Search form

Interviewing for the Principalship:
Tips from Principals



Part 2:

  • More Interview Questions
  • Principals Offer Interviewing Tips

    Back to Part 1 of the article

    When Lolli Haws was first interviewing for principal jobs, she and a friend who was also searching would compare notes. Immediately after an interview, each of us sat in our cars and wrote down all the questions we could remember being asked, she recalled. We'd share those questions with one another.

    Among the questions that appeared on the list Haws and her colleague created were these:

  • What's your leadership style?
  • How do you handle student discipline?
  • How would you describe an excellent teacher?
  • What do you do when a teacher isn't doing a very good job?
  • How do you communicate with parents?
  • How do you work with diverse students and families?
  • Who is your favorite author in the field of school leadership? Why?
  • How would you get to know the families in this school community?

    Haws remembers sitting in front of her bedroom mirror, looking herself in the eye, and practicing good articulate answers to each of those frequently heard questions.


    All the questions asked during an interview are not predictable ones. Frank Hagen recalled a couple examples:

    What would you do if you disagreed with a district policy or the superintendent's decision to change one of your decisions?

    How would you deal with a teacher who confronts you in the cafeteria while you are supervising students? A parent who confronts you while you are shopping in the supermarket?

    Among the tougher questions Lolli Haws has been asked are

    How would you help build a school's lackluster reputation into an excellent one?

    Are you an organized person? How can you demonstrate to the interview team that you are organized?

    What specifically do you do that demonstrates you are an instructional leader, not just a good manager?

    If the school is predominantly English Language Learners, how will you ensure that all families believe they are included and valued?

    If hired, what would you do the first week on the job?

    After a few interviews I had answers that conveyed all the points I wanted to make in response to those usual questions, Haws told Education World.

    Frank Hagen doesnt recall too many unusual questions as he looks back on his interviewing experiences. There werent many curveballs or sliders, said Hagen, who is principal at Saint Michaels (Maryland) Middle/High School. Most of the questions he was asked were straightforward fastballs.

    One of the questions Hagen always expects to hear in interviews goes something like this: Please share with the committee three adjectives that describe your approach to the position and students/staff.

    Another one he has been asked goes something like this: You call a parent to talk with him about his child and he launches into a tirade toward you. He states that you have to be the worst principal the school has ever had. How do you react?

    That question came from one of the parents on the search committee, said Hagen. After the question was posed, I looked the parent in the eyes and simply stated, I never react to a parent, teacher, or student. I respond. I take a deep breath and ask the parent why he thinks I am the worst principal in the history of the school.

    Hagen went on to share how he listens, take notes, calmly reiterates what the parent has to say, and shares that he understands their frustration. Then he invites the parent to come into school to meet with him and discuss the concerns.

    Hagen got the job, by the way. And some months later that parent shared how he had been the only candidate who responded to the question without becoming defensive.


    Some questions asked in interview are meant to put candidates on the spot. Sometimes its difficult to know why the question is being asked. Does the questioner have an ulterior motive?

    Marcia Wright, principal at Clinton (Michigan) Elementary School, asks one question as she interviews teachers, but its a question that any educator might be asked to answer.

    If you learned a supervisor or colleague had committed some sort of illegal or unethical act, what would you do?

    I think it is a very important question to ask because it gets at a person's ethics and also his or her ability to confront in a potentially uncomfortable situation, said Wright. It is a very intriguing question.

    A Favorite Question

    Most school leaders have favorite questions. Bonita Henderson, recently retired from the Cincinnati Public Schools, has hers.

    I have a passion for the question, How do you interpret the saying Those who can, do; those who cant, teach?

    With that question, I can quickly get a handle on candidates who are really in this for the children.

    When Ember Conley was being interviewed for the principalship, the interviewers must have been uneasy about whether her youth might be a disadvantage, so they posed the question, How will you balance being a young leader with a veteran staff?

    Conley answered as honestly as she could. She said what she knew that building trust would take some time; but that would be true of any principal who is new to a school, regardless of age. She would need to display confidence at all times, without any trace of arrogance. And she would need to always listen.

    In addition, I would gain respect by teaching periodically, by subbing in teachers classrooms in order to allow extra time for staff to plan, she added.

    The search committee must have been impressed, because Conley got the job as principal of Montezuma-Cortez High School in Cortez, New Mexico.


    Christine Waler has had aspiring principals ask her for advice on more than a few occasions.

    I tell them to be sure to scope out the interview site beforehand, especially if they are unfamiliar with the area. Its best to arrive 30 minutes before the interview, go for a coffee, relax, and arrive at the building 10 minutes before with a smile on your face, said Waler.

    When it comes to remembering the important things you want to say, Waler encourages aspiring principals to prepare and practice responses to predictable questions. In order to remember specific points she suggests the use of pneumonics, where each letter stands for a point to be made.

    Is the Job
    Really Open?

    What if you think a district with an open principalship has that job earmarked for a particular person? Should you go through the stress of the interview anyway?

    Conventional wisdom says that any opportunity to interview is an opportunity to polish your interviewing skills. Of course, if the district is a large one and other principalships might be coming up soon, you might not want to blow your chance at one of those future positions by using the district for one of your practice interviews.

    Lee Yeager, principal at S&S Middle School in Sadler, Texas, says he tries to get a sense of whether district leaders are serious about the interview or just going through the paces. In any event, I do think that going through an interview is helpful for folks who are just beginning to interview for positions, said Yeager.

    I know of times when a district thought they had someone in mind for a position, but when they started interviewing candidates they found someone they liked better.

    Because interviews are anxiety-producing, using a tool such as a pneumonic will help you stay on point and not wander all over the place with your response.

    Another piece of advice that Waler always offers is to be careful of the time. Know beforehand how long the interview will last, and respect that time. Keep your responses succinct.

    Waler always comforts interviewers with this additional piece of advice: Remember, there are no perfect answers. Dont beat yourself up if you are driving home from the interview and thinking of all the things you could have said. We all do that.

    Principal Lolli Haws always remembers a bit of advice a mentor in her doctoral program gave. She suggested we bring with us to an interview a job entry plan that outlines what we would do if we get the job during week one, month one, in three months, six months, in the first year..., Haws explained. It was suggested that we have a plan for what we would do for instruction, parents, students, and staff.

    Haws followed that piece of advice, and it helped her earn her current job. It helped me organize myself and prepare for the interview, and it made an impact when I passed it out to the interview team at the end of the interview, she told Education World. It was brief, and included bulleted points, but they were impressed with the thought I had given to assuming the job. It showed I was serious about wanting the job.

    Developing an action plan to hand out that outlines your plan to improve student achievement is something Ember Conley recommends to prospective principals too. She might even take that one step farther: Develop a leadership PowerPoint presentation. Bring your laptop and projection screen -- and sell yourself! she said.

    Frank Hagens best advice to anyone interviewing for a school leadership position is to be yourself and be sure you align your answers with your values and beliefs. Otherwise, it will be quickly apparent that you are answering for the sake of getting the job and not providing the committee with details about how you will contribute to the school.

    Hagen also offered this cautionary tale: As one interview for a principalship was coming to a close, the HR person presented an analogy that compared the school to a moving train. She indicated that I would be the conductor of the train as it moved from point A to point B, explained Hagen. I listened intently and then corrected her. I would not be the conductor, I said. I would be the engineer.

    Needless to say, even though I had been the search committees number 1 candidate for the position, I did not land the job because I intimidated the superintendent with my response.

    I dont think she understood that she would continue to control the switches for the tracks, added Hagen, but I learned a valuable lesson that day about correcting the interviewer.

    More Tips

    Principal Frank Hagen offers these tips to prospective school leaders.

    Be early. Talk with the secretary -- she knows the school.

    When you enter the room, move to and greet each member of the interview committee.

    Think before you answer a question. And confine your response to the question asked. Be succinct and thorough.

    When answering a question, look at all members of the interview committee, not just the person who asked the question.

    Prepare a short series of questions that pertain to the interests of each person on the committee.

    Be sure to thank the committee for the time and opportunity to interview.

    Prepare a brief summary statement that emphasizes how you plan to work collaboratively with teachers and parents to improve the school.

    Ask for a tour of the building -- especially if classes are in session.

    Follow up with an email to the interviewers. Highlight the positives of the interview and express your continued interest in the position.

    Article by Gary Hopkins
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2009 Education World

    Originally published 02/25/2008
    Last updated 02/24/2009