Interviewing Tips for Music Educators

Interviewing Tips for Music Educators

You just received that blessed, long-awaited phone call… “XYZ School District has reviewed your application and résumé, and would like to call you in for an interview.” Hooray!

Okay, but now what?

There is no perfect formula for acing a particular interview or clinching employment opportunities. Like music auditions, there are a lot of variables and factors even outside the control of the job seeker. One might say there’s a lot of luck involved in the inspiring a warm and productive chemistry/atmosphere at the interview, and clicking with members on the HR review panel. There is no magic pill or perfect process to communicate your strengths and experiences to the interviewer and matching them with the needs of the position.

When I ventured out the first time into the public school music teacher job market (1978), there were many more potential candidates than openings. The competition was very high. I had to be aware that selling myself as a total music education professional was essential, not allowing myself to be branded (and eliminated from the running) as a much more limited music specialist (string teacher, vocalist, band director, etc.).

I had to prove competency and provide evidence that would support my mastery of the institution’s teaching standards, positive personality traits, and overall suitability for the job. I’ve said it before! This is everything about getting noticed, making a connection with the interviewers, and demonstrating that you have what it takes and would be a good fit for their school district.

Below are some of what has worked for me, for my colleagues, and for people I have interviewed.

Preparation: Do the Groundwork

Practice makes perfect, they say, and preparation is the name of the game.

“Failing to prepare for your job interview is, in our experience, the most common reason why people fail at interviews. In fact, recent research found that 95% of job interviewers believe 90% of interviewees come to job interviews ill-prepared. You want to be in the 10% of interviewees who do prepare. Right?” – Catherine Jones, recruitment expert

Prior to any interview, conduct thorough research about the school. This includes learning about the school site, studying the job posting, noting other music positions, and the academic (and arts) programs offered. If possible, find someone who works in the district, and get some background about:

  • The job opening and responsibilities
  • Previous employees in this position
  • General information about the music program
  • School district’s mission statement and administrative support of the arts
  • Work climate
  • Community support

Here are some topics that you might research in advance, or ask about during your interview:

About the Position/School

  • What position(s) is(are) open and what duties are required?
  • What music classes and extracurricular activities are offered?
  • How many periods (not counting lunch) are scheduled daily?
  • What avenues of professional development exist?
  • What resources are budgeted (sheet music, music technology, field trips, piano tuning, instruments and instrumental repair, teacher in-service, festivals, etc.)

About Students

  • What percentage of students are in the music program?
  • What percentage of the students own instruments, take lessons, seek outside ensembles, etc.?

About Pedagogy

  • Are any specialties emphasized e.g. Kodaly, Orff, Dalcroze?
  • How often is curriculum updated?

About the District/Community

  • What’s working (and not working) in this school district?
  • What is the average makeup of the community (education and socioeconomics)?
  • What educational, cultural, and sport/leisure activities are available in and around the community?
  • What indicators of cooperative parental and community support exist (concert attendance, private teachers, booster groups, community arts organizations, etc.)?
  • What is the school district grading scale and music grading policy/practice?

Study the School Website

The school’s website is an excellent resource to find out information. If the district has “teacher pages” or sections where faculty may post information, review all submissions by the music staff and administration. Make sure you are aware of the mission and vision statements of the district and have a workable knowledge of the strategic plan, goals, and recent curricular/program innovations…almost always available as a public record.

Plan Ahead

Learn the name, title, and level of responsibility of the administrator(s) and/or interviewer(s). Make a trial run to visit the site of the interview, observing first-hand any potential traffic or construction issues that could affect your arrival time. Arrive early, at least fifteen minutes prior to the appointment. (Punctuality is absolutely essential!) Dress to project an image of confidence and success. (Yes, this means wear a suit! If you are a guy, wear a tie!)

Also, bring additional materials. These can include –but are not limited to – a transcript, portfolio, updated résumé, certifications, sample lesson plans, music programs, recommendations, etc.

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Self Confidence and a Self-Assured Mindset

Many say that first impressions are critical during the interview. According to Business Insider, “you only have seven seconds to make a strong first impression.” I have also heard that after four minutes, it’s all over! The research also suggests that during the interview, the evaluation of your merit is based 7% on what you say, 38% on your voice or how you say it, and 55% on our facial expressions and nonverbal cues.

Do your best to relax and promote a calm, positive, and cheerful attitude. Share a warm greeting and firm handshake. Build rapport and demonstrate an attitude of openness and sensitivity to the interviewer’s style. Show a feeling of mutual responsibility for creating a comfortable atmosphere and establishing common ground. Treat the interview process as an exchange of information between two (or more) individuals.

Bring your questions! It is important you show you are motivated to learn about the details about the program and the position. Be yourself, and demonstrate relaxed speech, posture, and body language. Angle your position so as not to sit directly in front of the interviewer. If possible, select the chair beside, not across the desk, avoiding the creation of so-called invisible barriers. And always use the person’s name when talking. It is the best way to get/keep their attention.

A few more positive nonverbal cues to adopt include the following:

  • Respond to the interviewer with an occasional affirmative nodding of the head.
  • Sit erect in the chair with hands, feet, and arms unfolded, leaning forward slightly.
  • Offer good eye contact and smile appropriately.
  • Maintain a pleasant facial expression.
  • Look interested in and listen to the interviewer.

Provide thoughtful, professional, and firm answers to the interviewer’s questions:

  • Back up statements with specific examples.
  • Share the outcome or solution to a specific problem.
  • Summarize to emphasize your strengths.

If you don’t know the answer to a particular question, be honest and admit it. Inexperience is not a crime. And, be sure to say what you mean. Otherwise, if you end up getting the job, you may be stuck with your own words.

Finally, it’s all about feeling and projecting self-assuredness – and remembering the three C’s of interviewing – be Calm, Concise, and Congenial. No matter how you feel inside, you need to show you are a confident and competent candidate worthy of their consideration.

Habits to Avoid

Here are a few of the obvious no-no’s! Avoid these nervous habits, almost guaranteed to lower your rating at the interview.

What You Say

The content of what you say does matter. Avoid the following:

  • Unsubstantiated or unsupported statements
  • Answers that are too casual, personal, or informal, or flip conversation
  • “Bird walking,” changing of the subject, irrelevant or unclear responses to a question
  • Responses that go overboard and/or volunteer too much
  • Forceful, dominating, one-sided, opinionated views or arrogant attitudes

How You Say It

In addition to the content of your responses, your delivery has an impact as well. Be on the lookout for these and other speech behaviors that can pop up in stressful situations:

  • Repeated verbal pauses, or exclamations of “Umm” or “Ahhh” or “Like…”
  • Use of “weak words” that suggest a lack of conviction (“kind of” or “sort of” or “I feel like”)
  • Verbal clutter (too many long run-on statements)
  • Fast-talking or dropping the ends of your words

Body Language

Be conscious of the unintentional messages your body may communicate, too.  Avoid:

  • Shoegazing or failing to look directly at the interviewer(s)
  • Any form of fidgeting (tapping your foot, spinning a pen between your fingers, wiggling in your seat, etc.)
  • Touching of your hair, clothes, nose, mouth, or anywhere else on your body
  • Any nonverbal cues that reflect nerves, insecurity or lack of confidence, including slouching or poor posture, looking down, failure to smile, clenching or keeping hands in lap…

Self-Analysis: The Post Interview Postmortem

After the interview, debrief yourself. Be certain to do this on the same day – don’t wait for the memories to fade.

Write down everything you felt you handled right and wrong. Critique your performance, and document the details (including all names) for future reference. Learn from your mistakes. Look up the terminology or jargon on which you stumbled or with which you felt unfamiliar… so you will be ready for the next interview.

If you did well at the first job screening, you may be asked to come back for a second interview or to conduct a demonstration lesson. In most cases, a member from the first panel or a music staff member will contact you and tell you what they want to see taught. You might be asked to lead a general music class on a specified concept, conduct a small ensemble, or teach a  beginning instrumental music or jazz class.

Get ready! Look at your notes. Practice and drill (again) on those lists of interview questions, paying particular attention to possible content-area queries. If you did the research on the school district’s curriculum and focus areas of the music program, it will help you to prepare for the demonstration lesson.

Carefully make notes about any information you need to include in future correspondence and follow-ups. Every communication you have, both from and to the school district,  should be recorded in a journal, Include the name/e-mail/extension/title of the person involved as well as the date of receipt and your response.

Follow Up

Write a personalized thank-you letter to the individuals on the interview committee. (This can set yourself apart from the other applicants.) In your letter, you might offer to send additional copies of your portfolio or DVD video files of student teaching and/or other samples of your interaction with students. Think outside school walls and consider your work leading a church choir, conducting a small instrumental ensemble, coaching a marching band sectional, teaching private lessons, playing a piano accompaniment, etc.

Follow-up your visit by making phone calls, fulfilling additional paperwork as requested, mailing materials (e.g. official transcripts) if asked, validating completion of coursework and clearances, confirming availability, etc. However, be careful not to become a nuisance by making repeated calls and emails.

Closing Thoughts

Break a leg! We are counting on every excellent music educator to become successful in marketing themselves and landing a position. Frankly, regardless of the current job market and status of arts education in the schools, we need more dedicated and inspiring music teachers to get out there and facilitate the spread of creative self-expression.

Paul Fox

Retired in 2013 as a music teacher and performing arts curriculum leader of the Upper St. Clair School District (Western Pennsylvania), Paul K. Fox is currently chair of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association (PMEA) Council for Teacher Training, Recruitment and Retention and PMEA retired member coordinator. He has presented workshops and written articles on creativity in education, ethics, interview techniques and marketing professionalism (college majors/new teachers), and retirement resources for a variety of websites and publications, including Edutopia.org, MajoringinMusic.com, NAFME eNEWS and Music in a Minuet, PMEA News, Collegiate Communique, and Retired Member Network eNEWS. His work is archived at paulfox.blog.

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