Answering Questions

A few years ago, I was interviewed for a Head of History job.

I didn’t really want to be a head of department. It’s a job I’ve done before, so I know whereof I speak when I say that it’s a position of responsibility without power. Years of organising internal examinations, and filling in the endless reams of paperwork required for the coursework elements of public examinations, didn’t appeal to me. Attending more meetings, and having to write agendas and minutes? Book scrutinies? Arranging for all the extra sessions which are now expected? Not for me.

I’d have tolerated all of it to do what I thought needed doing. Ours was one of those History departments which, partly in pursuit of public examination results, and partly because of the preferences of its senior members, offered a dismally narrow curriculum. There was a great deal about Hitler, and a fair amount about the nineteenth century, and from the age of thirteen a pupil would never be taught anything that happened before then. Along with a couple of other members of the department I thought this was a bad thing, and I said so.

I was the internal candidate, but the job was advertised externally, so I knew the Head didn’t fancy me for it. No doubt he wanted someone who relished all elements of the job, not someone who’d tolerate the grim bits; and perhaps he approved of pupils studying the Third Reich at Key Stages Three, Four and Five.

In a way, this made it easy for me. I’m not really a believer in ‘interview technique,’ at least not for me, not any more. As a young man I was sometimes taken by surprise by a question, and although I’m not saying that this definitely wouldn’t happen to me now (I was once asked, by an immensely likeable English-teaching Deputy Head, whether I agreed with him that poetry told the truth in a way that history didn’t, and I’d be no readier for a question like that today than I was a decade ago: that, though, I suspect, was the whole point of it) I don’t think there are many things that an interviewer could ask me that I hadn’t thought about.

Ah, but what about thinking about the answer that’ll get you the job?

No, I’m not playing that game. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never been desperate to leave a job. And so I’ve always been able to say ‘here are my answers, Head Master: if you like them, then appoint me, and if you don’t then don’t.’

When he asked me if I thought that what would happen in the history classroom of the future would be different to the history classroom of the day, I knew what he wanted to hear. I’ve been present, after all, when he has said to new and prospective parents that their sons will be doing jobs which don’t yet exist. But I didn’t tell him that I thought flipped learning was the way forward. Because I don’t think it is.

And when he asked me how I would measure my performance as a head of department, I didn’t mention public examination results. I told him that I’d consider it a success if more history books were taken out of the library and read. I told him that I’d consider it a success if attendance at History Society events with guest speakers no longer needed to be compulsory. And I told him that I’d consider it a success if, years in the future, some of our pupils became history teachers themselves.

I didn’t get the job. But those are still my answers.


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