Classic Articles: Secrets of those that do the TEFL Hiring

In celebration of the upcoming release of the fifth edition of Horizons Journal, I’ve decided to revisit some of the classic articles from the first four issues. In this article, we look at what you need to ask at your TEFL interview:

In March, Mishmumkin raised an issue of great significance to those of us who are looking for that dream TEFL job or are considering starting out in the profession: ‘If I’ve done my research correctly I should know a great deal about my potential employer before the interview. I’m curious what those who do the hiring wish their candidates asked about.’

So, what are recruiters expecting from their prospective employees at the interview? The forum members shared their wealth of experience in offering the following words of great wisdom. Here’s what those in the position to hire feel you should be asking your future employer at that interview:

Ask what you NEED to know

First and foremost, there is a consensus that you really need to ask what’s important to you as the employee: don’t assume that the person interviewing you knows what your priorities are. MELEE notes that, ‘mostly I’m just listening to see what they ask me. That will tell me what’s important to them (the students, the curriculum, resources, housing, benefits, vacation time, etc.). I do the interviews individually, but then report back to a panel – that conversation always includes letting the others know what questions were asked by the candidate.’ When applying for a job it’s easy to forget that, while it’s a one of event for you as the potential employee, the person doing the hiring is having the same interaction many, many times and, as noted earlier, is probably under time constraints. Therefore they are likely to try to get what they need from the encounter, leaving you to ask the questions you personally need answering. Justin Trullinger exemplifies the kind of things that he, from experience, feels teachers should ask at the interview:

‘I do the hiring at the organisation where I work. It’s not that I have a list of questions I want you to ask, because I don’t know what’s important to you but I feel very strongly that you SHOULD ask about whatever is. Some of the worst problems I’ve had with teachers have had to do with things that were important to them that they didn’t find out about beforehand, or didn’t ask for more details.’

Some examples:

1 Clothing:

Teachers placed in elementary schools through us wear uniforms. They are told about this before hiring, and asked if they are okay with it. Depending on the school, these uniforms vary – some are very smart suit looking things, but some, especially at lower income schools, are sweatsuits with school logos. One teacher, very appearance conscious, was so horrified by wearing a sweatsuit that she was unable to continue, and we had to negotiate special permission for her to wear her own clothes. This made all the parents think she was the principal. It was a mess. Personally, I don’t care what I wear, and would love to have a uniform, any uniform that meant I wouldn’t have to shop for clothes, or try to figure out what color tie goes with things…but to her, it was an issue. She should have asked.

2 Costs of living:

Some things are very cheap in Ecuador. Some are more expensive. Computers are first world prices or higher. Having read online that the cost of living in Ecuador is low (in terms of rent and food, it is) one teacher decided rather than bringing a computer, to buy one here. But here, lap tops are high end luxury without much selection. He should have asked.

3 Housing:

We don’t provide housing – but many of our teachers share apartments with each other – which is clearly stated in our pre-interview literature. This is because Ecuadorian apartments are mostly large family or multifamily units, and it would be hard to afford one on your own. A teacher who doesn’t like to share simply assumed that he could find his own, and anticipated finding an apartment for the same cost as a room in a shared unit. Not a chance. Then he complains that it’s hard to make ends meet…should have asked.

4 Teaching conditions:

Our teachers are expected to use text books, but not to spend the whole course using only textbooks. They also have to be creative and come up with their own supplementary activities and materials. Payment for this is included in their hourly rate – they are not paid for extra hours for doing it. This is standard enough that I didn’t make an issue of it, though again, it says in the package that “teaching hours are paid for at $X per hour, and that this rate includes preparation…” Again, if this is a problem, ask, let’s talk beforehand. Likewise, if you have any financial obligations outside of the country, like student loan payments, it would be good to ask about how feasible that is…

To that list I’d certainly want to add medical insurance and, if you’re thinking about staying in a country for an extended period of time, you might also want to look into their policies regarding work permits and social security contributions. Those of you who’re new to teaching may find it hard to believe but some of us end up staying for good. It would be a shame to find out several years down the line that you’ve been living illegally and that you’re presence in a country is no longer welcome, or that what could have become a reasonable state pension to supplement your retirement doesn’t exist as your employers never registered you. Ask!

Post-interview questions

Of course, sometimes as the interviewee, you’re going to feel overwhelmed by the situation. A natural consequence of this is forgetting to ask the questions that you really need answering, as Emma notes, ‘I’ve found in interviews that the interviewer has told me so much information about the school and teaching methods that I really can’t think of anything when asked if I have questions. To ask about obvious stuff like salary when I haven’t been offered a job seems presumptuous.’ This issue of asking about salary is something that I’ll return to later. Emma also asked the following question on the forum:

‘How do you feel about teachers coming back and asking questions before accepting the post?’

MELEE replied thus, reiterating the need to be time conscious, ‘I think it’s great. I’d rather teachers ask only 2 or 3 of the most important questions in the interview, but that’s because we interview over the phone and I’m under pressure to try to keep the calls around 30 minutes. I welcome additional questions by email, no matter how many. The sooner the better because really I’m using those questions to decide whether or not I’m going to make you an offer.’ Something I’ve always done at the end of an interview is ask the interviewer if I can make additional contact after our meeting, primarily because I experience the kind of information overload that Emma mentions. As MELEE quite clearly states, this is beneficial to both parties.

Time (not) to talk money

Now onto the issue that’s almost always at the bottom line, salary. Gordon shares his thoughts on the matter:

‘Prospective applicants should not ask about salary until they are offered the job. On the other hand, applicants should have a pretty good idea of the salary at this point anyways. I won’t apply for a job unless I have a decent idea of the salary range, in many cases it would be a waste of everyone’s time. I hate it when jobs don’t give the salary in the ad or at least the salary range.’ It’s not impossible these days to get a fairly good idea of what you can expect to earn in a particular country or even at a certain school. Asking questions at the ELT World Forums is one good way to learn such information. Sherri adds, ‘I don’t see why the salary should be such a big secret. I always tell the applicants what they can expect to make. I usually tell them over the phone before we schedule the interview. There is a pay scale so it is easy to figure out. All teachers have a copy of the pay scale once hired. If it looks like the interview is going well, I tell them how often they will be paid and when they can expect their first pay check. This is especially important for people who are relocating for a job.’ I also chipped in with a recommendation which has always seen me right in the past:

‘I think it’s appropriate for the interviewee to raise the issue, such as, ‘I’m sure once you’ve made your decision about hiring me, we can talk in more detail about the salary and benefits package you offer.’ This lets the interviewer know that while this isn’t your only motivation for wanting the job, it is something that they expect to be informed about in detail at some point.’

Gordon summarises the issue perfectly when he states, ‘I think one doesn’t want to appear as though money is the most important factor in the job decision, whereas we all know that it is.’ I would make it clear that you will want to have a clear idea about the kind of money you’ll be earning without making that the sole purpose for you having turned up for the interview.

How can you prepare for the interview?

What can you do before the interview? Gordon again offers advice:

‘Before an interview, I write a list of things (housing, resources, etc) that I want answered before deciding to take a job. Then, during the interview I take copious notes, and if the interview hasn’t answered my questions, I ask them at the question time. Although, just thinking about it now, I haven’t had a face to face interview for years now, so its easy to have my little list and notebook. Not sure how that would go down in a face to face interview.’

While Gordon may not have tried this in a face to face interview, this is a tactic that I myself have used and find that it has been received well. If you’ve taken the time to sit down and make a note of what you need to know from this potential employer, it gives the impression that you’re serious about wanting the job.

Another thing that makes a good impression is showing that you’ve given some thought about how you’ll fit in to the school. Sherri exemplifies, ‘I must admit, I like it when people ask about the students. I like it when they ask about the work atmosphere, but how the teachers work together, if they share and support each other. I like it if they show an interest in our program and show that they at least looked at our website.’ For the interview I had for my present job, I printed off the school’s entire website, annotated the points that interested me and highlighted other information I wanted to ask about. While there was no way for me to get through more than one or two points that I’d noted, it gave the impression that I’d really thought about why I wanted to work here, and was told as much later.

Don’t waste their time

Let’s now briefly assume you’ve been offered a job. Having noted earlier that recruiters appreciate you asking questions that will help you decide if you’re going to take the position, think about whether or not you’re realistically thinking of taking the position before making secondary contact. MELEE explains: ‘If I make the offer, then you hit me with questions that lead me to believe that this is not the best position for you, then you’ve wasted my time because I need to give you adequate time before I offer it to someone else rather than you.’ Think, at some point it could be you who misses out on an interview because someone was wasting the recruiter’s time mulling over an offer they didn’t intend to take.

One thing you also really need to do is prioritise what you need to ask. The interviewer will want to make a decision about you just as much as you want to decide if you want the job. One sure way to put off the person deciding whether or not to hire you will be asking questions to which you could easily find the answers elsewhere. Think about this: what would you rather know about, the number of hours you could expect to work in an average week or the colour of the tiles in the bathroom of the apartment you’ll be sharing? Prioritise what you need to learn about the school. Yaramaz explains this issue, referring to a recent incident in her efforts to recruit teachers:

‘We just recently recruiting for next term and have had an interesting time poring over applications. One woman included a jpeg list of over 100 questions for us to answer– not even in word or PDF format! How can we even begin to answer 147 questions on a jpeg??? And most were really pointless questions that could be googled or asked in the interview, like “Do you have a photocopier?’ and ‘what is the climate of your city?’ Aaaaagh!’

Aaaaaagh indeed. Imagine how you would feel if you received such a list of questions at a time when you’ve got to interview numerous people. How much priority would you give to someone who asked questions to which they could so easily find the answers themselves? I’ll conclude by returning to the advice of Justin Trullinger: ‘It isn’t a question of what you should ask – but ask everything that YOU need to know. I may not know what’s important to you, but it’s important that you ask about what you need to know. Do not assume! Whatever you need to know in order to make an adequate decision, you’ll need to ask.’

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