Interviews at Community Colleges

Inside Higher Education
May 1, 2009
by David Lydic

You have decided you want to teach at a community college. You're a four-year college or university teacher in a non-tenure track position looking for greater security. You're a high school teacher looking to move to a different level. You're a graduate student who loves teaching and realizes that is what we do at the two-year college. You have applied for an opening. You've been notified. You have an interview.

There is no shortage of interview hints available in print and electronic form. I'm looking right now at a spring 2008 issue of Uturn, a student magazine published by Barnes and Noble. In a section for graduate students, the interview is equated with a sales call: the chance to sell yourself to a potential employer." The article isn't speaking of teaching, of course, but it says accurately that topics you should be prepared to discuss are your strengths, your professional aspirations, why you want to work for a particular company and recommends the CAR approach as a way to evaluate your progress: "Context Action Result; what was the objective, what action did you take, and how did it turn out." Even Yahoo! tries to help with tips on being a savvy interviewer and avoiding interview killers: Don't complain about parking, bad-mouth a previous employer, grovel, space out, slouch, curse, be too needy, ramble, be overly familiar, or get too emotional. I am positive that all this is good advice. I always recommend avoiding cursing during a job interview.

Hiring faculty is a mysterious and unpredictable process. I have no easy answers for how to clear the final interview hurdle to land that teaching job. But after 30 years of teaching at two-year colleges, after serving as a department chair, assistant dean, and dean, after participating in and chairing countless hiring committees, I have some ideas.

We are hiring teachers. We want our new colleague to love entering that classroom -- even the electronic one -- as much as we do. Therefore, let us review traits a good teacher possesses. In the Guidelines for the Academic Preparation of English Faculty at Two-Year Colleges, the following are identified as characteristics of effective two-year college English faculty. Such teachers:

Are reflective practitioners and flexible teacher-scholars.
Center their classrooms on the student.
Understand diversity and teaching to diverse ethnic, economic, and ability populations.
Challenge their students.
Ground their teaching in theory and research.
Collaborate with colleagues in developing curriculum.
Actively serve their colleges and their communities.
Participate in professional community through conferences, presentations, publications, and ongoing scholarship.

In my experience, these characteristics are accurate. Most of my colleagues seem to agree. Hiring committees will ask questions centered on them and will want to hire someone who demonstrates them.

Before the Interview

1. Research the college. Be especially careful to read its mission. Be sure you understand and buy into it. I can virtually guarantee that you will be asked a question about the community college mission, probably one of your first questions.

About the department, be especially careful about studying English course syllabi. Many colleges have their departmental and sample instructor syllabi available online. If not, don't be afraid to ask your contact at the colleges for which you will be interviewing to send you one. This shows interest and initiative.

It is usually acceptable to communicate with the hiring committee chair or other designated contact. Don't overdo it, but if you have questions that will help you prepare for the interview, ask them. For example, you might request various materials be sent to you if they are not available online, such as a college catalogue or faculty handbook.

2. Get to know your own philosophy of teaching. A request to articulate one is very likely.

3. Come prepared. Bring a pen and writing pad. Bring several extra copies of your CV and important supplemental materials, such as student evaluations.

4. Prepare two-three questions you will ask the committee, questions other than those about pay and benefits.

5. Dress well. Dress professionally. If not now, when? Men may never wear a suit again in their life, but in the interview at least wear slacks and hard shoes. Women don't have to wear hose and heels, but its not a bad idea with that new suit. Don't let the possible casual dress of the committee members fool you. You are still making a first impression. The committee will use the care you demonstrate in preparation for the interview as an indication of the care you will take in teaching and working with them on committees.

In my experience most community college teaching interviews last one and a half to two hours. There is seldom any other contact with the committee. No cocktail parties, receptions, or meals together. You have to convince the committee during the brief interview that you are the best choice.

During the Interview

1. Most interviews are carefully scripted, with the same committee members asking the same questions of each candidate. Don't expect much spontaneity. Do expect furious note-taking by the interviewers.

2. Make your interest in teaching in two-year colleges obvious. Avoid the impression that they are a second choice. Don't refer to them as junior colleges (unless they are) or universities.

3. Be direct and specific in your answers. Enough but not too much. Don't lecture.

4. Most search committees contain faculty members from other departments and even non-faculty. Avoid too much jargon.

5. Eye contact. Give the person asking questions your undivided attention.

6. Write down the questions as they are asked. Some will be scenarios or will have several parts. You may occasionally be provided with a copy of the questions.

7. You will probably be given an opportunity to ask questions. Ask two or three related to teaching or course content.

The Teaching Demonstration (this is usually required)

1. The time allowed may be from 15 minutes to one hour.

2. Sometimes the topic is assigned in advance. Examples: Composition: Your audience is a class of Composition I students. A. Introduce the mode of comparison/contrast. B. Discuss MLA documentation in the research paper your students are writing. You have been discussing the paper for a couple of days and have provided an overview of what such a paper is like, the research process they will be expected to engage in, and possible topics,. Literature: A. In your Composition II class, explain how character, conflict, and point of view work together to help us understand Dave in Richard Wrights The Man Who Almost a Man. B. In your literature genre class (a required sophomore class), discuss the structure of any Emily Dickinson poem.

3. Sometimes you may choose your own topic. Choose a topic appropriate for two-year college students.

4. Make your presentation lively. Interactive is a good idea.

5. Provide handouts. Leave the committee members something to help remember you.

6. Don't count on having many teaching tools available. If you depend on them, be sure to arrange for them in advance. No matter how technologically capable you are, its probably a good idea not to depend too much on technology for the teaching demo. If you use technology, have a back up plan. Simple handouts are always a good idea.

The Grading Demonstration (sometimes required)

1. If you use a rubric for grading, bring it with you.

2. Ask if the department uses a rubric. Use it if possible.

3. You may be given more than one paper, written at different skill levels.

4. Be prepared to explain your grading process.

The Writing Sample (sometimes required)

You may be asked to respond to a writing prompt to assure a committee that your own writing is competent.

1. This is almost always impromptu.

2. Be specific and clear. Give concrete examples.

3. You are allowed to use a computer, use it.

After the Interview

Write a brief, sincere thank you note to the committee chair and, if possible, to each committee member. E-mails are acceptable; a real note is better.

Coming Monday: In part two, Ill share actual interview questions from five community colleges.

David Lydic is professor of English at Austin Community College.