New Challenge? Advice for getting that job.

Career Progression: More of a winding road than a ladder.
Career Progression: More of a winding road than a ladder.

Very often I’m asked for advice from teachers applying for jobs, either colleagues or friends.  Each person’s context is unique to them but the messages are usually the same so I thought I would share them.  As a Headteacher, getting the right people into the right roles within my school is one of the most important things I do.  Over the years I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews and probably read thousands of application forms.  In my career I’ve also applied for plenty of jobs myself, both as an external and an internal candidate…with only partial success. I’ve had my share of rejections, been ‘pipped to the post’ a few times (so they said) and these knock-backs have always taught me something.  So, taking what I’ve learned from both sides of the interview table, here is my guide to getting a job that you really want.

Before you start, it is important to recognise that recruitment is a two-way process;  it is more akin to match-making than a straight contest.  I always say that it’s hard to get a job you don’t really want…if you have doubts, it shows.  If you really want the job, the aim of your application and interview is to show what you could do in the role in general terms but also to demonstrate how well suited you’d be to the specific job on offer. Different schools and roles have niche requirements that you need to tune-in to.  I

My ideal candidate looks something like this:

They understand teaching and learning and talk about it with knowledge and passion.  They can articulate what a great lesson might look like, what an effective series of lessons might require and how students can engage in the process to maximise their learning outcomes. I want it all: rigour, challenge, joyfulness, passion, solid dependability, originality and flair – and I’ll look for the best I can find.

They have a strong knowledge base including subject knowledge, approaches to pedagogy,  important policy issues including recent changes, effective assessment practices.  As well as their responses at interview, my assessment will be influenced by their record of CPD, their academic background and the range of relevant professional experience they have.  I want someone other colleagues might learn from and someone the students will be inspired by.  Preferably, I want someone who offers flexibility in terms of subject teaching and other activities.. but that is icing on the cake.

They have positive attitudes towards students, parents, going the extra mile, showing initiative, embracing inclusion and teaching more able learners and they project a general aura of professionalism. This is hugely subjective of course but it is there. Enthusiasm goes a long way.. but, obviously, isn’t enough on its own. The ‘extra mile’ isn’t a case of selling your soul; it’s a legitimate expectation.  Schools rely on people contributing to the community beyond the classroom, doing whatever it takes to support some individuals and taking professional development seriously.

They have personal presence appearing assertive and confident but with a bit of humility, charm and humour; someone you can imagine working well with students and staff, prepared to offer challenge but also able to form warm, positive relationships.

Their career history supports what you see:  Ideally I want evidence of success (professional or personal), a commitment to career development and to seeing things through. I’m interested in interesting people  – variety is really healthy – but I need a good explanation for someone who has been chopping and changing, moving jobs year after year or for someone who appears to have been static doing one job in one place.  If people have a complex story to tell, I want them to tell it, not expect me piece it together.

They have leadership capacity or potential...  In any role, ideally I want people who can analyse the problems and offer solutions, have a vision for what could be achieved, the power to motivate others and the organisational skills to back it up.  I’m looking for the capacity to balance a systems approach with subtle people skills; I want people who can recognise complexity but can face it with a ‘can do’ spirit. I can live with a few solo operators but ideally I want people who value collegiality and can harness the energies and idea of others.

So, the recruitment process is all about working out how well each candidate fits.  Each school will have a similar list.  So, how do you show you’re the person they’re looking for?

How do you stand out from the crowd?
How do you stand out from the crowd?

Before you apply

If you’re planning a career move you need to build up a portfolio of experience in the work you do now. Not only does this help develop your skills for the next job but it also gives you real things to talk about at interview. Look for opportunities to gain skills beyond the routine of school life:

  • writing schemes of work, developing resources that you share with others, organising events, any number of small-scale projects that show initiative and a desire to engage with issues beyond your own classroom.
  • teaching well (obviously) but perhaps supporting another colleague, an NQT, getting involved in peer observation and feedback…anything that gives you experience of working with another teacher, engaging in improving how they teach.
  • for pastoral roles, be a great form tutor, take assemblies, work with the inclusion team, learn about Child Protection and local support agencies, mentor ‘difficult’ students, attend or organise a Parents’ Forum, be hands-on at parents evening, in the playground and in the canteen.
  • for leadership roles, set up or lead a working group on an aspect of teaching and learning, run a CPD session for staff, write a policy paper on a whole-school issue (literacy, behaviour, homework, the KS3 curriculum,) and present to SLT, observe an SLT or middle leaders meeting, attend Governors’ meetings, take assemblies and, for internal jobs, be highly visible around the school.
  • engage with the latest OfSTED guidance and the RAISEOnline data for your school. Like it or not, these things are a major pre-occupation for most schools and it can only help you to know how they work.

Application Forms

I usually suggest that people pick out four or five areas from the person spec and set out headed paragraphs for each one that do two things: a) set out your ideas looking ahead and b) provide examples to show that you have experience and success in each of these areas.

For a teaching role, I’d suggest things like: effective teaching and learning leading to strong outcomes; formative assessment;  differentiation and inclusion; curriculum planning and innovation; engaging in the wider school community.

For a middle leadership role: creating a team spirit; establishing high expectations of staff and students; curriculum development and innovation; raising achievement and inclusion; tackling underperformance – staff and students.

For a more senior leadership role: Ethos and vision; staff development; securing outstanding outcomes in inspections and examinations; creating a culture of excellence in learning; partnerships with community stakeholders; managing resources.

There is a danger in trying to do too much, over-egging your past glories and of blagging:   Avoid writing a giant long list of everything you’ve ever done; drop anything that is ancient history – however impressive it once was and don’t just write a list of what you will do in the future without any evidence that you know what you’re doing based on past experience.  Make sure you address your application to the specific school you are applying for.  If you could replace School X with School Y and the application remains exactly the same, you’ve not tried hard enough to engage with the school’s agenda.

Every school is different...adapt and adjust accordingly.
Every school is different…adapt and adjust accordingly.


No two processes are the same – some have more hoops than others – so this is just general advice about the questions you can prepare for.

Classic interview questions.

“Give us an example of……”

  • a  lesson you’ve taught recently that was a success. Why was it successful and how could you tell?
  •  a scheme of work you’ve developed that you and others have implemented. Was it a success? How could you improve it?
  • a situation that you found challenging that you then overcame.
  • an individual student or a class that you have had particular success with.
  • an initiative that you have led involving other members of staff.
  • a successful approach to raising achievement / improving attendance / improving behaviour that you’ve been involved in.
  • how you’ve supported or challenged a colleague who was causing or experiencing difficulties.

The examples you choose need to be tailored to the school you’re apply to.. make it as relevant as possible. For example, don’t focus on your C/D borderline group if the school wants a top end A/A* A level teacher.. and vice verse.  Prepare these answers in advance but adjust to the nuances of what you pick up at the school you’re going to. Clearly, the more real experience you have of these things, the easier it will be to give good answers.  I can’t stress this enough.  For example, a ‘difficult colleague’ could be someone you worked with at the Football Club… but you dealt with it; it was real and you learned something.  That is far better than talking only about hypothetical future scenarios.

Other common questions …

  • what are the key challenges facing teachers/ facing this school/ facing young people / in your subject?
  • how would your colleagues/ students/ Headteacher describe you?
  • what are our strengths / greatest achievements ?
  • what are your areas for development?
  • why do you want to work at this particular school?
  • how do you manage change effectively so that people are brought along with you?
  • how could data be used effectively to support you in this role?
  • how can you engage ‘hard to reach’ families?

In preparing for an interview, it is wise to think through in advance.  Don’t appear surprised by these questions.   The data issue is all about setting high expectations, monitoring progress and feeding back so that actions are taken to re-focus learning and so on at a class-room level.  Get to know the data tracking system you have and be prepared to evaluate it.  There is no correct answer on ‘hard to reach’ families but you need to have some ideas.

Across your answers, show you are aware of SEN issues, Child Protection procedures and try to mention parents and Governors as appropriate. Think in terms of good systems and the fact that people are in teams and shouldn’t work in isolation.

You’re likely to be asked about safeguarding. The key things are to listen to what children tell you, always be open to possibility that some form of abuse explains their behaviour, never to promise confidentiality to a child, to gather factual information without asking leading questions  and to involve the named Child Protection Officer of Designated Safeguarding Lead if you have even the slightest concern. If you don’t know about safeguarding it can rule you out of further consideration fairly swiftly.

The pitfalls.

A list of things that can undermine you….

Application errors: spelling mistakes, wrong school mentioned, unexplained gaps in employment, unexplained departures from jobs, bad hand-writing, Times New Roman (my pet hate), no mention of teaching and learning, overly soppy platitudes about loving children and wanting to save the world.

First impressions: looking scruffy; top button un-done, dirty crumpled shirt…. (arguably superficial, but why risk suggesting that you don’t care, for a job you want), giggling or being humourlessly unsmiling, not making eye contact, being over-familiar (I might offer ‘please, call me Tom’.. but don’t presume..), fussing and worrying about the details of the day..

During the interview:

  • answers too short; suggests a lack of depth – try to be expansive, give full extended answers.  Use notes if you have to, rather than walking out with half your ideas unsaid.
  • answers too long; read the signals, respect the timing of the process.  This applies to presentations too; if you’re told 10 minutes; don’t give them 15. It can give an unintended message..(note to self!)
  • being out-of-date.  If the SEN legislation has changed and you’re talking about the old framework, you’re on a loser.
  • talking excessively about stress, workload, difficulties, problems, barriers…. We all know about these things; you need to focus on how to overcome them.
  • talking about yourself without reference to the team. So, for a subject leader, we’re not interested in your lessons – we’re interested in the quality of everyone’s lessons in the team; for a pastoral leader… we’re not expecting you to deal with every student – we want to know how your team will deal with students under your leadership.  And so on.
  • seeming ambivalent about the job. If asked ‘are you a firm candidate?’, a lukewarm response can be an immediate killer.  Don’t play hard to get – not if you actually want the job. And if you don’t, say so – don’t waste people’s time.

Interview lessons:

These can be a bit of a nightmare. You need to keep it simple. A key idea, something challenging, some input, some group discussion and activity, model some AfL methods, a bit of think-pair-share, some time to do some work that involves thinking, writing, problem-solving and then wrap up with a review or report back.  Ask for names, be assertive but friendly.. and finish crisply. Easy!? No… but possible, yes.

The pitfalls: over-running; talking far too much before the students do anything themselves; pitching the material too high or too low; allowing off-task chat to continue without any challenge; being timid; wasting time moving the furniture or giving out over-elaborate resources; not having a clear enough objective to assess against within the timeframe… not challenging errors and misconceptions, not responding to answers eg if students already know more than you expected.

In the end, if you’re unsuccessful, don’t beat yourself up; don’t be bitter…… learn and move on!

Ultimately it is a competition. There are hundreds of factors and employers are generally well motivated and keen to get the best people they can.  If you are unsuccessful, ask for feedback and learn from it. There will be a period of dejection after a rejection but keep going, keep expanding your repertoire of experience and, ultimately – if you learn from the feedback – a chance may come along where you fit the bill.


And perhaps don’t do this:

(c) Modern Toss
(c) Modern Toss


  1. Thank you for this – timing is impeccable – I’m just about to sit down and apply for an AHT post [Teaching and Learning]. Currently Head of Eng [about 6 years] and good record on results/Ofsted etc. But, when I assumed my current post, I gave up Aspiring Leaders [or whatever it was called then] in order to develop the dept [at that time judged ‘inadequate’ and 23% A*-C] – I was kind of promised that I’d be allowed to take it up again by my then link manager [she has since become head] and I have never been allowed to take it up again. I’ve had to sit back and watch others doing it instead. So, my problem is this, how do I show evidence of ‘substantial and recent’ CPD? All my CPD has come via Twitter and people like you. How would I seel that to you?


    • Hi. I think you just need to sell it by highlighting the range of issues you’ve been engaged in via blogs, especially if you have put things into action as a result. CPD doesn’t have to mean going on a course and increasingly people recognise that. Good luck.


  2. Thanks for this, Tom (if I may….!)

    Absolutely agree about it being hard to get a job you don’t really want/that’s the wrong job for you, or at the wrong time. I’ve had a few interviews over the years for posts which, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have got (and didn’t) though sometimes it takes a while fully to appreciate that.

    If you’re unsuccessful, be philosophical – you wouldn’t want to work for someone who couldn’t recognise your potential!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, some times, after a knock-back I’ve had to concede that another person was a better candidate than me; other times I’ve felt that if they wanted THAT person, it really wasn’t the right job for me! If good things happen later, then it all feels ‘meant to be’…but hard to believe it at the time.


  3. A really interesting blog, thank you. What advice would you give to a teacher trying to return to the classroom after a few years out to look after young family. My wife has had a range of school experiences particularly 1:1 at all key stages, exam marking, private tuition etc. She gets interviews but is knocked back on the lesson as being out of date. She has been an extremely successful classroom teacher but schools regard her as being out of date. Whenever she gets the chance she attends inset on T&L and observes others but she doesn’t get the chance to put it into practice until the high stakes interview lesson so can’t refine her own practice. She then finds herself in competition with younger cheaper teachers its bit of the proverbial catch 22.


    • Hi. My advice would be to use old contacts to spend some time in a school and take a few lessons…or do some supply work to get back up to speed. I don’t thing schools appoint cheaper people… But new teachers can come across as fresh and enthusiastic. That gives them an edge…not their salary. The challenge is to match that aspect…but refreshing in class practice seems what is needed in your case.


      • Thanks Tom, she’s now in work full time although finding the tranistion from tutoring to full time tough going


  4. Thank you – this is very useful and gives me hope! I’m in post as a children’s centre teacher and want to move on but I usually freeze at the thought of interviews and I know I’m not good at presenting myself. I’ll keep trying
    Thanks again


  5. Hi again – so I have an interview on Thurs/Fri – Deputy Head [I’m ambitious, me!]. Would you advise please? I’m currently Head of Department [English] – successful [doubled results in 5 years – good ofsted etc]. My mind works against me as I’m now wondering why I’ve been chosen. Is there anything extra I would need to prove as other candidates are all AHTs – why did they pick me. Am I a filler only?


    • Sorry to butt in, but follow #SLTchat on Twitter and vote for my question tonight – what heads are looking for from senior leaders and how to prepare! If my question is accepted it will be debated sometime between 8pm and 8.30pm. It may help? Thanks @jillberry102


  6. […] The dream scenario is to be surrounded by highly competent professionals, who drive themselves to excel in all that they do, make a significant contribution, accept accountability, support the school’s vision and ethos and continually seek to improve their practice.  When recruiting, this is the kind of person you want to appoint. (See this post on recruitment…) […]


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