Principals’ tips for teacher interviews

Tis the season for teacher interviews across the country. Retirements, relocations, and layoffs all lead to teachers looking to land a new gig. Prepping the resume, application, and letters of rec are the first steps in the process, but when you are granted an interview, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Just be yourself.
Getting the interview is a huge step, because it means that your experiences and other paper credentials must line up with whatever the school is looking for. The interviewers probably like what they’ve seen on paper, so now it’s just a matter of them deciding which of the candidates will be the best fit for the school. Curriculum and instructional practices will keep changing over time, and all teachers will have to adapt to those changes. With all of those changes occurring, what will it be like to have you as a person as part of their team and sitting across the table from them during the lunch hour? Don’t try to be something you’re not. Be polite and professional, but let your true personality show during the interview. Some teams already have obnoxious jokesters on the team, so adding a subtle low-key person is not a problem. You need to be sincere and engaging with the students, but having a variety of personalities (positive ones!) among the staff is good for everyone.

Same thing goes for your level of experience. If you are a newbie, don’t try to pretend that you are Super Teacher. They’ve read your application. They know you are new. Just be honest about what you know and have done. If being new or old to the profession were a problem to the interviewers, you wouldn’t have been granted an interview.

Get yourself in the right frame of mind.
Certainly be yourself, but also be happy and confident during the interview. Go buy a new outfit that makes you feel like a million bucks (but only costs you a minute fraction of that). If you are wondering how dressed up you should be for the interview, the test for your clothing is if you would wear the outfit again at school (parent conferences, concert night, employee banquet, etc.). Look professional, but also be comfortable during the interview. Don’t suffer in a suit or skirt that just isn’t your style. Don’t be so uncomfortable in your fancy duds that it has a negative effect on what you say to the interview team.

On the day of the interview, give yourself plenty of time so you don’t have to rush anywhere. Get up early, get some exercise, and eat a good meal (you need energy, but don’t eat so much that you are sluggish). Make sure you absolutely know where you are going for the interview. Find it on Google Maps and then drive there ahead of time (day before on a scouting mission if you are able) so you are certain where you should be, ON TIME. Get to the interview site ahead of time, but don’t walk into the building until about 15 minutes before your scheduled time. A tip for settling yourself and feeling positive is to listen to your favorite music in your car right before you head in to the interview site. Hum your favorite tune as you walk in, but save your Megadeth humming for another occasion. (A good friend has made some made some videos on how to use music to motivate yourself. See them here and here.) Turn your phone off as you wait for your interview. Get your brain in gear and don’t let your phone distract you from what lies ahead. The interview team won’t care that you just finished level 3-15 of Angry Birds right before you walked in.

Finally, walk into the interview room, smile, shake hands with the interviewers, and start with a simple “Thank you for having me here.”

Common questions to think about ahead of time
Some interview questions are so necessary and helpful that they are asked in most interviews. Be ready for these and have a prepared statement in mind for questions like “Tell us about yourself” and “Do you have any questions for us?” These two questions are like the opening and closing arguments in a trial and have a lot of sway with the interviewers. Be ready for them so you have strong first and last impressions. Another common question is, “Tell us about your strengths and weaknesses.” The interviewers may not really care what those strengths and weaknesses are, but they will care that you are a reflective person and that you know why you are good at some things and what you plan to do to take care of your weaknesses. Whatever you do, don’t respond to the weakness questions with, “I care too much, I give too much, don’t know when to say ‘no,’ and I am a perfectionist.” Teaching is a tough job with extremely high expectations and these things are expected, not weaknesses that need to be changed. You better care a lot, work hard, be a team player, and have high standards for yourself. Be honest about your weaknesses and show that you really understand yourself.

What to say when you aren’t sure about a question
You can predict some of the questions that will be asked, but you won’t be 100% prepared for them all. If you are unclear on how to adequately respond to a question, be honest and upfront. This often happens if the question is asking about a specific program that you don’t have experience with, but a great teacher looks forward to learning something new. Just simply respond with, “I’m not familiar with that, but I would be eager to learn more about it.” If you aren’t sure what the question was getting at, ask a clarifying question like, “Are you asking if…?”

Brevity vs. boring
If you can answer a question with one word, dont! State your yes or no, and then give a quick explanation with an example. Cover the questions, but don’t go on and on, even if you have encyclopedic knowledge on that question. Pay attention to your interviewers to see if they are engaged in your response. If you see them fading away from you, wrap up your response and move on to the new question. Portfolios can be helpful to give details and examples to questions. Have your portfolio with you to refer to in response to one of the questions, but don’t try to just pass it around the table. No matter how wonderful your scrapbooking skills are, portfolios just aren’t that interesting on their own. They do become interesting when they show how reflective you are and can speak to how much you’ve learned on a particular topic.

Your main message
Everyone wants a job, but why do you want this job? Do your homework to find out what makes this school/district unique. What specific skills do you have that would pair well with the school’s strengths and challenges to make it a better place? Devour their web site to learn as much as you can. Call your friends or family who might be familiar with the school and community to get their insights. Achievement scores are often listed online, so find them and get a feel for how well the school is doing.

After the interview
A written thank you note won’t have much of an effect at all on whether or not you get the job, but it does speak to your professionalism and courtesy. Whether it’s a hand-written note or email, a sincere thanks from a candidate is appreciated. If you don’t get the job, certainly stay professional about the decision. There are lots of fantastic candidates out there, and schools can’t hire them all. Principals from different schools and districts frequently network with one another to gauge candidates when they are filling similar positions. They might call a colleague up to say, “I see you just hired a new teacher. Who else was in the pool who is worth an interview to us?” Your post-interview professionalism to a school that didn’t hire you can lead to good things with another.


Comments and questions to this post are absolutely welcome. If you have other interview tips, please leave them in a comment. For those of you with upcoming interviews, best of luck!

This post was a group effort from 3 Wisconsin elementary school principals (the Three WImigos!). They are Jessica Johnson, Jay Posick, and Curt Rees.

59 thoughts on “Principals’ tips for teacher interviews

  1. Jodi –

    That is a tough situation for you, but I certainly know what it is like from the employer side of the interview. As a principal, I worry that if I wait too long into the summer, the best candidates will have taken jobs in other schools. We are done with school on June 10, but I’m doing interviews on June 6. It’s not an ideal time for me and some of the candidates, but I’m not comfortable delaying any longer because I know that interviews are happening in other districts. I like your thought to contact the school and explain your situation. You are really interested in the job, but are not comfortable being away from your students and school for a whole day at this point in the school year. They may not be able to rearrange the interview schedule due to the availability of the people on their interview team. Maybe they could slot you first or last in the day to allow you to work a half day in your current position. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and I don’t think it is unreasonable to see if there was flexibility.

  2. I loved this article! I am an experienced teacher who just left a great school where I have been for the past 7 years. I moved from Louisiana back to my home state New Jersey to be closer to family. I have put out several resume packets and have my first interview Thursday!

    I found a great outfit that I feel very comfortable in, but am anxious it isn’t great. It is black and white, but everything else was too casual or to loud.

    Anyway, everything you stated really affirmed me and I feel pretty prepared. My main concern is I don’t have an updated portfolio! I suppose that over the past 7 years, I just never thought I would be in this position. That, and when I interviewed 7 years ago, not one school even asked for it. I am hoping that since my teacher website is still active that will be a satisfactory substitute for a portfolio.

    My question is do you think it will be an ok substitute, and do you have any suggestions on how to respond if anyone asks to see it?

    Thanks for your help!

  3. Mary-Catherine,

    Of all the people I have ever interviewed and hired, I rarely remember the clothing any of them were wearing during the interview. If your outfit is in the “boring, yet adequate” category, that is a good thing. Focus on your knowledge and communication skills, and you’ll be fine.

    Unless the school asks you to bring a portfolio, don’t worry about it. Prospective employers may look at an online resume to help them decide who to interview, but once they’ve chosen their interview field, they likely won’t look at those materials again.

    Good luck!

  4. Curt – Thank you for this article! I was a teacher for over 14 years, took a few years off to start a business, and am now applying for teaching positions. Had my first 10 minute interview yesterday and it went beautifully. You article was just what I needed to prepare.

  5. This article was very helpful.
    I want to say Thank you for sharing your wisdom, because of it I have an idea of what to expect for interview.
    I graduated with my Bachelor in Secondary Education with a minor in music earlier this month.
    I have my first teaching position interview tomorrow morning.
    After feeling stressed and allowing my nerves to set in, your article has helped immensely.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this! It has helped tremendously with my pre-interview nerves. I have my first teaching interview this afternoon, and I feel much better after reading this. :)

  7. Thank you so much for this article!! I obtained my BA in 2002 and my credential in 2004. I could not find a job due to a lagging economy and focused on my current job. I decided to go back to teaching and have an interview in a couple of weeks!! Coming form a principal, your article puts me at ease! Thanks for the wonderful tips!

  8. I have never taught in the us before but I have 13 years of classroom experience . I have an interview in a couple weeks. What do I wear?

  9. Sandi,

    Thanks for reading my post about teaching interview tips. My thoughts on dress are to look nice but be comfortable at the same time. If you would never wear the outfit again, then don’t consider it for the interview. My opinion is that you wouldn’t need to dress up more than you would for parent teacher conferences. I hope that helps.

    Good luck!

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