I’ve had several inquiries recently about how to handle specific questions when interviewing for teaching jobs. So let’s tackle how to answer 3 of the toughest (and most common) interview questions — so you have a better shot at winning the job.
But I’m going to start with a caveat. Because all too often I find that musicians have no idea about how to prepare for interviews. They imagine (on some level) that there’s a set of “perfect” interview answers. And that if they memorize these and use them in the interview, that they’ll will win the job.
Is there an overall “trick” to handling interview questions?
When considering how you’d answer any question, the best approach is put yourself in the employer’s shoes and think through what she or he is actually trying to find out.
Try that now with each of the three questions below.
Note: These interview questions are typical with teaching jobs, for both college positions, as well as for private secondary schools, community music schools, and summer programs. And variations of these questions are used by hiring managers for other types of jobs as well.
#1 Why are you interested in this position?
What do employers want to find out with this question?
They want to know what you actually know about THEIR institution. They want to find out whether or not you “get” who they really are: their institution’s values, concerns, and interests—because they want to find the best fit for the position. So if you’re clueless in your answer and only talk about yourself and your needs, well, that tells them a lot right there, doesn’t it?
Do your research in advance so that you can demonstrate in your response the kind of fit you are for their institution.
For example, if it’s a college job, knowing that it’s a small dept. of mainly music ed. majors is not enough. There’s a huge difference, for instance, between a dept. within a research 1 university and one in a liberal arts college with a religious legacy.
Doing your research means not only reading the music dept. pages but the university’s mission statement and the welcome from the President or Dean to learn about the student population and what the school is most proud of.
In your answer, you want demonstrate that you “get” them and are genuinely excited about working with their students, (not just that you love to teach and really want a job!)
Perhaps you’re excited to teach in a thriving urban commuter college environment where classrooms typically include non-traditional and international students with a wide range of work and life experience. Maybe you find sparking conversations among a diverse student body inspiring.
Or, let’s say you’re applying to be a sectional coach. So maybe you’re enthusiastic about the prospect of coaching members of the city’s leading youth orchestra. You’re interested in helping advance both the ensemble’s mission and the conductor’s vision and helping players prepare concerts with the shared goals and sensitive nuanced approach of chamber musicians.
Whatever your answer, it should demonstrate your clear knowledge and genuine interest in meeting that specific employer’s needs.
#2 Describe your teaching method/philosophy and how you apply it in your lessons.
With this question, the employer is NOT asking for what method books you use and what teachers you studied with. Please don’t go there.
Instead, the employer wants to get a real sense of HOW you teach.
Don’t describe the overall approach you use in your studio.
Instead, illustrate how you teach with an anecdote—an actual story that illustrates your values in action—what matters most to you in your teaching.
The story should detail the specific challenge you helped a particular student (or ensemble or class) to overcome, what you specifically did to help, and the results achieved.
Stories are memorable.
General descriptions aren’t.
So don’t rattle off a description of what you do with all your students. Forget about saying that you’re student-focused, that you really get to know your students, or that you tailor lessons to each student’s ability. Everybody says that stuff so it’s cliché and ultimately meaningless.
Instead, tell us how you helped your student Rosemary overcome a specific challenge. What was the creative solution you came up with? How did Rosemary respond to the suggested intervention and what results did you and she achieved together?
#3 How would you react or cope with disagreements between yourself and other faculty members?
Think through what the employer is really wanting to find out here. What’s the question behind the question?
My take: the employer is trying to find out what you’d really be like to work with. Not just in the good times, but when things get tough. Because it’s in conflicts that we reveal are true colors, right?
And who knows, maybe they have some “difficult” personalities already in the department (what department doesn’t?) and are trying to find the right person to fit the situation.
Employers care about this because good interpersonal skills are key for getting along well with students, colleagues, and with the administration.
It’s not simply about having great teaching and performance skills. You’d be joining a team and a community so for the employer, finding a great fit is crucial. After all, if it’s a tenure-track job, they may be working with this new hire for the next 20+ years.
Sometimes search committees use a version of this kind of question but ask you to describe an actual experience. They might say, “Tell us about a time when you faced a conflict with a colleague and how you worked through it.”
Employers don’t need to know who the colleague was or where this happened. They just need you to describe a real anecdote so they can get a sense of who you really are.
Another variation of this would be, “Tell us about a time when you faced a conflict with a supervisor (or with a student or with a student’s parents) . . .”
How should you answer these “scenario” questions?
Think of examples you might use. A suitable example is one in which you helped improve or resolve the difficulty. The employer will be “reading between the lines” of your story to see what it reveals about your judgment, empathy, and your communication and problem solving skills.
So don’t name or blame individuals or institutions. Be clear, fair, and objective about the challenge you faced. Own up to whatever part you played in creating the problem. Describe what was at stake, what steps you took to address the problem, the response you got, and what the results were.
Your story should reveal your character, self-awareness, and your interpersonal skills. Don’t brag or boast: it’s actually better if your story reveals what you learned from the experience.
Advanced interview preparation
To prepare for interviews I recommend that musicians have 3 anecdotes ready to go. These should illustrate how you teach and how you work with others.
One anecdote might be how you helped a student resolve a problem in their playing using a creative resourceful process (illustrating how you teach).
Another one might be about how you overcame a difficulty—or resolved a conflict—with a co-worker.
The third might be about how you recruit students, or how you balance your teaching and performance work, or another relevant topic that employers will likely ask you about.
The right kind of practice can make a world of difference. Here’s to your improved interviewing skills!
FYI, I regularly do mock interviews with clients to give them objective feedback and tips so they can improve their interviewing skills. We record these on Zoom so they can review how they’re coming across, make improvements, and go into their next interview with far more confidence and clarity in their communication.
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