“What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?”
Let's face it. This classic interview question just doesn't cut it anymore.
Potential employees have learned to knock it out of the park. Not only that, it's redundant, boring, and tells you virtually nothing about a candidate’s true character and ability.
And that's a problem. Because at the end of the day, your center is only as good as the people in it. You need to make sure each and every person who comes through your doors is engaged and passionate about the work you do.
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children July 2021 survey of over 7,500 early child care providers, 80% said they were experiencing a staffing shortage and 50% said hiring was harder than it was before the pandemic.
Clearly, child care hiring is harder than it’s ever been. And the way an interview plays out can impact whether or not you land the perfect candidate for your team.
If you're ready to revamp your interview skills and really get to know your candidates—it's time to shake things up. Start with these super smart interview questions for ECE directors, teachers, assistants, staff, and after school directors.
If you’re interviewing for a child care center director, odds are the candidate has plenty of prior experience serving as a child care provider and has the early childhood education degree to back it up.
Since the director is in charge of your center, your job is to find out if the person is capable of handling the multitude of responsibilities that come with such a crucial administrative role.
Here's a recap on the key characteristics every awesome ECE director should have:
This question can tell you a lot about a person’s thoughts on early childhood education. It’s important to make sure your director’s childhood education philosophy aligns with your center’s mission and brand. Whether your center is child-led, play-based, etc., the director ideally should agree with the philosophy. The more harmonious the owner, director, teachers, and staff are, the less likely serious issues will arise in the future.
As we saw at the beginning of the pandemic, new policies can be created and implemented in child care centers rather quickly. These policies mostly affect the parents of the children in your care. When interviewing for the director position, it’s helpful to find out if the candidate has created and implemented new policies in the past. You can find out what kind of policy it was and how they carried out the process. If they have experience, the conversation can then lead to whether or not it was difficult to do this task and if it was successful.
Community relationships are key to building a positive child care center. Child care centers are often in the center of flourishing communities, and it’s best to involve young children in community building activities to give them a sense of value. This question will give you a better sense of your candidate’s values, and what they’ve done in the past to help build community.
When you know what the candidate views as “successful”, you know what the person looks up to, admires, and may possibly try to emulate in their future role as director. If you completely disagree with the candidate's view of a great director, then you know it’s not a great match. Hopefully, the candidate will list amazing qualities of a child care director from the past.
A director needs to show their support for their preschool teachers and staff on a daily basis. There are many different ways a director can accomplish this, such as: employee recognition, quick check-ins, praise, being fully present in difficult conversations, etc. Seeing how the candidate answers this question will open up the door for more conversation based around support — and the necessity of fostering a resilient workplace.
Managing a child care center isn’t easy. This question will give great insight into the candidate’s views on challenges and how they can be overcome. If a candidate simply says, “Well, I don’t find managing to be challenging,” then this answer could be a red flag. This means they might not be prepared yet to be in a management position. The answers to this question can help you understand the types of qualities they could bring to a leadership role.
Think of the scenario question as your secret weapon to set apart the good candidates from the great candidates. A director’s ability to stay calm in parent interactions that are unpleasant is key to a successful center. And a director’s ability to solve the problem is even better!
It takes an incredibly rare combination of skill and character to be a true ECE hero.
(Like, unicorn rare.)
And you can't afford to settle for anything less.
Your mission when interviewing for teaching roles is to find out as much as you possibly can about your candidate's personal and professional goals. You also need to find out whether they have the grit and genuine dedication it takes to beat the odds and thrive in their ECE journey, long term.
Before you finalize your list of questions, think about the core attributes every great ECE teacher should have:
If you really want to go the extra mile, you can even create an avatar (a.k.a. candidate persona) to help you visualize exactly what your next great teaching champion should look like.
This is a great opener question. It skews just enough from a basic child care interview question to allow you to get to know why they’re working with children and give you a glimpse into their personality and passion.
Scenario-based: When was the last time you felt really energized at work? When was the last time you felt drained? What were you doing in those moments?
If a teacher loves interacting with kids but gets easily burnt-out by admin and paperwork, there's almost always a way around that. As an owner or director, when you know exactly which activities keep your teachers' fires lit, you'll have a much easier time keeping them switched-on and engaged.
Most mistakes and hiccups stem from a lack of communication between administration, staff, parents and/or children.
To limit the inevitable human error that is poor communication, your candidate should understand that being open and honest with everyone they work with is a key aspect to being a successful teacher and employee.
Scenario-based: Communication is really important to us here. Can you tell me about a time when you or a member of your team got their wires crossed? How did you handle it?
By asking your candidate to provide you with a real-world scenario from their own work experience, you're not only getting important insight into how they handle a communication snafu, you can also pick up on key verbal and visual cues that offer insight into their attitude around problem-solving.
No one's perfect. The willingness to acknowledge areas for improvement is essential to a growing, willing-to-learn teacher. This question will give insight into the extent to which they're able to self-critique and learn from both mistakes and achievements.
Scenario-based: Can you tell me about a time your teaching strategies were making a real impact on your students? What changes did you notice in them?
When you give your candidates a chance to relive past wins, it's easy to see how much passion they have for the job. You can also use this question to lead into a follow-up question about a time they knew they needed to switch their tactics up a bit—how did they know it was time to change and what did they do to bring the class back on track?
Happy parents make a happy center. Communication between staff members and parents can make or break your success in this industry, so hiring someone who aims to proactively prove to parents that their child is in good hands is an absolute must.
Scenario-based: Parents these days are under a lot of pressure. How would you handle it if you got the sense a parent was concerned about the care their child was receiving with us?
This question can lead to a productive dialogue about how your center views, values and approaches parent communication. If you have any tools (e.g., family events, communication booklets or an easy-to-use child care app) that can assist the teacher in building trust and rapport with parents, now's the time to set yourself apart from other employers and let them know what you can offer them to make their working life easier.
This question is what's referred to as a “crystal ball question.” Not only can this question look into the past and reveal previous experiences that have led to successes and failures, it also reveals the candidate's creative abilities in generating ideas for your center. Having long-term employees saves you time, money and energy, so hiring one with good ideas may lead to their eventual promotion and growth.
Scenario-based: Can you tell me about a time you helped your center come up with a way to save time, money or energy?
If they haven't had that experience yet, no biggie. But if they have, you definitely want to hear more about the thought and implementation processes behind it.
A great teacher knows better than anyone that learning is a lifelong endeavor. It’s important for a future employee to acknowledge this. While this may look similar to “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”, this question is formatted to give you an understanding of their ability to set their own personal and professional goals.
Scenario-based: Tell me about the last professional development (PD) course you took. What did you like or dislike about it?
Give your candidate the chance to swap experiences with you on what makes a PD seminar great (or not so great). It's an excellent way to get a sense of their attitude and expectations around professional growth.
A teacher’s ability to notice and solve conflict is essential to a happy and healthy child care environment and reveals whether they're able to quickly adapt and react to unexpected situations.
Pro Tip: Use a scenario that has actually occurred in your care center. Think about how their response compares to the way you would've handled the situation—it's a great way to ensure a true fit.
Every captain needs a great first mate.
As an owner or director, it's your job to ensure your teachers and child care leads have the support they need to do an amazing job, day in and day out. And of course, no support is as crucial as your ECE assistants.
Here's a quick recap on the key characteristics every great child care assistant should have:
While high-level questions can work well for an experienced teacher, it's best to use scenario-based questions for ECE support and assistant roles to help you really hone in on their problem-solving skills.
In many cases, a child care assistant position is a person's initial entry point into a long, rewarding career in ECE. And that's great! But for candidates with a brand new ECE resume, it's important to learn more about what kind of experience they have and more importantly, why they want to be part of your center.
This question can tell you a lot about a person's level of interest in working in early childhood. If all three characteristics are negative, that's obviously a red flag. However, you do want to look for cues that indicate the candidate is aware that young children can be challenging and sees that as an opportunity to assist in their growth and development.
This is a scenario-based question that cuts right to it. You need to assess this person's ability to put out fires so you know just how much problem-solving experience they have, and how they'll approach a potential worst case scenario at your center.
Unfortunately, there may be cases where a parent or guardian feels more comfortable expressing their dissatisfaction to an assistant, rather than the teacher, director, or owner. We know, it's not cool. Regardless, you need to find people who are ready for all aspects of the job, both positive and negative.
This is a fun, open-ended way to let your candidate express their ideas for creatively engaging young children. Take note of how their answer stacks up with your own curriculum and consider opening up a dialogue about how their approach enhances yours.
This can be an uncomfortable question, but it's one every owner or director must ask. Research has found that more than three in four teachers reported frequent job-related stress, and the number may be even higher for your ECE staff. Don’t skirt this issue. Find out how your candidate copes.
As with the custom scenario question for teachers, it's always a great idea to get as many real-world insights as possible in your interviews with potential assistants. And of course, don't be afraid to use a real situation from your own center.
Here are a few more situations you could consider:
It’s your job as an owner or director to assure every staff member who is employed by you has a passion for helping children learn and grow — and has the capabilities to do so! Since these positions often require less experience than a preschool teacher or assistant, it’s imperative to your organization that you’re asking the right questions before hiring new staff.
Key characteristics every awesome entry level staff and after school director should have (Note: these are similar to the characteristics of child care assistants!):
This is a great question to ask right off the bat. Like we said before, all staff need to possess a genuine love for working with young children. If you know what motivates the candidate to work with children, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of their education philosophy and their overall philosophy about children.
It’s likely the candidate you’re interviewing doesn’t have prior child care experience working with children in a center. However, they may have other child care experience like helping raise their siblings, volunteer work at schools, or babysitting kids in their neighborhood. This question allows you to get the complete picture and to find out why the candidate thinks they are a great fit for your center.
Tough conversations with parents aren’t ideal, but they do happen. Your candidate should be able to properly handle these situations if they ever come up, because parent satisfaction is as important as the daily care that you provide for their children.
Knowing how staff handle conflict among children is key. If the candidate can give you an example of when and how they handled the conflict, you can be confident they’ll be able to handle conflict at your center. You’ll also gain perspective into how the candidate goes about disciplining a child or guiding the child towards better behavior.
Sometimes coworkers aren’t on the same page, and there’s a difference between approaching a coworker with an open mind and approaching a coworker with a “know-it-all” attitude. If the person can effectively approach another team member, it can make all the difference in your center. This question will get to the heart of the candidate’s communication capabilities.
Children have their own minds—we know this! There are a multitude of ways to respond to this important scenario. Depending on the candidate’s answer, you can get a better sense as to what the person is prepared to take on in your center.
Group activities are a large part of the child care center atmosphere. How your staff encourages children to work and play together will affect the children and the overall atmosphere of the classroom every day. If the candidate can provide an example of how they successfully guided a group activity, then you’ll be well on your way to providing great experiences for the children.
Alright! Now that you're armed with an awesome list of questions, you need to know more about what to look for (and look out for!) in an answer.
As an owner or director, you probably already have a pretty good intuition for this stuff. But when you're stressed or short-staffed, it can sometimes be difficult to hear that inner voice.
Here are the real red flags to look out for:
Now that we've covered the no-gos for the candidate's side of the table, let's take a minute to review the dos and don'ts for interviewers.
One of the biggest fails an employer can make is asking illegal or unethical questions in an interview. It's just bad.
We know we don't have to tell you this, but there are a few questions you should NEVER ask, including:
Of course, this isn't legal advice. And most of it should strike you as common sense.
But it's always a good idea to check with your legal team to make sure your interview questions are 100% good to go. And remember, the effort of setting up a great interview will pay off tenfold in terms of a stellar and awesomely loyal team of ECE pros.
The feeling you get after interviewing an all-star candidate is great, but the feeling of interviewing a great worker and knowing that you were able to access their honest and full character is even better. You want outstanding staff for your center, so don’t let a boring, run-of-the-mill interview slow down your search. Ask the best questions, and you will get the best teachers.
Need some more hiring inspiration for your child care center? Check out some more of our resources below!