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.

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 teachers and assistants.

Hiring preschool teachers: align questions with qualifications

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 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:

  • A steadfast mission to instill a positive attitude towards education in young children
  • A genuine desire to build independence and confidence in preschoolers
  • An unwavering focus on teaching children to celebrate differences and interact positively with each other

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.

Here are 7 must-ask questions for teacher candidates:

1. What do you like most about working with children? What do you like least?

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 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.

2. Tell me about your communication style. Why is clear communication important in child care?

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.

3. How do you self-evaluate your teaching strategies? What’s the difference between success and failure when working with a child?

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?

4. What are some of the ways you reassure parents that you’re providing quality care for their child?

Happy parents make a happy care 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.

5. If you were running your own care center, what would you do to ensure the success of both staff and children?

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.

6. As a teacher, what skills would you like to develop? In what areas do your teaching abilities need to improve, if any?

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.

7. Custom scenario question: You are suspicious that one of the children in your group is bullying another child. How do you approach this issue?

Think of the scenario question is your secret weapon to set apart the good candidates from the great candidates. 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.

Poignant problem-solving questions for early childhood assistants

Every captain needs a great first mate.

As 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:

  • A genuine love for working with young children (even when the going gets rough)
  • A desire to develop a sense of safety and independence in young children
  • The ability to perform “classroom triage” to effectively prioritize where to focus their attention in a busy environment
  • Monk-like patience

While high-level open-ended 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.

Here are 7 must-ask questions for child care assistants:

1. What prior childcare experiences do you have, and why would you be a good fit for this position?

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.

2. In your experience, what are the top 3 characteristics of a 3-year-old?

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.

3. What’s the most difficult situation you’ve had to deal with in the classroom/center? How did you handle it?

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 hands-on problem-solving experience they have, and how they’ll approach a potential worst-case scenario at your center.

4. How would you handle an angry parent?

Unfortunately, there may be cases where a parent or guardian feels more comfortable expressing their dissatisfaction to an assistant, rather than the teacher or director. 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.

5. If you had a group of fifteen 3-year-olds, what type of activity would you do with them?

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.

6. Tell me about a time you thought you might lose your temper with a child. What did you do to overcome that feeling?

This can be an uncomfortable question, but it’s one every director must ask. Research has found that 93% of elementary teachers have high levels of stress and the number may be even higher for your ECE staff. Find out how your candidate copes.

7. Custom scenario question: How would you handle it if a parent consistently dropped off their child more than 30 minutes late every day?

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:

  • How would you engage a child that consistently shies away from classroom activities?
  • When two children are engaged in a screaming match, what do you do to diffuse the situation?
  • How would you handle it if a child told you that someone had touched them inappropriately?
  • Tell me about a time you resolved a conflict with another member of the team.

OK. 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.

What are the red flags to watch out for?

As a 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:

  • Issues with a candidate’s background check
  • Inconsistent career path, unexplained employment gaps or suspicious work history
  • Lack of specific work examples or answers to scenario-based questions
  • Not asking questions
  • Leaving jobs due to disagreements
  • Missing or outdated email addresses
  • Showing up late for the interview
  • Unprofessional appearance
  • Inappropriate language or behavior

The dos and don’ts for conducting an effective interview

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.

Don’t:

  • Be late to your interview
  • Forget to review the job description prior to the interview
  • Forget to review the resume and application prior to the interview
  • Interrupt the interviewee in the middle of an answer
  • Get distracted during the interview (put the phone away!)
  • Be intimidating, overly authoritative or dominating

Do:

  • Stick to a smart list of intentional questions
  • Make sure all questions are strictly job-related
  • Show an interest in who they are as a person
  • Make sure all interviewers are trained on the dos and don’ts of interviewing
  • Keep the interview focused on answering all questions

Questions you should never ask

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:

  • Are you a US citizen?
  • Do you have a disability that might interfere with this job?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • What year did you graduate from high school/college?
  • Are you single/married?
  • Do you live alone?
  • Do you have children?
  • How many children do you have?
  • How old are your kids?
  • How many days were you sick last year?
  • How far along are you with your pregnancy?
  • When are you due?
  • In what country were you born?
  • What does your spouse do for a living?
  • Who are you going to vote for in the presidential election?
  • Is that a (Jewish, Chinese, French, German, etc.) name?
  • Have you ever filed a workers’ compensation claim/been injured on the job?
  • How much time do you think you will need away from work after you have your baby?

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.

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