Get Your Paperwork in Order—Résumés, Portfolios, References and More

Learn about the basic documents you will need before you apply for your next job as an educator.

Confident young woman at a job interview, holding her resume and shaking hands with the interviewer

by Dr. Mary Clement for NEA Member Benefits


In a competitive job market, your paperwork—even though now most of it is electronic—has to be perfect, and that includes a résumé, a cover letter, a portfolio, letters of recommendation and thank you notes. The résumé is only the beginning. On the surface, it is a one- to two-page document that summarizes your education and work experience. It must make you stand out in a positive, professional way.

The résumé

The first section of your résumé is your contact information: name, address, e-mail and phone. That is followed by your job objective and all pertinent teacher certifications/licenses that you hold. This should be brief. Here is an example:

  • Job Objective: To secure a middle-grades teaching position in language arts and/or math. Fully-certified in middle grades education for language arts and math, grades 5-8, state of [insert your state here]. Passed state certification exam June, 2010.

Résumés now include a personal statement of teaching, or professional profile, which is like a mission statement. This should be no longer than one or two sentences, and should state what you bring to the job. For example, “As a teacher with one year of experience, I bring enthusiasm, energy and a proven record of helping students succeed to my middle school classroom.” Read more about creating a professional profile that will get you noticed.

Some candidates are also adding a line to their résumé, near the top or at the bottom, that directs the reader to their website. Example: To watch me teach, and to view a sample Powerpoint, lesson and unit, go to If you use this electronic media, the site should be limited to short examples, and only ones that showcase your teaching. Follow all school and student privacy guidelines if you make a sample video clip.

Once employers know your job objective and certification, they’ll need to know your educational background. List the most recent education first, such as your master’s degree, then your bachelor’s degree and teacher certification. If you have earned your teaching credentials after your initial bachelor’s degree, list the teacher education program completion first, with any accompanying degree, followed by your undergraduate degree. Example:

Master of Arts in Elementary Education, May, 2016.  Any College, Georgia.

B. A. Degree, May 2014, Tennessee State College, majoring in English.

A community college degree should be included, but extra hours taken at a community college do not need to be included.

Your teaching and work experience should also be listed, starting with your most recent position. If you are a recent graduate, include student teaching and any major field experiences, especially ones in schools with demographics similar to the one where you want to work. Veteran educators, or those who have stopped teaching for a few years, should list their most recent teaching jobs, and then their student teaching experience. In short, your résumé should cover all of the years you have been teaching. Include action verbs with each entry:

Jefferson Elementary School, Rolling Hills, MN, August 2015-December 2015.

Student taught with 27 fourth graders, all subjects.

Lead teacher for three weeks; developed units in social studies and math. Madison Middle School, Madison, MO, August 2014-June 2016.

Eighth grade math and science teacher; sponsor of the academic team.

Achieved above state standard test scores in 2014 and 2015.

Teachers who have worked in other jobs should list those. Empty years on a résumé can raise a red flag. For example, if you were a stay-at-home parent, or were laid off by a district, include it in your résumé. Any leadership roles you held or informal teaching you did over those years (scout leader, sports coach, substitute teacher, etc.) should also be listed. An educator’s résumé is different than a business résumé. It is a good idea to add volunteer work and extras that are related to your teaching skills, including any work with children and community. Always describe these very briefly.

Next, your résumé should include any special experience or skills, such as teaching abroad, speaking a foreign language or advanced computer skills. The résumé ends with a list of contacts for references, and/or a statement mentioning that you will mail a set of reference letters to the employer from your college’s career center.

Here are some key things to keep in mind as you put together your résumé:

  • Get noticed with your achievements, not glitz. Avoid using brightly colored paper or pictures. And refrain from including overly personal information (family, pets, etc.).
  • Focus on your experience, accomplishments and innovations. Make sure that two people read and edit your résumé before you send it to prospective employers.
  • Make sure the type is legible. 12-point type is a minimum. Leave space and make sure your résumé looks professional.

The cover letter

Whether the résumé is sent on paper or electronically you should also include a cover letter. The cover letter is a one-page document with three strong paragraphs. The first paragraph is a statement about the position for which you are applying, with a line about your certification.

The second paragraph is where you want to sell yourself and inspire the employer to read your résumé. Highlight an aspect of your professional experience that sets you apart in a positive way—student teaching abroad, working with at-risk youth or taking students on a field trip to the White House. The third paragraph clarifies which steps of the district’s application process you have completed. It ends with your declaration of interest to interview in the district.

Guard against typos by asking at least two people to read and edit each letter you send. Since most people create a template for their letters, make sure that the right cover letter goes to the correct district. It is very important to sign the cover letter legibly, since employers want to know that their teachers have legible handwriting.

The portfolio

Many colleges and universities require a portfolio for the completion of student teaching or a master’s program in education. This huge notebook is not the same as your interview portfolio. An interview portfolio is a small, neatly organized binder with 6-8 items. Each item is something that you can show while answering a question in an interview. As you prepare all the paperwork for getting a job, build a binder that includes:

  • a typed lesson plan (1-2 pages) of a lesson that was successful
  • a letter to parents for the first week of class
  • a 1-page classroom management plan
  • a unit plan or part of a curriculum map that ties standards to lessons (2-3 pages)
  • 1 or 2 samples of student work, with names removed
  • 1 or 2 pictures of your previous classroom, showing organizational arrangements or learning centers/labs (only use pictures of students if permission has been secured)

Interviewers rarely ask to see your portfolio. Rather, they ask you questions, and leave it up to you to decide whether to open your portfolio and use it as a visual aid while you answer their questions.


The district’s application requires you to list references. These references will be sent an electronic form to evaluate your past work. Sometimes a district will request a letter to be sent via email, with or without a reference form. Ask those who have seen you teach to serve as your references, and always ask before you submit their names to the district. It is extremely rare for a candidate to solicit paper letters and to then submit those letters themselves. The key is to follow the directions on the district application regarding letters of recommendation.

Thank-you notes and other paperwork

A handwritten thank-you note to the potential employer can be effective, if it demonstrates your good handwriting and communication skills. A typed or e-mailed note is also appropriate. Regardless of format, a thank-you note should be sent after each interview.

Additional paperwork you may be asked to provide varies widely among districts, but it can include a criminal background check, a health exam and/or transcripts. Whatever the requirements, complete them in a timely manner.

All of your paperwork—the résumé, the cover letter, the portfolio and letters—introduce you to the school district. Make your paperwork represent you in a professional manner to win the job you want.

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.