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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.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Vance J. Nannini permalink
    September 2, 2017 8:02 am

    Great series, John. I’m the Sci Dept Ldr/physics teacher at a large Catholic HS in Dearborn, MI; we have many of the same challenges you discussed. Good stuff. I wish you a great SY

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