I was saddened to read this recent tweet from Maria Alexander O’Neill:
Over my thirty year career in schools I had 21 interviews and was successfully appointed to seven different posts. I usually did ask for feedback if I were unsuccessful. Sometimes it wasn’t provided (and I was told on more than one occasion that the school had a ‘policy of never giving feedback’). Sometimes it was less than helpful. I remember being told after one Head of Department interview that I had sat forward in my chair “which gave an impression of nervousness”. At the next interview I sat back in the chair, and – you can see this coming, can’t you? – in the feedback was told that my “relaxed position made me look less engaged and interested”.
But occasionally the feedback was helpful, constructive and motivating. One of the problems when you are unsuccessful is that you can begin to doubt your capacity to do the job. In fact, not being appointed doesn’t mean you can’t do the job. It doesn’t even mean you can’t do the job well. It simply means that the selection panel decided that someone else was a better fit for what the role/school needed at that time. And they may well have been right! But interviewing is an inexact science and you have to build your resilience and your capacity to bounce back and try again.
The most useful example of feedback I ever received was after my sixth unsuccessful application for a Head of English role. I was drained and starting to feel the situation might be hopeless. But I sat down with the newly appointed English Adviser in the Local Authority (Marie Stacey – I will always remember her and be grateful to her) and she offered me forthright critical commentary on both my written application and interview performance. She didn’t pull any punches. But when she had finished and I said, “I’m starting to think I don’t have what it takes to do this job..” she said, sharply, “Of course you have!” And she was right. I was successful in the next interview, went on to be Head of English for four years and, although I made mistakes and learnt along the way, I know I was an effective Head of Department.
Over the second half of my career I frequently sat on the other side of the table and interviewed teaching and support staff, and leaders at all levels. When I was a head I determined to learn from my own frustrating experiences as a candidate, and ensured we worked hard to try to get the process right. I remember saying to my colleagues that I could see every unsuccessful candidate was potentially an ambassador for our school. Even if they were disappointed not to be selected, we wanted them to be saying, beyond the school gates, something along the lines of: “That’s a great school and I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to work there. But this was a positive, productive experience. I was well-treated, the process was well-organised, thoughtful and considerate. We were treated with respect and care, and I was offered useful feedback which means I learnt something which should help me in the future.”
So how can schools increase the likelihood of securing this kind of response?
- Be efficient, clear and thoroughly organised. Ensure you supply all the information the candidates need, and that they have an accurate understanding of the process, dates and deadlines, and the shape of the interview day. If you announce when and how they should hear the outcome of the day, make absolutely sure that you honour that.
- Treat candidates extremely well on the day – they will inevitably be nervous, and you should do all in your power to make them feel comfortable and at ease. The day should be reasonably full so that they do not have long stretches of time where they are unoccupied, and if this is inevitable because of the number of candidates you are seeing, ensure they know they can wander round the school (you will have DBS-checked them all) or leave the premises and return.
- The interview itself should be probing, clearly, but it does not need to be brutal. Putting interviewees under further pressure is not necessary if you want to see the best in them – in fact, it can be counter-productive. Treating people with warmth and humanity should be a given. Ensure they have time to ask their questions, too, and give carefully-considered answers. My final question to every candidate was always: “If I ring you this evening to offer you the post, will you accept it?”
- We always released candidates after their formal panel interview – teaching and other activities took place in the morning with any presentations and panel interviews in the afternoon, and we always interviewed first those who had the longest journeys home. Those who had been involved in the selection process then met after all the candidates had left, and we made our decision.
- That evening, I rang the candidate we wished to offer the job to, and once they had verbally accepted, I rang all the others to let them know. “It was good to meet you today. I hope you felt it was a positive experience. I’m sorry to disappoint you on this occasion, but we’ve offered the job to x..” (they always want to know who was appointed – they have got to know each other quite well during the day) “..and he’/she has accepted. If you would like feedback, I will gather the information from all those who met you and write to you within the next few days to offer advice I hope you may find helpful in the future. And very best wishes with your ongoing career.”
- The feedback letter was as positive as possible – there are ALWAYS things to praise, in my experience – but it was honest about any way in which I thought they could increase their chances of success in the future. I often received positive replies to this letter, which I shared with all those who had been involved on the day.
As Maria said in her tweet, you may put your “heart and soul” into an application. Isn’t this kind of consideration the least you deserve?
I’m interested in others’ experiences and what others think.
Thanks for reading.
Photo montage: John Berry