How To Become a Preschool Teacher – Your Guide to Understanding the Requirements to Work in Early Childhood Education
By Catherine Dorian – former English Teacher, Brattleboro Union High School and Fort Benton Middle/High School
With back-to-school season in full swing, many of us are reminded of our earlier days in the classroom. Backpacks, crayons, lunch pails, and sitting on the rug for morning meeting while your teacher sings you a song about the days of the week— these are just a few images of that early childhood joy.
Becoming a preschool teacher is one of the most crucial jobs in the world. Now more than ever, we need qualified preschool teachers to nurture and support our population of young ones.
Love teaching and working with young children? Maybe it’s time to learn how to become a preschool teacher.
To Know if You Should Become a Preschool Teacher, Start By Figuring Out Why You Want to Become a Preschool Teacher
Why are you considering becoming a preschool teacher? Why do you love working with young children? Knowing your why can be helpful to determine whether you want to become a preschool teacher in the first place.
The first thing that you can do is draw from own experiences with the kids in your own life, nieces or nephews, your friend’s kids, kids you’ve baby sat, and, of course, even you own.
If you have preschool age kids of your own, it’s not unreasonable to think that you could actually come in to volunteer, and sort of job shadow your kids’ teacher to see what it’s all about and to make observations. What is it like being around little kids all day? What is the atmosphere of the classroom like? What will your schedule look like?
Observe the behaviors of the children in the space. What sorts of emotions do they experience throughout the day, and how do the teachers respond to them? What are the things you like about working with children, and what is it that you find challenging?
You’re reading this article because you are interested in becoming a preschool teacher, or the idea has at least crossed your mind. Why does the thought of working with children inspire and energize you? When you know why you’re interested in the profession, it becomes a lot easier to start figuring out how to become a preschool teacher.
Do You Need a Degree to Become a Preschool Teacher? – Understanding ECE Degree Requirements
Do you need a degree to become a preschool teacher? According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical entry-level education for a preschool teacher is at least an associate’s degree. Further requirements vary by state and the preschool that you’re teaching in, but consistently, having a bachelor’s in early childhood education or a related field increases your chances of landing a preschool teaching job.
For example, all teachers in the federally funded Head Start programs are required to hold at least an associate’s degree, but at least half of all Head Start preschool teachers are required by their state to hold a bachelor’s in early childhood education or a related field. If you work in a public preschool (not necessarily funded by the Head Start program, but at a preschool in a public elementary setting), you will most likely be required to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
Even most private preschools, since many of them receive public funding, follow suit; according to recent data from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), a full 75% of the 51 state-funded public and private preschool programs in the US require teachers to meet certain degree requirements.
Some state and independent preschools even require that ECE professionals receive third-party certification, namely the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential offered through the Childcare Education Institute, as a condition of initial licensure, advancement, or license maintenance. Earning the credential requires coursework, a written exam, and an observed field experience.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Preschool Teacher?
How long it takes to become a preschool teacher will also depend on your current education and the additional qualifications that you’re willing to earn.
A two-year associate degree or certificate in early childhood education will certainly help you get your foot in the door, but an investment of four-years in earning a bachelor’s will only make you that much more qualified and trusted by parents, other teachers, and supervisors. Obtaining a bachelor’s will also give you the ability to teach in more settings.
NIEER data shows that in 2018, 78% of state-funded preschool programs required at least a BA, and 56% of private preschools receiving state funding required that their lead teachers hold a BA.
Regardless of your state’s specific requirements, having a degree can give you more options, better pay, and the ability to move up in a leadership position at your preschool or to even become director of a childcare center.
There are a ton of schools and programs that offer early childhood education degrees, and many of them are flexible; you can start learning while you’re teaching, which will only help you learn more and move up on the pay scale.
How Much Do Preschool Teachers Make?
You’re already looking into teaching, so we can venture to guess that you’re in this for more than the money. But money of course matters, and it’s important to choose a profession that you know will bring you an appropriate level of compensation and a livable wage. So how much do preschool teachers make an hour?
The wage for preschool teachers, like most teacher salaries, depends heavily on where you work and the level of education that you are willing to earn. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2020, the median annual wage for preschool teachers was $31,930, with the lowest 10% of preschool teachers earning $21,900 and the highest 10% earning $58,230—a significant gap to consider when you’re figuring out where to live and work. For instance, in May 2020, preschool teachers in Delaware made an average of $14.12 an hour, while those in Massachusetts earned an average of $20.73 an hour.
You may also consider how your pay compares to K-3 teachers who hold similar credentials; in some states like California and Georgia, the yearly salary gap between K-3 and public preschool teachers was over $15,000, according to data from NIEER. While many states require that preschool teachers hold comparable credentials to K-3 teachers, regardless of whether or not they are in a public preschool or a publicly funded private setting, not all states require that preschool teachers are paid the same.
When factoring in how much preschool teachers make, it’s important to look at salaries and requirements in your specific state. Consider the degree and licensure that your state and setting will expect of you, and consider whether the pay for teaching preschool in that setting is worth it.
Aside From the Right Degree, What Else Does it Take to Become a Preschool Teacher?
Anybody who has to ask,”is it hard to be a preschool teacher?”, may be showing the first indication that they won’t be cut out for the job over the long haul. Is it hard to manage a room full of preschoolers, making sure everyone is getting along, and resolving conflicts when they don’t? It is hard to attend to the social development of a room full preschoolers, making sure twenty-plus kids get their special snacks and lunch on time every day. Is it hard to keep everyone happy and engaged, while making sure they are learning the basics that will prepare them for kindergarten? Yeah, that’s the description of a job that anybody would call hard. But for the people who work in preschools, the rewards of it all far outweigh the challenges, and even the hard parts are well worth it.
Aside from the resume qualifications, what do you need to become a preschool teacher? Sure, you need an associate degree at minimum in most cases… but there are plenty more things you need that you can’t necessarily learn in school. Some of them come naturally to the kind of people cut out to become early childhood educators, and some you have to learn over time…
Be Capable of Juggling a Lot of Tasks at Once
Younger children don’t always have an awareness of what is happening around them. They have needs, frustrations, emotions, and excitements; many of them will want your attention, and they will want it soon! So, you’ll need to be patient, but you’ll also need to be aware of many things happening around you at one time.
Another preschool teacher requirement is that you become someone who is comfortable juggling multiple tasks at once. When children are being dropped off in the morning, you may be talking to a parent about how their kiddo didn’t sleep so well the night before, when out of the corner of your eye, you see another child putting a crayon in his mouth. How will you handle both situations, which are immediately happening in front of you?
You’ll also have colleagues who will be running around just as much as you are. How will you support them, while also being independent enough to stand on your own two feet at times?
Yeah, you already know that patience is a non-negotiable trait when becoming a preschool teacher. But today, one of the other things that you will need is to be accepting.
Children are quirky. They have needs that we don’t always understand. One of them will need to take her socks off every time she steps on the rug for morning meeting. Another will ask you for your help putting the straw in her juice every single day at lunch. Sometimes, you’ll sit with a child for 30 minutes (or more!) while they put insist on putting on their snow pants all by themselves. You’ll have to come to each child exactly as they are, learning about all of their needs and interests. The best way that we can create an atmosphere of safety for them is to accept each of them—quirks and all—into our classrooms.
Be Organized, But Flexible
I always say that as a teacher of any grade, you need to be a specific combination of organized and flexible. Nothing could be truer for the preschool teacher!
When you’ve got a group of kiddos all learning, playing, napping, and eating in a shared space, you’ll need systems that help everything run smoothly. You’ll need to be able to command the attention and respect of anywhere between twenty and thirty young children at one time. You’ll also need to recognize that not every child will want or be able to follow all of the rules and expectations, and you’ll have to be ready for them to take things at their own pace sometimes.
You’ll also want to consider how each child learns, and the diverse backgrounds that they bring to school every day. They will come from different families with different norms and understandings for how to be with others, to share, to play, and to learn. You’ll want to bring a sense of order to the classroom, while also understanding the fact that all children are unique.
While you have to provide a sense of structure, remember that you are working with little ones. Little children don’t know much about the world, beyond the fact that that there are things that make them joyful and things that don’t. As a preschool teacher, you’ll need to sometimes set aside your adult agenda and learn how to play, how to be creative, and how to use your imagination so that you can engage their young minds. You’ll need a sense of humor and a sense of playfulness.
Learning to have fun every day sounds like a fool-proof way to stay young and energized. Being a preschool teacher is rewarding for that very reason. But also, remember that scores of parents and guardians, some of whom may be dropping their little one off at school for the first time, are trusting you to teach them the things that they need to know to thrive in the later years. They are trusting you to provide a space where they feel safe and accepted. They’re relying on you to help them learn to become social beings and to cooperate with others. They’re relying on you to help their child fall in love with learning.
Preschool is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the first introduction to a schooling environment. As a preschool teacher, you are given the greatest trust in the world, which is to help children learn to love learning.
Becoming a preschool teacher means being ready for the responsibility, and also, knowing that your job is one of the most important in the world.
Ready to enter the world of early childhood education? Find a teaching degree program near you!