Interview Hell

Pre-Ramble

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Interviewing, when I was looking for work as a teacher, was always really stressful. For the most part, I think I was pretty lucky because I got the job for almost every position I have applied for in my professional life.

There is one that got away that sticks to mind, and was particularly humiliating not to get. It was a university posting I was hoping for, and I had my mind completely made up that I was going to get that job. But I didn’t. And then I languished… It felt awful. I felt self-doubt. I felt worthless. I felt like someone was looking through me and saw that I was not worthy, that I was a fraud, that I wasn’t worth crossing the street to spit on my hair.

Anyway, interviewing is awful. I never liked going to interviews and it always freaked me out. But over the last couple of decades I have also had my chances to be on the OTHER side of the table, where I HAD THE POWER! YES! Now, I WOULD DECIDE… who shall pass and WHO SHALL NOT PASS!!!!  Oh, these are days, and now interviews often leave me chuckling in megalomaniacal glee.

That’s not entirely true. But I do know a few things about how to interview for getting a teaching gig in Japan, and I DO also know a few things about getting the teaching gig for the JET program since I also served as an interviewer for that process too. Would you mind if I share a few experiences with you?

It’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know…

There is some truth to that, but that is not the only truth. I really believe that simply being persistent, and deciding that Japan is where you are going to wind up come hell or high water can be the way to get yourself to this side of the pond. Over the years I have seen waves of woefully unqualified borderline personality types make it here. And to be honest with you dear reader, I know you are better than most of those chuckleheads. Do not despair. Do not give up. Knock on every door. Then knock on all of them again. The biggest thing you have going for you is timing. If you knock at the right time, even if you are not the top in your class, the door can open. Fire off all your resumes. Wait a month and then do it again. And again. Recruiters change and rotate. CVs get ignored and discarded. Play it like the lottery.

Once you are “in the room”, as in you made it to Japan, the rules change. I will see what I can do to coach you when you get to STAGE TWO, but it depends on how often I update this site… heh heh…

Ok, so you land your first gig. And it is not great. You got a job as an English eikaiwa entertainer/teacher/event organizer. The bosses are anxious. The kids are uncivilized. The parents look at you sideways. Everything about Japan is not what you imagined. Why did my manga lie? But you made it. Congrats. The job has long hours, split shifts, your salary is at the whim of a minor league despot, your apartment is above an old ladies karaoke salon, your neighbourhood is littered with cup of ramen containers, and orange haired Hello Kitty slipper wearing biker boys rev up their crappy motorcycle engines around your home at 2AM. But you are here!! Yay!

So, what I am saying, is be persistent. If coming to Japan is your dream, don’t give it up for anyone. Your parents. Your high school boyfriend/girlfriend. Your idiot relatives. Your school friends (who will stay pretty much the same for years after you leave anyway). Take the first job.

But…. you may ask, how do I do that?

Oh, yeah right. I kind of forgot. Back to how to ace that interview.

Be Normal

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This is a tall order for some. But it is important. Do NOT come to your interview telling everyone about how Evangelion is the shining beacon of truth to your world. I don’t even really know what that is, but I gotta tell you, anyone with a manga/anime fetish does not get anywhere with me in an interview. Your love of comics is great. And I love comics too, like the Jack Kirby world of it. But that is not the point. What you enjoy as reading and viewing material does not make you interesting, or qualified, or good with kids, or a team player.

You will be asked, “Why Japan?” A better response is something along the lines of you have always been interested in other cultures, and that there is something very interesting and attractive about Japan that pulls you, and you want to learn more. But more important than that, you love teaching. Teaching is the reason you want the job. Yes, TEACHING. You love to teach. You like students. You like to help others.

Did you see that?

Whenever you have a chance to steer the conversation about why you think you are so special/unique/talented/fierce/important/a shining beacon of truth like Evangelion, you shift the topic to why you like to TEACH, and to be of service to others. I am sure that you are a fascinating person, but someone who feels a need to remind us how fascinating they are tends to be, well, a little less fascinating than they thought…

Be Truthful

This is the hard one, but don’t be TOO truthful either. I remember several interviews I helped conduct where the applicant said, “I really just need a job to pay my student loans.” I hear that and feel that. But you won’t get the job with that kind of honesty. Such applicants do not care about Japanese kids or teaching so they will likely not be a first choice for the school.

It is a good idea not to over-inflate your qualifications. You may have been active in a lot of clubs, got scholarships, been clever in debate class, edited a school newspaper, and so on. But to be honest, as an interviewer for about 20 years I never look at that stuff. Everyone has it, or some version of it. Of course, when you are starting out your career that may be all you got, so put in on anyway. Just consider that the CV is just the key to the room to the interview. The interview is everything, and the people across the table have to like you within the first 4 minutes, or it’s over.

I recall a particular candidate I helped interview for the JET program. He was “perfect” in every way, right from the golden locks of hair on the top of head, to the blue suit, to the perfect smile, to the CV with glowing recommendations of everyone he ever met, to the tips of his shiny shoes. But he tried to give the vibe that “We need him more than he needs us”. So that was it. We were polite, but the feeling was wrong. He was in the wrong job. He is probably running for public office somewhere now.

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The next guy after Mr. Perfect was a sports coach with a community college degree. He just talked about the kids he worked with. The rapport was instant. We saw someone who loved to be good for kids, and found the reward of interacting with others to be of value in itself. It was his dream to go to Japan, of course, and if he could do that and teach at the same time it would be a great honour. He got the ticket to Japan, and I hope he is still here now.

Mr. Perfect got passed over.

So, be truthful. Do you really want to teach? Do you really like students? Do you like to learn and be of help to others? If not, that is perfectly okay. Just don’t pretend that it does because you are in love with Gibli Studios or something like that. You are not a teacher-type. And that is really okay. Be who you are, but being untruthful to who you are becoming will take years away from your life, and in the end give you regrets rather than good memories.

 

Be On Time, Better Yet, Be Early

This ought to be a no-brainer. But if you are late to the interview, it is over. Whenever I book an interview and the interviewee is late, even for a minute I usually cancel it completely. If we do wind up going through the interview, I will keep it to 30 minutes maximum, have a coffee, and consider the candidate as a “will only hire if I cannot find ANYONE else” case. They might be the nicest person in the world, but at the critical moment of simply showing up, they failed. If they fail with the boss, they will surely fail with the client, and then everyone suffers for it. No hard feelings. Honestly, but lateness is a sign of not being ready, and no company or school can hire people who are not ready to be there. Even if they are really nice and good people otherwise. Sorry about that.

 

Be Kind

Above all, well… first be on time, you need to be kind. The skills of most jobs can be taught, and since you are university educated (you DO have your degree, right?), you should be teachable. A lot of jobs, particularly the eikaiwa world, do not mind if you do not have all the answers. In fact, overly clever people tend to make a lot of trouble for middle-managers when flexing their superior frontal lobes, so if you are nice and open to learning, you will do well. Take notes, smile, be nice, ask for help, ask for how you can help, ask for what you can do to make the school or company better, suggest things that you can do and how you can contribute to your work place and the betterment of your team. That kind of stuff is worth its weight in gold. As an employer I always look for the person who cares for others, rather than the person who believes I need to appreciate their great intellect. Someone who intones that we should appreciate them more is often overly proud, has insecurities of one sort or another, and who jockeys for position over  others. That is not team-work. That is some kind of 1980’s Hollywood leftover about how work is a “dog eat dog” place, and you got to keep others down while you weasel your way to the top. That kind of stuff may work in some “corporate eikaiwa” but that never works in our schools.

Forget all that nonsense you have heard about “showing your power”. Kindness, empathy, helpfulness gets you ahead in this game. I can’t tell you how many weasel types I have seen get eventually exposed, or politely sidelined over time, in favour of people who were simply nicer, more approachable, less dramatic, and easy to deal with. After all, it isn’t about “YOU”. It is about us, and what good things we can do together.

Sometimes the good guys win. You can be a good guy, or gal if you are one.

 

Failure

Yep. Happens a lot, and all the time. You hear all the “feel good” inspirational stories of people who were dirt poor and then suddenly wrote a series of best selling novels about kids who go to wizarding school and have a gajillion dollars profit from the Hollywood blockbusters that they generate. And to get there they had to fail a lot.

I like those stories, even if they are a bit over the top. But it is true that failing is going to happen a lot, and as time passes, as years go by, you should be failing more and more. You fail because you try. You try because you got heart. And you keep failing because somehow you learn to stop caring what other people think, and just do things because you need to live, and you need to be happy.

But you gotta fall down.

I liked something I heard Denzel Washington say. He said, “When you fall, make sure you fall forward.”

I thought that was a great.

In lots of ways you are going to fall down. Through life we are all kind of just tripping up the stairs. It’s messy, but that is just how it is.

I have failed many times in hiring teachers. I have failed spectacularly in some cases. But that is because I trust, and I believe people will do and be the things that they say. We work very hard to protect our company and schools from trouble, and there are buffers and “plan B’s” in place for all kinds of contingencies. But I want to give people the chances that I feel were denied me when I was on the interviewee side of the table. Sometimes we get some unbelievably great people working with us. So it is TOTALLY worth it.

And then sometimes we have hired some people who totally surprised us, and pulled the wool over my eyes.

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We have had staff steal from the company. We have had staff who simply decided to work with us to take ideas and data to use for their own “soft opening”. We have had staff who are vitriolic on-line and charge us with “abusing them” because the working day is 8, instead of 5, hours (I guess in some countries in Europe a 40 week is equal to slavery….). We have had staff who when told that they cannot make their own teaching schedules run down to the Labor Board and “report us” (that was perfectly fine of course, because we meet with those guys too to make sure EVERYTHING we do is perfectly legal and above board). We have had former staff vandalize our vehicles. We have had former staff just disappear from their classrooms without a word. We have had a teacher call me on the phone in a drunken rage because we would not extend their contract, calling me all sorts of lovely names. We have had staff lose our keys and refuse to pay for new ones and damage company property and not even apologize.

I have, in short, failed.

A lot.

I am sure to fail again. We have had some mis-hires. We never really know much about someone until we work together, so we need to extend the chance, extend the trust, give the respect and expectation to the new staff, and then see how they do. I am pretty sure that I will keep hiring in the same manner, but just listen more and more to my instinctive voice that warns me when someone doesn’t “feel right”.

But we have also managed to hire some of the most talented, responsible, intelligent, deeply kind, deeply loved by kids, teachers you will ever meet. Our team members are really quite spectacular, and each person is very different. I am proud to work with them. I am proud to make our company together. We do good stuff for kids, and we really depend on each other to make that happen.

 

But, Don’t My Qualifications Mean Anything?

Yes, and no. Your qualifications get you “in the room”, but you can blow it by being a jerk.  Having a degree is a must, having proper paperwork is a must. That gets you to the table with the people who are considering giving you money every month so you can do things like pay your bills and debts. It’s serious stuff, but from my point of view (and please take it only for what you think it is worth), the paperwork can be over-rated. I am glad to see people with CELTA or TESL or various kinds of certifications attached to their names. It shows that they have a goal that they want to work towards. But the most important thing is to see if they would be good with our kids and clients, and if they can be good to the team. It is hard to know how good someone can be, so we have to try things out too.

You would be surprised what kinds of things we learn about people in the first few days of interacting with them. One teacher we considered thought that a junior high school basketball player was “hot”. They did not come back the next day. One teacher, when hired with us mentioned that “he fears children”. Did he not see our 6-foot tall sign of a CHILD’S FACE on the front of our school? Our school is not like “Snakes on Planes”, you should expect to see children in our classrooms. In an interview, I had a teacher ask if we had a “scream room” so he could go and scream in seclusion when the kids were becoming too much to deal with. I love that one.

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So, you see, interviewing and being interviewed is a very surreal, and entirely hilarious process. The interviewers may be thinking how they can “out-fox” the interview and “land the job”, like it is some test of strength or something. Many interviewers take themselves far too seriously, sit cross-legged, their index finger touching their pursed lips and say things like, “So, what qualities do you think you have that would be desired by a corporations such as ours? And how many ping pong balls do you think you could put in your mouth while still being able to play the harmonica?”

I am only one guy that does hiring out of the thousands of places that hire teachers here in Japan. But, take it from me, if you find yourself on our front door, or we are having coffee together to talk it means that it is serious. I don’t want to waste your time or mine. I usually make up my mind if I like someone in the first few minutes, and then if the timing is right, and the qualifications are enough to get you in the classroom, we might give it a try.

And then from there, it is totally up to you.

Stage TWO coming next….

Thanks for reading this far. I know this article kind of rambled on, but I enjoyed writing it. Good luck in your job hunt. It’s hell out there, but you are going to land on your feet.

You are going to wipe out. You are going to feel embarrassment and shame. People you thought would support you will chuckle and laugh. That will hurt, but you must persevere. Your future self deserves it.

You are going to feel bad about a lot of stuff that you don’t have much control over. Just know that you are still important and have a lot to offer. Know that it probably isn’t YOU. The situation always dictates the outcome in these things. Just keep swinging away. You are going to get what you want, or at least start on the road that will get you there. Really.

In your corner,

Mark

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