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What I Look For In a Teacher Candidate: Tips for Success

What makes a good teacher candidate stand out?

Step ahead of the rest with this experienced advice from a former school principal.

Teacher candidate Maya R. knew there would be a lot of applications for the handful of openings at the elementary school she was applying to, and she wanted to be sure hers stood out. So she printed her resume and cover letter on bright yellow paper that had a border of children's handprints in red, blue, and green. Then she attached a full-length picture of herself as a bridesmaid smiling broadly because she had just caught the bouquet. Her application stood out all right—but not exactly in the way she had hoped!

Further Reading: Advice for New Teacher Graduates: Making Your Resume Stand Out

Maya might have been a terrific classroom teacher, but her application left me questioning her judgment. A teacher candidate who submits materials that don't have a professional look is often passed over for an interview. And a candidate who does get an interview but isn't sufficiently prepared often doesn't get hired. As a school administrator, I have selected, interviewed, and hired many teachers, so if you're looking for a job, you might be interested in knowing what administrators usually look for in a candidate.

Make a Strong First Impression

Many schools have moved away from traditional paper applications to online forms. Either way, materials need to be well-written and free of typos. Resume templates are easy to access online, but don't rely on spell-check for accuracy. Ask someone else to read your materials or read them aloud before you hit "send." Limit your cover letter to one page, and sell yourself on your preparation and experience, not your love for teaching and kids. You'll have an opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the job if you are called in for an interview.


Showcase Your Personality and Capabilities

Strong candidates don't just show up for the interview. They do their homework, learn all they can about the school or district, and prepare for the interview like an athlete prepares for competition. Some of the qualities interviewers are looking for in a candidate are competence, confidence, enthusiasm, coherence, thoughtfulness, and perhaps a sense of humor.

Once you get the call, it's prep time. Here are some tips to help you showcase your best assets.

  • If you don't know the format for the interview, call the school office and ask the secretary for details. If you walk into an interview expecting to see one or two people and find 10, it can throw off your game.
  • Dress professionally—a little more businesslike than you would for a daily teaching assignment.
  • Arrive 15 minutes early. If you're not sure where the school is, take a trial run a few days before the interview. It's very hard to recover from being late.
  • Bring a folder, paper, and pen. It's OK to jot down notes during the interview.
  • Think about the questions you may be asked and prepare (or even write out) your answers. "Tell us a little about yourself" is often the first question, and it helps candidates relax and show a little of their personality. Think about what you want to say so you can use your time to your best advantage by articulately describing your experience and enthusiasm for the job. Make time to review frequently used interview questions (and even answers).
  • Most schools and districts have websites, so be sure you've looked at them before your interview. They can provide you with information about the school itself and school activities that may be useful to know during the interview. For example, if someone asks what kinds of extracurricular activities interest you, you might say, "I see on your website that there's a theater club. I did theater in college, and I'd love to help with that."
  • Check your state education department website to find the school or district test scores. Familiarity with this information might be useful as it shows you're interested enough to have done some research.
  • If you don't have one, develop a nice, firm handshake. Avoid using that dainty tip-of-the-fingers-only handshake that some women and men have adopted when shaking hands with the opposite sex. This handshake projects neither confidence nor strength.
  • If your interviewer asks if you have any questions, don't ask about salary and benefits. These are topics for the next interview. If you have other questions pertinent to the job (for example, do new teachers have mentors?), go ahead and ask. Otherwise, thank everyone for the opportunity, make good eye contact, extend your hand for a strong handshake, and depart.
  • Keep in mind that while they're interviewing you, you're interviewing them too. If you leave an interview with concerns about the school culture or the leadership, my recommendation is to not ignore those concerns; tactfully explore them if you're invited back for a second interview.

Further Reading: How to Nail a Teacher Phone Interview

I'll admit that not everyone I hired who had a strong application and stellar interview turned out to be a great classroom teacher—at least at the beginning. And I probably missed some great teachers who didn't interview well. The hiring process isn't without its flaws, but teacher candidates who understand it, and are prepared and confident, have a greater chance of getting the job they want.


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