The Interview. Techniques for the ESL Teacher

16th September 2019

By Derek Hamm

It is finally over. You have escaped the teacher training program unscathed. Or, perhaps you are a seasoned vet seeking to land a job in a new country or city. Either way, you need to get ready for the next step: the interview process. While this process is more daunting for some than others, there are always techniques to be applied that can significantly boost the chances of you landing the job you are after.


ESL Interviews Compared to Other Industries

No two industries, workplaces, or jobs are the same. That difference is the same with ESL. Put another way: ESL is its own industry with its own office structure and lingo. So, just like any interview, be sure to understand the ESL world, and how the job in your prospective workplace operates. In a restaurant, not knowing the difference between a sous-chef and a line cook may result in you taking responsibility for prepping julienne carrots instead of minced ones. (Heavens!) Likewise, knowing whether you are skyping with the academic director or sitting with an HR rep is just as essential. With one, you might bring in lingo about pedagogy, whereas with the other, you may highlight your teamwork at the expense of extolling the virtues of your patented classroom setup. Thus, in one way, ESL interviews are no different from any other; in both settings, be prepared and do your research.

One element that might distinguish ESL from other industries, however, is that teaching is a skills-based profession as much as one founded on a knowledge set. Whereas for some jobs the interview might focus on what you know, an ESL interview may focus more on your application of knowledge to skills. Fortunately, with ESL you have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that skillset in the interview itself. During an interview for a sales job, you might imagine ‘selling yourself’ to the candidate. In a parallel fashion, during an ESL interview, use your teaching skills to guide the interviewer to the conclusion that you are the best candidate. Teach them about yourself. Remember scaffolding from your teacher training class? Well, scaffold your way up to your dream job!


Show What You Know

Of course, despite it being a skills-based profession, being an ESL teacher requires you to have an in-depth knowledge of numerous and varying concepts. One piece of advice an ESL interview candidate might have is to show what you know.

In one job interview, I was asked by the head teacher to explain the difference between the past simple and the present perfect. To his relief, I was able to do so satisfactorily. After the interview he mentioned to me: “I ask that question on every interview, and you’d be surprised  how many teachers are unable to answer it.” My own personal relief at having finished the interview turned to a half-surprise. I personally remember early in my career staying up late to grill myself on grammar concepts, out of sheer terror that I would be asked questions precisely like that. I mean, didn’t everyone?

For those of you wondering, yes, I did get the job. He claimed the question is the (present) perfect litmus test.


Give Up Control

As a teacher, a big part of your job centers around control. In the class, you need to control who speaks, who does what, and when. Maybe being in control of a conversation also comes naturally to you. Perhaps you even like it. Well, often the interviewer is a teacher too. Unfortunately, though, their need for control happens to supersede yours. So, let it.

Not letting go of control can be problematic on two fronts: firstly, it prevents the interviewer from getting to the points they want, and secondly, it just gives a bad impression. If your answers are too lengthy, or you end up guiding the conversation, the examiner may not have time for the elements they deem to be important, and of course a power struggle just simply is not what an interviewer is looking for when speaking with a potential candidate.

Essentially, do your best to maintain an interviewer-interviewee relationship. Allow the interviewer to be the one asking questions, let them determine their own focus, and allow them to be in control of who talks and when.


Take Back Control

The good news is that while you should avoid controlling the conversation as a whole, you can control the structure and content of your answers. Consider the question: “Can you tell me about your experience?” Your first inclination may be to start in a forward chronological order, going past to present. Here is how that answer might look on my part: “Well years ago, I started teaching in a language center. I had no clue what I was doing, and I made lots of grammar mistakes in front of my students.” Sound good? Okay, so nobody is daft enough to answer like that, but the problem is obvious. Instead of starting your answer by recounting your disaster-of-a-first job, implement control of the structure and begin with the accomplishments in your most recent teaching role, working backwards.

While it is not ideal to end on a negative experience, either, the interview time constraints will likely prevent you from needing to detail the minutia of all your teaching roles. Either way the point remains that you have control of the structure and content of your answers. So, take it.


Find Overlapping Experiences

Because of the variety within the industry, settings and job requirements differ for each interview, making it improbable that your particular experiences match exactly to the job you are seeking. Be it in an interview for a part-time position in a nearby center, or a life-changing role as an EAP lecturer, you may have to be creative in providing specific situations that are relevant to the interview questions. At last, all your in-class creativity can be applied to a real-world situation.

Your task in the interview is to creatively choose personal experiences that overlap with those required in the potential position. Popping up quite often in ESL interviews is the question: “How would you deal with a student who…swore at another student/challenged your grammar/was crying/…?” (Feel free to complete the question with any number of precarious situations.) If you have not had the exact same in-class situation, highlight something else from your past. The crying student clearly needed individual attention at that moment, so think of a similar situation where you had to get the class to be self-engaged. Perhaps you remember a time when a student spilled coffee on the computer, and you needed to rescue it – ASAP. You used a pre-prepared board game to get the class working independently so you could save the school’s only functioning laptop. Tell the interviewer you would do the same in order to be able to attend to the crying student’s needs.

Be prepared to draw on overlapping traits and skills, too. If transitioning from a language center to a university, you may be asked: “How will you manage a class of 40 or more students?” If you have not been in that situation, pinpoint your trait as a good classroom manager. You know how to group students. You can identify leaders. You can delegate. You did all these things in your last teaching role, and they are precisely the things needed for big groups.

First-time ESL teachers need to be especially creative, touching on elements outside the field. First, think about the role you are seeking, then apply your past experiences. Teaching adults? Any people management role from your past is pertinent to that. Teaching kids? The adjectives energetic, patient, and considerate are all applicable. You can successfully answer even without direct experience with children. Serving people as a waiter requires bounds of energy, a bushelful of patience, and at least a modicum of faux consideration. Thanks to the vast amount of skills used in ESL teaching, you are bound to have something relatable in your own repertoire.


Be Positive

To be stressed above all else is the necessity to maintain a positive attitude. A director of studies at a language center is tasked with building a coherent team, and being a good fit within that team can gloss over a number of missteps in the interview process. Essential to any team cohesion is positivity and peer support.

Sometimes it can be difficult (other times, really difficult) to bite your tongue when discussing negative past experiences. Obviously never bad-mouth former employers. Beyond that, though, attempt to portray negative experiences as objective challenges that were resolved, not as faults to be assigned. For a particular kid’s class that was off the wall, avoid calling the students ‘naughty’. Instead, indicate that you had challenges with behaviour in the classroom. This way you are not blaming anybody but are instead expressing that some outside behavioural factor was difficult, and you overcame it. Consider that school that was unorganized, neglecting to inform you about class changes. Instead of assigning blame, refer to nondescript “miscommunications”. Challenges can be overcome; communication errors can be resolved. Naughty children are just naughty. As an English teacher, you have a solid command of the language. Use that to your advantage to paint a positive light on even difficult circumstances.

As mentioned, you are auditioning to be part of a team. Any reputable organization wants to know that you are going to be a knowledgeable, contributing, and skilled addition to that team. If you display that, it will be in their best interests to make you a member.

Derek Hamm

Derek Hamm is a Canadian English instructor with 10 years of experience in teaching, development, and editing. He has worked in Canada, North Africa, South-East Asia, and online. Holding a PGC in Applied Linguistics, in addition to his TEFL certification, he is currently applying his skills as a freelancer and corporate language trainer in Da Nang Vietnam.

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