Thursday, 2 May 2019

What I've learned from applying for jobs I did (and didn't) get

I'm sat here, beer in hand, having not been appointed to a fab job at my brilliant school. I'm a bit bruised and sad, but also aware of the clear strengths of the person who has been appointed (in fact, I'm even a bit excited to work with her). Most importantly, I'm already beginning to consider what I've learned about both myself and the process, and how this information is going to inform my actions moving forward.

Interviews are physically exhausting, emotionally and intellectually taxing (if the school's any good), and a valuable learning experience... once the dust has settled.

As with the majority, my run of interviews over the course of my 13 years of teaching has been a mixture of success and disappointment. I was appointed to my first mainscale teaching post and my first three TLRs from my first application, including my Head of English post. But I wasn't successful when I made my first Associate Senior Leader application (pastoral, so a bit of a punt): I was on my second. To move to Assistant Head it took three written applications, then a one-year gap, before securing my first interview. At my second interview I was successful.

Today's post was my first application for Deputy Head, something I wasn't actively seeking, but the lure of leading teaching and learning in a school I love was too enticing not to have at least chucked my hat in the ring.

Anyway, before I order an enormous pizza and pop on my PJs I'm going to clear my head by trying to distil the best bits of advice I've heard over my time leading, prepping for, participating in, and (sometimes) being successful at, interviews in schools.

1. Do your homework
Knowledge truly is power so do all you can to find out about the school. That includes: its context, intake, and position within the local community; its staffing structures, the school day and routines; its outcomes, including NEET; its staff retention rate and number of early career teachers.

It's become a bit of a glib phrase, but if you can hold on to the fact that you are interviewing the school as much as they are interviewing you then you'll retain a degree of control around an emotive process and be better prepared to respond to what the process throws at you.

A visit is invaluable. Just do, of course, remember that this is when the interview begins.

2. Create a list of expected questions and prep your responses
This may sound obvious, but if you're dealt an enormous dose of imposter syndrome (as I have been over the last 48 hours) then feeling like you've already considered a question being asked can give you an enormous shot in the arm in terms of confidence.

Personally, I find writing down potential questions and my responses in a table really helpful. Try to stick to three main areas for each, grouping ideas if needed, for clarity and succinctness. If you want to be sneaky, email yourself the document so you can look at it discretely on your phone whilst you're sitting (uncomfortably) with the other candidates.

3. Use the golden triangle of big picture, current experience, and your actions if appointed
If applying for a promoted post there's a tendency to get stuck within your current role when giving ideas and examples. The superb woman who passed on this triad used the metaphor of an umbrella to represent the 'big picture' with examples/experience and coming actions at each corner. It certainly helped me get myself 'unstuck' during a testing final interview today - even if I haven't quite nailed each part just yet.

4. Have a long list of relevant examples to draw from
I think for many candidates this can be the crux of whether you're going to be successful or not. In education, there very much seems to be a rule of 'do the job then get paid for it': if anyone has ever been appointed to a senior leadership position without having already had whole school leadership experience I will eat my hat. The implications  of this are significant: the bottom line being that you need to seek out opportunities for demonstrating your capability and shouldn't expect anything to be handed to you.

With just a year a half of Assistant Headship under my belt I have no doubt that this was at least a part of today's undoing. I'm excited to be enrolled on Ambition School Leadership's Future Leaders course starting in June and hope this will create some opportunities not immediately afforded to me by my current role.

5. Seek out mentors and listen to them carefully
I've been so incredibly lucky with the generous time given to me by Angela O'Brien, Jill Berry, Claire Stoneman, and current colleagues in preparation for the last two days. In my experience, people are very willing to help when they are (politely) asked. I love it when I get a DM from someone being 10% braver and putting in an application; supporting others has gone a long way towards clarifying my own thinking.

To make the most of their time and yours, it's important to be clear on exactly what you'd like to receive support with, be it the written application, articulating your ideas more precisely, using clear examples, or distilling your ideas for if you are appointed. This isn't something I've always managed to do. Thankfully, the skilled leaders I've been lucky enough to make contact with have done a damn fine job of coaching it out of me.

6. Pick your referees wisely
This one's a cautionary tale: in an interview at a previous school I was I burned by a churlish line in one of my references written by my Deputy Head. I'd - perhaps naively - picked my Head and Deputy as my referees without really giving it much thought. The fact that she line managed one of the other candidates and may therefore have a preference as to who got the job certainly hadn't crossed my mind. When the reference was raised at my final interview it blindsided me. Back at base, it became apparent that she'd shown the other candidate multiple drafts of his whereas she refused to let me have a copy of mine even post-interview. In this case, neither of us were successful.

I (still) believe in thinking the best of all colleagues until proven otherwise, however, I learned an important life-lesson that whilst I may hold myself to this standard when it comes to referees it's sometimes worth going for the safe bet.

7. If you don't get to interview after 3 letters or aren't successful after 3 interviews, stop and do something differently
Of course '3' is an arbitrary number, but my point here is that if you're not getting anywhere then it's time to take a deep breath and a good long look in the mirror. When I wrote three letters for AHT posts and didn't get an interview I realised that I lacked the whole school experience required. One year on and an Associate SLT post under my belt, I got my interview.

Today, I got to the last two. This tells me I'm not a million miles away from Deputy (and that my worst fears of embarrassing myself by applying haven't been realised). A year on and with the sharp, diagnostic feedback I know my Head will give me and the challenge of Future Leaders, I know I'll get there.

8. Actively seek feedback - when you're ready to really hear it
If you've ever given feedback to a disappointed candidate then you'll appreciate how difficult it can be. I'd argue that giving feedback to internal candidates - as I've had to many a time - is particularly challenging. But, like any difficult conversation, if approached with kindness and in a suitable context it can lead to personal growth, empowerment, and professional learning. I hope all of those involved in interviewing appreciate that good quality feedback is the pay back for the time and energy spent on the application process.

So, if you aren't successful, even when you may least feel like it, make sure you track down the Head or Head of Department for the feedback you have earned. This doesn't need to be immediate - although sometimes this can at least provide a swift end to the process - but should be in the days that follow. If you're still not in the right head space to truly hear it write it down to be revisited at a later date. With gin.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this read; thanks for sharing your vulnerability. It's not easy to not be given the job and I am heartened to know that I am not the only one, encouraged by the pragmatic approach suggested here and appreciate your words of advice. Hope the large glass of wine and pizza took the edge off!

  2. This is an excellent read. It's good to hear that what you advise and say is good practice is everything I am doing! I am currently going through the process if trying to relocate to work closer to family because of my own little family. I'm currently a UPS classroom teacher (but ex HOD, who stood down following birth of daughter for family reasons and to be a Daddy) I've had 2 interviews in the past fortnight, and been unsuccessful and have a third this week. The first one I can understand why I wasn't successful, I just don't think I'm the type of teacher that would fit their school, the second one I loved the school and really feel I would have fitted in with the department and felt my interview answers were fantastic, and can't think of any I should've answered differently. I genuinely feel I was the more expensive option and that's why I didn't get the option. The gutted feeling when rejection has been difficult, but hoping for 3rd time lucky!

  3. Sorry you were disappointed this time, Caroline - but you did very well to get to the final two (reflecting the strength of your application) and this is an excellent post, summarising the process and what you learnt.

    Just to say that I had 21 interviews, for 7 jobs, across my 30 year career (it took me EIGHT interviews to get my Head of English role) - and there were countless applications where I didn't get as far as interview. Just keep going and never lose faith in your capacity to do the job. When the school/time is right, you will make an excellent deputy - and head, too, in due course, should that be what you choose.