It’s not easy to land the first teaching position. Without full-time experience as a teacher, there’s no doubt that—even with excellent training—you’re going to have so much to learn. I remember several tough interviews while looking for that first job, where I knew I did not have good answers to questions I was asked. I can recall exact moments in interviews where I knew I would probably not get the job.

When I landed my first teaching job in a bilingual middle school program in East Harlem, I was actually hired on the spot after my demo lesson. But it wasn’t quite as simple as it sounds.

The first time I came in for my scheduled demo, I was prepared to teach a lesson on idioms with ESL students. I had a short, humorous narrative written by a new immigrant about misunderstanding the idiom, “Quit pulling my leg.” The assistant principal was in the middle of something when I arrived at our appointed time so she had me watch the ESL teacher teach a class while she finished the pressing work. The teacher was leading the students through nonfiction text on marine animals. It had many pictures and the print was pretty large. She did a lot of stopping to check for understanding and having students relate the information to their prior knowledge. The students were endearing. I wanted the job.

After the class was done, I met with the principal to go over my lesson. From the stacks of paperwork on her desk and the number of people who kept coming in to ask her questions, I could tell she was beyond busy. When we sat down, she asked me a few basic questions about my experience and my approach to teaching. Then it was time for me to explain the lesson but I had a problem. After seeing the students I would teach, I realized my lesson was destined for failure. The narrative was not at their level so I took a chance.

“Is there any way for me to come back and do this another day?” I asked.

She wrinkled her face and cracked a half-way amused smile. “Why?” she asked back.

“Well, the class I was just watching—are those the students I’m going to do my demo lesson with?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered, still curious about where I was going with this.

“I have this story for the kids but now that I’ve seen them in class, I know it’s not going to work.”

“Let me see it,” she said. I handed it to her. She glanced at the first paragraph.

“Hmm… I see what you mean,” she said, softening her demeaner a bit. “It looks good, but it’s beyond their level right now. It would at least need some images to support it.”

“Is there a time I can come back with something better for them?”

“You can come back tomorrow,” she said, finally. “Same time.”

I gulped and accepted the challenge. I went home and began drawing. I was never a star art student, but I could somewhat draw people. I drew into the night, and after many erasures, I had a series of drawings—somewhat comic-book style, somewhat third-grade art class style—that served to illustrate the story. Complete with thought bubbles and dialogue, they made it clear that while one character was saying, “Quit pulling my leg,” she meant that she thought the other character was lying. But the other character didn’t know the idiom and was confused, picturing himself pulling her leg. I cut the story up and pasted the drawings with the appropriate piece of text.

The next morning, I made my copies and went back to the school. The principal was ready for me when I arrived. I taught the story and then used it as an occasion to explain what an idiom is. Not a brilliant lesson, but it went over well with the students. They were amused by the drawings and the story, and we accomplished the objective.

Afterward, I went back into the principal’s busy office. We talked briefly about how the lesson went. She asked me how I thought the changes I made to the materials had helped the students. Then she offered me the job.

Later, I found out I would not be teaching ESL, but transitional (fluent) ELLs in the mainstream program, which turned out to be a great match for me. My principal didn’t talk to me very much my first year, as was her way. But she did tell me one thing: when I told her I wanted to modify the materials, I had gotten her interest. And when I came back with those drawings, she knew she was going to hire me, as long as I didn’t complete botch the lesson.

So what do principals look for when making a decision about hiring a brand new teacher? In my case, I was able to show my principal that I was observant, flexible, hard-working, creative, and willing to take a risk. I actually had a good first year, and I think my principal felt like she took a worthwhile chance on me. The lesson may be to be honest, admit what you don’t know, and do what makes sense to you—not what you think/worry someone might expect of you. In the hiring process, your actions and decisions are amplified in a way and show more about your character than you may realize.


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