Getting Your First Teaching Job: One Teacher’s Story

This advice could save your life (or, at least, your interview).

first teaching job

I was barely 23, a December college grad going on way too many interviews for my first teaching job. What I lacked in experience I made up for in confidence. Who wouldn’t want this passionate gal? I was prepared with a capital P!

  • Briefcase—check!
  • Teaching portfolio—check!
  • Memorized textbook answers to interview questions—check!
  • Three-piece power suit that screamed authoritative with a side of I’m a team player—check!

I made it to the last round of several interviews, but it always seemed that the superintendent’s sister’s husband’s cousin also needed a job and, well, there you have it.

Feeling a bit defeated and a lot frustrated, I signed on to teach summer classes rather than landing a contract for a permanent position.

My first teaching job — summer school

My classroom didn’t have any windows and was entirely too small to fit me, 10 to 15 teenagers and the oversize whirring floor fan. An ancient chalkboard on wheels loomed over us, swaying back and forth each time I scrawled notes on it. Each day, I began class by simultaneously welcoming the students and sweating off my makeup.

We only had five weeks to cover an entire year’s worth of material, and with students of “summer school” caliber, it seemed that the odds were against us. But this newbie quickly learned that summer school students are anything but incapable; if they are interested, they will learn.


I used pop-culture references to describe the characters in our novels: “You know how the OC‘s Ryan doesn’t fit in with the rich kids? Think about Boo Radley’s struggle the same way: He isn’t the same as everyone else, and people are turned off by differences.”

Hip-hop and rap music helped illustrate the power that is figurative language. Similes, metaphors, and hyperbole abound in singer Lauryn Hill’s lyrics, and the students enjoyed listening to music while they wrote. Despite the belief that a completely silent room facilitates better writing, these students were motivated and inspired by music.

Pretty soon, we began working together like a well-oiled machine. They were reading and responding and writing. I found new and different ways to reach them on their level, to personalize the lessons, and the results were fantastic. Get this: Some of them were actually enjoying summer school! Wasn’t I just in new-teacher heaven?! I patted myself on the back for choosing the right profession, then continued my “nobody will hire” me pity party.

Serendipity hits

One morning before class, a student asked if I had interviewed to teach at her high school. I hadn’t realized there was an opening but made a mental note to look into it.

As it turned out, her high school wasn’t in my top five (you know you had a top five list of Please Hire Me Schools—admit it!); it wasn’t even in my top 10. But I figured, what the heck?

I interviewed like I had nothing to lose. Because I literally had nothing to lose. I didn’t fancy it up with my three-piece suit, nor did I rock the briefcase. I was polite and articulate, but rather than pull responses from the stock in my memory, I related the questions to my summer school students and my brief experience as an actual teacher. When asked how I planned to engage students, I mentioned a few students by name and explained how I held their interest and attention in summer school. I later learned that those were some of the “tougher” students in the district: beautiful minds, but zero motivation, but I had proved it was possible to reach them.

When asked if I had ideas on how to increase community involvement in the school, I tailored my answers to fit the district. Since I knew some of the students, I knew a bit about their community, their circumstances and their academic struggles. I also may have used some school-appropriate street slang I had learned from the students, but you can’t prove it. I left the interview with a renewed sense of confidence. Whether or not I got the job, I felt like I had nailed the interview because, much like my summer school lessons, I had personalized the experience.

Within 24 hours, I got The Call.

The Call. Oh, how I had waited and longed for and dreamed of The Call! I heard the words “you got the job,” but nothing else afterward. My brain was celebrating and I was mouthing, “I GOT THE JOB!” to my parents who were excitedly huddled together approximately 3 inches from my face, eyes imploring me to share the news. As if she could read my mind, my new principal (I had a principal!) said, “Call me tomorrow and I’ll repeat all of the stuff I just said. I’m sure in all the excitement, it’s hard to concentrate.”

Back in my sweat box of a summer school classroom, I was DYING to tell my students that I would be going back to school with some of them in the fall. So I did what any professional sophomore English teacher would do: I forced them to play Hangman with me. They looked at me as though I had announced we were going to explicate the themes of Hamlet through interpretive dance but eventually succumbed to my threats enthusiasm.

The Vikings were their mascot and when they realized what my Hangman message of “I am a Valley Viking” revealed, they started clapping. A few of them stood up and continued clapping. I thought standing ovations were reserved for the likes of Beyoncé; I myself never had one. Until that day. Of course, I teared up, but too proud to admit it, I played it off as sweat. And then we were back to business because I don’t play games in my classroom. I mean, I do, but … well, you understand.

The exhilaration of landing my first teaching job still ranks up there as one of my best days EVER. And it was significantly less awkward than when, years later, I announced that I was pregnant and my students applauded me for having unprotected sex.

I learned some really valuable interviewing tips that have helped me get hired for teaching, freelancing, and advertising jobs. I swear by these, unless they don’t work for you, then I don’t swear by them as much as I highly suggest them with a hint of caution.

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5 no-fail interview tips

5 Interview Tips! (3)