make it personal Archives - Your Teaching Mentor
Nailing Your Teacher Interview

Nailing Your Teacher Interview

Cue the confetti! Start the disco lights! Welcome to the Summer Planning Workshop!

I am so very excited to begin and help you prepare for the 2020-2021 school year.  I know that everything seems confusing and overwhelming right now.  I firmly believe that if we take it one piece at a time, we can be in good stead to start the year and still have plenty of time to relax and enjoy summer.  NOBODY is suggesting that you work all summer long and never take a break! Far from it! But I do believe that doing what we can will help us feel more organized and ready when school does start in the fall—no matter what it might look like.

We are starting at the start—the teacher interview.  In order to have a class to prepare for, you have to nail your teacher interview and land a teaching job, but even interviews look vastly different than they have in the past.  Chances are, if you do have an interview this summer, it will be virtual instead of in-person, so these are my best tips for online interviews as well as interviews in general.

Tip #1: One thing that hasn’t changed is dressing for success.  If your interview is online, you may be tempted to go with the Coronavirus version of a Mullet—business on top, jammies on the bottom.  I would caution you against this for two reasons.

There is psychology behind the phrase “Dress for success.” According to Psychology Today,   “When we intentionally dress for success, we gain confidence through the way we are treated by others, as well as the way we perceive ourselves. Strategizing professional attire appears to be a wise move regardless of your industry, and attire induced accomplishment can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.” (Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-bad-looks-good/201709/power-role-play-dressing-success-makes-you-successful)

If by chance you should happen to stand during the interview, unlikely, I know, but possible, the people who are interviewing you would see that you only chose to dress professionally on top. Granted, some will find it funny and roll with the punches, but others may hold it against you and it just isn’t worth the risk.

Tip #2: Practice is important, but don’t overdo it.

I have heard time and time again that people have felt like over preparing just made them more nervous in the long run.  However, to just go in and wing it isn’t ideal either.  If you have participated in online learning, you might be more familiar with the videoconferencing software options like Zoom, Google Meet, etc.  Whether you have experience with it or not, it is still a good idea to practice on camera.  Ideally, you could do a mock interview with a friend using the same platform, but at the very least practice with your camera on.  Check angles, lighting, connections, background, etc. to be sure there is nothing distracting and you are well lit.   We have two resources on the website to help with this.  The first is a list of common interview questions to rehearse.  The second is my distance learning checklist.  Not everything will be applicable since this is an interview and not an online lesson, but it might help you think of some small detail that would have otherwise been overlooked.

Tip #3: One advantage to an online interview is that you can have notes, or a “cheat sheet” of sorts handy off camera to help if you get nervous.

You can write them out on Post-it notes and stick them around your computer or have them on a sheet of paper nearby.

Tip #4: Many interviews now have a “task” component.

I think this is something that has been trending for awhile, not just in response to moving more interviews online.  Some examples I have seen are teaching a mock lesson, submitting a classroom management plan, or writing an after-interview essay. One person even mentioned having a group Zoom interview with all candidates, being given a task and then assigned a time for an individual interview.  The task they were given was to look over some samples of student work and then comment on what that work showed about the student’s learning and what the teacher’s next steps would be.  If there isn’t a specific task component, it wouldn’t be unlikely to have scenario questions as these have long been an interview staple that I even had in my interviews many years ago.  By this I mean that the interviewer would present a common scenario like a student misbehaving, or struggling with content, or a colleague that you disagree with.  They would then ask how you would handle that particular situation.

Tip #5: Learn as much as you can about the school or district where you are being interviewed.

Some things I would suggest to find out if possible: the size of the district as a whole and the building you would teach in (if you know that), typical class sizes, demographics, programs they use, values, and really anything else that you can find.  Be sure it is factual information that can be validated—a disgruntled parent/student/teacher comment on their Facebook page, for example, may not be true.

Tip #6: Do a social media self-audit.

The personal information you choose to share on your social media profiles definitely varies with each individual, so only you know what you feel comfortable having prospective employers see.  One thing to definitely check is if you have shared pictures of students you have worked with in the past.  If you do, be sure that you have (and can produce if asked) prior written consent from the families to share those pictures. To just share images of students without consent is a violation of FERPA (privacy act) and would be something to avoid.  I have heard people say that you should make your account(s) private, but I believe that is also a personal decision that only you can make.

Tip #7: Obviously, you will be asked a lot of questions, but most interviewers will end the interview by asking if you have any questions.

While the temptation to say no might be your initial thought, I would caution you against this.  The questions you ask may be just as determining a factor as the questions you answer.  Some examples I have seen are:  What would be an example of a school-wide expectation?  What does a typical day in (grade/program/school) look like? What research, work, study (however you want to phrase it) could I be doing over the summer to be better prepared to teach at (name of school, district, etc.)? Picking one or two of these should be sufficient.

Tip #8: Almost invariably, you might get asked the dreaded “What are some of your weaknesses?” question.

This can be so difficult to answer! Obviously, no one is perfect, but nobody also wants to say in an interview that the main office had to call down for attendance daily because you always forget to post it or, no matter how hard you try, you are just always late to everything.  While these things may be true about you, it would feel awkward to discuss in an interview.  A better suggestion would be to reflect on something that didn’t go as planned—preferably a classroom experience if you have one.  Talk about a lesson that bombed and what you learned from that or a reward you thought was great but failed to be as motivating as you had hoped and how that is informing your practice now.  These types of situations show that you are human, but are willing to examine and improve upon your weaknesses.

Tip #9: Whether it is an online or in-person interview, plan to be there 5-10 minutes early.

This shows you can be punctual but not so early as to be uncomfortable (for you and the interviewer!) to sit through a long wait.

Tip #10: My final tip is to say, as hard as this might be to understand sometimes, that you either win or you learn.  There is no failure.

If you get the job, fantastic—all your hard work has paid off and you can begin (or continue) your career in what will hopefully be a good match for all parties. If you don’t get the job, think about what you can learn from the experience. Were there questions that caught you off guard?  Were you disorganized or late? What might you do differently next time? I know this is easy for me to say, but I firmly believe nothing is an accident.  If you don’t get the job, it wasn’t going to be the right fit for you.  I know that can be something that is hard to take—I know there were jobs I wanted so badly that I didn’t get, but now looking back, I know that every no I got was actually a blessing and just leading me closer to the right fit.

I hope these tips have been helpful! I would love to hear your insights, tips and experiences with interviewing as well, so feel free to leave them in the comments below so we can all learn! Happy teaching!

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VIP Student Area

VIP Student Area

Do you ever feel like your students, that do everything they are supposed to day and in and day out, never quite get the recognition that they deserve? Do you wish you had a new approach to motivating those that struggle? Well, then a VIP student program may be just the thing for you!

I first heard of this idea from a blog called Life in Fifth Grade, who got the idea from Rachel Lamb (The Tattooed Teacher). Leslie (the author of Life In Fifth Grade) set up her VIP area midyear and offers great advice. I especially love the way she built anticipation for it by cordoning off the section of the classroom she intended to use for it ahead of time.  I think this really helps with student by-in and excitement!

Setting up your VIP Program

If you are thinking of having a VIP program in your classroom, here are the best tips for setting it up for success. To begin with, think about what it means to be VIP.  My husband and I often attend business conferences and always try to upgrade to VIP. For us, this means special seating, a meet and greet with the speaker, meals provided, and special areas marked VIP only, like a VIP lounge with snacks and a separate restroom.  We have a special designation on our conference badge and often get to check in earlier than others.  We have even gotten “swag bags” with stuff regular attendees don’t get. I kept all these things in mind when I was thinking of how I would structure a VIP area in a classroom.

1. Decide on the criteria

First, decide what criteria students must meet in order to be designated VIP, as well as how long VIP lasts.  Every classroom will be slightly different, but one rule of thumb is to make all of your criteria measurable. For example, “Be kind to everyone” is a great goal, but difficult to measure, whereas “No marks on the clipboard” or “No red dojo points.” Is easily measurable, with no room for argument. Explain to the students that not everyone is guaranteed to be designated a VIP.  It must be earned and it can also be taken away.

Also, share how long students will be allowed to be designated VIP.  Again, this is completely up to each teacher. For some, it will be for a week; for some a day; for still others, a longer period but maybe students only sit in the designated area during certain times, like writer’s workshop or math or whatever you decide. Again, these are individual classroom decisions based on what is best for the circumstances of that class. Remember, this is a huge privilege reserved for those students who demonstrate exemplary behavior. Once you decide on what the criteria will be, publicly post it and let everyone know what is expected.

2. Create a Special Area

Second, make a special area of the room designated strictly for those VIP students.  Maybe a special table or seating area.  You don’t have to go out and buy anything major, just use the desks or tables you already have and make it special by decorating that table with a tablecloth, balloons, table signs, confetti, streamers, you name it.  You might want to get chair covers for your chairs also—the possibilities are endless! I would also put a swag bag for each student filled with special supplies, stickers, and a small treat. There would be a VIP caddy of special supplies like smelly markers, colorful pens, and fancy pencils—anything out of the ordinary.

3. Create a Bulletin Board

Third, have a bulletin board where your criteria are posted but also serves as a special place to recognize those that have achieved this distinction. There are also many ways to let students know that they have been selected.  Leslie’s students are one to one, so she sends out an email to the students that are designated VIP.  Since I taught younger students and we were not one to one, I would make an announcement at our morning meeting.

Rewards

Besides a special place to sit, special tools, and recognition on a bulletin board, some other ways to celebrate your VIP’s is to give them a badge to wear and send a letter, email or call home to let parents know that their child has been picked as a class VIP. Another option is if your school does some sort of announcements, it can be shared with the whole school that way. VIP’s might also get certain privileges, like the first to line up (or last if it is recess!)

The possibilities really are endless for this program, and every classroom will be unique in how they approach it. I have created a VIP kit for you that has table signs, badges, announcement cards, and a sample parent letter to help you get started.

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Comparison is The Thief of All Joy

Comparison is The Thief of All Joy

All during the month of March on my social media channels, the focus was on #makeitpersonal, a campaign I decided to start after an experience I had with my daughter and her school. The focus was on seeing that every child feels safe, comfortable, accepted and welcome in the classroom.

As March comes to a close, I couldn’t help but think about how this applies to teachers as well. Yes, it is important to build community, see students as individuals, but what about the teachers? They are an important part of the school equations, and we have to build school community among staff and also within the broader teacher community itself. It is so important for teachers to build each other up, help each other out, support and be there for each other. We cannot fall into the trap of comparison.

You know the feeling, right?

My friend Rachel Perry has an amazing podcast called Making the Leap, and when I heard her episode about comparison being the thief of all joy, I couldn’t help but relate it to teachers, and new teachers especially. Rachel shared a story of being newly married and wanting children right away, then feeling very upset and jealous when she would get Christmas cards from other friends who had already started their families.  She talked about feeling inferior and referenced the famous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt about the fact that no one can make us feel inferior without our permission. This is so true.

It’s YOUR decision

WE are the ones who decide that whatever it is that they have (and we don’t) makes us inferior—no one else can do that.  If you focus on what they have (and you don’t), nothing good can come from that because it begets negative energy and then you get stuck in that negative space. She reminded us that we need to focus on our story and our truth and where it is that we are going. This spoke to me so much, I am surprised I didn’t wreck my car!! (I was listening as I was driving to work).

Mindset

When I first started teaching, over 25 years ago, there was no social media, but there was a Sue Strauman, a Debi Cunningham, and a Phyllis Pederson. Now, if you don’t teach where I teach, those names might not ring a bell, but if you do; well, then, you know EXACTLY who I am talking about. Sue, Debi, and Phyllis were the respective “rock star” teachers in the three buildings I taught in. You know the ones—the teacher everybody wants, that have gorgeous classrooms, cool learning experiences, and killer class management skills.  If I had allowed myself to compare where I was when I met each of them, I would always feel defeated and unworthy. But if I learn from them, and glean all the golden nuggets of education that I can from their experience, then that is a different story.

And, now you, my dear early career educator who is just within those first few years of teaching, you have so much more pressure—you have your school’s rock star (every school has one) but also all the teacher social media communities hurling hundreds (if not thousands) of new, beautiful images and stories every day.  All I have to do is open Instagram and I can feel this. I have taught for over twenty- five years and have more than a few tricks up my sleeve, but I don’t have to get very deep in my newsfeed before I see teachers that are seemingly teaching circles around me. There again, our mindset comes into play. If we look at it from the perspective of “Oh wow, they are so amazing… why didn’t I come up with that lesson, decorate that space, design that cool resource, (fill in the blank with a dozen other possible things),”  we will always come up short.  However, if we flip the switch and think, “That’s a great idea. I could make (this tweak) or (that change) and it could really help me with (whatever classroom issue it addresses),” we go from negative comparison energy to positive growth energy.

We have to use what we see on social media and our own colleagues as advisors not benchmarks for where we should be at that moment. Don’t try to make someone’s else’s story your story, because all too often we are comparing our beginning to someone else’s middle or even final chapters. Because here is the thing, no matter how much we admire and try to emulate someone else, our story will never be the exact same because we have different behavior issues, curriculum challenges, and administrative mandates so comparison is futile. Learn, ask for advice, observe, or in the case of social media, follow, comment, post questions, but don’t ever compare. As the saying goes, “You do you, boo.”

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Make It Personal

Make It Personal

My favorite movie of all time is “You’ve Got Mail.” One of the best scenes in the movie is when Meg Ryan’s character is sick and at home just after her store has closed, aka put out of business, by Tom Hanks’ character. He tries to cheer her up and says, “It wasn’t personal,” to which Meg launches into how it was personal to her and “Whatever anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.” While I realize it wasn’t her purpose in the movie, truer words were never spoken about a classroom.

I am making it my mission to help transform classrooms into more personal spaces for children.

This one is personal to me, so fair warning this post is a bit longer than normal, but I hope you will hang with me to the end. I promise it is worth it. (Alternatively, you can watch the Facebook Live I did on this topic here)

“Personal spaces”

“Personal spaces” can have many different meanings, but for this discussion, I mean making classrooms a place where students feel heard and are recognized as individual people, with all their unique abilities, quirks, and needs. This philosophy stems from events in my own life, both as a teacher and a parent. I have a daughter that has struggled in school since she started. She was diagnosed with ADHD in the second grade. This was also the year I met my husband and we married when she was in fourth grade, so from third to fourth, I blamed the school struggle on the changes with our family. Immediately after we got married, I began a second and then a third job, so then I blamed it on being busy.

I knew there was more I could be doing, but I just didn’t have the time. Plus, as a teacher I know how much is already on a teacher’s plate, and I definitely didn’t want to be THAT parent. I talked with the principal of the school as she was transitioning to junior high, and she felt like that was the missing piece—our effort. She also stated as a private, parochial school, there was a bit more leeway on the accommodations that could be given without a formal plan if they were truly needed. This appeased me for the moment, because I felt my daughter could still receive support at school and I wouldn’t have to be Ms. Bad Guy adding more work to the overstressed teachers. I was spending at least 60 hours a week in my own classroom in a high poverty school which was an extremely stressful environment, so I felt very strongly about not making more work for her teachers. So that was sixth and seventh grade.

At the beginning of eighth grade, I changed jobs. I left the classroom to teach at a local university. My work hours were cut by almost half that first semester, and she started off fairly strong. She knew herself that effort on her part was going to be a huge component, and I was proud of the gains she was making. However, it wasn’t very long into the school year that she started slipping again. This time though, I really felt like we were doing what we could, and I was getting very nervous about high school which was looming large at only a few short months away.

Her pediatrician had always advised me to get a 504 plan for her, but again, I knew it would be adding to a teacher’s workload and so I always hesitated. I knew if she was going to have any chance of success in high school, we NEEDED one, so I called for a meeting with the new principal (her school has had five principals in her time there). She and the one resource teacher for the school (K-8) and I sat down to talk about my concerns and how to move forward. Again, the issue of Ellie’s efforts came up. I explained that while I definitely felt that was an issue, there was more to the story. It was late in the day, so we agreed for the resource teacher to do some more investigating and then we’d go from there.

In the meantime, I got more confused. On the one hand, my daughter would forget things, not turn in homework and need a million reminders. On the other, there were subjects that we studied, studied some more and then a little more after that, but she still couldn’t get her grades up. To me, it made the situation all the more confusing, because like most people, I was trying to figure out who’s “fault” all these things were. Somebody had to be the one responsible, right?

Getting to the bottom of things

Several weeks passed, and I finally get an email from the resource teacher. It was fairly lengthy but boils down to “We aren’t doing anything else here on our end until she shows more responsibility and effort.” I about lost my mind. I was absolutely at my wit’s end at what to do! So, I did what every mom does—locked myself in the bathroom for a few minutes to gather my thoughts in peace. I was really trying to put myself in her shoes and understand what might be going on in her mind; what could be the explanation for these issues. And that is when I remembered when my father used to question me about things, I would just get nervous and say, “I don’t know,” because I was afraid of him being angry with me. And, as much as I am ashamed to admit, plenty of that anger was now bubbling up inside of me. Thank goodness I had the presence of mind not to give in to that emotion, but instead have her come sit with me, in a private conversation, to get to the bottom of things. Since her go-to answer was always “I don’t know” I told her that no matter what she said, she wouldn’t be in trouble for being honest. Then I proceed to ask her why specific issues were happening. And for every. single. one. she had a completely plausible answer. She just never thought she could tell her teachers about these things. It was an extremely tearful, but enlightening experience.

After we talked, it hit me that I had probably done the same things as a teacher. I’d just assumed a kid was unmotivated or more interested in other things besides school. While I firmly believe there are people out there that are lazy and unmotivated, I think it is definitely the exception and not the rule. Far more often, it is that they are like my daughter—a kid who stopped trying when it just became too difficult to keep it up.

I have never wanted a magic wand to go back in time more in my life than I did in that moment—not just for my daughter but for all the kids I hadn’t tried hard enough for. But that is impossible, and I am now left to do what is possible—make a plan to move forward. I have a plan for my daughter and will be bringing it to her school when the time is right, but what about everyone else? I can’t go back and reteach those students I slighted, but I can use that experience to help new teachers (and even ones who have been at it as long as me—I’m proof that it is never too late) not fall into the same traps.

Taking my cue from Meg’s character in “You’ve Got Mail” again, and believing that whatever else our classrooms are, they ought to begin by being personal, I am going to share every tip, strategy and idea I can to help teachers get to know their students as real people, not just another body in a seat that needs a grade assigned to them at the end of the term. What makes them tick? What do they like? What do they dislike? What fires them up? What drags them down? I want classroom environments to be a place where every student feels heard and welcome. That instead of labelling or writing off a child, we take the time to dig a little deeper, go a little further and truly understand that child.

Three Strategies to Personalize your Classroom

To that end, I am proposing three strategies you can take into your classroom tomorrow that don’t require any prep, and the only materials you truly need are two listening ears, but will pay huge dividends in building the community that facilitates learning and growth for all children.

Morning Meeting/Class Wrap-up

Tip #1—Morning Meeting/Class Wrap-up. I am a huge proponent of starting every day with a morning meeting. I tried to be as diligent with a class wrap-up but wasn’t as successful. If I were still in the classroom, I would definitely be making time for it knowing what I know now. My morning meeting consisted of some type of greeting, sharing time, an activity, and then going over our schedule/learning targets for the day. If you are truly starting this tomorrow and that feels overwhelming to you, just start with share time. As I mentioned before, all you really need for this activity is two listening ears. If you don’t feel like you have time for everyone to share, pick a few volunteers each day or create a schedule. I will be doing more blog posts on morning meetings in the future, but this is a great place to start.

Rose, Thorn, Bud.

Tip #2—Rose, Thorn, Bud. This is an activity I first saw on Edutopia, which is a fantastic website for teachers. It was just the rose and thorn in that article, however. A “rose” is something that makes you happy, that you are proud of, a celebration, etc. A “thorn” is something that is bothering you, or went wrong, or is upsetting you. This is a whole class discussion, and usually the teacher starts by modelling this with her own comments. So, for me, I might say, “My rose is that I got all the green lights on the way to work today and then a front row parking spot when I pulled up. My thorn is that it is super cold outside, and I don’t like winter.” Then each student in turn would share their rose and their thorn. At first, they will likely be superficial things like my sample, but over time, if this is done regularly, you will be amazed at what kids will open up to you about. When I did this with my college students, I had one student tell me that she did a similar activity as a camp counselor, but they added a “bud,” which is what are you most looking forward to tomorrow (they would do this at night, just before lights out), and they added the rule that you could do them in any order except to end with the thorn, so that they end on a positive note. I loved this addition and will use it this way going forward. I also loved that I learned it from a student. I think being open to suggestion and treating them as equals in this regard goes a long way to foster community as well, which in turn will lead to kids being more comfortable to share more personal things.

2 x 10 Strategy

Tip #3—2 x 10 strategy. In this strategy, you pick a student and spend 10 minutes a day for 2 weeks just getting to know them. Talk about anything not school related—their hobbies, their interests, their extracurricular activities, whatever helps you to get to know that particular child. Ideally, you would do this with each student in their own turn, but if that seems overwhelming, start with the kiddo that is a tough nut to crack, so to speak—that kiddo that seems to be having a hard time, but you just can’t put your finger on why.

Hopefully, these strategies will put you well on your way to establishing and maintaining a “personal” classroom. I’ll be sharing a different strategy to #makeitpersonal every weekday in March on my social media channels, and I would love for you to join the conversation, because kids deserve it!