How to Talk About Teaching

When you apply for jobs at teaching institutions, how can you best talk about your experience and effectiveness in the classroom? Melissa Dennihy provides some pointers.

May 10, 2016

Conference presentations, oral examinations and the dissertation defense are all useful opportunities to practice talking about your research before entering the academic job market. But when job seekers apply for positions at teaching institutions, research may not be the primary topic of discussion during an interview.

How should prospective hires prepare to talk about teaching during campus interviews? What types of questions can you expect to be asked about teaching, and how might you answer? Here are a few suggestions.

Help your interviewers imagine you in action. Whether it’s an anecdote about a classroom success or failure, a retelling of a memorable or challenging experience with a student, or a description of what your classroom looks and sounds like on a typical day, it is much more valuable and substantive to enable interviewers to envision your teaching in practice than to cite pedagogical scholarship or talk in vague abstractions about your teaching philosophies.

In describing a course, whether past or prospective, give specifics. Describe texts and assignments you (would) use, learning outcomes you (would) focus on, and so forth. Be prepared to talk in some detail about what goes on (or would go on) in your classes.

In one of my interviews for a faculty position, I was thrown by the question, “It’s the eighth week of the semester. What are you doing in your freshman composition class?” I was silent for more than a few seconds as I desperately tried to visualize the week-by-week schedule on my syllabus, but my mind remained blank. In preparing for an interview, don’t underestimate the importance of doing seemingly simple things like rereading your course syllabi and materials. Refresh your memory about texts you’ve used, topics and units you’ve covered, assignments you’ve, given and the pacing of your courses.

Talk numbers as a way to give a snapshot of the depth and breadth of your teaching experience. Letting interviewers know that you taught a 4/4 load as an adjunct while completing your doctoral work indicates that you can handle the workload of a full-time position. Mentioning that you have worked with over 300 students throughout your time as a teaching assistant leaves a different impression than simply saying you’ve been a TA for a number of courses. Take the time to develop some data on your teaching experience before your interview and work those numbers in at opportune moments.

Know the department’s course offerings, curriculum and objectives. You should be able to show how and why your teaching experience makes you a good fit for the department you hope to join. You should also get a sense of what courses you will be expected to teach and come prepared to talk about all of them. You may be excited to discuss how you would teach an upper-level elective in your area of expertise, but don’t forget also to show interest in and ability to teach introductory and general education courses -- those that may require you to draw upon broader or more general knowledge, or to teach material outside of your own areas of interest.

Be careful not to step on toes as you talk about classes you’d like to teach. Try to find out which instructors regularly teach which courses. You want to avoid mistakes like mentioning that you would love to teach an “updated” version of a certain course, only to find that a search committee member has been teaching the current version of this course for 10 years and now perceives you as a threat to both the course he teaches and the way he teaches it. It might be better to say, “I would welcome the opportunity to teach X course if the need arises, but since I know Professor Y usually teaches this course, I would also look forward to designing an elective course with a specific focus on Z. That could offer something new that also furthers your department’s commitment to X curriculum.”

With each question you are asked, take a second to figuratively step back. Consider the larger pedagogical issues or concerns that may be embedded within that question and addressed within your answer. For example, a question that asks you to talk about what makes an A paper can also be an opportunity to talk more broadly about the role of assessment in your classroom and the tools you use (rubrics, portfolios, peer review) to evaluate student work. Always answer the specific question asked, of course, but also take a moment to consider whether some questions may be tackled from multiple angles or responded to in ways that present a bigger picture.

Think about how you might respond to questions about assessment -- a hot topic now in higher education. How do you evaluate student learning? What kinds of assessment tools do you use? What do you value or prioritize in assessing student work, and why? How do you use assessment of student learning to change or improve your own teaching? Consider including a rubric or a copy of a graded student assignment as part of your teaching portfolio.

If you are interviewing for a teaching position that also has research expectations, try to demonstrate how your teaching and research dovetail or inform one another. For example, you might discuss how your research interests can be transformed into material suitable for and interesting to undergraduate students. Demonstrating a sense of unity or cohesion between your roles as teacher and scholar conveys that you are professionally balanced and capable of fulfilling all of the responsibilities of the position.

Make it clear that you care about students and enjoy working with them. A candidate who speaks passionately about his or her own work but cannot generate much enthusiasm in discussing teaching or working with students is not an ideal candidate for a teaching institution. Avoid talking too much about yourself as a teacher -- your teaching philosophies, your assignments, your accomplishments -- and, instead, keep your comments about teaching student centered: What do students learn and gain from your courses? What role do students play in shaping your courses? How does working with students help you to revise and improve your pedagogy? What have your students taught you about teaching and learning? Talk about past students and prospective students, explaining how the types of students you’ve worked with before will help you work successfully with the student population at this campus.

Be prepared to answer a question about diversity. Spend some time thinking about what diversity in the classroom really means to you. In what ways are the students with whom you have worked diverse? Racially? Academically? Socioeconomically? Linguistically? In what ways are your teaching approaches and assignments suitable for diverse student populations or designed with diverse students in mind? What different types of teaching modalities do you use to help students learn in diverse ways and to accommodate different types of learners? A common interview pitfall is to give a clichéd or superficial response to a question about diversity, missing an opportunity to talk substantively about the different students you’ve taught and what you have learned from these experiences.

Consider the issues surrounding college teaching today and how you might respond to questions on controversial topics. How might you answer a question about student plagiarism and the use of detection tools like Turnitin? How would you respond to a question about dealing with the mental and emotional issues students may bring with them to college classrooms? Talking about controversial topics can be tricky, and it is always best to prepare a well-thought-out answer ahead of time.

Make mention of what you will offer students outside of the classroom. The best instructors provide one-on-one support for students, make themselves available during office hours and by email, and act as mentors who can give guidance on academic and professional matters that may fall beyond the scope of their own courses.

Bring a teaching portfolio. There is no harm in leaving supplemental materials with the committee at the end of your interview -- if they don’t want to look at them, they won’t, but the materials are there if committee members are interested. Your portfolio can and should include more than just your teaching philosophy and a list of the courses you’ve taught. You might include sample syllabi and assignments, student and colleague evaluations of your teaching, records of student accomplishments that reflect positively on your role as instructor, and samples of outstanding student work.

As a concluding point, I would like to remind readers that it is vital to understand the type of job you are applying for. During an interview at an R1 institution, the discussion will focus on your research, but candidates can make the mistake of coming to interviews at teaching institutions unprepared for a very different kind of discussion. A research-focused job and a teaching-focused job differ significantly, and not recognizing or understanding those differences can mean failing to adequately prepare for interviews that require candidates to talk substantively and thoughtfully about teaching.


Melissa Dennihy is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College.


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