Teacher Ashley Benoit’s husband is in the military, so every few years she finds herself hunting for a new job.

“It’s a very hard field to get into,” Benoit says. “You have to make yourself known.” When she was looking for her previous job, she simply showed up at her chosen school and explained to the secretary why the principal should meet with her. The principal overheard and hired Benoit on the spot.

While you may not take Benoit’s tack, you must have a strategy. Many districts receive hundreds of applications for each job opening. Following a few key tips—and avoiding common mistakes—can give you an edge in every step of the process.

The Application

Don’t carpet bomb. It may feel productive to send out 70 résumés in a single weekend, but if the jobs are for grade levels or subjects you aren’t qualified to teach, you’re wasting your, and everyone else’s, time.

Nona Hall, director of the English as a Second Language program at Rutherford County Schools in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, says that up to three quarters of the 200 applications she receives each year are from people who lack the necessary credentials. “They think, ‘Well, I took Spanish in high school,’ but they don’t really read [the requirements] and see that they can’t be considered.”

Even after eliminating that group, Hall is left with roughly 50 qualified candidates. Most of her eventual hires are people she already knows professionally or who come highly recommended by another contact—proving that the importance of “who you know” cannot be overstated. “The most effective way [to get hired] is to network,” Hall says.

The good news is you don’t have to cozy up with everyone on the hiring committee to get an in. Substitute or volunteer at a school, Hall says, and show people what they’ll be missing if they don’t snap you up.

That’s how Benoit operates and how she got her current job, teaching first grade in Chesapeake, Virginia.
“I will substitute in a district or in many districts,” she says. “If I’ve been in a school and a position opens up, that’s usually how I get a job. It’s about getting your foot in the door and making an impression.”

The application process is also a time to show off your attention to detail. Proofread any and all submitted materials meticulously. Ask for updated letters of recommendation to replace old ones. And tailor your résumé for every job.

The Interview

The interview isn’t just a platform for you to talk about what a great teacher you are—it’s an opportunity to show how passionate you are about teaching. So don’t forget to talk about the kids themselves.

“Sometimes people get caught up on things like all the technology they’re going to use,” says Pernille Ripp, who has sat on a number of interview committees and recently found a new job herself as a seventh-grade English teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin. “They forget about the basic human things, like how they’re going to build trust and relationships.”

Also, don’t let your nerves trick you into talking too much. Stick to answering the questions rather than filling the silence with nervous chatter or small talk. “It never bothers me if someone asks, ‘What was the question again?’ just to make sure they’re on point,” says Curt Rees, an elementary school principal in Onalaska, Wisconsin. “If there’s something you don’t know, just say you don’t know. Don’t make it up.”

Interview questions may have changed since the last time you were in the hot seat as well. Michelle Fitzhenry, a fourth-grade teacher in Madbury, New Hampshire, says principals used to ask about her “teaching philosophy.” During a recent job hunt, though, she noticed that questions were more specific, covering pedagogical strategies like how she uses data to inform instruction.

“I tried to be as specific as I could, and I did my research,” Fitzhenry says. (Research is key: Principals will be looking for how much you know about their individual schools and why you want to work there.)

Hall has ditched the old “strengths and weaknesses” standby because she grew tired of hearing the same stock responses. Now, she asks about which ESL models are most effective and about the difference between teaching nonnative versus native speakers. “That gives me a lot of insight,” Hall says. “I’m listening for strategies.”

Finally, dress to be taken seriously. One interviewee who stood out to Hall—and not in a good way—showed up in an informal denim shirt. “It bothers me when someone comes in and doesn’t look professional,” Hall says. “That first impression is ­important.”

The Portfolio

Digital or paper? Both have their advantages and their drawbacks.

Digital portfolios allow teachers to embed videos, and principals can peruse them afterward—but they’re harder to pass around the room during the interview, and they are vulnerable to technology hiccups. Paper portfolios are easy to pass around but difficult for people to review in much depth in just a few minutes.

Whichever you choose, make sure to use the portfolio strategically—referring to it to answer specific questions rather than just handing it over. “Don’t let it talk for itself, because it won’t,” says Rees.

If you maintain a teaching blog, that can serve as a substitute for a portfolio. “I think [my blog] was a huge benefit,” Benoit says. “My principal said, ‘I read about all the different ways you teach these skills, and there was documentation.’ ”

The Sample Lesson

Try to find out how a school evaluates its teachers, Hall advises. That way, you’ll have an idea of what a principal is looking for in a lesson.

Many mini-lessons are conducted in front of the interview committee, rather than students, especially during the summer months. Ripp suggests bringing in a teaching video to provide a more authentic window into your instruction. “It goes above and beyond,” she says.

Teaching a sample lesson to play-acting adults can feel more than a little awkward, but don’t let the situation throw you. One lapse in composure can tank your prospects. “I got yelled at [by a candidate] during a mini-lesson because I wasn’t paying enough attention,” Ripp remembers. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is how you react during a fictitious lesson? How do you handle fourth graders or fifth graders?’ ”

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