(Published in Southwestern Musician, February 2012, by Peter J. Warshaw, Rick Ghinelli, and Larry Matysiak)

Once upon a time, prospective job applicants in music education seemingly had their pick of open teaching positions. Each year, there were plenty of openings, and some positions even went unfilled. Hiring season was filled with intrigue about which school districts would be the best places to work, and the TBA convention job board overflowed with postings. It was common to see small groups of people actually conducting interviews in a remote corner of the convention center and administrators making job offers on the spot.

In today’s economic situation, things aren’t quite so simple. It’s even more important for a job applicant to be thoroughly prepared and informed prior not only to seeking the job but also to winning the audition and receiving an offer.

Be Educated

Most people who work in human resources agree that the interview is a dual process—each side is assessing whether it will be a mutually beneficial fit. Applicants need to know the school district’s and campus administrator’s educational philosophy as well as how they view the role of the music program.

Equally important is understanding the job description for which one is interviewing. The school clientele, student age levels, and artistic philosophy are all items that may influence whether or not this is a place where you would like to work every day.
In addition to asking questions of someone you might know who works for the district, you can research district goals, accountability ratings, standardized test scores, and much more on their website.

Broaden Your Experiences

Without dedicating extra effort to become better known, you could easily be overlooked. Some additional ways to garner positive attention are to:

  • attend workshops and clinics where you will become better educated and can connect with others in the profession;
  • judge or monitor Region contests when asked—these are good opportunities to make a good impression;
  • serve as a marching band tech—these are enormously valuable learning experiences (if you don’t get hired to tech, ask if you can watch the rehearsal to learn);
  • observe rehearsals of the programs in your area that have a history of success (you may be required to comply with all district regulations pertaining to visitors, and you should make an appointment with the director to ask questions about what you saw);
  • observe performances at UIL contest;
  • do your best to have positive student teaching and private teacher experiences (the cooperating teacher can become a resource for you about other openings in the school district);
  • attend the TMEA Job Fair, which virtually every fine arts administrator in the state attends (while it is rare for an actual opening to be filled there, it is an excellent time to make a positive impression); and
  • ask questions during your interview that help you determine if the job would be a good fit and that communicate to interviewers that you are serious about this position.
General Communication

In today’s job market, it’s imperative that an applicant makes a positive impression every chance they have. Each communication with a potential employer is an opportunity for them to eliminate your application from consideration.

Know whom to contact, and always be certain that your written communication is addressed to the proper person in the school district. Keep this written communication brief—the appropriate place for an applicant to explain their qualifications is in the interview, not in a cover letter or during a phone conversation.

If you are fortunate enough to receive a phone call or email requesting an interview, return it at your earliest opportunity.

Résumés and Cover Letters

While résumé content matters more than appearance, a poor presentation can imply an unwillingness to complete the detailed work necessary to provide an accurate document. If you send a personalized cover letter, be sure to use the correct name, spelling, title, school district, etc. Often, when sending multiple résumés and form letters, it is easy to forget to change this specific information. Keep in mind these simple guidelines when designing your résumé:

#1—Keep it simple: Your résumé should be clean and readable, without typos or grammatical errors. Include standard information, such as your contact information, major instrument or voice, education and training, and work experience. Be prepared to explain any gaps in your employment history. If possible, limit the length to a single page (this may become more difficult as you acquire more experience).

#2—Keep it pertinent: Most interviewers care only about experiences that are applicable to the position you are seeking. Emphasize your education and experience that best matches the work you seek. Be sure to include any special training you completed to hone your ­musical skills and any leadership experience. From a quick glance at your résumé, will an employer gain an accurate picture of what you have to offer?

#3—List your references: Since there is no doubt that interviewers will contact your references if they are interested in you, provide them up front.

Most applications require one’s current supervisor as a reference (usually your principal). For those who are just starting out, potential references can include former employers, teachers, clergy, or adult family friends who can vouch for your character. Be sure to ask your references if they are willing to recommend you and permit you to provide their contact information. 

Interview

Your personality and how you conduct yourself during the interview have the greatest impact on your chances of landing the job. Many students, in particular, perform poorly in their first interviews because they don’t prepare, don’t dress right, and don’t know what to expect. You should realize that the person interviewing you will probably be about 20 years older and will expect you to show poise and maturity. —Gulya Armstrong, Assistant Professor of Business, University of Nebraska

You are on stage the minute you walk up to the building. Dress professionally no matter the circumstances of your travel. If traveling a long distance, arrange for a place to change into your interview clothes (not in the building where you are going to be interviewed). An interview is no occasion to wear anything designed to call attention to you, your clothing, a body part, or decoration.

Demonstrate professionalism, even in the reception area. Do not smoke, chew gum, eat candy, or drink anything except water. Make sure your cell phone is turned off. 

Be on time. With the availability of online maps and directions, there is no excuse for getting lost or being late. However, when your interview is scheduled, ask for a number you can call in case an emergency causes a delay in your arrival time. While you will send your résumé in advance, bring several copies to the interview.

In an interview the only way to ensure a mutually positive fit is to be yourself. If you put on an act, and don’t get an offer, you’ll wonder if you would have been better off being more natural. If you do get an offer, you may have to continue that act for at least the next nine months!

There will likely be a team of interviewers, including the campus principal, fine arts administrator, human resources personnel, current faculty members in your subject area, and possibly a parent. Make eye contact with the people to whom you are introduced, and shake hands confidently. Each may ask questions designed to allow you to address certain issues pertinent to them. 

Make your interview comments positive in nature, and regardless of past situations, refrain from making negative comments about anyone. One of the people sitting across from you may be best friends with a person about whom you just made a negative comment. Use appropriate language in the interview, and avoid the use of slang. 

Interviewers generally ask four types of questions:

  • Qualifier questions: determining if you meet the general specifications for the position.
  • Background questions: determining if your history and philosophies match that of the music program and school district.
  • Behavioral questions: predicting your future behavior based on the information you provide about past behavior.
  • Conceptual questions: eliciting more details about how you react and respond to various situations.

While it may sound simple, listen intently to each question before answering. Stay on topic, and be able to explain your answers or elaborate if asked. Keep in mind that some questions are designed to elicit a response but may not have a clearly defined, right answer.

Interview topics often include discipline management plans; skills in communicating and interacting with students, parents, colleagues, and administrators; approach to teaching a typical class; general strengths/weaknesses; attitude toward fulfilling duties outside your subject area; goals for an ensemble or class you teach; and your personal long-range goals. You may also be asked to problem-solve for a given situation.

It doesn’t hurt to ask an interviewer to give you a moment to think or to repeat a question (avoid doing this too frequently). Sometimes the best answer to a tough question is “I don’t know, but here’s what I’ll do to find out.” You can’t know everything, and most interviewers appreciate the honesty.

When provided the opportunity to ask questions, frame them positively. Rather than asking about how many hours the job will require, ask about extra opportunities to learn. Avoid asking questions to which you can easily obtain an answer (e.g., most salary and benefits information is posted on school districts’ websites).

After the Interview

At the conclusion, thank all of those present for their time and for the opportunity to interview. Always follow an interview with a short thank-you letter or email. This is another excellent opportunity for you to restate your interest in the position.

While days may seem like years, try not to expect the worst if you don’t receive an update in just a few days. An administrator may be working to fill positions in many different subject areas during the same week. Most interviewers appreciate your desire to know, but there’s a fine line between being persistent and being a pest.

If offered the job, you might be given a short period of time to consider it. Asking for more than 24 hours is excessive and may indicate you are playing one school district against another. Be open and honest; if you are considering other offers or accept another position, communicate this with the districts in which you interviewed. They will be grateful for your courtesy, which may be remembered at a future time.

What Not to Do

There are certainly actions one should not demonstrate in the interview process that could eliminate your application from any further consideration. The following are generally agreed to be deal breakers:

  • negative statements about previous jobs, coworkers, employers, or students;
  • statements that indicate you won’t follow instructions or policy;
  • improper attire or conduct;
  • improper or unclear résumé information;
  • dishonesty;
  • lack of or too much enthusiasm; and
  • appearing clueless about the school district or program
Mind your P’s and Q’s

Remembering a few important overall concepts can help you stay focused on the task at hand—winning the job.

  • Are you prompt, professional, personable, and prepared?
  • Are you being persistent and persuasive in your pursuit of the job? 
  • Are you being pesky or pushy? This can place you in the questionable file.
  • And finally, nothing will quash your application faster than being perceived as a pain!

Remember that while the job interview may seem centered on you, the more important audition takes place in front of a group of eager young students who are waiting to be the beneficiaries of your knowledge. Your preparation for this final audition has to be extensive. The stakes are too high to fail.

Peter J. Warshaw is Leander ISD Fine Arts Director, Rick Ghinelli is Spring ISD Director of Performing and Visual Arts, and Larry Matysiak is Cy-Fair ISD Director of Secondary Music. (published February 2012)