Interview Questions

Before an interview, candidates should consider the many questions that may be asked. It helps to jot down potential answers and review them before every interview. If you understand why a certain question may be asked, it will help you develop answers that fit what the potential employer is seeking.

Visit the Career Assistance section of the Resources Catalog and watch or listen to the webcasts and podcasts on interviewing. Then go to the Videos area and watch videos of real interviews and what Dr. Whitman was expecting with the questions he asked. (The four videos take a little more than an hour, but they will help you prepare for interviewing.)

Your Elevator Speech
When preparing your response to the probable “elevator speech” question, “Tell me about yourself” or “What should I know that is not apparent on your résumé?” you will want to prepare an approximately 3-minute speech that explains something significant:
  • Why you went into teaching
  • Why you changed jobs and how that will make you a better teacher
  • How you relate to students
  • Something of value about your becoming a teacher

The first 30 seconds and last 30 seconds are the most important. Make them memorable! Use a story and hook your interviewer. Leave that person thinking you are unique and a perfect fit for their school. That is your chance to open with a hook that will remain in the interviewer’s mind and set the tone for the whole interview.

Tell a narrative that shows your interviewer your passion for teaching and your desire to engage your students. Be able to answer: “Why should we hire you instead of the other people who applied for this job?” Show excitement, willingness to try new things, passion for working with students, and a desire to collaborate and learn.

Here is one example of a teacher candidate’s elevator speech:

I grew up in a household with a mother and grandmother who were teachers and several relatives on my father’s side who were engineers or teachers. I lived in an affluent community and had the privilege of attending a large, highly-rated high school. I got my education degree from a school known for engineering. You would imagine my background to be that of “white privilege,” and in many ways it was. However, four of my cousins are biracial. In fact, one of them was my classmate in education courses in college. I learned about black hair, black speech patterns, and black attitudes from them and didn’t see that as being odd until I was half-way through elementary school.

I was very involved in orchestra in middle and high school. Most of the orchestra members were of Asian background. We were a highly-ranked orchestra and went on tour as well as competitions, so we spent a great deal of time together, socializing, studying, sight-seeing, and playing games.

All of my in-school experiences, including student teaching, were performed in very rural schools. Many of the students were below grade-level in performance; there were ELLs who were children of migrant workers, and a high number of students were in special ed.

Finally, I have a daughter who was born just before my student teaching started. So, I worked 30 hours a week, took two final classes, and student taught all at the same time. Unfortunately, my dad had just lost his job, so I had to pay all the expenses for my daughter and myself, so I was also on food stamps and had to put my daughter into the welfare system. I learned a lot about how people who must do that live and why they have the feelings and attitudes they do. I feel I can help all the students in your school and relate to the parents!

Most candidates will not have a story quite like that, but you do have your own story. What sets you apart from other candidates? What makes you unique? What experiences have shaped your thoughts and feelings? How will these help you become a better teacher?

Another good example:

I spent summers working at camps and felt I connected with middle school students. I love history and have always visited any historical site I could in the United States and in several other countries, so I have several first-hand stories and pictures I can use in the classroom. I just finished an intensive 15-week student teaching experience that prepared me to teach seventh grade. I had an incredible supervising teacher, and I learned strategies and methods to reach diverse students who didn’t have seventh-grade skills when they started the year. Would you like me to explain more?

If you are a career changer, don’t be afraid to refer to your previous professional life. Highlight the advantages it will give you, even if you didn’t like the career and want to help young people avoid making uninformed choices about the job market. Having worked in another field establishes you as a reliable and experienced employee. Having real-life experience will give you credibility with your students.

The Traditional Questions
  • Some questions are asked in most teaching job interviews: Describe yourself in three words. Choose carefully—have three words prepared. Keep in mind that if your NCATE framework has a catchy motto, your interviewer may be tired of hearing it. Come up with something original and unique to you.
  • Tell us about your student teaching experience. Decide now what you think were the best and worst parts of that experience. Never say anything negative about your school or cooperating teacher.
  • What is grade-level preference, and why?
  • Would you be open to coaching or working with an after-school activity? Although you should not lie, you need to appear open to this. If you have special skills in an area such as yearbook production or coaching a sport, this is a big plus.
  • Tell us about your classroom management and discipline plan. You may have to describe your plan, or you may be given a hypothetical question about a specific case. Be prepared to describe how you would handle a situation or how you handled an actual one.

Some Newer Types of Questions
There is a trend toward hypothetical or “situational” questions. This is like an essay question on an exam where you can “show what you know.” Topics may include:

  • Differentiated instruction
  • Accommodations for English language learners
  • Integration of technology in the classroom
  • Dealing with parents
  • Multiculturalism (look at the demographics for the schools at which you interview)
  • Classroom management

For example: One of your students has not been doing well in your class. She appears tired and listless and her attendance has gotten spotty. What would you do?

Although you may suggest any number of things, what they are looking for is that you will try to set up a parent–teacher conference. Something may be wrong at home and it may be affecting student performance. You could also discuss talking with her teacher from last year, reviewing her permanent file, or seeing the school counselor. This shows you know how to collaborate with colleagues and use the resources that your school has to offer.

Other Possible Questions

Curriculum
  • Describe an experience using the curriculum mandated by the school district and state.
  • Tell me about a 2-week unit you taught.

Methods and Planning
  • Tell me about a 50-minute lesson you taught and why it went well.
  • Has a plan ever failed? If so, what did you change?
  • How do you do daily lesson planning? What is always included?
  • How comfortable are you with technology and integrating it into your lesson plans?

Classroom Routines and Management
  • Describe your procedures for starting and ending class.
  • Describe a classroom management plan that worked well.
  • What kinds of rewards have you used to motivate students?
  • How do you get acquainted with a new class?
  • What do you find most challenging when dealing with students?
  • How do you incorporate positive reinforcement in a classroom setting?
  • What methods of classroom discipline have you found most effective?

Homework and Grading
  • Describe a grading system that has been effective.
  • How can you assess student learning without letter grades?
  • How have you dealt with incomplete assignments being turned in?

Individual Student Needs
  • Which approaches to teaching your subject have worked with all students?
  • How have you worked with students who speak English as a second language?
  • How have you modified a lesson for gifted students? For special-needs students?
  • What do you do to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of individual learners?
  • Please describe a typical middle school student.

Communication
  • Tell me about a positive parent communication you’ve initiated.
  • How have you made requests of a colleague, mentor teacher, or principal?
  • Describe the relationship you would like to have with the administration of your school.
  • What type of relationship do you strive to have with the parents of your students?

Professionalism
  • How would you define professionalism? What aspects of your life does it include?
  • Have any journal articles led you to make changes in your classroom?
  • How has a conference or special training improved your teaching?
  • What accomplishments have you realized at your current or most recent job?
  • Name three professional books you’ve read lately. Or, tell us about the most recent professional book you’ve read.

Answering Interview Questions
Answer questions in a manner that demonstrates your knowledge and experience. Share short, concise examples of lessons that went well, even if those lessons were during your field experience. Explain what you have learned about children and how your past experiences have made you a better teacher.

The best answers will demonstrate your experience with the topic and your willingness to improve. Express yourself in a positive light. For example, you could answer the question “What do you find most challenging when dealing with students?” by replying that dealing with students’ social and emotional problems makes classroom management a challenge.

However, a better answer would be: “During my student teaching, I worked with students who had high energy levels. If I didn’t plan for management and academics, these students had problems being on task. I know students bring plenty of problems from home, but I am charged with making the classroom a positive place. Motivating and guiding them is my job.” Follow up your answer with a quick example of how you motivated or challenged an individual student.

Your answer to the question “What accomplishments have you realized at your current or most recent job?” should emphasize roles in which you supervised children or adults, created programs, directed activities, wrote reports, evaluated paperwork, and done similar tasks that teachers do. If you had perfect attendance or were promoted early, don’t hesitate to mention it. In an interview, you are selling yourself, your experience, and your work ethic. Whatever you do, don’t get defensive. Simply answer—even if that answer does not necessarily put you in the best light. Don’t dwell on it. Try to think how to turn the lemon into lemonade such as, “I plan to collaborate with my colleagues and mentors to improve in this area.”

Uncommon Questions You Should be Able to Answer
  • If you could be any flavor of ice cream, what would it be and why?
  • If you could go anywhere for vacation, where would you go, and why?
  • If you could be any type of shoe, what would it be and why?
  • What song best describes your life? What is your life’s theme song? What is the theme song to your life right now?
  • You’ve just painted your kitchen purple. Why?
  • What are 10 uses for a pencil besides writing with it?
  • How do you prepare meatballs?
  • If your life was a patchwork quilt, what would it look like?
  • What cartoon is/was your favorite or best describes you?

This type of question is to see how well you think on your feet. Can you create a plausible, somewhat logical answer? Do you get flustered easily? Will students’ questions and comments “throw you for a loop”?

Think of an answer to each of these that relates to your teaching style and personality and jot down those relationships. That will help you if you get one of these or a similar question. To answer the second question, you might say: “I like to visit places I’ve never been and take pictures I can use with my students. I’d be open to going almost anywhere but would love to visit ____ because the architecture and history are so interesting. I could then do a unit on ___ with my students. They could do WebQuests, and I could use pictures as story or essay starters, and each one could choose a building to research and present their research.”

What happens in your classroom when . . .
  • If I were a mouse in the corner of your classroom, what would I see?
    This type of question is an attempt to understand how your classroom functions and to “see” your teaching style. Answer by describing how you facilitate learning and engage learners. For example, “Students would be out of their assigned seats, working together and talking. Each small group would be working on a different aspect of a problem or engaged in some hands-on activity with discussion.” Try to visualize how you engage students and describe what a person walking into your classroom would see.

  • How would your administrators know if you were under too much stress?
    This is an attempt to understand how you deal with stress. Answer this by describing your use of exercise or yoga or involvement in a hobby to diffuse stress.

  • How would your colleagues describe you?
    Think of three words or phrases your colleagues would use to describe you, such as hardworking, collegial, student-centered, flexible, easy to work with, focused, or whatever. You should also think of three words or phrases your students would use to describe you, such as caring, involved in our lives, engaged with her content but able to help us understand it, demanding, sets high expectations, advocates for us, and so on.

Answers for Realistic (and Sometimes Sticky) Situations
  • How would you deal with boyfriend/girlfriend issues in sixth grade, like hugging?
    You may be able to find a student handbook online before going to the interview to know how the school administration views displays of affection.

  • What would you do if a student did not do his homework because there was a drive-by shooting at his house last night?
    This question is about your caring attitude, how you help the student (and others) debrief, and whether you value your lesson over the students’ mental health.

  • Give an example of a time when you worked with someone you didn’t like or couldn’t get along with. How did you solve the problems?
    You can describe a professor who was hard to please and how you found common ground or a person at a summer job and how you found something you could both talk about. Finding common ground and learning when and how to disagree while working for the common good are both factors.

  • What would you do with an unruly special needs student when you have absolutely no parental support?
    Beyond following the state and federal laws you may have learned about in your coursework, your best bet is to talk about consulting with a special education teacher in the school system or back at your college and continuing to work with the parents.

Not the Situation You Wanted, But You Could Still Be a Good Candidate
  • A music teacher was asked if she’d get a truck driving license. This was probably because the rural school system did not have bus drivers to take music students to competitions, so the teacher also had to drive the bus.
  • A teacher holding a pre-K–3 certificate was asked if she would be willing to teach seventh-grade reading. If she is desperate for a job, this would entail much discussion and support from the administration and other teachers.
  • “I know you didn’t apply for the position for Youth in Custody, but would it scare you too much if we offered it to you?” Again, the candidate will need support and coaching, but if you are not afraid to try, it will reflect well on you!
  • How many other interviews do you have scheduled? How many interviews have you had? These are not questions they should be asking, but they are trying to assess how desperate you are so they can decide if they should offer you a job other than what you applied to do. Or, they are trying to figure out how quickly they need to grab you!
  • Would you mind working nights and weekends, too? It’s hard to say what they wanted with this question. This may refer to how much effort you put into preparing lessons, creating activities, grading papers, and other things all teachers do at night and on the weekend. It may refer to their desire to offer you a coaching position that will entail evening practices and weekend competitions. Simply say you assume you will work many nights and weekends as a first-year teacher working to be the best teacher possible.
  • An art teacher was asked to teach reading skills. If you have had a course on teaching reading, let them know, but remind them that you don’t have too much background in that area, so you will need help and support from them and the media specialist or a reading specialist. Be honest if you aren’t comfortable doing this, especially if you wouldn’t get to teach any art classes.

Other Off-the-Wall Questions
  • What do you think of our website? What were you looking for? They are wondering if you did your homework and checked them out. Or, they are preparing to change the website and are gathering information.
  • Do you believe there is life in outer space?
  • Which GLE is most important?
  • Who was the ninth President?
  • If you had an infinite amount of money in your classroom budget, how would you use it?

Questions They Are Legally Not Allowed to Ask
  • What is your age or birth date?
  • What is your height, weight, high school graduation date, race, or skin color?
  • What language do you usually speak?
  • What is your marital status?
  • Do you have any children or plan to have any? What will your childcare arrangements be? How many more children will you be having?
  • Do you own or rent your home? Would you move into the school district? (Some schools do require you to live in the district, and that is not illegal in some states, so this could be a legitimate question.)
  • To which faith do you belong? If you are applying to a faith-based school, they can ask this, and it is important.
  • Are you in good health?
  • Have you ever been arrested? (They can do a background check and find out, but you must sign for that. If you have an arrest record, that will be a deal-breaker.)
  • Will you discuss your class on Facebook? While this is not yet illegal in most states, it may become so. Until then, be sure you answer that you won’t.

If you are interviewing for a private or religious school position, they can ask you all about your religious views, marital status, children, childcare options, and so forth. They may even have unusual questions related to their views. Learn all you can about the school and their philosophy before the interview.

If you are asked an illegal question, don’t accuse them or say you don’t have to answer it. Instead, comment that time is limited and that you’d rather focus on the teaching position.