Teaching Abroad – In The Know Series (No.11): ESL Interviews by Thomas Dowling

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Welcome back, Digital Travellers!

Well, hopefully you found the fun in Tom Council’s little quiz last week. If you missed it, it’s become a fine permanent feature of our Teaching Abroad section, and can be found here. If you’re still not sure about where you want your proposed ESL career to take you, it’s a grand old place to start. Otherwise, you might want to knock on the door of our friends at ESLStarter.com. 

And onwards to this week’s instalment! Yay!

This Monday, I’ll be talking about ESL Interviews. Now, as with all previous blogs, there is a fair amount of common sense involved, and there should be several items that will induce some eye-rolling ‘duh!’, and ‘I knows.’ Then, as now though, these points are still worth covering.

With that in mind, I start by discussing those ‘duhs’ and ‘I knows’ points to clear the slate in Stuff You Should Know, in partial homage to those wonderful podcasters, Chuck and Josh. Then I move on to talking about grander aspects in What You Should Ask, and What You Should Say. I finish up with some general remarks about two broad types of interviewers: Recruiters and Direct-hires.

Stuff You Should Know

Almost all interviews will take place via Skype: It’s free, reliable, and has a video-call facility. No brainer. If you haven’t already taken my advice to download this app from a few weeks ago, do so now using this link.

Regardless of your appearance—whether you’re a Brad Pitt or a John Merrick—the interviewer will want a video interview. Don’t haggle; it’s de rigour. This means you should treat it like any other face-to-face interview you’ve had: Gents, wear a shirt and tie (at least), and ladies, a smart top of some description. First impressions still go along way even if the person on the other end is actually a long way away, too. Don’t slack.

Choose your setting wisely. Don’t situate yourself in a noisy bar or cafe; equally, try not to conduct the interview from home if you know your three year-old sister breaks glass whenever she cries, nor if  has an annoying penchant for switching your computer off mid-task. Think about noise levels (audio is essential, of course). Think also about the appropriate nature of your surroundings. For example, a bar might be very quiet before happy hour, but is not going to enamour you to your Muslim recruiter for that plush job in Saudi Arabia. Equally, other cultural icons—well-intentioned, humorous, or out-right political—might affect your employment potential. For instance, if you’re interviewing for a job in Myanmar and you have a poster on your wall that derides the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, this may well be enough to dissuade the person interviewing you not to send you a contract afterwards (Aung San Suu Kyi maybe be criticised on the international stage right now, but she remains unshakably loved by most of the population). This may seem like a small thing, but it only seems like a small thing to you. Sometimes things are much bigger than we are aware without specific cultural knowledge. Wherever you end up in ESL, you’ll have to develop a strong respect and understanding of that culture; you might as well try to cultivate those traits prior to the interview.

Almost every direct hire, and to a greater extent, most recruiters, too, will ask a question along the lines of ‘So, what do you know about us/school X/country Y?’ To be fair, in most cases you are not expected to know much; a great deal of the pertinent information that you might learn or need to know will be discussed, but it looks frickin’ awesome if you’ve done even a basic, cursory amount of research about the recruiter company/school/country/etc. You’ll get big brownie points that will certainly go in your favour. No one expects you to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for a job in China, but knowing something of the current political situation in the country might help. Equally, no one in Saudi Arabia expects you to convert to Islam before arriving Riyadh, but having an understanding of the importance of the faith and its restrictions for foreigners will go a long way. That said, some institutions, often universities in the Middle East, in my experience, will, as a matter of course, expect you to have done some level of research about the institution, perhaps about its history, success rates, your role, etc., etc. Personally, I often ask if there are any information/links/PdFs that I can read prior to an interview for the jobs I really, really want to be hired for. In most cases, a good survey of a website will suffice to provide the information you’ll need. From an interviewer’s point of view, this is all about testing how interested and committed you are to the job.

Check your tech! This should also go without saying, but do check that everything works: Is your Internet connection strong enough; is the audio/sound working (test it); is the video operational; and make sure you’ve signed in before hand (especially if you’ve not used Skype for a while). These are all basic things that can make or break and interview.

And lastly, plan head. Again, super obvious, but no one wants to see a flustered interviewee. Otherwise that first impression will almost certainly be thus: Someone who is not good with time management. This would be a massive own-goal as time management is one of the most important requirements of a teacher (And some CELTA/DELTA courses like those at ITI hammer this home in very detail lesson plan requirement).

What You Should Ask

In my personal opinion, the most important thing in an ESL interview is to express to an interviewer (with or without experience in teaching) your interest in the job. You can do this by asking questions about the students (age, range, ability, class sizes), the curriculum (which books, subjects, will I have to create my own), the school (size, location, accreditation, reputation), staff (how many foreigners/natives; total compliment), and facilities. All these questions demonstrate an enthusiasm that goes above most others, and will further help you decide whether the school/institution is in turn a good fit for you.

Secondly, I would say that emphasising your desire to develop yourself professionally is becoming increasingly important in the industry’s current climate. Discuss how you wish to improve yourself over the year, whether it be free-online or paid for courses to help with your weak grammar knowledge, or perhaps something that might fine-tune your classroom management skills. Ask if your employer has any book recommendations about creating exciting lesson plans or how to hit the ground running. Likewise, mention the ESL/TEFL/grammar books that you’re currently reading. If they are quality publications there is a good chance the interviewer will know of them and be impressed at your positive attitude.

What I'm getting at with these two points is that passion for the post—demonstrated through questions related to interest and expressed through a desire to improve yourself on the job—can go a long way not only to impress the interviewer, but also make up for a lack of experience.

What You Should Say

This should also be a no-brainer: Don’t lie! Don’t try to bluff, wing, or blag your way through (a good recruiter/senior teacher will know if you are, more often than not). If you don’t know something, say so. The last thing you want is to be doing something in a foreign country that you have no idea how to conduct. If you say you love working with young children to help you ‘look’ better, and then find yourself teaching 2-5 years old in Kunming, China, rather than middle school teenagers in Shanghai, well, that could be a serious problem. Likewise, and this is more common, if your interviewer throws you a curve-ball grammar question on the spot, it’s OK to say you don’t know. Of course, it’s supremely better to answer the question with confident knowledge, but don’t try if you don’t know. Oftentimes, honesty is much better in these instances. (Remember the importance I placed on mutual trust between interviewer/employer and interviewee/employee?). As mentioned briefly in previous blogs—and as will be discussed in more detail in several to come—most native ESL teachers have a low explanatory ability of the inner workings of English grammar. If you and I, dear reader, were sitting in a cafe right now and I asked for an example of past perfect continuous or 2nd conditional if clause, most would look at me with a screensaver expression (I was in this position myself, eight years ago). It’s OK that you can’t explain what these are right now, off the cuff. The onus is on you to be able to do this before you teach it in your class. This is why a degree is often a perquisite to an ESL job: You’ve successfully demonstrated an ability to learn complex material in an educational environment. In some cases, like with grammar, or with new pedagogical techniques, you’ll be called upon to reproduce these skills for you own classes. Simply be honest if thrown a curved ball, demonstrate your ability to learn new things, and describe how you might overcome these gaps and challenges (e.g.: buy a book on English grammar; take an online course; ask a colleague for help etc.).

In a similar vain to grammar questions, an interviewer may well pose several scenario-based questions to test your potential to work in the ESL industry. They may include some of these questions (I’ve simplified these examples for illustrative purposes, but you should get the idea):

  1. You are teaching a mixed ability class past simple [the students range in language ability, broadly speaking from beginner, intermediate, to advanced]. How would you approach this?
  2. David is a naughty student. You’ve asked him several times to be quiet as he is disrupting the rest of the class, but he refuses to take any instruction. How will you deal with him?
  3. You’ve made a marking mistake on a student’s paper. The parents are angry. How will you resolve this problem?

These are just some examples that I can think of, paraphrased from several different interviews over my eight years of ESL teaching. This is not to say you will get any or all of these, of course, but that you might. (They are good general questions to think about anyway, in my view.) The point I am trying to make is that it is OK to say you don’t know how to deal with these things at the moment. After-all, you are not yet a teacher and are unlikely to have encountered these scenarios first hand. This is fine to say - it’s honest. However, you can go further. Start by being honest about your lack of experience (be sure to express this clearly), take a moment, and then try to present some logical, well-reasoned solutions. This shows an aptitude for problem solving, which is another important string to any teacher’s bow. And your effort will be positively noted.

As highlighted on various occasions in this blog, you may be asked to relate your experience working with children or to demonstrate relevant skills whether they be team work, times when you've successfully worked independently, or previous jobs where preparation was an important quality. Again, don’t just make stuff up - recruiters may well check with your references if you are new to the profession (as this blog assumes you to be). That’s not the same as thinking outside the box to provide answers, however. Any job requires time-management skills (especially if you have a clock-in card, or travelled an hour to work everyday); perhaps your job required specialist training, like a lifeguard, this is worth sharing; or if you had a bar job, mention your easy-rapport building ability (though not appropriate for Muslim countries).

Two Types of Interviewers

For me, there are two types of interviewers: Recruiters and Direct-hire(r)s.

Recruiters: As a general rule, recruiters work for a commission. They will have lots of institution-clients that need teachers, new or old. They make their living from their clients hiring you, and usually receiving a month’s worth of your salary as their fee. Because of this, in my experience—and there are exceptions—the relationship can be quite prosaic; clinical. As long as you fulfil their briefs, they will suggest you get hired and that’s it. They will unlikely ask the probing questions or request you to elaborate too much on areas of weakness. You might think this is good, but I have come to think of this as bad practice over the years. This type of interviewer is likely to be less invested in your personal needs, answer questions you may have, or really provide you with a full picture of where you’ll be heading or what you’ll be doing. Again, not everyone is like this. As mentioned, ESLStarter.com (with whom I started my ESL career) were excellent, as were Prime Teachers (info@primeteachers.com). In reflection—and again, as ever, in my opinion—the interviewers that show a care for their client by asking pertinent questions of their candidates are the better ones for they are not just after a commission, but are genuinely trying to do a good job for all those involved in the hiring process.

Direct-hires: The description probably gives the game away: These are usually owners or senior teachers at specific schools or institutions that directly hire staff rather than going through a recruiter. As an experienced teacher, I prefer this method of getting from A to B, but if entering into the field for the first time, recruiters are the best entry point. In general, because direct hires are directly recruiting for their school, the interview process is likely to be more rigorous given that they have an ideal candidate in mind (in respective of the needs and challenges that they precisely understand) and will therefore wish to find the teacher that best fits that brief. As intimated, while this procedure may well be more vigorous, it will give you more markers and information as to whether this post is equally right for you. The reason I say this is best for experienced teachers is because when you start out in the industry I don’t think one really knows what’s best for themselves as there are so many variables and unknowns in the initial decision-making process. 


So, when it comes to ESL interviews, don’t neglect the basic stuff. No matter how well you score on everything else, first impressions still count, even via Skype. Ask questions to illustrate genuine interest, and do a little research, too. If you don’t know something, that’s OK, but don’t lie. Instead, be honest, and seek to offer sensible solutions to presented problems. Have some understanding of your audience: Are you being interview by a large-portfolioed recruiter for China, or the owner of a small school in Spain? This will help you frame your approach. Overall, perhaps contentiously, the most important things to illustrate during an ESL interview are keenness for the position and a desire to develop teaching-relevant skills.

To help you get to an interview stage—and pass it—The Digital Traveller will soon be unveiling our bespoke Services. For the Digital Traveller/ESL teacher, this will include such polishing as CV/Resume Editing and Reviewing specifically tailored for the ESL world, as well as Mock Interviews that are intended to make that (perceived) upcoming grilling more palatable.

OK, Digital Travellers, next week we’re gonna be having a little Q&A session with our old friends at ESLStarters.com to give you some great insights in how to get ahead in the ESL rat race. This is not to be missed! Literary tell everyone interested in teaching abroad about it

That’s all peeps. 

Editorial: Thomas Dowling has worked in the ESL industry for over 7 years, having lived and worked in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Myanmar, Kuwait, and the UK. His work experience has included an international school, a university, private academies, and summer camps. Currently, Thomas is a full-time PhD Student studying Environmental Security at the University of Leicester. He has previously studied degrees in Ancient History (BA; MA: Bristol), and International Security Studies (MA: Leicester). In 2014, he earned his CELTA qualification (ITI: Istanbul, Turkey), complementing previous TEFL certificates acquired in England. Thomas is also the Co-Founder of The Digital Traveller, focusing upon content and content management. Thomas presently lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife, Jack Russell Terrier, and newborn baby, Zeno.

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