The ESL / EFL Job Interview

If you were ever fortunate enough to travel to the coast of Slovenia in the summer time, and if you happened to be in the port town of Koper one afternoon in August of 2003, you might have found yourself enjoying a pizza at a seaside joint called "La Trattoria." In addition to enjoying your meal, you may have also enjoyed watching the eclectic crowds that naturally fill the seaside resorts in the summertime. If you had looked carefully across the bar that afternoon, you would have seen yours truly conversing genially with a nervous looking woman. You would also have seen the nervous looking woman making little ticks in a pocket notebook while the young man was speaking. And if you could have discerned the content of our conversation through the clamor of the bar, you would have discovered the kind of interrogation commonly known as the job interview.

The interview was for a teaching position in a language school called NISTA situated on the coast of Slovenia. It was noteworthy for many reasons:

To begin with, it was a perfect example of how to pass a standard interview for an ESL job. The questions were typical and fluffy and were easily answered. In addition, I had appeared sufficiently charming, engaging and responsible for the nervous looking woman to hire me. It must have been the tie.

Secondly, it reinforced the three qualifications needed to teach in much of Eastern Europe:

1: I was there.

2: I was breathing.

3: I was a native speaker.

Lastly, in the woman's trembling hands one can see the nervousness and uncertainty that manifest when an ESL employer must hire a new teacher.

For the ESL teacher and School Director, the hirings and firings probably represent the furthermost extent of work-related stress in the business of ESL. From the stand point of the interviewee, if you play your cards right, a hiring can open a door to La Dolce Vita, a sweet life at a status far above what you could get at home. Sure you might have to live in a neon green hotel in Prague, or be served fish heads for breakfast in Tartu, or have to bribe your way through Russia, but experienced teachers know that the most learning can be done in the worst of circumstances.

For the Employer, a hiring represents any number of things depending on the situation. It could be a move to increase school prestige or simply outright desperation. Underlying both of these, however, is the hope of not having to fire the same person.

The question now is how does one choose the right employee for the job?

I doubt you would get the same answer from any two people you asked, but at this particular moment, you've asked me, so here's my answer.

The standard process consists of three basic movements.

The Resume (CV) Collecting

In my years teaching, I've noticed that resumes are often the last place an employer looks. Whenever my current boss needs a new teacher, she simply asks all of us if we know somebody, proving the old adage that is isn't what you know, but who you know. She only goes to the resumes when there is no one available. More recently I've been directly involved in the hiring process itself and I can tell you firstly that no ESL school is going to take more than one look at a resume full of grammar and spelling mistakes or looks as if it doubled as a coaster or dishtowel. It's got to look good.

Experience is first thing we look at content-wise. We like to see variety and flexibility and we especially like if they've worked abroad. It is an undeniable truth that people are much better teachers if they've gone through the same learning process themselves. For us, this matters much more than if you've simply got a certificate that says you can teach.

Lastly, we add our level of desperation into the process, then begin making phone calls.

This leads us to part two of the process.

The Interview

My interview in the pizzeria showed but one of the many manifestations an interview can take. The can be electronic, telephonic, or face to face. They can involve suits and ties as well as Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts, cold sterile offices or benches around a camp fire.

Naturally, the best way is face to face because it allows you to employ an important skill when selecting a candidate, your intuition. The types of questions an employer chooses to ask are also of tremendous importance. Any employer whose ever been on the receiving end of the questions, should know that the candidate is going to try and answer questions the way you would like them. From my point of view, there are too many employers that rely on the list of typical questions.

For myself, the most important thing for me to discover in the interview is the real reason this particular person chose this kind of work rather than why they chose my school. Teaching English as a second language is about as unglamorous as the cheap food we live on. The pay is peanuts, the security non-existent, and it can be excruciatingly monotonous at times. Remember that deep breath you took before launching into 250th time you explained the Present Perfect?

So why does someone choose this line of work? This is often my first question and one of the most important answers they will give. In regards to the other questions I ask. I generally employ a show don't tell policy. I want to be shown what they've done, not just told. Rather than asking if they are punctual, I'd ask for an example of when they'd been late and why. Other questions I like are:

1) Tell me a time when you felt overwhelmed as a teacher?
2) Under what conditions would you consider quitting this job?
3) Tell me a time when you made a mistake in class, and how did you respond to it?
4) How do your friends and family react when you told them you wanted to do this?
5) What was the strangest complaint you'd ever received as a teacher?

Lastly, if the applicant impresses you to the required degree, (again mitigated by the desperation factor) you naturally proceed to the next phase.

The Demo Phase

The demo phase involves the applicants actually putting their money where their mouth is. Now, anyone who's ever been observed knows that the lesson plan for that lesson is, shall we say, far more professional, far more thought out, and far more "student centered" than the others you scribble down on your way to class. You may even put on a tie for the occasion. So, although they are not the most authentic situations, an employer can learn much if they pay close attention.

I pay close attention to what happens in the minutes before the class actually starts, the milling time when the students are either chatting or busily finishing their homework. It is always a great sign to me when a teacher immediately begins socializing with the students. After the lesson begins, I often listen to the teacher's voice. Can I hear them from the back row? Am I falling asleep? Is their speech punctuated constantly with 'um' 'like' and 'you know.' I also pay a lot of attention to what the students do while he or she is teaching, because in the end, it all comes down to the students being happy.

A great thing to watch for is when something on the teacher's lesson plan doesn't quite work out, a chink in the chain. The way the teacher responds to that situation will reveal what I consider the single most important characteristic necessary in a good teacher, the ability to adapt. In my years of experience, probably only 1% of my lesson plans were followed exactly. A teacher must be adaptable due to the basic truth that people all learn in different ways.

If there is any employer who really wishes to put an applicant to the test, I'll make a modest proposal. Prior to coming, inform the applicant that their interview will last two hours. Spend the first half-hour as an interview, and then tell them they've a half-hour to prepare a one-hour class. Give them the books, show them the library, and see what they can do. It maybe a bit hard, but if the teacher is good, they'll do fine.

In my experience, ESL teachers and employers are a pretty non-confrontational bunch of people. I've never met any boss who showed any of Donald Trump's zeal while firing someone. Likewise, anyone in the business knows that firings do not usually happen in one moment, but are actually a long painful process involving excuses, second chances, and intense frustration that can last months. No employer wants to go through this.

The only real solution to the yang of firing is to find the yin of hiring.

By Mike Dunphy

Mike Dunphy was born and bred in Northern Vermont. He joined the Peace Corps and began his teaching career in Estonia. Mike taught for two years at Kilingi-Nomme high school in Estonia, later moving to Prague to deal with businessmen. He has also lived in Italy, and Slovenia where he stayed until this past July. Mike currently resides in Boston, where he is the Director of Studies in a language school. He plans on moving to Istanbul in August.