicate that you have researched the school. As the interview closes, you will want to reiterate your interest in the position and your desire to work in the district.

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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