Tuesday, May 31, 2011

preparing for an interview: your strengths and weaknesses

So you got an interview?! Congrats! Now through August is the busy time for interview committees. Some schools will know their personnel needs right now and be in the position to interview; some school districts will be waiting until after their budgets are settled at the end of June before posting and interviewing for new positions. Either way, there are some things you can do now to prepare. The next series of posts will help you get ready for those all-important interviews.

Something important to remember is that when you go to an interview, the committee has already reviewed your resume and cover letter and determined that you fit their professional needs. What they really need to know in the interview are your intangible strengths, whether you're likeable, enthusiastic, dependable, thoughtful, articulate, interesting, and can think on your feet, the things that can't completely come across on paper.

One thing to prepare for is the "greatest strength, greatest weakness" question that plague interviewees.  Interview committees ask this question to gauge your perception of your talents and abilities and whether you'll be an asset to a school. To prepare before your interview for this tough question, think about how you can demonstrate the above traits: dependability, responsibility, enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, organization, collaboration, flexibility, communication, quick learner.  Be prepared to name the strength AND give a specific example of how you have demonstrated the trait.  The explanation, as most of your answers, should be specific and to-the-point. You want to be sure to be clear and not try to talk yourself into an answer. Interview committees are looking for candidates who are assured in their responses and don't have to drone on and on in order to come to an answer to a question.  You'll have about 20-30 minutes in an interview to sell yourself, so you want to be as articulate and coherent in your responses as possible.

For example, if you are flexible, name the time that you, say, had to quickly switch ideas when it rained on the outdoor summer camp activity you had planned as a counselor. You rethought the activity and were able to put a new, successful plan into place in the cafeteria. Name the trait, give a brief but clear example, and leave it at that.  What about being organized? Maybe you were in charge of the education club in college and had to coordinate the meetings or plan events. Again, be specific here. A great way to think through this is to talk with someone who knows you well. Have them work with you to make sure you are clear about your strengths and giving succinct (and honest) examples of that strength.

Now for the tougher question: what are your weaknesses? For this, be careful about insincere responses like, "Sometimes I just work too hard." Hiring committees can see through this type of self-congratulatory response. They are looking to see how you'll react when put on the spot.  However, you can provide examples of ways that you've worked on a past weakness and how this is now an area of strength; or, you can present a clear action plan that is helping you/will help you work on that weakness. For example, maybe at the start of your student teaching you had a hard time planning for the time it would take for certain lessons. Talk about a strategy you put into place to keep you on track and how you've improved on this weakness. Here, it's best to stick with job-related weaknesses rather than personal ones.

Be careful about your tone when answering this question. You should aim to avoid an attitude that you see this as a trick question. Keep your response as real and honest as possible. Also, avoid getting dragged down here either with lots of details about your weaknesses. Be really short and succinct, and just present "the tip of the iceberg." This is not the place to go on and on about yourself - save that for the times you can add in the great, cool stuff about you! You don't need to give folks all the dirty details about your trouble with time management or getting caught up in details.

This process of identifying your strengths and weaknesses can take some time. Prepare by having honest conversations with those you love, and spend some time really thinking through what skills and traits you bring to a teaching job. This thinking might help inform your cover letters, too. Once you've identified these traits, refine and practice how you might answer these questions if they come up in an interview. Practicing succinct answers will help you set yourself apart on interview day.

Next post: doing your homework on the position

References: Warner, J. & Bryan, C. (2006). Inside secrets of finding a teaching job (3rd Ed.). Indianapolis, IN: JIST Publishing.
Job Search Handbook for Educators (2010), 45th Ed. American Association for Employment in Education, Inc.

So what are YOUR strengths and weaknesses?
How will you spin your weaknesses in your favor?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

International Teaching Position Sites

So you're looking for an adventure? Teaching anywhere is an adventure, but choosing to teach overseas can push you to grow professionally AND personally. Teachers opting for such an experience need to be flexible, self-reliant, and tolerant. If that sounds like you, maybe you want to consider teaching abroad!

Though I haven't taken advantage of this opportunity, I have many friends who have and made life-long friends and saw parts of the world they may never have experienced otherwise. It's important, though, that this not just be a way to 'get a job.' You need to have other motivations, and also be a search for the right fit. In an interview with an international school, just as with a school here in MN, you need to be able to clearly articulate an answer to the question, "Why do you want to teach here?"

There are different types of schools to consider when thinking about teaching abroad. First, there are international schools. These schools provide education in English to children of the host country as well as the international community. Often, these schools have ties to American embassies, and have staff that is a mix of teachers from within and outside the country. These are often the schools that recruit at international teacher recruiting fair, such as the fair held in Cedar Rapids at the University of Northern Iowa. The next fair isn't until February 2012, but you might want to keep it in mind. TIE Online is another resource for finding international school teaching positions.  The International Schools Services website can also help you find international teaching opportunities.  Overseas Jobs is another place to try.

The next international teaching opportunity to consider would be teaching English as a Second Language (ESL).  Here you would have options within schools or in commercial or government settings. Though some programs require only a college degree, most require a teaching license and others yet require formal education in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). One popular program for this is the JET program - the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program. The best place to start, though, is probably TESOL, an organization dedicated to Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. At this site, you'll find info about qualifications, tips for finding jobs in and outside the US, Though it may seem unlikely, the website Dave's ESL Cafe is also a great place for more info on teaching ESL overseas.

And then there are Department of Defense schools, which are schools on military bases around the world. Here you would teach the children of military and civilian personnel living on the bases. The place to go for more info about these opportunities is the US Department of Defense Schools website.

All this has even me thinking...

Friday, May 20, 2011

National Teaching Position Websites

Below you will find some links to websites providing job postings in education across the US, in the event that you are willing to or interested in relocating. Of course, you can also access these for postings in MN too!

Teachers-Teachers.com (here you'll create an account, and add in your license certification information to narrow your search; postings across US, not just MN)

Education America (Education America Network posts positions across the US. You can create a free account, but you can also search postings without an account.)

K-12 Jobspot (here you can search for positions without an account)

K12 Jobs (for this search site, you'll create an account to narrow your search within your licensure areas)

Teacher.net (you can search here without an account, searching by location, level, and discipline)

Each state will also have several search options for teaching jobs, sometimes through their Department of Education office or independently run websites like some of those listed in the previous posting on MN-specific job sites.

Next post: International Teaching Job Sites

If you were to leave MN, where would you want to teach?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

MN Teaching Position Websites

So you've worked hard on your cover letter and resumes, and now you're wondering where to look for job postings. Finding postings for vacancies can be tough work, but here's a beginning list of some web resources for MN teaching job postings:

EdPost Listings (this site is specific to MN teaching positions, run by St. Cloud State)

MN Association of School Administrators (under 'Applicants' click 'Search for a job' and input your desired job information. You'll probably want to leave it as open as possible, with the exception of restricting positions to your licensure area.)

MN Teacher Recruitment Center (located within the MDE website, you'll create an account and view listings of open positions) 

Individual District Websites (this link goes to MN Dept of Ed lists of all districts and schools. Once you find names of districts you're interested in, you'll have to google the specific website information. Yes, this is a tedious process, but lots of folks say it is how they found their jobs! Once you identify districts you're interested in, bookmark the Human Resources or Employment page for the district and check back regularly.)

Land It! (this is not just for positions in the Education field; you'll be prompted to create a free account)

Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (teaching positions within private Catholic schools in Mpls and St. Paul)

And don't forget about newspapers. Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press are good resources too.

Next posting: US-wide teaching position websites

Are you hoping to stay in MN?
What would your dream job be?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

resume advice

Cover letters are the first thing your potential employers will see. If it is well-written and interesting enough, they'll turn the page and take a look at your resume. That doesn't mean it is less important; resumes are just as essential an element in your job search portfolio. It's a history of your education and work life. Along with the cover letter, application, and references, a resume is used to screen the large pool of applicants down to those that get an interview.

Most of you have a resume by now. So I'm going to touch on a few things to keep in mind.
  • Resumes are unique documents. There's no real right or wrong way to create a resume. Though it is tempting to use a template document, you'll want to make sure the resume is as unique as you are.
  • Sections typically found in a resume include: name and contact info, objective, education, honors/awards, licensure, teaching experience (your student teaching and practicum experiences), coaching/volunteer/related work experience.
  • Say away from "I" in your resume. Start statements about your experiences with action verbs. Here are a couple links to some helpful lists of action verbs.
  • Carefully consider the length of your resume. If you have extensive work experience, a resume can be longer than a page. But in that case, make sure the most important info is on the first side, as you run the risk that only the first page will be considered.
What makes a resume outstanding?
  • Brief and concise
  • Easy to read format and font
  • No more than 3-5 headings
  • Uniform margins, no smaller than an inch on all sides
  • Power words and teaching-specific keywords
  • Skills, talents, and abilities that are transferable to the classrom
  • And of course, no typos or misspelled words. Proofread! And then proofread again! And then get some other kind folks to proofread! 
Most of your institutions have resume and cover letter suggestions on their websites. If you're having trouble getting started, those sites are a great place to start to find resources or schedule individual meetings with career counselors.
Good luck! Next topic: discovering job vacancies

How will you present your uniqueness in your resume?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

example of a cover letter

Yeah, yeah, you say. I know that the cover letter shouldn't have grammar and spelling issues. But what does it look like?

Here's an example of a cover letter. It can serve as a guide as you think about crafting your own, unique letter.

Your Address
City, State Zip
(phone number or email optional)

May 10, 2011

[leave 2-3 blank lines here]

Ms. Sharon Wells
Assistant Superintendent
Prairie Valley Public Schools
1234 Main Street
Funtown, MN 12345

[leave 2-3 blank lines here]

Dear Ms. Sharon Wells:

It is with enthusiasm and interest that I am writing as an applicant for your current posting for a fifth grade classroom teacher for the 2011-2012 school year at Maple Ridge Elementary School in the Prairie Valley School District.  My student teaching cooperating teacher, Jane Smith, encouraged me to apply for the position. Jane is happily employed at Blue Lake Elementary in your district. I am currently a student at University, where I will earn my bachelor's degree in May with a major in elementary education with licensure for K-6 and a minor in Spanish.
[This first paragraph is your chance to catch the reader's attention. If you have a connection to the district, be sure to mention it. Be clear about the position for which you are applying, and how you are qualified for that position.]

Maple Ridge Elementary is of particular interest to me because of its focus on providing all students a relevant and challenging learning experience and its commitment to promoting equity among all students.  As indicated in my resume, I am completing my student teaching in Minneapolis, MN. At Minneapolis Elementary, I have been professionally challenged to meet the needs of a culturally and linguistically diverse fourth grade classroom. I believe it is important to understand the different learning styles and strengths that students bring to the classroom. Through my student teaching in this classroom, I have gained the ability to modify lessons to provide accommodations for the learning needs of all my students. An example of this is in the Earth Science unit I have developed, which includes hands-on, teacher-led, discussion-based and student-taught lessons.
[Clearly express why you want this position and how you are a good fit for the position and/or company. Highlight your relevant academic, experiential, and personal background. Focus on 2-3 specific qualifications and provide examples of how you’ve demonstrated the skills they are looking for. Use your voice to help bring life and personality to your application. But remember to be specific. Above all, clearly articulate the match between you and the desired position.]

I am eager for the opportunity to continue to pursue my passion for teaching and supporting student learning. I believe that my strong academic background in education and my minor in Spanish will complement the fifth grade position at Maple Ridge Elementary. I have included my resume, contact information for my references, and my application. I would be delighted to meet with you at your convenience. I can be reached by phone at (201) 555-5309 or email at yourname@school.edu. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to sharing how my experiences might benefit the students and families of Maple Ridge Elementary School.
[Let them know what you've included with the letter - your resume, an application, references, etc. Include your contact information again, and thank them for their consideration of your application materials. Show that you are interested in meeting with them.]


[3-4 blank lines for your signature]

Your typed name

A couple more tips for cover letters:
  • Always address the letter to the specific person doing the hiring, not "To Whom it May Concern." This may mean searching the website or a phone call to the main number of the school/district. Make sure, too, that you have the correct title for this person (Ms., Mr., Dr. etc).
  • Avoid using passive voice in your letter. Try to use as many strong verbs as possible.
  • Stay away from using acronyms, jargon, and cliches.
Good luck as you continue crafting your cover letters!

Next topic: resume pointers

How is your cover letter coming along?
Who are you enlisting to help you revise and edit your cover letters?
What other questions do you have about crafting effective cover letters?

    Friday, May 6, 2011

    effective cover letters

    Since most of you are in the process of searching for jobs, the first few posts for this blog will be related to aspects of the job search: resumes, cover letters, and interview tips. I'll provide some information here, but also link to some web resources for you along the way.

    Let's start with cover letters.

    A cover letter is your first contact with prospective employers. It is your opportunity to clarify precisely how your knowledge, skills, and dispositions fit the open teaching position. It should be concise - no longer than a page - and though cover letters can take time to craft, they are an essential part of presenting yourself as the professional you are!

    As you're working on edits and revisions make sure, absolutely positively sure, that your cover letter contains no typos or errors. With many applicants for every job, errors in cover letters and resumes are an easy way to discard an application. I'd suggest having at least two other people read your letter and provide feedback, making sure that you are clearly articulating your interest in the position, how you are a good fit for the position, and that your letter flows well with varied sentence structure and word choice. One more thing, for consistency, it helps to match the font of your cover letter to that used on your resume.

    The main thing to consider when composing a cover letter is that it should be unique to the particular position for which you are applying. Sometimes you'll submit a general cover letter to a district HR website for any open positions within the district, and sometimes you'll send application materials for a specific position. In either case, you'll want to make sure that the cover letter is clearly tailored to the district/position for which you are applying.

    There are a few things to help you make your cover letter linked to the position:

    1. Read the job posting carefully, taking note of the language they use to describe the position. What can you contribute to this position? What are the experiences that you have that directly relate to this position?

    2. Go to the district/school website and research the mission and vision of the school. What do they say are their district goals? What do they value? What experiences are important for their students?

    When you find matches in the job postings and district school websites to your philosophy and experiences, weave those into the body of your cover letter.  An effective cover letter makes links to the requirements of the open position and the district/schools. This indicates that you're truly interested in the position and school, and that you've done some work to think about what you'd bring to the position.

    Next posting: examples of effective cover letters

    What are some of your special skills you bring to teaching positions?
    How will you articulate those assets through your cover letters?