A note on scoping out schools and finding your fit

This is an edited excerpt from my soon-to-be published book, Stop Talking About Wellbeing.

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” 

― C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew 

The ability to source and identify a school that aligns to your beliefs and values as a teacher is probably the most valuable thing you can do for your career. It has taken me several years (and schools) to realise the gravity of this and understanding how fundamental it is to work in the right place for you. To truly feel invested in the community and school that you work within, you have to feel that you have freedom to teach in the way you teach, whatever that may be, but also that you are in a school where you feel that you legitimately have a voice. This can change, as you develop and evolve professionally. Finding a school is like buying a house. Can you see yourself living in it? Does it have everything that you personally need? Does it feel as though it ‘fits’?  

Being in the right school empowers, asserts and develops you as a professional: finding your fit really is life changing. In the same breath, working in a school where things feel out of kilter, where your gut is telling you that the priorities or agenda or ethos of the school simply don’t match your own can result in the very best teachers feeling demotivated and disengaged, and this can happen in an incredibly short amount of time.  

Before visiting, view the advertisement and consider the language that has been used. Do these words resonate with how you approach teaching? If you imagine yourself as, ‘compassionate, strict and people-focused’ and you find yourself looking an advertisement for someone who is ‘driven, dynamic and dedicated,’ it may not be quite the alignment that you hoped for. This will give you a bit of an initial insight as to what you may hope to expect from the school, or how you might sit in it as an employee.  

Visiting a school before the interview is an ideal way to weigh up if a school is right for you. Here are a few ways that you can get an indication that the school looks after and values its staff:   

Spaces 

Look at the surroundings and the person’s reaction to them- do they notice what you notice? Does the space feel orderly, and places a value upon the work in lesson time? 

 Is the space used effectively around the school? Is it thought-out? 

Are there spaces for staff to decompress, to be adults and have a specific area to work, or discuss with other adults? Do staff have quiet working spaces set apart from the staffroom? 

Is the building well cared for? By that, I don’t mean new, but loved. 

Do classrooms feel clean, and uncluttered? 

Do public displays give you an indication of the values of the school?  

Is there a staffroom? Is it used? 

Space to learn 

Were you able to visit lessons?  

How did the students respond, if at all to the member of staff with you? How did they respond to you? 

Do staff seem comfortable with visitors whilst teaching? Does it seem commonplace? 

What about your learning- is there evidence of CPD through a staff library, corner in the staffroom, CPD calendar up in a workroom? 

Is the school part of a large trust or alliance, with scope to benefit from the other schools? 

Space to teach 

How does behaviour present itself in lessons- do you see behaviour managed effectively or use of the system in action? 

How do students respond to learning- do they seem connected with the content in the lesson? Does the lesson shave a sense of order? 

With regards to secondary school visits, if you visit lessons for the department, are lessons well resourced? Do you see any evidence of resourcing in a way that suits your own style? Are there any routines/ directives that seem to be whole department or whole school approaches that the children recognise? 

It is important to temper this with the recognition that one classroom and one day does not make a school, but it should help you to draw together some musings to take home with you before applying for a role.  

Interview days 

We do things a little bit differently round here. 

To reward applicants for taking the time to apply to a school, we stage an interview day that can only be likened to the Hunger Games. Prior to teaching, I had been headhunted for every job except my first interview for the bank. Once asked for an interview, I would attend as one candidate and chat through my experience, perhaps complete a short task and be given the opportunity to ask questions, then go home to hear the outcome sometimes up to two weeks later. We move at a different pace in teaching, because the demands are poles apart to the world that I came from. Interview days are filled with a sense of urgency, and we have to be entirely transparent in our attendance in comparison to other sectors; my partner still finds it obscure that I would need to see my Head as a matter of courtesy when I even apply for a role- I can’t just book a day’s holiday, after all! 

The prospect of requesting a day for interview is incredibly stressful for staff: leave for interview attendance is not a statutory right, but a contractual agreement106 but I would recommend taking the time to have a discussion with your line manager or the Head. The open dialogue is a professional, transparent way to present your reasons for applying, but beyond that, it means reference requests are not a surprise. I’m empathetic to situations where this is not as straightforward: better that than an awkward discussion that opens with, ‘I’ve been asked to supply a reference…’ and your Head had absolutely no idea. It’s positive to share applications with senior leadership; it shows your desire to progress, the plans that you have considered as part of your career plan and could also prompt discussions for your plans within the school. I have applied for roles outside school and been invited for a conversation, which has opened my eyes to opportunities for development in school that I may not have considered  or been aware of.  

There is such a vast amount of noise out there for newly qualified teachers and experienced ones alike when it comes to approaching an interview, it is a wonder their heads aren’t spinning. Google searches throw up language like, ‘perform your best’ and ‘steps for success,’ but articles rarely mention the nature of the beast, in the fact that teaching interviews are so utterly ludicrous, and incomparable to any other job race on the planet. 

You are given ambiguous details to a varying degree about your lesson requirements via email, sometimes with student details, sometimes not , and have to take along your equipment like a Jack of All Trades, resembling Dick Van Dyke as he takes his snare drum into the street drawing, arms and legs flailing to keep a hold of four different worksheets, two whiteboard pens, name stickers, highlighters and a copy of your application form to nervously annotate whilst you wait. You may get a tour of the school, you may get sat in front of children who will interview you, you may mark work that you had absolutely no input in, you may teach for 20, 30, 60, 120 minutes, you may get shepherded into a side room and asked to leave, you may have lunch, you may meet the department staff that you will be working in close proximity should you get the job, you may decide you want to withdraw but not get the appropriate time to ask, you may want to leave as soon as you get there. You may have an interview, you may be called first, you may have to wait for the entire day, you may not have access to a drink, you may have a fancy drinks trolley sat in front of you with a contraption containing coffee that you are too terrified to begin the task that only Richard O’Brien would enforce in order to get yourself a hot beverage. If unpredictability is a key stressor, the levels of unpredictability that a teaching interview adds to the interview process in itself are extraordinary. Why have we made it so complicated? 

How we can prepare ourselves to reduce the impact that interviewing can take is by rewriting the narrative of interviews? Some ways to help with finding some clarity in what a pretty bonkers day can be: 

Pre interview day scope 

If you can, do the drive beforehand, preferably in the morning or rush hour. This may sound like a factor that should feature way down on your radar, but I think you get a real feel for a school by visiting the community that it sits within, and as well as gaining an insight into the journey that you would make every day should you decide to take the role, it will help you to have an understanding as to where that school features in the local area. Are the feeder schools nearby? Does it serve the community as a community centre, gym, library? Do most of the pupils walk to school? How might local school networks play logistically?  

Only prepare for the controllable factors 

We worry most about the factors that we cannot control, and so to ease this uncertainty, take care of the things that you can take ownership of. Plan the outfit, annotate the application, distil who you are and what you want to leave as key messages into three key points (omne trium perfectum: everything that comes in threes is perfect): when our brain fails us, we remember in threes, and this simplification will help you not only to remember what it is that you want to leave your interviewer knowing about you.  

Ask. The. Questions 

No one is going to think any less of you for wanting to be prepared. Anticipate for the three aspects of the day that will cause the most unsettlement, and email ahead so that you can equip yourself. Will there be equipment in the room? (let’s face it, the students should have pens and paper: to penalise teachers for enabling learned helplessness is a pretty mean feat). Should you be expected to be in school for the day (this is particularly pertinent if you have childcare arrangements: I once finished my lesson before lunch in the first part of an interview, then wasn’t called from the staffroom for interview until 5pm)?  

Make friends 

I’m not even kidding. I met one of my closest friends on a teacher interview day. If you are going to be placed in a room with people all day, would it not be nice to get to know them? Not only is this just a nice, friendly way to pass the time, as opposed to staring down the other candidates with a rendition of the Rocky soundtrack accompanying your internal pep talk monologue, but it is the best way to calm your nerves. Side-track any questions that make it look like you’re weighing them up- ‘what school are you at currently? In what role? How long have you been teaching?’ all have the makings of your own interview within an interview. ‘Did you have a good drive in? Any plans for the weekend? I love the display as you walk in!’ Be nice. It will help with all the smiling, and you may end up meeting someone really interesting.  

Don’t be afraid to say no 

All senior leaders will ask at the end if you are a firm candidate for the role. It pays to have prepared for this, because it is your opportunity to leave without judgement, or ask further questions that would help you to be able to feel informed enough to answer the question. All people do not fit all schools, and all schools do not fit all people. And that’s ok! It’s very easy to get caught up in the intensity of an interview day, but remain methodical and as objective as you can muster up, as this is a key decision for you to make and it’s vital that you feel as if you have all of the information to make it. 

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