Interviews for senior positions usually involve a fairly standard set of often unimaginative questions which are posed uniformly to all short-listed applicants, questions such as:
- How do you envision involving teachers, students, and parents in decision-making processes at our school?
- Can you share your approach to addressing underperforming teachers and supporting their professional growth?
- How do you plan to foster a positive and inclusive school culture for students and staff?
- How do you stay informed about current educational research and best practices, and how do you incorporate that knowledge into your leadership style?
- Can you describe a specific challenge you faced as a principal (or deputy, or whatever is the current position held) and how you approached resolving it?
- How do you build and maintain positive relationships with community stakeholders, including local businesses and organisations?
- Can you share your philosophy on the role of technology in education and how you envision integrating it into our school's curriculum and operations?
- How do you plan to address issues of equity and diversity at our school?
- Can you describe your approach to budget management and resource allocation?
- How do you envision collaborating with teachers and staff to set and achieve academic goals for our school?
Of course, questions such as these all have inherent merit, but perhaps the most significant value of these (and similar) uniform questions is seeing how much humour or personality applicants can infuse into their answers to help the interview panel stay awake.
With that in mind, I recommend trying to insert less predictable, more original and creative questions into the mix, like some of these 12 examples:
- How would you describe yourself in one word? This question forces the applicant into extreme conciseness by restricting the response even more tightly than Twitter’s original 140 characters. Nonetheless, that single word will try to encapsulate everything that applicants feel is significant and relevant in defining themselves. Having said that, the important thing is not really the single word provided for the answer – you already know it will be both flattering and expressed with humility. Rather, the important thing is the manner in which the applicant responds to the question, with better applicants taking the time to think and reflect carefully before responding.
- Give us fair warning – what is your most significant weakness or area where you will need support? Although a handful of delusional applicants will not admit to any shortcomings, many applicants will try to identify a shortcoming that is intended to please the interview panel, such as ‘being a workaholic’ or ‘being neither a big picture person nor a details person, but a mix of the two’. Better applicants will be willing to share their individual vulnerabilities in response to this question with a refreshing level of honesty and openness.
- What is the last thing you’ve learned in your current job? This is a nuanced variation on a commonly asked related question: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your current job? An applicant who has prepared his or her answers for the interview may still answer the more common question rather than the one which was asked, but the key point for the interview panel should be whether or not the applicant has an active, continuing curiosity and passion to learn. Better applicants will be able to describe and analyse a very recent experience, not something from a more distant past.
- Who has been your most significant role model or mentor? In addition to giving applicants an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of others in their personal and professional formation, their responses to this question will reveal something of the ideals and leadership style to which they aspire. Better applicants should be able to relate insights gained from their own personal relationships and experiences rather than more generic responses such as ‘Nelson Mandela’, ‘Mother Teresa’, and so on.
- Tell us about our school. An interview panel should expect that all short-listed applicants have performed thorough due diligence and undertaken extensive research on the school where they wish to work. Better applicants will demonstrate that they are well versed in the school’s mission/philosophy, its history, its fundamental statistics, its general reputation and any recent crises or controversies that have been reported in the press.
- Tell us all the reasons that led you to leave your previous job and take up your present position (the one you would be leaving if we were to offer you this role). Many applicants will have prepared a response to the standard question “why would you want (or be prepared) to leave your current position?” However, discussing the realities of their previous move should reveal insights into the applicant’s values, drivers, motivations, ambition, expectations, loyalty, tolerance for frustration and appetite for risk.
- How long are you willing to fail in this job before you succeed? This question takes most interviewees by surprise because of the obvious inherent assumption that not everything a school leader does is initially successful. Weaker applicants usually try to side-step the question because they are unwilling (or do not want to be seen) to acknowledge failure. Alternatively, other weaker applicants may waffle through a largely meaningless, vague response that is designed to make the interview panel feel good while providing little or no substantive answer to the question. Stronger applicants will acknowledge that setbacks occur and provide personal anecdotes of such setbacks from their own experience before proceeding to explain how they would analyse the reasons for the setback, consult appropriately, and then persist for however long it took to achieve the goals that had been set.
- Tell us something which you believe is true that almost nobody agrees with you about. Effective school leadership demands people who are not afraid to speak their minds and who can do so while showing unwavering respect towards others with whom they may disagree. This question is designed to explore originality of thinking together with an applicant’s courage in speaking up in a difficult context. Better applicants will reveal original, perhaps even counter-cultural thinking, and explain the reasons or evidence that support their thinking, doing so in a manner that shows respect both for competing ideas and the people who hold them.
- What is today’s most interesting news story? Many applicants will be surprised by this question, but school leadership demands an up-to-date understanding of the world within which the school exists and the challenges its students, parents and teachers face. Weaker applicants will fumble for an answer, perhaps even acknowledging that they were so busy preparing for the interview that they haven’t caught up with that day’s headlines. Better applicants will have no trouble engaging with some item in that day’s news and explaining with some passion why they find it interesting. Many school leadership situations require a capacity to engage in small talk, and the manner in which an applicant engages with this question is likely to reveal a great deal about their capacity for engaging in animated small talk.
- Think of an imaginary day that has just been the highlight – the number one experience – of your entire working life in schools. You’re driving home and your emotions are a mix of ecstasy, elation and euphoria. What was it about that working day that made you so happy? This question is designed to reveal the true passion, motive and enjoyment for the applicant’s work. Needless to say, people who are doing things that they love to do will achieve goals and transform a school environment far more effectively than those for whom their job is a chore. It is the contrast between a vocation and a job. Better applicants are likely to really enjoy answering this question as they cannot hold back their excitement.
- What makes you really special? This is a variation of the fairly standard question “what are your main strengths?”. By asking the question in this way, the applicant is really being invited to provide a holistic view of themself that embraces not only professional skills but personal qualities such as integrity, worldview, energy, life balance, and so on. Better applicants will convey a passion for education and its potential to transform young lives while also emphasising the importance of life-work balance and family life.
- What did you not get a chance to include on your resumé? By definition, any CV or resumé is a highly condensed summary of the applicant’s education, experience, career, writings, and so on. The format of CVs and resumés dictates that what is omitted may be the most interesting and potentially relevant points, even if they are anecdotes that don’t lend themselves to being listed in point form. Better applicants will use this question to provide a passionate and original insight into themselves that may even become the compelling factor in selecting the successful applicant.
As mentioned above, the interview is just one component of the selection process for a new school leader, board member, or middle/senior manager. It is, however, arguably the most important single component. Whether this is the case or not, it is vitally important to maximise the effectiveness of the interview.
It is hoped the questions and advice in this article help you achieve this. However, interview effectiveness means much more than just finding the right interview questions – it means learning how to listen and interpret applicants’ responses appropriately in order to find the stand-out person you need – the one individual who will be the ideal fit for the school to take it into the future.
-Dr Stephen Codrington