How to Prepare for Specialist Position Interviews

Interviewing for ESL, reading and other specialist roles involves a unique language and question style. Use these tips to let your expertise shine through.

A smiling candidate shaking hands with a potential coworker in a group interview

by Dr. Mary Clement for NEA Member Benefits

Job interviews for specialist positions in reading, English as a second language (ESL) and special education are different than those for grade-level or subject-content positions. These interviews include very specific vocabulary, require evidence of past successes and generally involve the participation of other teachers in addition to the principal and human resources personnel.

When seeking a position as a specialist, you need to ensure that your certification/licensure is a match to the job advertisement and then prepare to answer behavior-based interview (BBI) questions that address your past experiences and skills. Be ready for a variety of interviews with multiple people, some of which may be online.

Teachers are included in interviewing their future colleagues because of their knowledge and the need to determine if the new hire will be a “team player.” After interviews with a personnel director and principal, be ready for a longer interview with a lead teacher in the field. Group interviews are common, where several grade-level teachers and a specialist teacher interview the candidate.

TIP: During a group interview, listen to introductions, address everyone in the group and strive not to be surprised or overwhelmed when facing a group of people.

How to answer BBI-style questions

Because past behavior is considered to be the best indicator of future performance, interviewers want to hear about your past successes in teaching. A BBI question is asked with a starter such as, “tell about a time when…,” “how have you…” and “describe how you have...”

Your answers should include past problems you have resolved or situations you have experienced with students. PAR and STAR are mnemonics to help you answer clearly. PAR represents Problem, Action, Result  and STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. Practice answering questions with these guides well before your next interview, and look at someone, or into a mirror, while doing so to gain confidence with your answers.

TIP: When practicing answers to interview questions, monitor your time. You should be able to explain answers in about a minute. Interviewers seek succinct answers and may quit listening if you delve into too many little details. Practice those 60-second concrete answers. This is especially important when interviewing online through Zoom, Google or other application. Video interviews tend to make an organized person look great, and a disorganized candidate look even worse. 

Hone your interview skills with sample questions

Acing an interview takes practice! Here are some examples of questions you’ll encounter for a variety of specialist positions.

Reading Specialist:

  • Please tell us about your background in teaching reading.
  • Which online programs have you used with students in the classroom or for remote learning?
  • Describe a specific student’s case in reading and how you achieved success with the student.
  • Discuss the role of phonics in the teaching of reading.
  • Discuss the role of whole language in the teaching of reading.
  • How have you worked with other teachers in a collaborative or team situation? Was any of this work done through remote/online programs?

TIP: There are many published reading programs. Talk about ones you have used, but don’t say that there is only one way to teach reading. Explain why a certain published program was implemented, why it worked and how you supplemented the program.

ESL Specialist:

  • Tell us about the classroom settings where you have worked with ESL students. Were they sheltered, pull-out or push-in programs?
  • How has technology enhanced your classes? 
  • Describe a teaching strategy that has worked well for you with ESL students. Now, explain another such strategy.
  • (For high school) How have you encouraged ESL students to stay in school, working toward graduation?
  • Please talk about a situation where you worked with other teachers to support a student.
  • What are some ways that you have integrated culture into ESL lessons for students?

TIP: Employers want to know how you have helped students gain enough proficiency in English to achieve success in a regular classroom as well as on standardized tests.

Special Education:

  • Describe where you have worked and the type of supports/accommodations you have provided for students with special needs.
  • How have you integrated technology into your classes? 
  • Tell us about your work with a specific special needs population (ADD, behavior disorder, autism or other).
  • Explain and characterize your work with inclusion. (or mainstreaming or pull-out programs)
  • Outline a specific student’s IEP and a success you had with that student’s achievement.
  • Discuss your work in collaboration with other teachers or administrators.
  • Discuss your experience with diagnostic testing and record-keeping in a special education program, especially with regard to specific online programs.
  • How have you communicated successfully with parents regarding a student’s placement and progress in a special education program?
  • When schools have been required to provide learning remotely, what have you experienced with reaching special needs students through online learning? 

TIP: Interpersonal communication skills are extremely important for special education positions, as these teachers work so closely with colleagues, parents, and community resources. Prepare positive examples that represent your past work and be clear in explaining experiences. 

Similarities across specialist positions

Since the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, educators have been asked to move some instruction to hybrid or online platforms. Be prepared to discuss any experience that you have had moving a face-to-face classroom experience to a remote one. 

  • Describe your work with special needs students on a remote teaching platform.
  • What technology have you found works well with students when moved to online teaching? 
  • Remote/online teaching has certain disadvantages, especially for specialist teachers. Tell us about an issue you have found when working outside of the classroom and how you worked around or resolved the issue. 
Classroom management issues will always be included in an interview, no matter the grade, subject or specialty. Examples include:
  • Explain classroom management issues specific to a special education classroom where you have worked and how you resolved those issues.
  • Tell about specific guidelines or rules and consequences for your ESL classroom.
  • Have you used any technology to assist with classroom management, and what were the results? (Examples might include ClassDojo.) 

Your knowledge of the school district, school and student demographics will be questioned. Be prepared for the following:

  • What do you already know about our school’s demographics?
  • What interests you the most about this position and why did you choose to apply here?

Some teachers would never consider becoming a specialist teacher because of the perceived difficulties of the job. Be prepared to explain your personal motivation for moving from a regular classroom grade level or subject field to a specialist position. If you are a new teacher, with reading, ESL or special education as your certification field, answering the motivation question is also important. The following may be asked:

  • Special education is not a field for everyone. Why have you chosen it?
  • (If your resume indicates you already teach.) Why have you chosen to leave a regular education classroom for this specialist position?
  • What is your personal motivation for entering, and remaining, in this field?
  • How do you keep your motivation positive in a high-stress position?

TIP: It is OK to tell a personal story as a reason for becoming a specialist teacher. However, don’t dwell on the details of personal stories. Sell your professional preparation and expert experience.

You are the expert

Before a candidate reaches a final stage interview with another specialist in the field, he/she must excel in the general interview with employers who may not know the field. Be careful not to overuse technical vocabulary, and to explain the meanings of jargon when interviewing with a non-specialist. This potential employer is listening to your answers as a parent might, deciding if you can communicate clearly with other non-specialists.

The job market is wide open for specialist teachers. Research the position you seek, prepare your stories and explanations carefully, and be ready to interview with many people. You are an expert and you should let your expertise shine through in an interview.

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.