Month: January 2021


I have been coaching school leaders and aspiring leaders in preparation for their interviews for ten years. My clients frequently ask me how to answer questions that they struggle with. Here’s a sampling of a few of those questions, my strategies as to how to answer, and my answers:

1. “What would your direct supervisor say about you if I called her?” (You think you might not get a positive recommendation from her; what can you do?)

Analysis: You can’t criticize your supervisor, and you can’t say that she might say something negative about you. What you can do is to speak to your supervisor; let her know that she might be getting a reference call; and ask her for a positive recommendation that emphasizes the positive things that you’ve done. Most supervisors are not out to destroy your career. Who knows; she might see this as an opportunity to get rid of you, and give you a positive recommendation?

Answer: “I think she will say that I have great relationships with my students and their parents, that I’m always well prepared, and that I’m always willing to give my time and attention to assist my students.”

2. “If you get this position, how long do you plan on staying in it?”

Analysis: You probably don’t know how long you’ll stay or how things will work out. Your new supervisors probably don’t want to go through additional transitions in the short run. However, you won’t be credible if you say you’ll stay for the remainder of your career. Employers seek leaders who are honest. Your answer needs to offer a logical rationale that supports your response.

Answer: “Assuming that things will work out well, I think five to seven years would make sense. The literature says that it takes at least five years to implement and sustain structural improvements. I’m committed to see my work through to positive outcomes.”

3. “You’re a certified school leader with very little leadership experience, why should we hire you over more experienced candidates?”

Analysis: Your aim is to present yourself as a self-confident, “can do” person who will grow on the job. Your selling points are your accomplishments as a teacher, your potential and willingness to embrace being mentored and molded into the culture of your new school and district, and your raw undeveloped talent and energy.

Answer: “I may not be your most experienced candidate, but I can assure you that no one will be more eager to grow and learn, and work harder than I. I believe my colleagues will tell you that I’m a teacher leader who has played leading roles in some of our most important school improvements. My resume outlines some of these projects. Let me add that as a high school and college athlete I was often chosen as team captain. I’ve been told that I’m a “natural born leader.”

4. “I see on your resume that you live more than an hour away. Is that going to be a problem?”

Analysis: Never hesitate to “shoot down” any obstacle that might diminish your value. You should provide evidence that any of their concerns have been overcome or resolved in the past. Employers want to be assured.

Answer: “I take full responsibility for my attendance and timeliness. Although my present place of work is 15 miles less of a commute, my time in traffic commuting here would be about the same. It is fair to say that I’m never late and usually one of the first people to arrive. It’s not a problem.”

5. “As an experienced school leader, tell us about a failure you experienced, and more importantly, what lesson did you learn from it?”

Analysis: This is similar to the often-asked question, “What is your greatest weakness?” The worst answer is, “I really can’t think of one”. Being humble and self-reflective are very desirable characteristics. The example you provide should be designed to resonate with the interviewers’ experiences and evoke their empathy.

Answer: “As an inexperienced leader years ago, I made decisions based on gut feelings or intuition. What I’ve learned over the years was to put more trust in my ability take time… listen to people I trust even when they have divergent opinions and gather credible information and data. I’ve learned what I call, “watch the movie”. In other words, listen, suspend judgement, slow down the inquiry, and ultimately decide on what is in the best interests of my students. The example that comes to mind was when I was serving as a superintendent, I had a strong desire to initiate an International Bachelorette Program. As we debated the merits of the program, I became more inclined to start the program. However, I encountered some strong opposition from a segment in the community and from the teachers’ union. My gut told me that it would be divisive, and I backed away from moving ahead. I regret not listening to my leadership team.”

Larry Aronstein provides career coaching to school leaders and aspiring leaders. Learn more at


  1. Tell us about yourself. Make your resume come alive.
  2. Why do you want to become a leader?
  3. What do you know about our school/district? Why do you want to work here?
  4. How would you deal with a veteran teacher who is not receptive to your recommendations?
  5. What role and what aspects should remote learning play once the pandemic is over?
  6. What are most important things you look for when doing a classroom visit?
  7. What expertise do you bring to your staff in enhancing student learning through the use of technology?
  8. How do you know (what evidence do you seek) that students are learning the concepts and skills that are being taught?
  9. How would you go about assisting a teacher who is having difficulty with classroom management/student discipline?
  10. What are the most productive ways of doing staff development so that teachers can enhance their teaching repertoire?
  11. How would you go about determining what your priorities should be in your new position?
  12. Assuming that your primary assigned duties as an assistant principal are:  bus, corridor and cafeteria duty; scheduling of assessments; student discipline; ordering textbooks and other supplies and materials—how will you learn to become an effective instructional leader?
  13. How would you go about leading a committee or a professional learning community?
  14. Assume that there is a fight in the corridor, how would you deal with this?
  15. What would you do if one of your teachers refers 40% of your total discipline cases?
  16. Assume that an unpopular policy has been made and many parents are unhappy about its implementation. How would you deal with a room full of angry parents at a PTA meeting?
  17. What would you do if your supervisor was making a decision that you believed to be illegal and/or immoral, and you felt would be harmful to others?
  18. If you interviewed candidates for a teacher vacancy, what three questions would you ask them?
  19. Tell me about a student who you helped that might have changed that child’s life.
  20. How would you deal with a parent who is dissatisfied with how a teacher is treating his/her child? Assume that the parent has already spoken to the teacher.


Are you facing a potentially career ending set of circumstances? (1) Were you denied tenure, or are you facing being denied tenure? (2) Were you or have you been forced to resign? (3) Have you ever been terminated? (4) Are you suspended (re-assigned to stay home)? (5) Have you been demoted or are you facing being demoted? (6) Are you facing serious charges that may result in termination or loss of license? (7) Do you have a bad reputation and are you being black balled? (8) Do you face getting poor references? (9) Has your job been eliminated or are you facing job elimination?

Although all of these situations are serious, confusing and anxiety provoking, you must deal with them in a measured and rational way; no not panic, do not be distracted or motivated by your pain and anger and make things even worse. In most of these cases you will probably need help from your union, a personal attorney, highly informed and well-intentioned colleagues and friends. You must act strategically and in your own best interests. And you must also pay attention to your health, including your mental health. Here are some strategies you to consider:

(1) Denied/being denied tenure—If you are informed that you will not be getting tenure, you must jump start a search for a new job. (If you even had an inkling of being denied, your resume should be ready to go.) Find out from HR the last possible time that you can resign. Always resign rather than being formally denied tenure or terminated by action of the Board. Every job application has a question, “Have you ever been terminated or denied tenure.” If the answer is “yes”, your career in education is most probably over. Therefore, resign. If you are asked during an interview, “Are you being denied tenure?”, or “Have you resigned?”, your truthful answer at that moment is “No”; not until the effective date that your resignation is accepted by the Board.

(2) Forced to resign—If you are non-tenured and the administration has fulfilled their contractual and legal obligations, you will probably have to resign if asked. However, always check with your union and have them review your case with legal counsel. On the other hand, if you are accused of a serious wrong-doing and are asked to resign or be brought up on charges which might lead to termination and the loss of your license, then you should consider getting your own attorney. Your state association’s attorneys are usually over-committed, working on a multitude of cases, and cannot spend sufficient time on cases; some of their attorneys are inexperienced and can be outgunned by the district’s legal counsel. If you hire your own lawyer, make sure he or she is highly reputable and experienced in school law and labor law. Do not be surprised if you’ll be required to pay a substantial up-front retainer. Legally pursuing a serious case is usually a long and costly process for both sides. Most of these cases wind up being negotiated.

(3) Terminated—Being terminated will end your career. Avoid termination at all costs. The best way to avoid termination is through negotiation. Expect that resignation usually will be a non-negotiable part of the deal. What you might get in return can be extended salary and health insurance, a neutral letter of recommendation, and a sealed case file. Union lawyers are usually pretty effective at this kind of negotiation.  

(4) Suspension—The term “suspended” is usually called “re-assigned or assigned”. It means that you will be relieved of the duties of your position. Oftentimes, you can be directed to stay home and are not permitted on school property or events; or the district may assign you to report to an isolated space to perform some busy work—some call that a “padded room”. If the suspension occurs in connection to a termination process, you can find yourself in this state for many months or even years. In most cases you will receive a “suspension with pay” and regular benefits until the case is resolved. Other suspensions can be part of a penalty for a less significant charge. This is usually part of a negotiated agreement and can be without pay or even with a fine. Usually there’s a specific duration for the suspension. Suspensions are also given to provide time while a more complete investigation is taking place.

(5) Demotion and Layoff–A common issue is reduction in force (RIF); that is the need to eliminate positions based upon budget cuts, job consolidations and school closings. Administrative contracts and school laws have language that covers the processes that are used. The processes usually come down to areas of certification and longevity in a position. Frankly, some districts exploit RIF’s as a strategy to get rid of what they consider to be personnel who are undesirable. Unions usually review these RIF plans very closely. If you are demoted or laid off due to a RIF, be certain to get a letter from your district detailing the situation. Demotion can also stem from being promoted within the district and that new position not working out. When you agree to a promotion, try to avoid resigning from your tenured position until you earn tenure in your new position. This is sometimes included in your contract.   

(6) Loss of license –When a serious charge is filed, the district has a legal obligation to file the complaint with the State Education Department (SED). They will then monitor the progress of the case. Potentially, the State could exercise its prerogative to file charges and hold hearings which could lead to loss of license. The SED provides public information that names persons and their status. The duration of this process and the potential appeals can take years to resolve.

(7) Bad reputation (black balled) –Alleged wrongdoing, complaints, and/or disciplinary charges should all be handled confidentially. However, gossip, rumors, and leaks do occur and can become exaggerated in their re-telling. Unfortunately, the public relishes juicy gossip. The educational community is actually small, and word will get around and can ruin reputations. This can lead to being black balled within the job market. It is difficult to rehabilitate a reputation. A bad reputation can persist for decades. Perhaps the best antidote to neutralize unfair and unfounded allegations is for highly respected colleagues and friends to publicly defend you as soon as possible. I refer to these good people as “angels”.  If all else fails, sometimes the last alternative is to re-locate.

(8) Poor references—Experienced HR people do checks beyond letters of reference. So, it’s not enough to get good letters. If supervisors feel they can’t write you a positive letter. Problems can occur when the potential employer calls your supervisors. It is time consuming to place calls and make contact at a mutually convenient time. Therefore, calls for references generally are not made until the end of the search process when it seriously gets down to one to three candidates. Most likely you will be asked to provide a short list of references. You should provide the names of all of your supervisors who know you and the quality of your work. If you omit key people, it will be recognized and there’s a good chance that they will be contacted anyway. Always give your references a heads up that they might be called. Most supervisors will give you a positive or at least a neutral recommendation unless they feel that they’ve been aggrieved by you. If asked a direct question, they will not lie on your behalf. If your potential new employer really likes you, they may choose to select you anyway, assuming that you’ve done nothing terribly wrong. You should be prepared to answer “uncomfortable” questions as they follow up to a criticism that a reference may make about you. You should never lie. Just respond in a manner that mitigates or clarifies the criticism without attacking the source.


I am not an attorney. My advice is solely based on my years of experience in dealing with these situations as a supervisor and coach. My best advice is to get good advice from an objective well-informed professional who will confidentially guide you. These are difficult situations which have neither easy nor always successful outcomes.