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The New Teacher Advisor

How to Answer the Tough Questions


Part Five of a Five-Part Series

In my last column, I discussed questions you might be asked during job interviews. Some of those questions are more difficult to answer than others, and you're probably wondering how to answer those in a way that presents you in the best possible light. In this column, I'll address a few of the questions and offer some advice on how to answer them.

What is your philosophy of teaching?
As stated in an earlier column, to answer this question, you don't have to boil down your teaching philosophy into a pithy three-sentence statement. Instead, write down ahead of time your beliefs about teaching and learning as a series of bulleted points. When responding to the interviewer, be specific about those points and then list the aspects of teaching about which you're most passionate.

Why would you be a good fit for our district/school?
This is where all that research about the district comes in handy. What was it about the information presented on the district/school Web site that made you interested in that particular school system? Was it because students are highly active through learning centers and hands-on type learning activities? Was it the vision or mission stated on the Web site? Did you find a place where your unique knowledge and skills would fit well?

For example, one possible answer might be: After viewing your Web site, I was impressed with your vision of students, parent, and teachers working together. I'm a huge proponent of inquiry-based learning, experiential-based learning and integrated learning -- all mentioned in your administrator letter to the community. I'm also quite interested in the personal project you require of upper-level students each year. This sounds very similar to the "Walkabout" project I required of my eighth-graders while student teaching. I have already received training in the 4-Mat planning wheel; this would integrate well with your current focus on learner differentiation, as it creates a plan to teach to all learning styles throughout a unit.

What do you think makes a good teacher?
This question can be answered using your belief statements about teaching and learning. Which of those statements are about the teacher and what he or she should do? Do you believe a good teacher facilitates learning through guiding questions or forty-five-minute lectures to the class as a whole? Do you believe a good teacher listens to his or her students and works to build positive relationships with those students? Should a good teacher have strong communication skills and be able to work in a team? To help yourself answer that question, include statements of belief about good teaching when you write down your philosophy of education.

Describe a typical day/class period in your classroom.
What would an administrator see if observing your classroom? Describe the strategies and procedures you would use and how your students typically react.

You might say, for example: Students enter the classroom, get materials from their boxes, and begin working on a focus assignment posted on the board. Attendance is taken quietly and quickly from a visual head count. We go over the focus assignment as a class, which then leads into the opening activity. That activity is often hands-on or gets students up and moving. It usually introduces the concept/skill to be taught and leads directly to a 10-15-minute mini-lesson. We either discuss the concept or practice the skill as a class. Then students work in small groups either on an activity that enhances the discussion or applies the skill learned. I walk around as students work to monitor and help as needed. We come back together before the end of class to summarize/describe what was learned. Students write a brief statement in their journals and class is dismissed.

What are your two greatest strengths? Your greatest weakness?
This is one of the hardest questions to answer. Although we know the need to toot our own horn in this situation, for many people it's hard to give a straight answer because it feels like bragging. The administrator, however, wants to know that you know yourself --including your strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, you don't want to highlight a weakness that might end up removing you from the candidate pool. So how do you answer that question without bragging or revealing the worst about yourself? Your strengths might stress that you are well organized and flexible, task oriented, work well in team situations, enjoy meeting new people, relate well to others, and are good at building relationships. When mentioning weaknesses, the key is to mention a weakness that actually arises from a strength.

For example: I'm a very organized person, and I like everything to be in its place. That can cause me to stay too late after school to make sure everything is where it belongs. I know that spending too many hours at work can lead to burnout. Also, I have to get used to the fact that students don't always put items in the proper place, and develop strategies for helping them get better organized and learn to put materials away properly.

Another way to handle a weakness is to show how you plan to overcome it. Under no circumstances, however, do you want to mention a weakness in an area that is part of the job description. For example, you don't want to admit to a weakness in math if you're interviewing for a position that requires teaching math. If you do, you almost certainly will not get the job.

How would you deal with an angry or upset parent?
Listening, empathizing and working together to determine a solution to the problem is the key. Those three elements are necessary for working with angry parents and should be included in your answer.

For example: I would first listen to the parent's concerns and make note of them. Next, I would express my understanding of his/her frustration, and then describe what actually occurred in the classroom if it was different from what was described. Afterward, I would express my desire to work together to solve the issue, if possible. I believe that letting parents vent their frustration allows us to move past the anger and get to the point where we can work out a solution.

How would you handle a situation in which a student refuses to complete his class work?
Developing positive relationships with students is the first step in preventing that kind of behavior, and I think it's important to point that out before answering the question. Then explain that, if the situation did arise, you'd begin by talking with the student one-on-one to determine the root of the problem. There could be several reasons that the student is refusing to complete the work: 1) He or she is having a bad day and just can't deal with any more; 2) He or she feels unable to complete the work and therefore simply is refusing to even try; 3) He or she is angry with you or another teacher about something completely different and is choosing this as a way of making a statement.

There could be other reasons as well, but those few give you the idea that you need to talk with the student and find out exactly what is going on before you make any kind of decision about what to do. When you've learned from the student why he or she is refusing to complete the work, you can then work toward a solution. It might be that letting out the anger and frustration is enough to allow the student to get back on track. You might need to send the student to a counselor or offer to help with the assignment until the student feels more confident. If it's a case of outright disobedience and this is the nth time the student has pulled that little stunt, you might need to refer him or her to the office with a behavior slip.

When dealing with scenario-type questions, take a few minutes before answering. Think it through carefully. The interviewer will not hold it against you that you are thoughtfully considering the possibilities before answering. Include in your answer ways to positively address the situation, rather than always leaning toward referring the student to the office or the parent to the administrator. The interviewer wants an idea of how you might handle the situation, and passing off the problem to someone else is not an answer.

With any interview question, it doesn't hurt to pause a moment or two before answering. Collect and order your thoughts before opening your mouth. That mental exercise might help keep you from sticking your foot in your mouth. Also, don't be afraid to ask questions for clarification. Different districts will refer to strategies, special-status students, and policies by different terminology. If you don't know what PACE is or what it refers to, ask. You might find out that PACE is that district's program for gifted and talented students. Once you have that information, it will be much easier to answer the question.

Answering tricky interview questions in a positive manner is possible. All it takes is a little prior preparation, taking deep breaths, and pausing to think before you speak. You might feel a little dazed at the end of the interview, but at least you can be confident you did your best. Good luck to all of you searching and interviewing for your first teaching position!

The Hiring Process Series

Be sure to see all the articles in Emma McDonald’s series on finding a teaching job:

* Myths and Truths of the Job Hunt
* A Little Research
* Be Prepared
* Questions! Questions!
* How to Answer the Tough Questions