Elementary Education: How to Become an Elementary Teacher
Elementary school teachers help shape the minds of children. Beyond textbook education, they help young students with their cognitive, social, and emotional development.
As an elementary school educator, you’ll teach children from first to sixth grade. You’ll help lay the foundation for their critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities and, hopefully, instill a lifelong love of learning in them.
Elementary teachers are truly invaluable members of society. There are over 1.5 million elementary school educators in the country and employment is projected to grow at an average rate of 7% from 2016-2026, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With a bachelor’s degree you can work in the classroom. If you earn more advanced degrees and certifications you may find work in administration, or in another area of the field entirely.
This page will describe the education requirements, job growth, day-to-day responsibilities, and more for elementary teachers.
Elementary Teacher Job Description
Elementary school teachers play a pivotal role in society by helping to shape and educate our youth. They work with young children and help them develop skills they’ll use inside and outside the classroom. They oversee the cognitive, social, and emotional development of students, specifically in grades one through six. In addition to developing and teaching lesson plans, they evaluate student achievement, maintain classroom discipline, and communicate student progress to parents and administrators.
Elementary teachers usually oversee one classroom and teach the core subjects: math, language arts, science, reading, and social studies. Typically, they teach all these subjects (though some may specialize) each day. As a result, elementary teachers must possess a broad knowledge of these main subject areas. They have to be just as comfortable navigating a sentence structure as they are leading a science experiment. With that stated, teachers in some schools may “own” certain subjects and stick to teaching those in the classroom, while students rotate to different instructors for other subjects.
Your day-to-day will consist of developing and implementing lesson plans and testing and grading students. On top of class time, elementary teachers may help coordinate field trips, design bulletin boards and other classroom materials, supervise recess or free periods, and attend staff meetings and in-service workshops. You must also undergo continuing education to keep your teaching skills fresh, whether through specific continuing education programs or higher education.
Many teachers work a traditional 10-month schedule with a two-month summer break. Your schedule typically includes various breaks in the school year for winter holidays and spring break as well. A lot of teachers also use nights, weekends, and scheduled breaks to prepare lesson plans and grade assignments. Some schools operate on alternative schedules as well. For instance, a school may operate on a year-round schedule with more frequent but shorter breaks throughout the year. Teachers in this situation usually work nine weeks in a row, followed by a three-week break, per the U.S. BLS.
Elementary School Teacher Salary and Job Growth
We’ll break down salary and job growth for elementary school teachers in this section.
How Much do Elementary Teachers Make?
The median annual salary for elementary school teachers as of May 2018 was $58,230, according to the U.S. BLS. This was slightly higher than the median annual salary from the previous year, and does not take special education teachers into account.
The lowest 10 percent of teachers earned less than $37,780, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $95,270. Salaries for public and private teachers also varied: at the local level, elementary school teachers earned $59,420, and private-school teachers earned $46,410.
Elementary teachers can boost their salaries by earning a master’s degree or advanced certifications, getting a second job during summer vacation, becoming a tutor, selling their lesson plans online, and/or moving into an administrative position.
Here are the five states where elementary teachers earn the most money, as of May 2018, according to the U.S. BLS:
- New York: $83,010
- Massachusetts: $82,600
- California: $80,100
- District of Columbia: $79,480
- Connecticut: $75,480
Elementary Teacher Job Growth
There are a little over 1.5 million — 1,565,300, to be exact — elementary teachers in the United States, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment will grow at an average rate of 7% from 2016 to 2026.
Employment growth will vary by location, but can expect to tick up in highly populated areas and regions around the country where people are relocating. Here are the five states with the highest level of employment of elementary teachers, as of May 2018, according to the U.S. BLS:
- California: 162,440
- Texas: 136,780
- New York: 82,590
- Florida: 75,750
- Illinois: 65,630
How to Become an Elementary School Teacher
To become an elementary school teacher, you typically must have a bachelor’s degree. Public school elementary teachers usually need a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and many private schools have this requirement as well. Most states offer alternative licensing for people with a bachelor’s degree in another subject besides education who are looking to change careers.
Instructors in the public school system need a state-issued certification or license before they can teach, and all 50 states require public-school teachers get licensed or certified in the particular grade level in which they’ll teach. However, private school teachers usually don’t need a license.
Once you’ve received your license, you’ll need to complete regular professional development to maintain an active teaching license.
Steps to Become an Elementary School Teacher
While the process can vary a bit, these are the general requirements to becoming an elementary school teacher:
- Pursue a bachelor’s degree: Usually a four-year program at an accredited university. In addition to majoring in elementary education, which is recommended, you’ll want to do well in school and achieve a good GPA. You might consider getting relevant jobs or internships around children or education to bolster your experience, too.
- Complete a student teaching program: You’ll need to fulfill your program’s mandated student-teaching hours. Working under a seasoned teacher, you’ll get the opportunity to practice your teaching skills in an actual classroom.
- Get licensed or certified: Depending on your state, you’ll typically need to pass a fingerprint and/or background check and pass an exam in elementary education (the NES Elementary Education or Elementary Education Praxis exams) and basic skills test. Visit Teach.org to see your particular state’s requirements. After three years of teaching, you might consider getting your National Board Certification, though it’s not obligatory. If you have an unrelated bachelor’s degree but would like to choose elementary education as a career, you can look into your state’s alternative certification programs.
- Get a master’s degree: Optional, for the most part, though some states require it. Earning this advanced degree could help you earn more money and get choice assignments.
- Earn continuing education credits: Depending on your state, you’ll need to complete a certain number of hours of professional development after a set number of years. Approved courses or workshops might include topics on classroom management or creating an inclusive learning environment, for example.
Elementary Education Degrees
Let’s review elementary education degrees and the typical requirements of an EE program.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Elementary Education
Many programs in this major take four years to complete, though that will vary based on the school and whether you attend part or full time. Bachelor’s degree programs in elementary education can be completed in a traditional brick-and-mortar school or online.
Bachelor’s Acceptance Requirements
In high school, you’ll want to earn good grades and consider securing jobs or internships where you’ll get experience with teaching, tutoring children. Then, apply for colleges with elementary education programs. Note: You’ll want to have an idea of which state you want to teach in, since program and licensing requirements vary throughout the country. You want to find a program that fulfills your state’s licensing requirements.
As an aspiring educator, you’ll be expected to take highly specialized courses in educational research, learning theories, and child development sciences to become a well-prepared elementary school teacher. Your curriculum may include the following courses:
- Introduction to Elementary Education: This course usually discusses the historical, philosophical, and current trends of teaching in today’s classrooms, including the use of computer technologies. The class reviews the scientific process of learning in children, human development, and psychology, which explores the methods of teaching that provide best practices for impacting young minds and facilitating learning.
- Developmental Psychology of Young Learners: This course often explores the major theories of the social, cognitive, and moral development of children, and how the environment, their emotional response to the world around them, and their perception of language affects them. Strategies to address children with social and learning impairment are usually identified and discussed.
- Literacy Assessment and Instruction: The ability to read is an essential skill for children’s success as lifelong learners. In addition to reading, this class typically also explores best practices for teaching methods using literature to educate your students. You may explore the historical perspectives, cultural representations, and recent clinical studies on the impact of current children’s literature.
- Curriculum Design and Education Assessment: You’ll learn to assess and select the course activities, lesson planning, and class curriculum that is defined by best practices to achieve successful learning in your classroom.
- Teaching Practicum or Educational Project: Towards the end of your specialty degree, you are usually expected to perform fieldwork in your area of expertise. Typically, student teachers are assigned an actual to teach in for experience in front of a classroom. As a student, you may provide classroom activities, design lesson plans, or conduct a reading assignment.
Master’s in Elementary Education
You may choose to pursue a master’s in elementary education to further your education, increase your pay, or fulfill an employer requirement — or, all of the above.
Master’s Acceptance Requirements
To be accepted into a master’s in elementary education program, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Beyond that, getting into a master’s degree program will depend on the school program’s stipulations. Some will want a high GPA, real-world experience, a combination of the two, and/or something else. It’s essential to thoroughly research any program you’re interested in attending. You may also need to take the GRE, provide letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose.
A master’s degree program in elementary education will typically expand on what you learned while earning your bachelor’s degree. The curriculum could also include a focus on research and specialty material, like enhancing coursework to match the diverse needs of your students. Some programs also have you choose a track, such as leadership or business. This is the next step if you wish to continue pursuing your education in this field.
Examples of courses you might take include:
- Evaluation and Data Literacy: This course typically reviews effective assessment practices, and students will analyze test and performance data.
- Educational Leadership and Administration: This course aims to helps you establish the management and leadership skills needed to excel in and out of the classroom.
Graduation requirements will vary, depending on the program you choose. There may be additional student teaching hours and/or a thesis required to complete your degree.
Online Elementary Education Degrees
There are online programs in just about every discipline you can think of. Elementary education is no exception.
A number of online programs exist, from the bachelor’s degree level all the way to a doctorate in elementary education. Of course, there are pros and cons to completing your degree online versus in-person on a traditional brick-and-mortar campus.
- Programs tend to be more flexible
- Programs are sometimes cheaper
- Programs can sometimes be completed sooner
- You can usually pursue specialty areas
- If you’re not self-disciplined, you may struggle to attend class and complete coursework
- You may have a smaller selection of online-only programs to choose from
- You’ll have to complete some coursework in person, such as your student-teaching hours (your school may help you find a placement)
Aside from your required student classroom hours, you should be able to complete your core classes and other degree requirements online. Some online programs may also help you prepare for licensure requirements in your state, enabling you to teach faster.
Like any other program — online or off — you’ll want to choose the best program and setting for you that will set you up for success.
Find Elementary Education Programs by Degree Level
As an elementary school teacher, you can start your career with a bachelor’s degree and continue your education with a master’s degree for more job opportunities and higher pay. However, if you have a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than education, you can still teach with an alternative teacher certification. Learn more about the different degree options:
- Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education
- Master’s Degree in Elementary Education
- Alternative Teacher Certification in Elementary Education
Elementary Education Trends
Education initiatives at the federal, state, and local level continue to stress the need for highly qualified teachers, so expect licensing requirements to become increasingly rigorous. Some states may require technology training, a minimum GPA, and/or a master’s degree within a certain number of years.
Not all elementary schools are created equal, and many elementary schools are taking a more holistic approach to learning. The elementary school a child attends is typically determined by the location of their primary residence. This means that those who live in a low-income area are more likely to attend a low-income school or a private school to have better access to learning opportunities. However, recent trends in education aim to solve this through holistic learning styles. In California, for instance, these schools are growing in popularity.
Another trend in education is “blended schools,” which also offer social services, such as healthcare, to improve the personal and home lives of students in elementary schools. These schools offer support and education to help children rise above negative situations in life, whether that be personal or academic.
Here are several helpful resources for you as you pursue a career in elementary education.
- The 1:1 Classroom: Third-grade-teacher Mark Pullen shares his ideas and reflections on this blog about teaching in a 1:1 classroom in Michigan.
- Learning Is Messy: Brian Crosby is an elementary teacher with over 30 years of experience. On his site, he writes about imaginative learning and teaching concepts, including working with students on fun STEM projects.
- Creating Life Long Learners: Mathew Needleman, instructional technology specialist and principal, shares his thoughts on technology, education, and both on his blog.
- Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE): This organization aims to empower educators to grow professionally and prepare for the future.
- Educator’s Networking-International Facebook group: This private group has nearly 8,000 members who share innovative technologies and ideas in education with each other.
- Classroom Inspirations Instagram account: Get plenty of design ideas for your classroom with this colorful, envy-inducing account.
- Flipgrid: Teachers can use video to connect with students of today via “grids” or message boards.
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