Pipped at the post: how to support beginning teachers struggling to get their first teaching job

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Every year I observe our beginning teachers applying for jobs, and every year it is hard to predict how the die will fall.  Invariably a few fortunate souls will get the first job for which they apply.  Equally, a few unfortunate beginning teachers will end up applying for quite a number of jobs before they are successful.  There is often no correlation between ‘attainment’ in the ITT year and the speed with which they secure their first post.

For those who are unsuccessful, the feedback they are almost always given is ‘You were just pipped to the post’.  Comforting perhaps after your first rejection phone call, but increasingly frustrating when you’ve heard those words more than a few times already.  Indeed, whilst it may hurt initially, what these beginning teachers need most of all is honesty not platitudes; they need specific and direct feedback that is supportive of their development and that provides them, and (especially in a recruitment crisis) another school, the best potential for securing the right appointment.       

Getting post-interview feedback right

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Last year, one of my tutees received some of the most useful job interview feedback I’ve ever seen. It was specific.  It was actionable.  It was hard for the candidate to hear, but it resonated.  Afterwards they were able to see how their teaching persona and philosophy of teaching and learning had come across during their interview and planned lesson. They could understand why that had not ‘chimed’ with the school’s ethos in the way they thought it might, and why the other candidate had pipped them to the post.  It left them with clear actionable advice that they were then able to implement in adjusting their interview technique to ensure their true self would be evident to an interviewing school. 

Despite there being no long-term benefit to the interview school in doing so, this feedback was used by the headteacher as another opportunity to provide high quality mentoring to the beginning teacher.  This school has done a service to that candidate, and to the profession, by seeing it as part of their job to nurture a beginning teacher (even one they don’t go on to employ), supporting their induction to the unusual world of school interviews.  The beginning teacher concerned had begun to feel disheartened by the whole process and had begun to suggest they might look for employment outside of teaching because they clearly weren’t going to secure a post.  They could have been lost to the profession before they’d even truly begun.  Instead, this specific and supportive feedback re-energised them and helped them to work through the things that were holding them back from success at interview.  It allowed them to get the very next job for which they applied. 

The role of a mentor in this situation

If you have a mentee who is in this position the constant ping of emailed reference requests can also become quite challenging for your own workload.  Consequently, it is in everyone’s best interests to support the mentee to break through the interview barrier.  So, what kind of support can a mentor provide?

  • If your mentee isn’t getting interviews, are their application letters appropriate?  Are they personalising them to the specific job/ school to which they are applying? Are they making silly spelling or grammar errors that are the result of poor proof-reading?  Could a member of senior staff in your school cast an eye over the letter and explain why it wouldn’t get shortlisted? 
  • If they have been unsuccessful at interview encourage your mentee to request feedback from the interviewing school.  If the initial feedback is fairly hollow, encourage them to ask for specific feedback that pinpoints exactly where they were ‘pipped at the post’ so they can reflect and act on that advice.
  • Support your beginning teacher mentee to interrogate and reflect upon their interview performance:
    • Are they confident they presented their ‘best self’ throughout the process?  Are they aware they are on interview from the moment they step into the carpark to the moment they leave the gates at the end of the day?    Do they need to think about how they present themselves at interview (were they spotted doom scrolling in the waiting room when they should have been reading the unseen task sheet)? Do they need to practice their interview technique because they just aren’t backing up answers with specific examples? (My experience suggests this is usually the downfall of their preparation.) Could they benefit from a mock interview with you / a member of your SLT?Was the interview lesson sufficiently prepared?
    • How did they interact with students during the interview day? 
  • If the beginning teacher is repeatedly unsuccessful at interview, encourage them to take a break and refocus on their teaching practice before applying again.  Sometimes the relentlessness of the process becomes so all-consuming they lose sight of their teaching and the long-term goal that means they are trying to find a job in the first place.  This lack of focus then inevitably comes across in their interview responses.
  • Share your own experiences of interviews which were both successful and unsuccessful.  Be transparent about the reasons why some candidates are pipped at the post.  Your mentee will need support to understand that it may have been the quality of their interview lesson planning/ enaction but it could also have been due to their ‘fit’ in the department (personality or expertise balance).  Similarly, it may have been due to the fact that capacity to mentor an ECT would have been tricky for the department so when a good teacher with 3 years under their belt came along, they were the obvious choice. 
  • Help them to keep on keeping on. Ultimately of course some will be unsuccessful when applying for jobs and will truly have just been ‘pipped to the post’.  What beginning teachers really need in this situation is a cheerleader to encourage them to keep trying and not give up. 

Securing a post

When the illusive job does finally come along the beginning teachers, who have been repeatedly unsuccessful in applications, often reflect that they can now see why they didn’t get the previous jobs.  Once they find a school and department which is actually a good fit, the job is quick to follow.  Without the specific advice post interview though, they still may not be able to secure that ‘good fit’.  That feels like something our profession cannot currently afford.  Honesty truly is the best policy.

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