When you’re a beginning teacher looking for your first teaching role, it can be hard to know where to start. Applying for a job in a school is a unique process with its own rules and expectations, and when you’ve just graduated this process can be hard to navigate. With this in mind, last month Education Personnel hosted a webinar for beginning teachers, with two special guests: Sue and Corinne, current and former primary school principals with over 40 years’ experience in New Zealand and UK schools between them. During the webinar, the attending BTs asked a number of questions about the job application process. What Sue and Corinne answered was so insightful and helpful, we decided to choose the top nine pieces of advice from the webinar and post them here.
1. Ensure you and the school are a good match by making a visit there
Both Sue and Corinne emphasised the importance of visiting the school in the application process. It lets you get a sense of the culture of the community and whether you’ll be a good fit for it. For example, whether you are comfortable with the students calling teachers by their first names. If the school says visits are welcome in the ad, that’s a hint that the principal wants to meet you and if you do visit, it shows you’ve read the ad carefully. If the ad doesn’t say visit the school, see if you can do it anyway - when there’s a pile of 100 CVs, you’re more likely to get on the shortlist if they already know you. Corinne’s advice for when you’re visiting the school is to remember that everyone’s going to have an opinion about you, so be friendly, and talk to the other teachers, to the students and to the parents. Try and go during the day if you possibly can because you need to see how the school works.
2. Take advantage of networking opportunities
During the webinar, a teacher asked if they could introduce themselves to a new principal at a school where they had had a successful practicum. Sue and Corinne agreed, and recommended that teachers work their networks. If you did a good job in your practicum and were a good fit for the school, the principal will likely be delighted to hear from a tried and tested quantity. Nobody would mind if you said, “I loved working at your school, do you know if there’s a job coming up in the next 12 months?” Just make sure to let them know, when you call them, when you did your practicum, what class you taught and who your associate teacher was, to jog their memory.
3. Creative CVs are good, but not the be all and end all
A lot of teachers wanted to know whether having a “creative” CV - with photos and graphics - would help or hurt their application. Sue said that she doesn’t mind either way, and that the CV needs to represent who you are, but that for her, the most important part of the application was the cover letter. Corinne’s opinion was that you can’t go wrong with a white, classic, simple approach, but that there’s no accounting for principal’s opinions! Both Sue and Corinne discussed how important it is to make sure your CV is easily printable and photocopiable - as multiple copies may need to be made for each person on the appointment panel so they can write notes on them.
4. A great cover letter can make a huge difference
As Sue says, “I don’t want a generic cover letter, I want one that is written to my job advert.” She advised making your cover letter match the job description closely so that you’re responding in your letter as to how you’d actually do the job. And use the principal’s name. Both principals said that obviously non-tailored cover letters or ones with errors usually go straight to the bottom of the pile. “If you make mistakes with that stuff you’ll make mistakes with more important stuff”. Both Sue and Corinne recommended doing fewer applications but doing them well.
5. A good fit for the school is more desirable than good grades
In this competitive teaching market, some beginning teachers are worried that their grades at university will affect their ability to get a job. However, both Sue and Corinne said that university transcripts are not important to them and don’t need to be included in your application. For Sue, “I’m interested in what you’ve done.” Corinne suggested if there’s something you’re really proud of in your university career, to put it in your cover letter instead.
6. A good reference can win you a role - so choose and treat your referees with care
References are obviously an important part of winning a role - but often teachers don’t quite get them right. Your referees needs to be people who can really talk in depth about your teaching practice, so at least one needs to be an associate teacher that you had. If you do voluntary work or other extra-curricular activities that involve connecting with other people, use those too. University lecturers are a risky reference - Sue and Corinne have had experiences where they didn’t really know who the student was. You really need to ask yourself: Will that person be able to answer enough questions about my training, the way I relate to people, and a bit about what learning took place? What you need is someone who can sell you!
If you use a name as a referee, ensure that you’ve told them you’re applying for the job. Email them and say “I’ve applied for a role at x school, it’s a year 2 and 3 role, just a reminder I did that year 3 placement at your school.”
7. When you get to the interview, take a deep breath
Both Sue and Corinne’s advice for interviews was, first of all, to take a deep breath. Don’t rush, take your time, think about the question, ask them to reframe the question if needed. Don’t waffle, answer the question then move on. It’s perfectly okay to take in some notes to the interview to refer to if you forget anything. Try hard to answer the question by reflecting on your own experience and making links to the question if you can. But it’s also perfectly okay to acknowledge your own limitations as a beginning teacher and and to admit that you don’t know the answer.
8. Engage your interviewers by engaging with the school
When queried what questions to ask at the end of an interview, Sue recommended using it as a chance to reinforce your connection with the school. Read the school website, use the school newsletter, look at what’s on the website and use the information pack. For example, if you look online and you see there’s been a big focus on Matariki then you can ask question about how they teach te reo Māori at the school. Corinne recommended taking this as opportunity to demonstrate what you could bring to the school community, for example, asking if the school has student council. If they say yes, ask how it contributes to the school, if no ask if you can start one. Anything that shows you’re interested and engaged with the school.
9. Remember that BTs can’t do everything - and that’s okay
Sue and Corinne recommended that beginning teachers acknowledge areas they need to grow in as a beginning teacher and draw on other experiences. As Sue said, “some people had questions about how to talk up your literacy - that’s far too advanced as a BT, and not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in your relationships and your experience with children. Talk about how you manage difficult behaviours, how you manage difficult children. I’d rather know about that than what you’re going to do in a numeracy programme.” Corinne suggested drawing on past experience to show how you’ve built relationships and and interacted with the public. “Draw on whatever you’ve done, whether you’ve travelled, where you’ve worked, and why you’re interested in children and like working with them”.
The team at Education Personnel are planning to host another Q&A webinar with New Zealand principals in the near future. If you’ve got a burning question you’d like answered, keep an eye on our Facebook page for announcements.