Skip to content

Opening the school year with a letter to your physics teacher

July 15, 2018

Every year, I seem to go through some variant of an introduce yourself to your teacher activity, from asking students to fill out some sort of template I’ve created or to answer a Google survey. All of them have been fine—I often find myself learning some useful things from every response, and in the best cases, they do set up a basis for a building a strong relationship between me and the student.

This past year, I wanted to do something a bit different. I expressly wanted to start a dialogue with students, and I wanted to open up the format so that they could share with me the things that were important to them, rather than filling in answers to the questions I had. I also got the idea that we don’t really write letters anymore, and in the past, some students have gone the entire year without ever emailing their teacher.

So to change things, I invited students to spend 30 minutes writing me an introductory letter to me. I gave them some of the questions I’d asked in previous questionnaires (mostly cribbed from Moses Rifkin). Here’s the assignment (also as a Google doc):

Introduce yourself

I’d like for you to introduce yourself to your teachers by writing a letter. The purpose of this letter is to help your teacher to get to know you better as a student, especially when it comes to knowing how I can help you to see success in physics and achieving your personal goals. We ask that you write this letter by writing continuously for 30 minutes—don’t stop to think about what you should say, and don’t spend time proofreading or trying to find the perfect word. You will find that writing continuously is often the key to discovery—of a solution to a problem, of a thesis for a paper, or in this case, insights into who you are and why you are taking physics.

Here are some questions you can consider answering in your letter (don’t feel obligated to answer all or even any of these).

  • What should I know about your prior experience with science?
  • Is there anything you’re thinking after today’s class that you’d like to share?
  • What motivates you?
  • What are your goals for this semester?
  • What can I do, as your teacher, to help you learn best?
  • If you are struggling in this class, what can I do to help you?
  • If you are struggling in this class, what will you do to help yourself?
  • What languages do you speak at home?
  • What do you like most about yourself?
  • Tell me about something you’re good at UNRELATED to science.
  • What do you think of when you hear the word science?
  • How do you think physics might be useful for your future goals?
  • What’s the last idea that fascinated you?
  • Who is your favorite teacher and why?

Why a letter?

It turns out that writing a letter is often the key unlocking incredible opportunities in your life. It might be an interview, internship or just a cup of coffee, but the simple act of writing a letter to someone can change your life. Sadly, we don’t write many letters anymore, and sometimes, students don’t even know how. So consider this practice for the letter you will write sometime in the future that will change your life.

The responses to this assignment turned out to be incredible. Students wrote thoughtful letters that gave me real insights into their personality, motivation, interests and more. In general, I would say students had the hardest time responding to the “if you are struggling” questions, and I often didn’t get much more than “you should be available for extra help” and “I should work harder and come to you for help.” Both of these responses are a good start, but make me thing there’s a way I could ask this question to get students to be a bit more specific and also to see all the possibilities for help that exist beyond just setting up a meeting with your teacher (which many students seem to see as a very drastic step they are reluctant to take). To that end, I really like this much more specific survey Brian Frank (@brianwfrank) shared on Twitter earlier in the year.

In trying to build a conversation, I responded to each letter at length, asking follow up questions, trying to answer their questions and foreshadow what’s ahead. Though I had no expectations busy students with lots of homework to complete would follow up or even read my feedback on this non-graded assignment, a number did reply, leading to some great conversations and deepening connections.

If I were to do this again, I think I would add one thing—I would require all of my students to set up a 5 or 10 minute meeting with me after I’ve responded to their letter. This is something I definitely couldn’t do if I had a 100 student course load, but even with the small teaching loads, I’m lucky to have, some students still go all year without ever meeting with me outside of class. I think setting this requirement would go a long way toward building trust and giving students the comfort of having already met with me if they find they need to seek out extra help in the future.


I’m on sabbatical

July 1, 2018

For the 2018-19 school year, I’m going to be on sabbatical. I’ll be living in Oslo, Norway with my family, and working with some amazing researchers at the University of Oslo to add computational modeling to the Norwegian Physics Curriculum. Hopefully, this sabbatical will allow me to get back in the habit of blogging—there are a ton of things I would like to share, especially some physics related projects that I plan to work on this year.

But in the meantime, you might be interested in following our family blog about our adventures in Norway: A year in Norway.

Help me find a new home for a cache of old PASCO datalogging equipment

February 27, 2018

Note: Thanks to some wonderful responses to this post, all of this equipment has now been re-homed.

As part of the preparation for a renovation of our building, we are inventorying and packing all of the physics equipment at my school. One thing we are trying to also do is purge a bunch of the equipment we no longer use, and as much as possible, avoid sending discarding this stuff to fill a landfill somewhere. We’ve acquired a bunch of unusual equipment over the years, including a giant slide rule and giant micrometer, and thanks to the wonderful people of Twitter, I was able to find homes for both of these items.

Now I have a small cache of PASCO Datalogging equipment—750 Interfaces and a bunch of probeware. I also have a bunch of old PASCO dynamics carts, all of which I would like to donate or sell. A word of warning about the PASCO equipment—this equipment does not work with the newer wireless sensors, or even the SPARKVue sensors, as I rudely discovered when I tried to setup a old style force probe with one of the new wireless smart carts. Though I haven’t tested every single item, I believe all of this equipment is in good working order.

I think the ideal use of these would be a university or school that is already deeply invested in PASCO equipment, and really comfortable with the PASCO capstone software, which can be difficult to use. If you are new to using probeware, and just want to outfit your lab, I’d strongly encourage you to consider going with Vernier and avoiding the headaches of working with this equipment—you’ll be much happier with that equipment—I know we are.

Finally, with the exception of the carts, I’d love to sell/donate this equipment as a lot, ideally to a school with a real need, or if that can’t be found, a school that is willing to pay a reasonable price for it.

Here’s the list of equipment we have available.

If you’re interested in this, please complete this form: PASCO Equipment Interest Form.

Building a Dashboard in Google Sites

December 22, 2017

One of the the things I did at the beginning of this year that has saved me a ton of time is build a simple static webpage in Google Sites with links to all of the things I most frequently use—the specific page for my class in canvas, the page in our SIS that lets me write quick special comments, our electronic grade book and more. Here’s what my page looks like:


Here are a few quick suggestions of things I’ve found super useful to include:

  • A simple Google spreadsheet listing all of the students in my class and their emails. This is something I started doing a couple of years ago, and it’s turned out to be insanely useful for times when I need to quickly sort my students, keep track of who’s turned in some one off assignment or anytime I quickly need to generate a class list to paste into something.
  • A custom Random Team Generator for each class: We all know the power of visible random grouping, but too often, I find myself pasting in a class last at the last minute to create groups. The awesome Random Team Generator allows me to paste in a list ahead of time, and then gives me a url that I can put in my links page and revisit any time I need to generate new groups.
  • Direct links to your class in your SIS and LMS: It usually takes me 3 or 4 clicks to get to my course page in canvas. I can save myself a decent amount of time just by copying the course link from the LMS and including it here on my links page.
  • A mailto link for my class, or direct link to the new announcement page in my LMS: I haven’t implemented this yet, but having one click access from my default page to be able to send a message to my whole class seems like a big timesaver.
  • A link to my electronic gradebook: It seems silly, but having a direct link to the gradebook page for each class has made it much easier for me to stay on top of grade entry.
  • Links to course materials in Google Drive: It’s truly wonderful not to have to click through folder after folder to get to that assessment or packet I’d like to see.

Google sites is super easy to use and even if you’ve never made a webpage, you’ll probably be able to create a basic quick links page in under 5 minutes with their excellent documentation.

I’ve also started using Practice Logs this year, an idea I adapted from Casey Rutherford and intend to blog about in the near future. One of the best things this page has allowed me to do is put a direct link to each student’s practice log on my links page, so now I’m a single click away from any student’s practice log, which makes it much easier for me to give regular feedback to my students and check to see how their practice is going.

If you do setup a links page like this, you’ll want to make it your default page, and somehow in 2017, my browser of choice, Google Chrome, doesn’t seem to let you change the window that new tabs open to, so I had to use the extension New Tab Redirect, which does the trick.

Bringing Computational Thinking into A Freshman History Class

December 20, 2017

I’ve long been interested in the notion of teaching computational thinking—helping students to recognize the power of computers to help them to understand data, gain insights and solve problems in fields outside of the traditional realm of computer science. You can read, when I was working to introduce computational modeling to my freshman physics classes.

Ten years later, there are even more examples and evidence that students need to be learning to see the computer as a powerful thinking tool that can allow them to ask new questions, and open up entirely new fields of study. Here are just a few projects that have caught my eye recently

  • What is a Computational Essay? by Stephen Wolfram. This is a pretty amazing essay from the inventor of Mathematica, Wolfram Alpha and now the Wolfram One Computational Platform. Wolfram shows how students can use this platform to easily analyze differences between languages, the color range used by Van Gough, the history of the English Civil war and more. Still, every time I read Wolfram’s essays, I get super excited about the possibility, but when I start playing with the actual Wolfram Language I find myself struggling to find the right command to know what I need to do. I guess this shows how awesome it would be if I’d written my very own programming language, or maybe it just shows I really am getting old.


  • Gender roles with Text Mining and N-Grams by Julia Silge. In this post, Dr. Silge describes how she was able to use text mining to find all of the verbs following the pronouns he and she in Jane Austen’s works. From that, she was able to graph the words that show the largest differences in appearing after “she” compared to “he”, and the results showed thinking words like “remembered”, “read” “felt” and “resolved” are far more likely to follow “she”, while action words like “stopped”, “takes”, “replied” and “comes” are more likely to follow “he.” I think this could be a seed of a great collaboration with an English teacher.


I’ve been thinking about this last project on and off for a few years now, and have discovered a number of similar efforts by historians to create and study archives of fugitive slave ads, including Freedom on the Move, and this small collection of ads from Brandywine, Maryland, a small town in Prince George’s County, Maryland. All of this got me thinking that there must be a way to teach a small version of this lesson to students in our 9th grade US History class that would help them to see the ways in which historians make use of computational tools to gain new and important insights into their work, the utility of big data as a primary source, and the ways in which it can be used to add context to the typical narratives students already encounter.

This fall, a new US History teacher, Giselle Furlong, and I began to plan how we might teach a two day lesson using the Brandywine archive of fugitive slave ads, and I’d like to share what we came up with here as an example of how we tried to integrate computational thinking into a history class to give students a richer understanding of slavery and slave narratives.

Students in the class use a fantastic collection of primary sources as their textbook, which has been thoughtfully assembled over many years by our history department. In this course, they learn to do the work of historians, closely reading primary sources, carefully annotating each one, putting sources into conversation with each other in Harkness style discussions. Before our unit, students had completed reading significant excerpts from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas.

We began our lesson by asking students to simply look at the website Brandywine Slave Ads, after orienting them to the location of Prince George’s county, very close to the Eastern Shore of Maryland described in Douglass’s narrative, and barely a two hour drive from our school. Even though the web table isn’t a very useful data structure, I was impressed by the insights students were quickly able to find just by doing simple searches within the webpage with command + F, and looking for terms like “Gender : F” to discover that there were only 15 females in the dataset.

We then showed them how to copy and paste this web table to a Google sheet, which then allowed you to more easily process and sort the data by column. Still, however, the important data of gender, age, and date of escape were merged into fields with other data that made it difficult to answer many of our most typical questions, so I showed them how you can use the Regular Expressions and the REGEXTRACT function. For example, using the function REGEXTRACT(B3,” [MF] “) would pull out the occurrence of M or F when surrounded by spaces from the text block that describes gender, date of birth, and age. The key lesson I wanted students to see appreciate is when they should recognize a task that should be automated, and then how to go about figuring out how to automate it.

At this point, we divided the class into five groups and gave them the lesson we’d written in Canvas that gave each group a specific topic to focus on. (I’ve pasted the actual lesson below for those who are curious. Each group had to take our spreadsheet of structured data, and focus on one specific aspect, gender, reward offered, age, date of escape or location.

We gave the students 30 minutes to look at this data, and I was deeply impressed by both the questions they were asking and some of the things they were able to do. One student realized that numbers pulled out of the text by REGEXTRACT were still treated by Google sheets as strings, but this could be remedied by adding a 0 to each number, allowing you to then calculate averages and other statistics from numerical data.

At the same time, most students were completely unfamiliar with spreadsheets, not knowing how cells are addressed, how to do even simple calculations, enter formulas or how to copy formulas from cell to cell by dragging, or make graphs. And it’s infinitely harder to make a graph of data when you have a big pile of data and aren’t quite sure of what to graph. None of this really surprised me—I know spreadsheets have fallen out of favor in my own physics classes, but at the same time, I think they are a very powerful tool used across nearly every industry and subject that is a gateway toward seeing the utility of computational thinking, and this is the kind of work students are going to need to do in the “real world” regardless of what job they end up having.

Within about 30 minutes, each group was able to put together a small paper describing their finds, and we still had enough time left over for a short discussion where groups shared their most interesting finding or remaining question.

On the following day, we asked students to again split into small groups and answer the following questions based on their work with the fugitive slave ads:

  • What do we know?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What surprises you?
  • What is the connection between slave narratives and the fugitive ads?
  • What structures are in place to limit escape

You can see some of the responses that came up in our discussion on this whiteboard.

Overall, it felt like we could have continued this discussion for at least another class or two. Students seemed to enjoy collaborating in small teams, uncovering insights about data and trying to find connections between this work and the previous work they had done researching slave narratives.

Here are a few takeaways I had about how students understood the value of computational thinking in this work:

  • Students aren’t digital natives, but they do know some handy tricks that make them seem that way. I was impressed with how quickly they could find details simply by searching a webpage with Command+F, but beyond these tricks, students were challenged to find ways to use the computer to discern more meaning from the data
  • Students are mostly befuddled by spreadsheets. No student recognized how putting data in a spreadsheet would make it easier to search, sort and organize, and all were befuddled by the arcane ways in which you address cells, manipulate data and make charts, but they were able to make progress with clear instructions, some guidance, and Google. While it doesn’t fit within the confines of a history class, I do think students would benefit from seeing the power of spreadsheets as a fundamental computing tool and would love to see this incorporated into a math curriculum that spent some time working with large sets of data.

It was also clear that this project added some context to students’ understanding of the institution of slavery. By researching these advertisements, students were better able to understand some of the institutions that were in place to prevent enslaved people from escaping, and also the large monetary enslaved people held for slave owners. Together, these narratives and fugitive ad data paint a more complete and complex picture of slavery, one that highlights the the many ways in which enslaved peoples struggled against the institution, but also shows the ways in which so much of society was built upon slavery, well beyond just evil slave owners, keeping slaves in bondage was written into laws, customs and contracts innumerable ways, and so it isn’t surprising we have so few stories of escape.

IN-CLASS PROJECT – Maryland Fugitive Slave Ads

In this mini-project we will explore primary source evidence in the form of Fugitive Slave Ads from 1781-1861 from Prince George’s County, MD. Here is a link to the website with all source material:

Here is a link to the spreadsheet whose data you will be manipulating

We will break into 5 groups, each with a different task of exploring the data. Questions to consider:

  • What does this evidence tell us about fugitive slave ads in this region?
  • What does this evidence tell us about rates of escape among enslaved men and women in this region?
  • What does this evidence tell us about the geography of this region and the proximity to freedom for enslaved people?

Group 1

Task: What is the average age of escaped men? escaped women? 

Group 2

Task: What was the reward in 1850 (year Fugitive Slave Act was passed) what is the value of that reward in 2017 dollars? Who was the most “valuable”? Why? Choose three other years to calculate reward value.

You have find this information with this inflation calculator:

Group 3

Task: What was the gender breakdown of escaped men and women?

Group 4

Task: Create a scatterplot plotting the number of escaped slaves and the year of escape. What patterns do you notice? What are the most significant dates/date range? X axis = year of escape; Y axis =  number of escaped enslaved peopleConsult this resource to help you make the scatter plot: 

Group 5

Task: Investigate the locations for each fugitive slave advertisement. Use this interactive historic map to aid your search:

– What is the distance to freedom? 

– Compare the historic maps to current Google Earth/Maps. 

 Final Task:

Each group must write a brief summary of their findings – the SIGNIFICANCE (who, what, why, where). Submit your paragraph to this post. Put this data and your findings in conversation with what we have discussed about Douglass and Jacobs – What did resistance look like in Prince George’s County at this time? Are these numbers higher or lower than you might expect? Why? 

Does the Sun’s amazing diet change the orbit of the Earth?

December 16, 2017

Quora is one of my favorite time-waster websites, and somehow, I signed myself up to get a semi-weekly email from them that always seems to draw me into reading all the way down the email. Yesterday, I came across this question:


Since we’ve been studying energy in my send year Matter and Interactions course, and just finished studying centripetal forces in the previous chapter, this seemed like a wonderful problem for our last class of 2017.

We quickly went to estimating the things we knew to solve this. We’ve talked about the solar constant before and we knew that at the radius of the earth, every square meter receives 1400W of light energy on average. Knowing that it takes light 8 minutes to reach the Earth from the Sun, we quickly calculated the total power of the earth to be around 10^26W, and so we knew that the sun was losing 10^26 J of mass energy every second.

We knew that this energy was coming from fusion and that the sun was losing rest energy. We found the energy using the idea

\Delta E =\Delta m c^2

\Delta m = 1.1 \times 10^9 kg

This was a pretty huge mass, but we weren’t as worried when we realized the mass of the sun is ~10^31 kg.

We then wondered how long the sun had been around, and figured a good estimate would be slightly longer than the earth, or about 4 billion years. Since we only care about the how the orbit of the earth might have changed, we wondered how much the mass of the sun changed while the earth was around. Googling 4 billion years in seconds gave us 10^17s, so the sun has lost about 10^26 kg of mass or around 100 Earths of mass.

Though this turns out to be only about 0.01% of the Sun’s mass, we still wondered if this would have a noticeable effect on the Earth’s orbit, and it was at this point that we realized computational modeling could give us an answer. We’ve already written a model of the earth-sun which includes code like this:

dt = 86400 #make time step 1 day
while t < 4e9 * dt:
#update forces
Fg = (-Gm_sunm=_earth/r**2)*norm(r)
#update momentum
earth.p = earth.p+Fg*dt
#update position
earth.pos = earth.pos + earth.p/earth.m*dt

And we realized that we could add a single line about the gravitational force calculation that read:
m_sun = m_sun -1.1e9 *dt

to account for the changing mass of the sun. We then thought we could write a program that plotted two earths—one feeling a force from a constant mass sun, and one feeling a force from a changing mass sun, and see how they departed.

All of this was great until we realized we’d set a timestep of a single day, and a wile loop that would need to run for 4billion years, and around this time, the class was almost over, but we thought of a few problems:

  • We can’t increase the size of the time step by much because our approximation that the final momentum is equal to the average momentum is conditioned upon the idea that the net force is constant over the time interval
  • Our errors from the time steps accumulate as time goes forward in in our program, so we weren’t even sure that a 1-day long time step would work for a 4 billion year long calculation

The beauty of this was we saw that this would be a nearly impossible problem to solve in closed form—integrating a force that depends on both position and changing mass seems daunting to me, but it’s totally do-able (in theory) computationally. We also all agreed that the answer is likely to be there is no discernable change in the orbit.

I’m sure there is some algorithm or method that would allow you to use a larger time step, or somehow quickly compute these trajectories, but I must admit I don’t know what it is off the top of my head, and would welcome ideas from my readers.

Advice for a physics job seeker from someone who just helped to hire three

September 1, 2017

This is part of a three post series on the hiring process in independent schools from multiple perspectives. This post gives my advice to teaching candidates as someone who evaluated applicants to for our physics openings last year. 

To learn about how we conducted our search for physics teaching candidates last year, read my post, Some thoughts on conducting a physics teacher search. 

To learn about the perspective of a candidate applying for jobs at independent and boarding schools, see Megan’s post, How to get hired in an independent school


Now that we’ve completed our job search and hired 3 teachers, I thought I would share a few pieces of advice for job applicants.

Consider independent schools

If you’ve thought about becoming a teacher, you might think you need to complete a degree in education, be certified or hold an advanced degree in physics in order to teach high school physics. While all of these things can be helpful, none of them are necessary to teach in an independent school, and we routinely hire teachers who have none of these qualifications. Almost none of my colleagues are certified to teach, few hold education degrees, though most do hold advanced degrees (many earn them while teaching at my school).

My school hires recent graduates—we’ve often hired those who think that they might want to teach for a few years before applying to graduate school. We also hire experienced candidates who’ve worked years in an industry and who aren’t sure that they and it hires people who have worked in industry for years and are ready to make a career change. Just about the only prerequisite I would say is common to our faculty and successful candidates is a deep love of their discipline, a passion for learning and an ability to connect with students.

And of course, if you’re an experienced teacher in a public or private school, we’d love to consider you for a teaching position as well. So what’s the next step?

Think carefully about using a placement service

There are a number of teacher placement services that specialize in placing teachers in independent schools. Nearly every independent school uses these services for the majority of their hiring. Using a placement service is pretty simple, especially for physics teachers scarce and in demand. You fill out an online application, submit a personal statement, resume and a transcript if you are a recent grad, and will usually complete a short interview with a placement associate. After that, the placement service will begin sending you referrals of schools that they’ve sent your file to, according to your school and geographic preferences. You then contact the schools that interest you (or not, if they indicate such), and begin the job interview process at each of those schools. Along the way, you might also go to a hiring fair, where hundreds of schools and thousands of candidates gather in large hotel ballrooms for a series of 30-minute interviews that can feel like speed dating gone wild.

While a placement service can do a lot of the grunt work for you, I’d encourage you to seriously consider whether or not you need to use a placement service at all. Here are some reasons you might want to consider doing a search as a free agent.

  • Placement services aren’t gatekeepers: You don’t need a placement service to find out about openings—most schools post them on their website, and the NAIS Job board (which you can even subscribe to via RSS). Also, no school gets so many applications that they would pass over a well-qualified application that came unsolicited—many times, these applications stand out more because they don’t come through the placement service.
  • You get to customize your application: to a large degree, applications from placement services all look the same. When I browse through the website, I see a list of brief bios that are all formatted the same, and when I pull up the full file, I get cover sheet template that is the same for every candidate I read. I actually have to dig to find the unique documents that you have control over—your personal statement and resume. But if you simply email your application to us, those documents are the very first things we see.
  • You are a free agent: If a school hires you, then the school must pay 15% of your starting salary to the placement service. Though I have no evidence of this, I’ve got to think that a person making a hiring decision choosing between two equally qualified candidates would be much more inclined to take the one who doesn’t come at a 15% premium, and heck, you might even be able to negotiate a signing bonus.
  • Your blog is your application: If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance that you’re already part of the MTB0S/PhTBoS. You’ve got 10, 100, or 1000 followers, and you’re actively having conversations about teaching online. Sure, you could have a placement service send out your materials schools for you, or, you could save everyone a lot of trouble and send a letter and a link to your blog to schools that interest you, and if your letter crossed my desk, you’d be fast-tracked for a phone interview. There just aren’t that many candidates out there who are thinking about math/physics teaching with the level of depth, consistency, and engagement that is common on the MTBoS.

If you do use a placement service

Ok, so you still want to use a placement service? That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I do ask that you do one thing. Please make sure your file is complete before the service begins to send out referrals. I can’t tell you how many partial files I read this year—I’d read a great resume, a wonderful reference or two, and then I’d look for a personal statement only to find it’s not there. Incomplete files give a poor impression to reviews, and I’m sure some just pass on them and never look back. Usually, I’d set a reminder to come back in a week to see if the file is complete, and a disappointing number of times, it wasn’t.

Also, a surprising number of times, it seemed like the documents in candidates files were first faxed to a working coal mine and back before being added to a file. I’m not sure how this happens in 2017, but I’d encourage you to make sure you give the placement service pristine PDF copies of all of your materials to prevent this from happening. It’s your responsibility to make sure your file is the best reflection of you.

Remeber also that you are likely just one row in a big web table of applicants, or one file in a stack of documents, each with the same format. You should think carefully about how the documents you have control over—your resume and your personal statement stand out and reflect who you are. At the moment I’m reading your file, I’m often looking for something, anything that will make me think it’s worth half an hour to offer you an interview. Why not take me out of the confines of the placement service’s website or off the page and direct me to a website that shares some of your work. I’d love to read a comment you wrote for a student, an interesting class activity you crafted, or just about anything else that shows me you are going out of your way to share who you are.

Don’t forget the power of networking

Just like any job search, having a contact with someone at the school can obviously be a huge help. But don’t think that means you need to have some sort of deep connection. If you’ve commented on this blog, we’ve chatted at an AAPT meeting, or you’ve just emailed me out of the blue at some point to ask a teaching question, we’re connected. The MTBoS/PhTBoS really is one big family, and we seek to help each other as much as we can, so don’t be afraid to reach out.

Your personal statement is the key

By far, the most important document in your file is your personal statement. This should be an original document that paints a clear picture of you as a teacher. When I’m reading your personal statement, I’m looking for you to go beyond the platitudes and buzzwords of being “student-centered” or “inquiry-driven” and to tell a story that transports your reader into your classroom and gives them a real appreciation for your teaching philosophy and approach to working with students. Most personal statements really are overly generic and give me no appreciation for what’s happening in your classroom or who you would be as a teacher or colleague. Tell me a story—when I read your description of how you love to teach students about the history of science, or that you have a passion for engineering, I crave details—tell me about the mock debate you had on geocentrism vs heliocentrism, or the new twist you put on spaghetti bridge building.

This also applies to your resume—bring the detail. Since we aren’t dealing with hundreds of applicants, I don’t mind long resumes. If you need a 3rd or 4th page to really describe everything that’s involved with coaching your robotics team, take it.

Prepare for every interview

If you we offer you a phone interview, that means we found something interesting about you in your application and want to learn more. Like your personal statement, we are looking for you to tell us a story through this interview—don’t be afraid to reinterpret our questions to take us to the things you most want to talk about and give us the details that we can latch on to in follow-up questions. One of the things I love most about interviewing candidates is that I usually find myself coming away with new approaches and ideas for my own teaching, but for this to happen, you have to be ready to push past surface level responses to our questions.

We are also expecting that you are going make an effort to learn something about us. The easiest place to show us that you’ve done some preparation is when we turn the last half of the interview over to you and ask you what questions you have for us. Just about the worst thing, you can say at this point, and in any interview is “I think we’ve covered them all.” This is a great chance for you to ask us the questions that will help you to determine if our school is right for you, and I can’t tell you how great it was to hear a candidate say “yes, I have a whole list here.”

Nothing really changes once you get to the on campus stage of the process, except you’ll have many more interviews. Many schools, including ours, try to share a schedule of the interviews with you in advance of your visit, and it’s not a bad idea to spend a few minutes reading about who you’ll be meeting on the website. At the same time, we know you’re busy, so it’s completely fine if you haven’t committed the bio of every person on your schedule to memory or don’t even have a clue what the 7th person on your schedule does. Everyone is going to ask you if you have any questions, so prepare a long list, and don’t worry about asking the same question to multiple people—it’s a great way to get different perspectives on our community. Also, don’t feel that you need to ask detailed questions of each person about their domain, feel free to use the interview as an opportunity to ask for their thoughts about working in our community.

Don’t forget the invisible interview

Any good advice about interviewing will tell you that your interview begins the moment you step through the door of the building or office—how you treat the receptionist is often as important as how you treat the CEO. This is doubly or triply true at a school. At my boarding school, we arrange for most teaching candidates to fly the closest airport to us, which is about 45 minutes away. Candidates get picked up by our school driver, a wonderful man who drives members of the community to and from the airport. If you engaged the school driver in a thoughtful conversation, and he happened to run into the headmaster, who is an occasional passenger to the airport, I’m sure it would be a significant point in your favor. Likewise, if you were rude or dismissive to him, or anyone you encounter during your visit, that could easily find its way back to a member of the search team and hurt your candidacy.

Since interview visits to our school are all day affairs, we usually host candidates overnight, and it’s not uncommon to arrange some sort of informal social gathering or dinner for the candidate the evening before. When I visited 20 years ago, I remember the headmaster saying he was going to drop me off at a small gathering of a few faculty at a colleague’s house. Being the naive 21-year old I was, I remember thinking how cool it was that faculty got together for wine and cheese socials during the middle of the week and that they were willing to invite a stranger like me. But in actuality, this was an informal part of the interview process too. No, participants didn’t fill out some sort of evaluation card rating my strengths and weaknesses afterward, but I am sure that the impressions I made with attendees at that event did play into the many many factors that were considered in making the decision to hire me.

Remember, we aren’t just looking to hire a teacher to teach a few classes, we are hiring a neighbor, and if we have brought you to campus, we are all pulling for you and hoping that you will have a great visit.

My advice, use this to your advantage you’re going to meet a lot of people and get a chance to learn from perspectives about our community—use that opportunity to its fullest.