Image: tape measure, by Ciara McDonnell/Flickr
Few administrative tasks are more enjoyable than hiring. During my time as an interim associate dean at a large suburban community college, I took particular pleasure in offering candidates their first job in a college classroom. Whether that meant hiring someone fresh out of graduate school or a nonacademic looking to share their work experience within classroom walls, it felt vital and inspiring — just plain good karma — to offer people their first entrance into a profession that I dearly love.
I was particularly lucky that my college is one of relatively few to devote two assistant deans to the job of recruiting part-time faculty members as well as assisting in their development as teachers. Together, we’ve written this guide for first-time job seekers approaching their initial interview — because all three of us agree that the interview is crucial. Many candidates look alike on paper, and the stark alphabet soup of M.A., or M.S., or Ph.D., offers few clues as to who will survive and thrive in the community-college classroom.
What, then, are the traits that would convince us to move forward with a brand new part-time hire?
Verbal clarity. Although it may sound so fundamental as to be almost foolish, the No. 1 thing a job candidate must do is actually answer the questions we asked. Too many candidates treat the interview — not as an opportunity for conversation and connection — but as a sort of caginess contest where they hope to give the “least wrong” answer by not committing to any real answer at all. That is particularly true when the issues involved are understood to be sensitive (as I’ve written about in “Don’t Dodge the Diversity Question”). In fact, the direct and competent handling of sensitive issues is what teaching is all about.
It is alright, and even beneficial, to acknowledge complexity. We have no problem with answers framed as, “It might depend on …,” or “The factors I might consider would include…,” or “On the one hand … .” But to be endlessly equivocal is to make us wince in advance for your potential students, who might just want to know, “What exactly do I need to do in this assignment?”
The mnemonic to keep in mind is “stories, scenes, examples.” You want to link a general response (“I think one of the biggest mistakes teachers can make is failing to admit when they are wrong”) to a specific illustrative example (“and I myself experienced that lesson when …”). Hypothetical examples (“I might picture that classroom scenario this way …”) are acceptable since you have little or no teaching experience — the point lies in linking clear claims to compelling and memorable evidence.
Confidence. The community-college classroom is a charged space — rich in diversity, anxiety, resistance, and promise. It takes a certain kind of confidence to win and hold student attention, to stimulate engagement and activity, and to anticipate and ameliorate problems before they arise. For those reasons, we look for candidates who seem sure and secure in themselves, and who communicate a sense of steadiness and equanimity.
It is normal to be nervous during a job interview. The problem comes when self-doubt is the overwhelming quality you convey — for instance, pausing frequently to self-critique (“I’m not sure if I answered your question” and “Oh, gosh, I might be talking too much!”). We start to wonder: Will that same sense of uncertainty suffuse your classroom performance?
There is a fine line, however, between confidence and bravado. Believe it or not, we worry just as much about candidates who brag, especially those who seem intent on conveying how tough they would be on students for minor infractions. There is an element of spitefulness or hostility that permeates that sort of talk, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of a professor’s primary role as a coach and a guide. The best teachers don’t obsess over classroommanagement problems because they don’t have to: They mitigate most problems before they start, and solve any remaining problems efficiently and without a waste of instructional attention.
Self-reflection and honesty. Another sign of genuine confidence — as distinguished from bravado — is the willingness to honestly admit there’s something you haven’t tried, aren’t familiar with, or don’t know. A good interview is a genuine conversation about best practices, and interviewers, who often also play the role of faculty-development mentors, might be likely to mention terms, books, or strategies with which you simply aren’t familiar. There is nothing worse than feeling our respect for candidates deflate as they bluff their way through discussion of something they obviously know little about. It demonstrates far more confidence for a candidate to say, “I’ve never heard of Fink’s Taxonomy, I’ve always used Bloom’s — but I’d love to learn more about that. Where do you suggest I start?”
Expect us to probe your ability to self-reflect and course correct. A question like, “Describe a time you made a mistake, and how you fixed it,” is evergreen for a reason. Contrary to popular snark, the best answer is not something like, “My only weakness might be that I work too hard.” If you find your professional life so easy that you can’t think of a single instance of error, then our assumption is, you are doing it wrong. Consider your own sense of bemused alienation as a TA when D students described themselves to you as A students. Then recall your admiration when A students were able to accurately articulate a weakness in their work.
Being acute enough to identify your weaknesses, and vulnerable enough to share them, make you a more compelling candidate.
Connection and positivity. In the end, students hope there is a caring human being at the front of the classroom, and that’s what we are hoping to find underneath that job-interview suit. The best candidates do their part to establish a sense of connection with their interviewers. Often that is demonstrated by a willingness to go “off-script.” Avoid preparing so single-mindedly that your interview answers come off as memorized and canned. A good teacher is observant, with-it, present in the moment.
The first few minutes before an interview officially starts are a good opportunity to demonstrate these qualities. What books are on your interviewer’s shelves? What impressions of the college did you gather as you walked through the halls? If your interviewer offers you a conversational lead — commenting on the weather or a current event — now is not the time to indicate that you hate small talk.
Similarly, the final few minutes of an interview — when candidates are often given time to ask questions — should not be wasted. Just as the best teachers use student work as the basis of their teaching, you should use the material of the just-completed interview itself as the basis of your questions. Perhaps we posed a question about your use of technology in teaching; now is a great time to return to your earlier answer and extend it: “I know we talked about Kahoot as one useful app. I’m increasingly interested in gamification and was wondering: How are your current instructors working with that approach?”
Ultimately, be sure to couch your quest for connection in positive terms. As cheesy as it sounds, a positive, willing, open, can-do attitude is worth quite a lot. You want to demonstrate your ability to solve problems, not to dwell on them. Complaining — especially about students — may create an illusion of intimacy, but it is going to make us wonder, “If this person is embattled just entering the field, what will they be like a few semesters or a few years down the road?”
The more you act like the sort of person you yourself would like to work with — open, willing, thoughtful, and self-assured — the more likely we are to take a first chance in working with you.