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ESL Recruitment - The Interview

A structured approach to interviewing prospective teachers
By Lucy Pollard

For those of you who have already seen the first article in this series, you'll know that I take a structured approach to interviewing. The first article gave an overview of the process of recruiting. Here, I'll go through suggestions for the interview itself.

Preparation

You need to refresh your memory with the details about the post and the candidate. So go back and re-read all the related paperwork. This includes the ad you placed, the person spec and the applicant's CV. The person spec is a description of what you are looking for in an ideal candidate and was described in the first article in this series. Reviewing paperwork seems obvious, but how often have you sat in an interview where it was clear they hadn't read your CV? What did you think of their interest in you?

Decide what questions you want to ask, which questions you will ask everybody and which will be specific to individual candidates. Also think about the order and sequencing and what info you need to give out. For this, you can see my suggestions below.

It's usual to have two interviewers and for them to take the roles of chairperson/questioner and note-taker. Be clear about these roles before starting. To ensure fairness in decision-making all candidates for the same post should be interviewed by the same people. Consider this when setting up your interviews.

On a practical note, have a clock in the room for the eyes of the interviewer.

Structuring the interview

I like to keep things simple and to ensure all areas are covered, I tend to go for a chronological structure:

  • Past: qualifications and previous jobs
  • Present: current situation, opinions and judgements about current ESL issues
  • Future: short, medium or long-term ambitions

Remember to create the right atmosphere from the start: put the person at ease. You won't gain anything by stressing the person out. You can do this by:

  • Holding the interviews in a quiet place and refusing interruptions
  • Not keeping candidates waiting without an explanation
  • Starting with a friendly introduction to the interviewers
  • Outlining the interview: first we'll talk about...then... State how long you think it will last.
  • Starting with simple questions that the candidate should be able to answer easily.
  • Starting by asking about the most recent job as the candidate will remember it more easily.

As the interview ends, indicate what the next step will be, eg you can expect to hear from us in xx days. Thank the candidate for coming. All candidates should leave feeling they had a fair chance to express themselves and put across their case.

Always allow time between interviews to write up notes, discuss with the fellow-interviewer and to prepare for the next interview. You'll also need a break, interviewing is a very tiring business. I would say no more than 4 hours in one day - 2 interviews of one hour in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. If you're tired, you're less able to listen to the candidates and that isn't fair to them.

After the interview

Make a note of your initial impressions of the candidate as soon as the interview ends, then consider the interview again 24 hours later. You usually see things differently after "sleeping on them". It's wise to keep records of reasons for offering the job (or not). This is in case of future claims of discrimination, which unfortunately do occur.

If you have decided to request references, you can now go ahead and do this. Think about how you handle this, the more effort you put into your requests, the more info you are likely to get. Think about what exactly you need to know - eg points that were not sufficiently covered in the interview or anything that was vague - then ask specific questions.

Interviewing skills

Interviews differ from everyday conversations in that they have a specific purpose. Always bear your purpose in mind: how to gain enough information to decide whether or not to hire someone in a short space of time. Remember you'll be working with the person on a regular basis, so you want to get it right. A certain amount of control is needed to achieve this objective. If not, the interview can go on too long and too much time can be spent on irrelevant issues. You come out feeling you know nothing about your candidate which is not the best use of your time. Control doesn't mean being authoritarian, it does mean being able to help the candidate open up and guide the interview in the direction you want to go in.

To get the candidate to talk freely, remember to ask open questions, eg "what sort of classes did you teach in xxx?" and not closed questions, eg "Did you teach xxx?". Open questions allow the candidate to talk freely and so allow you to get more information. With closed questions, it's very easy for the candidate to just reply yes or no. Closed questions are useful for factual information but don't stimulate discussion. For example, "Have you got the certificate?" "What grade did you get?" "When did you do it?" Here, you don't need detailed information so closed questions get you a quicker and shorter answer. However, do be careful as too many can sound like an interrogation!

Ask for evidence that the person has the skills or experience they claim they have. Don't just accept the answer "Yes, of course I can do that". It's a good policy to probe whenever you get a vague or general answer. Examples include:

  • You say you're good at handling difficult students, can you give me an example?
  • You taught a mixed-level class, how did you handle it? What went well? Is there anything that didn't go so well? What did you learn from this?
  • Tell me more about...
  • You find teaching beginners easier/more difficult. In what way?

Be careful when using leading or multiple questions. Leading questions elicit the answer you want. eg "What did you like about teaching beginners?" Maybe the candidate hated it but will feel obliged to say what they enjoyed. You'd get a more truthful answer by asking "What do you think about teaching beginners?" And, truthful answers give you a better picture of the person.

Multiple questions can confuse the candidate and so they are not sure which part to answer. They tend to answer the easiest part or the last part of the question. For example: "Why did you change that way of doing it and how did you go about it and what was the reaction?" It's useful to have all this information but break this question up into three questions.

Your ability to listen and observe will help you get a clearer image of the person in one hour. Remember the Pareto rule 80 - 20. In this case, you talk 20% of the time and listen 80% of the time.

Examples of questions you could use:

  • How would you motivate a class of students?
  • What do you think are your strengths/weaknesses as a teacher?

For an inexperienced teacher:

  • What do you think are the strengths/weaknesses of a teacher you had in the past?
  • What would you do in the first ten minutes of your first lesson with a new class?
  • How do you decide whether a lesson has been successful or not?
  • What course books or materials have you used in the past? Then probe by asking:
    • What did you think of them?
    • Did you supplement/adapt?
  • Have you ever taught a class of different abilities? a financial English class? etc

To probe:

  • How did/would you deal with this?

For an inexperienced teacher:

  • Have you ever been in a class of different abilities? How did the teacher deal with this? What did you think of that way of handling it?
  • What levels have you taught? Which do you like/dislike? Why?
  • Have you worked with people of a different culture to your own? What did you think of this?
  • How do you deal with deadlines?
  • Has your teaching changed in the last X years?
  • What aspects of your teaching would you prioritize for development?

Remember to ask some questions about hobbies and interests to get a fuller picture of the teacher as a person.

An alternative...

An alternative or additional way for hiring is to ask the candidate to teach a demonstration lesson that will be observed. This is an excellent way to judge their capabilities. If you choose to do this, then provide all the necessary materials - course book, teacher's book, cassette, etc. Allow the candidate to observe the class they'll be teaching for the demo lesson well in advance and to talk to the class teacher. Remember to brief this teacher carefully on what is expected of them and the role they are to play.

In some countries, the law can regard this as unpaid work. So check the status in your country. If this is the case and you still want to go ahead with the idea, you could pay the person for the time they spend based on the hourly rate you pay your teachers. Alternatively you can give them the materials, describe a hypothetical class (age, level...) and ask them to plan a 45 minute lesson. They can then talk you through how they would handle the lesson. This also gives you insights into a teacher's abilities, how they structure a lesson and what issues they consider when planning.

These two connected articles will have you prepared for interviewing candidates. Other subjects to be covered include: integrating the new teacher into the existing team and taking on a new role as head teacher or director of studies. So watch this space!

ESL Recruitment - An Overview

© Lucy Pollard 2004
Lucy Pollard has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer and Director of Studies for over 15 years. Her teaching experience is very varied: adults, English for specific purposes and English for academic purposes, as well as teenagers and young children. She has worked with multi-lingual classes in the UK and in various European countries. Lucy is available for teacher training and staff training in Western Europe, and further afield. Please contact lucy@tefl.net if you are interested.

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