Keeping It Real for Teaching Demonstrations and Case Scenarios

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Succeeding in the job interview traditionally means candidates are able to talk the talk, but many institutions are now also asking them to walk the walk.

Most search committees in higher education are building case scenarios into their interviews, asking candidates to describe how they would resolve a problem or navigate a situation. For open faculty positions, especially those at small liberal arts colleges and community colleges, many search committees stage teaching demonstrations, where a candidate teaches an actual class or an open session with committee members and volunteers pretending to be students.

Case scenarios and teaching demonstrations are the most telling and challenging part of the interview because candidates can no longer base their candidacy on their resume or CV alone. Search committees deploy these tactics not just to expose frauds but to measure social and emotional intelligence and how well candidates can relate their expertise specifically to the institution.

“People call them soft skills, but they’re not soft in higher education,” said Kara Kolomitz, vice president of undergraduate student affairs and enrollment at Regis College. “They are critical skills right now. The best way to see those authentic, soft skills is to watch and see how a candidate reacts to a case scenario or (a teaching demonstration) and if those instincts and judgments fit the role and the position. “

And it’s not only a candidate’s fit for the position, according to Kolomitz, but how well the candidate fits into the culture of the institution.

The problem with case scenarios and teaching demonstrations is that candidates need to be “real” in a fake setting. Building rapport with students takes time, as does obtaining institutional knowledge to make decisions. Unless the job is to make ad-hoc decisions as a consultant or make one-and-done presentations or sales pitches, the case scenario or teaching demonstration is an artificial simulation.

But it’s the best the hiring committee can do to understand the candidate. Then how should the candidate respond?

“It should be your best foot forward,” said Denise Murphy-Gerber, associate professor and interim chair of the Business Department at Geneva College, whose department uses teaching demonstrations. “If it’s not an absolutely fantastic course that day, then what are all the rest going to be like?”

Your best foot forward depends on your expertise, but whether you’re a biology professor or a Title IX coordinator, it’s important to be authentic. Here are some tips to keep it real while pretending in an interview:

Commit Big, Focus Small
Dr. Tom Hanson is a performance coach whose clients range from corporate executives to professional athletes suffering from anxieties known as the “yips.” In his book “Play Big: Mental Toughness Secrets That Take Baseball Players to the Next Level,” he offers the ABCs of overcoming performance anxiety: act big, breathe big, and commit big. Athletes commit big by focusing their energy on the goal or the ball. For interviewees, the “ball” is the content, the situation, or the students. Too often candidates will worry about themselves (their delivery, their appearance, or communicating their merits) or the evaluators (providing the “correct” answer they interpret the search committee is expecting).

Think Big, Ask Little
Candidates distinguish themselves in the discussion part of the interview by the questions they ask. But when case scenarios and teaching demonstrations are introduced, you must be careful not to ask too many questions because the search committee wants to see how well you think on your feet.

“When they start asking too many questions about the scenario, it shows that they are not broad-thinking and I think that worries selection committees,” Kolomitz said. “They don’t want you down in the weeds; they want to know that you are able to quickly assess the overall situation and diagnose it.”

The questions candidates ask are important to exhibit critical thinking skills, but asking too many questions about a case or a teaching demonstration will expose your insecurities or your reliance on the committee to provide answers.

Plan Big, Deliver Small
Always prepare to discuss more content for a case scenario or a teaching demonstration than you need. If you’re teaching a class for 15-20 minutes using a PowerPoint presentation that you saved on a USB drive, also plan to discuss topics beyond your lesson plan to fit 45 minutes with hard-copy slides if technology fails. If you’re anticipating a case scenario about two or three common issues professionals encounter in your field, do additional research about topics related to current events or the institution’s pain points.

“If you are interviewing on a campus that has had a rash of sexual assaults, you should expect to have a case scenario around intervention and education efforts on sexual assaults,” Kolomitz said. “The topic of conversation around professionals in your arena is the best preparation you can have.”

However, resist trying to show off to the committee how well you prepared. For teaching demonstrations, don’t try to cram everything you know about a topic into one class. Instead, focus on the students learning. For case scenarios, don’t provide the solution too quickly. Instead, walk the committee through your reasoning by articulating the circumstance, the actions, and the results. Be linear and deliver smaller, succinct ideas.

Culture First, Your Story Second
Adapting to the culture of the institution does not mean you are pandering to the committee, just as tailoring a message to students’ needs is not forsaking your credentials.

“I always think it’s wise that candidates relate the scenario back to something similar they’ve encountered or link it with their expertise,” Kolomitz said. “I also think a candidate (should be) able to demonstrate that their response is tailored to that specific institution’s culture.”

Even for Christian institutions like Geneva College, where faculty must be able to apply faith-based learning into the classroom, committees still value industry experience.

“Fit is so important, and we’d like to see that in teaching demonstrations,” said Murphy-Gerber, who also added, “We hire people who have stories, who can say how this looks in the real world. I’d like to see that in a teaching demonstration as well.”

Barry Strauber, a visiting lecturer in the School of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology, has more than 30 years of experience in the advertising industry and emphasizes branding to his students. He recognizes that a candidate’s story must follow cultural fit when answering a case scenario or conducting a teaching demonstration.

“Evaluate it by, ‘This is the culture here, let me understand that,’ because I need to figure out my personal brand and how that fits into the culture,” Strauber said. “You need to be authentic and genuine.”

What Matters Most
While there are similarities in using case scenarios and teaching demonstrations, what search committees value most is different when evaluating administrative staff and faculty candidates.

“(A case scenario) gives you that real-time observation of the problem-solving aptitude for the appropriate student development,” Kolomitz said. “The most important piece that you’re hiring for is their judgment.”

But in teaching demonstrations, search committees value how students respond.

“We look for student engagement,” Murphy-Gerber said. “Many of those who don’t do well on the teaching demonstration … are all about keeping a huge distance from the students and themselves. You need to be able to engage them and you need to come up with an interesting way to make the topic something that they’re really listening to.”

“It’s not rocket science,” Kolomitz added. “They want faculty members who excite students and engage students.”

For your authentic self to emerge, trust your judgment and your ability to engage students. The most challenging part of the interview will never be a walk in the park, but you’ll be able to walk the walk by being authentic in an artificial situation.

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