This summer was full of change for the Randazzo family, as we traded the California coast for the beautiful mountains of Idaho. Bay Area real estate prices and my husband’s 14-hour work+commute schedule made the decision surprisingly easy, but it meant a BIG change for me, saying goodbye to the campus where I’d worked for 18 years. Fortunately, I’ve landed at a new school full of welcoming co-workers and earnest teens, and I’m now teaching 9th, 10th, and 11th grade English classes on an A/B block. All of these changes mean I’ve had less time to blog and, when I do finally find time to write this year, I’m sure my posts will be packed with new teacher angst. Bear with me.
On the upside, I’m having all sorts of new and interesting experiences. Take job interviews, for instance. I hadn’t applied for a teaching job in a looong time and things have definitely changed. For starters, everything’s digital. (Glad my scanner survived the move.) And everything’s funneled through the Human Resources department. (Glad I resisted the urge to bulldoze my way into the principal’s office.) In the end, the process was fairly smooth, and I’m now proudly wearing my new green school spirit shirt on Fridays.
The online screening process was new to me (and surprisingly lengthy), but a nice side effect is that it helped me crystallize my teaching philosophy. Below are paraphrased versions of 10 questions I was asked in the process and my actual answers that helped me snag an interview. Here we go!
10 Questions You Might Be Asked in the Job Interview Process
1. Why do you want to be a teacher? When I was little, I never planned on becoming a teacher. Instead, I was going to be Lois Lane, eyes set on the editor’s desk at a major metropolitan daily. While working at a Bay Area newspaper, I started volunteering two mornings a week at a middle school as a writing tutor. Mind you, this was only to fill my time early in the day before my “real” work in the newsroom began. It didn’t take long, though, for my tutoring sessions with those fresh-faced kids to become my favorite part of the week. That was the year I began to re-evaluate my path. After spending more time in classrooms covering k-12 education for the newspaper and teaching a few actual lessons in that middle school teacher’s classroom, the turn in my career road was complete; I turned in my reporter’s notebook for a teacher’s desk, the best career move I could have made. Teaching is work that matters and I want my work to matter. I enjoy helping kids learn and the hours I’m with them are still my favorite of each week.
2. Explain your strategy for building lesson plans that will meet instructional objectives while still taking into account your students’ wide variety of skill levels. For me, backwards planning from the CCSS is hugely effective in helping to structure the path I need to build, and then differentiate, for my students. I become very familiar with students’ varying levels after a data study of baseline scores from state tests (when available) and exams such as the Gates Macginitie, early writing samples, and classroom observations. Every kid needs to feel successful in class. To that end, I build materials with leveled questions and I will, for example, pitch the warm-up questions during a class discussion to specific students who have been struggling, while posing the most critical of analysis questions to my higher-level thinkers. Also, I use a system of remediation that offers tailored support for students who have gaps with specific skills, giving them extra practice and teacher attention/tutoring during intentionally scheduled writers’ workshop times in my classroom.
3. How do ensure that students meet the standards of conduct required in your classroom? I set the standards of conduct with humor, grace, and – above all – respect. Of course, my expectations are clearly articulated to students both verbally and in print via reference handouts and signage, but the most effective means of communicating my expectations of behavior is with good old-fashioned modelling. I’ve found that when I give respect (even when a student hasn’t yet earned it), he/she will respond in kind. Also, I quickly address small issues early in the year in a private, positive manner, so as to maintain the student’s dignity while still delivering the message that there are certain behaviors (snide comments, texting, not trying on an assignment, etc.) that just aren’t acceptable in my world. I have a long history of handling my own classroom management issues with private discussion, parental involvement, and lunch detentions when appropriate. The discipline referral forms to the front office in the bottom drawer of my desk are dusty because I never need to use them.
4. What actions will you take to ensure all of your students, particularly those who struggle, are actually learning? Assessments, both formative and summative, are clear indicators of a student who hasn’t mastered the content. When a student is struggling, it’s time for a private conversation and the establishment of a plan to help that student get whatever he/she needs to be successful. Only when I’ve located the cause of the ailment can I supply the cure. Sometimes, the “cure” is just extra time to complete some work because of chaotic family issues. Other times, more practice with basic skill builders is needed to remediate gaps in a student’s knowledge base. Each student is an individual, so the actions I take will be individualized.
5. What is your assessment strategy? How do you use the information gleaned from those assessments? I use a wide variety of small and large assessments to monitor student growth, from traditional essays and exams to exit slips and game responses. In my previous classroom, I had a set of small whiteboards where students in teams of two could quickly answer questions, allowing me to see which groups were understanding the concepts being discussed and which groups were struggling. If I see that many students are struggling with some content I’ve presented (by looking at those whiteboard instant-feedback answers, reading their exit slip answers after class, or examining ZipGrade poll reports), I will know I need to slow down and loop back around with another approach. Informally, I also like to chat with students periodically about what worked and didn’t work in a previous unit we’ve completed. I do this not only with casual conversation, but also anonymous surveys. As you likely know, teens are more than willing to share their candid opinions about what is and isn’t working in the classroom. I take those suggestions to heart and constantly work to refine my lesson plans and teaching techniques.
6. How will you establish and maintain productive relationships with the parents of your students? Parents, especially those at the high school level, are aching to know how their students are doing, but feel hesitant to pry as their children grow into young adults. None of us wants to be thought of as a helicopter parent, but we’re all hungry for feedback about how our teens are doing as they navigate the world. This means that it is the teacher’s responsibility to open those lines of communication. First, I build a robust online classroom website, filled with usable content and accurate, up-to-date information about daily work/assignments. Second, I regularly make phone calls home to parents to celebrate a child’s success in class. This is actually part of my classroom discipline strategy, and a happy byproduct is that the parents are always so pleased to be contacted to hear good news about their student. Finally, I involve parents in the classroom, often bringing interested parties in as guest speakers or field trip chaperones. For example, a father of a former student is a literature professor, so he visited three of my freshman classes to explain to us the Italian marriage traditions in the time of Romeo & Juliet. Whenever such an opportunity presents itself, I grab hold of it.
7. In what ways would you contribute to our district’s culture of professional dialogue and shared practice? Teaching can be an isolating profession, since we’re locked away from each other in our classrooms for most of the day with our students. Collaboration is crucial for teachers to maintain our sanity! I spend a lot of my free time hosting a blog community that’s dedicated to helping English teachers avoid burnout by sharing humor and resources. The best way to get teachers involved in a professional dialogue is to be the brave person to speak first, admitting when something isn’t working or when I need help. In a similar vein, the best way to get my on-campus colleagues to share their best practices is for me to go first, sharing something I’ve created that’s worked well in my classroom. Usually, all it takes is one steam-engine person to get the powerful train moving down the track. I tend to be that “let’s get this started” gal.
8. Can a teacher feel too much compassion or be too empathetic toward the plight of a student? Teachers enter the profession because we like kids and want to help them be successful. Unfortunately, those good intentions can sometimes cause trouble when the line defining our role is blurred. I don’t want my students to think of me as their friend. I’m not. I’m their teacher and, in times of crisis, their protector and advocate. When a student needs counseling, I take that student to the appropriate staff member in the counseling department because I am not a trained therapist. So, I guess, yes, we can be too empathetic or too emotionally involved in our students’ lives. My students know that I care about them, but I’m not one of them.
9. How can we force students to learn? Explain your thoughts on this issue. “Force” is certainly an alarming word to use in this context. In my experience, you can’t really force someone to learn. You can, though, motivate students to learn by presenting material in such a compelling manner that they forget that they’re learning altogether. In many of my classroom lessons, I whet students’ appetite for learning by connecting the relevancy of the lesson to something that’s meaningful in their lives. For example, before my 11th graders study “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a famous fire-and-brimstone sermon by Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards, I hook their attention with a bit of dramatic biographical background (everyone loves a good story) and a warm-up game where they try to guess whether lines of text are from Edwards’ sermon or modern heavy metal songs. Don’t worry, it’s all school-appropriate, and it’s also incredibly intriguing; by the time the warm-up is finished, my students are aching to dig into the original sermon. Would I “force” a student to learn? I’m hopeful that compelling coursework and a climate of respect for learning and for self would allow me to sidestep the use of such a verb.
10. Is it important for teachers to build rapport with students? If so, discuss how a teacher can make this happen. Oh my goodness, yes! My classroom is built on two pillars – rigor and relationships. Students need to know that I like them and want them to succeed. Famed educator Rita Pierson wisely once said, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” And teens are especially good at sniffing out a fake and tuning out (or worse) when they feel disrespected by a teacher. Happily, I really like high schoolers. They are funny and fun-loving; they want to learn and to have a good time while being intellectually challenged. To build rapport, a teacher needs to take the time to get to know each student and acknowledge his/her contributions to the classroom. I do this from the moment a student enters the room, greeting as many students as possible by name and making small talk about evening plans, the big game, results of a marching band competition, etc. A beginning of the year survey is helpful in learning basic info, but the real relationships take root when we start to relax and enjoy learning together. I use a gamification approach to build a sense of community in my room, which allows us to break the ice and helps kids get to know me and each other quickly. Also, students need to feel connected to their teachers, so I share appropriate tidbits about my life and occasionally tell a funny or embarrassing story from my childhood if it’ll help illustrate a point in the curriculum. Finally, I’ve found that serving as a club advisor helps students see another part of me and, while I don’t lead the club meetings, I always actively participate, whether it’s performing (poorly) with the Ukulele Club at a school assembly or eating pancakes with the members of the Lumberjack Club. High school is supposed to include some fun, afterall.
Teach on, everyone!