It's never too early to think about a job

Competition for your first teaching post can be fierce, so preparation is vital. Sara Bubb gives the low-down on where to find the vacancies and how to shine at interview

Up to your ears in assignments, lectures, seminars and teaching practice preparation? Applying for a job is probably the last thing on your mind: not only are you madly busy but I don't suppose you feel like a teacher yet, and you may doubt your capacity to convince an interview panel to employ you. But you need to crack on: compet-ition for jobs is tough, especially in primary education.

Up to your ears in assignments, lectures, seminars and teaching practice preparation? Applying for a job is probably the last thing on your mind: not only are you madly busy but I don't suppose you feel like a teacher yet, and you may doubt your capacity to convince an interview panel to employ you. But you need to crack on: compet-ition for jobs is tough, especially in primary education.

POOLS

Many local education authorities (LEAs) use a pool system for new nursery and primary teachers, and some for secondary newly qualified teachers (NQTs), because it's an efficient way for schools to choose new staff without the expense, time and effort involved in doing it themselves. The trouble is that deadlines are tight. The Black Country School Improvement Partnership that organises the pool for Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell and Dudley closes its pool on 18 February and interviews people on 9, 10 and 11 March. Other LEAs only close their pools when all vacancies are filled, but the earlier you apply, the greater your chance.

So, is all the rush worth it? In a word, yes. Many schools won't advertise their vacancies, so going through the pool is your only option: but it gives you a chance to compete solely with other NQTs, not the full range of experienced teachers. Rhianna Bridges got her job at Ridge Meadow Primary in Medway that way and said that applying for pools saved her time - she just had to complete application forms for two pools to get access to a large number of schools in Kent and Medway. Ridge Meadow contacted her after looking at her pool application. Kevin Ronan, the recruitment strategy manager for Lambeth thinks so: "One half of our NQTs are appointed through the pool, 25 per cent through teaching practice placements and only 25 per cent through direct adverts - most of which are secondary."

Some training courses prepare you for the application and interview process better than others. The University of London's Institute of Education organises a lecture by Barry Hancock, the recruitment strategy consultant for Redbridge, for their secondary PGCE students. This is followed by a huge recruitment fair with space for 50 local authorities from as far afield as Suffolk. This gives the thousand or so primary and secondary trainees a great opportunity to pick up application forms and information and a chance to meet and ask questions of key people from the LEAs.

PGCE students at Christchurch, Canterbury, discuss how best to answer frequently-asked questions, and observe each other in demonstration interviews with heads from local schools who ask genuine questions. Rhianna Bridges was impressed: "Our personal tutors also checked our application forms if we asked them. I showed my tutor a draft personal statement, which she gave feedback on."

THE FORM

Is there anyone in the world who likes filling in forms? No, but it's a means to an end, so even the most form-phobic of people have just got to tie themselves to a desk until it's done. Your first will be the worst. Increasingly, LEAs are asking for forms to be completed online with all the potential for hours of work disappearing at the touch of a key to say nothing of e-gremlins in the formatting. If you can, draft it on a rough copy. Bridges admits, "I had a couple of practice runs on photocopied application forms to ensure that I could fit all I had written in the given space".

Skim through the form to see whether you have all the information to hand. Remembering dates for your qualifications and jobs can be a nightmare unless you've kept your CV up to date. Check the closing date and make sure you have time to contact referees, write the personal statement, complete the form, check it and post it in time. Follow any instructions about sending photocopies, using black ink, and deadlines.

How many referees does it ask for? Normally you need to name two, so people tend to use their college tutor and the headteacher of the most recent teaching practice school. Make sure you've asked their permission and warn them of key dates, because the turnaround time is often tight. Check what contact details you should put on the form - sometimes college tutors prefer to have requests faxed to them via an administrator for speed.

Your personal statement needs to convey that you meet the person-specification for the job. You'll find that there are many examples that fit different parts so you need to decide which to use where. When structuring your writing, think of how to be helpful to the reader, so use the same headings or order as in the person specification. Be relevant and concise, and don't include anything you can't back up at interview. Proof-read it, then get someone else to check it... and then check it again! The smallest spelling or grammatical errors are off-putting.

INTERVIEWS

As soon as you're offered an interview you'll need to prepare. Time will be short. Plan your journey with care, leaving room for the unexpected. If it's a long one ask before the interview whether the school or LEA will reimburse or contribute to expenses. Appearance is really important. You've got to look - and feel - the part. Wear smart clothes, but make sure you'll be comfortable. Take a file with your application form and a slim portfolio of evidence (plans, resources, assessment and work) of one or two of your best lessons.

You're on show all day long. Look at displays, through classroom doors, and at the way the pupils and staff conduct themselves. Try to speak casually to any new teachers to find out if they're happy and if they've been treated well. Most importantly, find complimentary things to say about what you see - a little flattery goes a long way. And ask yourself: can you imagine yourself working here?

Interviews vary in how formal they are and how long they last. If you're going via the pool system you might be interviewed by a panel consisting of an LEA adviser, a headteacher and someone from human resources. If you're being interviewed by a school, the interview could take any number of forms - it just depends on the school, how well organised they are, how proactive their governors are, how many applicants they've got and how short-staffed they might be on the day. If you're up against experienced teachers and internal candidates don't be intimidated. Tell yourself you're good, enthusiastic - and cheap!

TEACHING AT THE INTERVIEW

You may be unlucky enough to be asked to demonstrate your teaching with a real class. This is a ridiculous expectation of someone who has yet to complete a teaching course, but do your best. Think about how you can show that you're professional, have a rapport with children and manage them well, are enthusiastic, plan well, use effective teaching strategies, and reflect on learning and teaching. Keep the lesson simple and do it well. Bring your own (or borrowed) resources rather than assuming that the classroom will have them. Make lots of eye-contact with the children, smile, and use praise to reinforce the behaviour you want. No one expects you to be perfect, but your interviewers want to see that you're enthusiastic and reflective.

INTERVIEW TIPS

Relax - impossible, but do your best. Consider questions before answering and don't be frightened of a few seconds of silence - it's better than gabbling nervously. If you're stumped, smile and ask them to repeat the question. You're likely to be asked on topics along these lines so you can think through answers beforehand:

"Why did you decide to become a teacher?"

"Why do you want to work in this school?"

"What makes a good classroom?"

"Describe a lesson you've taught that went well."

"How would you handle some difficult behaviour?"

"How would you handle difficult parents? If a parent came storming across the playground to you, what would you do?"

"Tell us about an aspect of your teaching practice you described in your statement."

"How would you ensure that all the children in your class were treated equally?"

"How would you like to work with parents?"

"How do you approach planning and assessment?"

"How do you plan to keep up-to-date in your specialism?"

"How would you encourage children to learn?"

"Give an example of how you've worked in a team."

"How would you go about building up relationships with other members of staff?"

"Would you accept the job if it was offered to you?"

You'll also be asked if you have any questions. You do - and will have written them down - if you want to come across as bright and proactive. Ask about the school's professional development for teachers and induction support.

Sometimes you'll be asked a strange question that you can't see any purpose to, no matter how you try. One new teacher remembers a strange governor who asked, "Where do you live?" and then followed her response up with "What's your favourite restaurant?" and a discussion of Thai food. Bizarre! Even odder was the headteacher whose second question of a young male teacher was what football team he supported. When he answered "Arsenal", she leaned out of the door and shouted to the schoolkeeper, "Pete, we've got a fucking gooner here!" It was the start of a beautiful relationship with a staff room full of Chelsea fans.

You will usually be offered the job on the day or soon afterwards, and people expect an immediate answer. Say you'll accept, subject to a satisfactory contract and salary, so that you get a fair deal. Interviews are hard work, but as Bridges says, "At the end of the day the panel just wants the best for their children, and, if you do too, and show that, then I think you're on to a winner."

The writer lectures at the University of London and works with new teachers throughout the country. Her 'Insider's Guide for New Teachers', is published by Routledge Falmer at £12.99

'EVERYONE WAS FRIENDLY AND THERE WAS A VERY POSITIVE VIBE'

Declan Cooke teaches Year 1 at Richard Atkins Primary School in Brixton, south London. He'd always wanted to teach but felt that a degree in politics didn't qualify him, and so ended up working in social housing. When he was nearing 40 he made the career change, starting as a teaching assistant to build his confidence and then doing a PGCE at South Bank University.

Just before the final practice started there was a session on job hunting. "Everything seemed so bureaucratic: the pool applications, the Criminal Records Bureau forms, the union forms, the General Teaching Council forms. I hate forms!" he says. "We were all so stressed trying to get all our assignments and course work handed in and trying to prepare for the final practice that the thought of applying for jobs seemed like asking a marathon runner to do an extra few miles uphill."

Declan applied to one LEA pool but didn't enjoy his interview: "A headteacher from a local school asked me how I'd go about teaching a Year 6 numeracy lesson. I prattled on about the warm-up, differentiated core activities and a super-duper plenary.

'Yes, but how would you teach the lesson?'

'Er...'

"My mind was racing and then the penny dropped - learning styles! I prattled on about kinaesthetic activities and anything else I could think of but again he repeated, 'Yes, but how would you teach the lesson?'

"I dried up. I still don't know what he meant - maybe I should have mentioned the National Numeracy Strategy and weekly planning. He was really stony faced as well."

The interview went downhill from there, and Declan was not offered a place in the pool.

However, it turned out for the best because Declan is one of the many NQTs who got a job at the school where he did his final teaching practice - with all the advantages that that brings. The head and assistant head came into his Year 2 classroom one lunchtime. They knew they'd have a vacancy in Year 1 and asked him if he wanted to apply for the job. It came as a surprise: "I was so flattered. I'd been headhunted!" He had to apply formally, and was interviewed by the head, the literacy co-ordinator, chair of governors and a parent. In contrast to his previous experience, the interview went well. "Everyone was friendly and there was a positive vibe, with lots of smiles in response to my answers so I knew I was doing OK. I felt relaxed and so the answers came flowing. It's just like the children: confidence is all."

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