“How can I best answer the question on a job application ‘Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign?’”

Question: A few years ago I was a “novice,” first-year teacher without the necessary permanent teacher certification. At a certain time, the school where I was working decided that they would rather have a teacher with a certification, and so decided to replace me, and asked me to resign. Obviously, I had not done anything wrong; in fact, the students, parents and school administration all liked my teaching.

Now I have a teaching certification. Several times I have filled out employment applications that ask “Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign?” Because of my experience when I was a “novice,” I check off “Yes.” There is no place to elaborate, or explain the circumstances. Sure enough, that answer seems to result in my not being called for an interview, and therefore not hired. 

Any suggestions for what I can do?

Amarillo, Texas

Answer: Lyla, your question is a great one, because it touches upon an issue faced by so, so many people. While not all of those people face the exact circumstances you do, many are caught in a very similar dilemma: how to be honest about, but to reasonably explain, past events in their working history.

I think there are three basic approaches to responding to that question, all three of which are honest responses. 

A. Continue to check the “Yes” box, as you have been doing. As you have noted, this is an honest approach, but it does seem to be keeping you unemployed. I don’t think “Yes” is even totally honest, as it fails to convey the essence of what really happened. 

B. Because most situations are neither “Yes” nor “No,” your response can take that into consideration. In your email, you noted that the applications ask – Yes or No – whether you ever have been terminated or asked to resign. While the question can be posed in that “absolute” sort of way – Yes or No – most of life is not so “absolute.” Rather, life is so much more nuanced, often so ambiguous, and not “absolutely” clear. Said differently, “Life does not happen in yes’es and no’s.”  The way I see your situation, your lack of the proper certification made you less qualified than were other teachers, and so “by mutual decision or agreement” you left your job. Was it a termination? I don’t think it really was, because that word “termination” suggests “fired.” Was it a request for resignation? I don’t think so, because even that phrase suggests either “wrongdoing” of some sort took place, or at least “bad performance” happened. I see what happened to you as more of a mutual recognition that other teachers – with the proper certification – would be more beneficial to the school. In this way, I think you can honestly answer “No” to the question posed.  

C. Even though the applications provide no opportunity to “explain,” I think you can still seize the opportunity to do so. Whether you indicated “Yes” on the application, or “No,” if you are concerned that your answer is not entirely honest, and could be viewed to be dishonest, then I would suggest you be a bit assertive, and take the initiative to send a letter to the Head of Hiring or Director of Human Resources, and provide the explanation that your situation calls for, and would make either answer 100% honest. I know that this is a bit cumbersome, and complicated, but I do think it would be worth the time and energy of preparing a one-page letter that included a detailed explanation of your experience as a novice teacher, and your concern about being both (a) honest, and (b) employed. Of course, that letter should also express your love of teaching, your perseverance in job-hunting, and your dedication to the truth in all matters.

So, (a) you can continue to check the “Yes” box, (b) I believe you can honestly check the “No” box, and (c) either way, I think you can send a letter to the Hiring or Human Resources director and give the fuller explanation your situation deserves. Our lives are rarely  “Yes” or “No” propositions, but instead  “more explanation necessary” experiences.  

I truly hope this helps you in your quest, and that you become a great teacher. Our kids all need and deserve the best educations we can give them.

Best, Al Sklover

We offer “50 Good Reasons to Explain Your Last Departure.” To obtain a copy, just [click here.] Delivered Instantly – By Email.

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© 2010 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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