How to Become an Elementary School Teacher

Some people know from an early age that they want to work in education, pursuing a linear path from high school, into a bachelor's program, sitting for certification exams, and then finally finding work in a classroom. However, those who decide to change careers or seek career advancement later in life may wonder how to become an elementary school teacher without following this traditional route. Luckily, a variety of less traditional avenues exist, including alternative certification processes and master's programs in education.

A variety of less traditional avenues exist, including alternative certification processes and master's programs in education.

However you decide to complete your early childhood education teacher requirements, starting career research and job search preparation early can help solidify your goals and trajectory. To prepare for this endeavor, the following article details the various degree and career options available to aspiring elementary school teachers.

Elementary school teachers play a vital role in the lives of their students, establishing the educational foundation necessary for future academic experiences. Teachers dedicated to the educating younger students enjoy a challenging, dynamic, and rewarding work environment each day; however, the benefits of earning a teaching degree and becoming certified in early childhood education go beyond enhancing the development of growing minds.

Deciding to become an elementary school teacher also ensures a lifetime of learning, both inside and outside of the classroom.

As state government employees, early childhood education teachers working at public schools receive ample benefit packages, including health insurance, retirement accounts, paid holidays, and time off. Deciding to become an elementary school teacher also ensures a lifetime of learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. To stay up-to-date with changes in curriculum and policy, teachers frequently take part in continuing-education workshops, meetings, and conferences. Some teachers also decide to pursue additional college education credentials, which can lead to career growth opportunities and increased earning potential.

How Much Do Elementary School Teachers Make?

Many factors can affect an early childhood teacher's salary, including their location and school district, job function and responsibilities, school setting, level of work experience, and degree. Becoming an elementary school teacher rarely results in a particularly wealthy status, but many individuals find the compensation adequate to cover their cost of living. The table below lists median salaries of elementary teachers in the U.S. according to their years of work experience.

Median Salary for Elementary School Teachers
Entry-Level (0-5 Years) $39,429
Mid-Career (5-10 Years) $44,275
Experienced (10-20 Years) $50,248
Late-Career (20+ Years) $57,102
Source: PayScale

Earn Your Degree

A bachelor's degree stands as a typical minimum requirement to pursue a license as an elementary school teacher and acquire a job at a public school, regardless of an individual's state residency. Earning a bachelor's degree in early childhood education hones one's knowledge and skills related to child development, teaching techniques and methods, and curriculum development.

Teaching programs also require participants to engage in student teaching, which provides future educators practical experience under the guidance of experienced professionals. These experiences help prepare college students for employment in the classroom and represent a basic prerequisite for state licensure. To ensure your ability to apply for a teaching license upon graduation, make sure you pursue your degree from an appropriately accredited school. Individuals who earn their degrees through unaccredited institutions or programs may encounter problems becoming a licensed educator in the public school system.

Earn Your License

Although the specifics vary, nearly every state requires that individuals hold a bachelor's degree in early childhood education to become a fully licensed elementary school teacher in the public school system (although private school teachers typically do not need this license). For teachers interested in specific instruction areas, such as math or science, additional education in these areas may be required. In general, to obtain teacher certification, college students must maintain a minimum GPA, complete a supervised student-teaching experience, submit to a background check, and pass a series of exams. These exams vary depending on the state, but they typically involve a general teaching certificate test and an additional test to demonstrate mastery of the subject you plan to teach.

Alternative routes to licensure exist for individuals who already possess a bachelor's degree but lack the education courses and experience required to receive their teaching credentials. Prospective elementary school teachers should also know that they need to renew their teaching licenses every few years, depending on state requirements. The renewal process often requires teachers to submit an online application detailing any new work experience and/or professional development since their last renewal.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Elementary School Teacher?

From start to finish, earning an undergraduate elementary school teacher degree and successfully pursuing mandatory state licensure can take as few as four years, although prospective educators who need to retake certification exams may need more time. While many elementary school teaching positions require some level of teaching experience, student-teaching components tied into a bachelor's program typically fulfill this requirement. Individuals who decide to continue their education beyond a bachelor's degree and earn a master's can expect to commit an additional two years of full-time study.

Associate in Early Childhood Education

Although minimum elementary school teacher requirements typically include a bachelor's degree from an accredited university, prospective educators should not discount the benefits of first earning an associate degree in early childhood education or a related field. During these programs, students complete many core bachelor's degree requirements, often at a lower cost. Students can then transfer to a four-year school and spend about two more years pursuing a bachelor's degree and teaching licensure.

The typical associate degree in early childhood education program includes a sequence of introductory courses on childhood development, child behavior, and curriculum and instruction. An associate degree can also lead to professional childcare opportunities outside of the public school classroom. The list below details the requirements and salary potential of several prospective careers for individuals who earn an associate degree in early childhood education.

Careers with an Associate Degree

Childcare Center Director

Description Directors of childcare centers oversee administrative requirements and daily operations, such as maintaining paperwork, meeting with parents, and advising employees on curricula and activities. An associate degree in early childhood education provides individuals with the child-centered knowledge and skills required to run a safe and effective facility.
Average Annual Salary $40,199

Director, Preschool

Description Preschool directors act as main administrators, managing daily activities, hiring/supervising/evaluating employees, and working with finances and budgets. Although an associate degree in early childhood education does not provide managerial training, coursework focused on childhood development, instruction, and behavior greatly benefits individuals working in a preschool setting.
Average Annual Salary $40,507

Director, Childcare

Description Childcare directors work in a variety of childcare facilities, such as YMCA locations and independent care and learning centers. These individuals handle financial and administrative responsibilities, including allocating funds, recruiting staff, and setting goals and standards. They promote a safe and enriching environment for children.
Average Annual Salary $39,120

Daycare Teacher

Description Employed by childcare and learning facilities, daycare teachers prepare, schedule, and execute daily activities designed to occupy and educate young children. Daycare teachers also participate in cleanup, parent communication, and overseeing child interaction and safety. A background in early childhood education is mandatory for these positions.
Average Annual Salary $25,058

Bachelor's in Early Childhood Education

Earning a bachelor's degree in early childhood education can lead to employment as an elementary teacher in the public school system. Whether you start your college journey by immediately entering a bachelor's track or decide to transfer to a four-year program after earning an associate degree, you can expect to complete a curriculum focused on child development, pedagogy, and the development of curriculum and instruction. Bachelor's programs provide a more in-depth study of these areas than associate programs, and student-teaching requirements allow for applied learning inside a classroom. Some schools also offer degree concentrations in special education, math, and science.

Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree

Kindergarten Teacher

Description Kindergarten teachers manage a classroom of children ages 4-6. Daily tasks include introducing students to the processes of formal education, teaching basic skills relating to numbers and letters, and reinforcing rules. Teachers frequently collaborate with coworkers to set goals and standards. A bachelor's degree in early childhood education helps prepare professionals for these responsibilities.
Average Annual Salary $40,385

Elementary School Teacher

Description In addition to teaching reading comprehension, writing, math, and social studies, elementary school teachers also observe social development and behavior. Elementary classes range from first to sixth grade. A bachelor's degree fulfills the minimum educational requirements for this role.
Average Annual Salary $44,365

Master's in Early Childhood Education

Elementary school teachers often return to school to earn a master's degree in early childhood education if they decide to seek career growth or pursue a highly specialized area of elementary education. Education master's degrees provide deeper, more extensive study of child development and professional skills, including developmental evaluation, instruction methods, and classroom engagement and management techniques. Graduate students may also complete field research to deepen their understanding of education.

A master's degree prepares individuals for advanced employment in leadership roles, both inside and outside elementary schools. However, not all educators who pursue a master's degree decide to leave their classrooms. Many utilize the skills and knowledge developed during a master's program to enhance their teaching performance and better support the direct educational outcomes of children in their care. School districts also typically provide higher salaries or stipends to teachers with advanced degrees.

Careers with a Master’s Degree

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers

Description With an advanced degree, kindergarten and elementary school teachers can provide greater learning opportunities to their students. Job duties remain the same as those for teachers with bachelor's degrees, including classroom instruction and management; student evaluation; and communicating with coworkers, administrators, and parents.
Average Annual Salary $56,900

Early Intervention Specialist

Description In a school environment, early intervention specialists work closely with children experiencing developmental delays. Often in a one-on-one environment outside of the student's main classroom, specialists assist in areas like speech, language, and motor skills. They may plan exercises, set individual goals, and work with teachers and parents to help students find success.
Average Annual Salary $38,126

Curriculum Developer

Description Curriculum developers carry the responsibility of creating materials for academic training and instruction. Their duties may include authoring textbook content, developing testing procedures, and working collaboratively with educators and experts. A master's degree in early childhood education provides the knowledge and research abilities required to create curricula for young children.
Average Annual Salary $59,835

Although finding employment as an elementary school teacher does not typically require an advanced degree, employees in the field should possess a range of advanced skills and abilities. Good communication skills, patience, physical stamina, and resourcefulness make up a few of the personal attributes that prove beneficial to educators. While individuals may possess some of these skills naturally, others rely on their college program to develop and enhance their abilities. Required student-teaching components -- carried out on site with young learners under the supervision of a professional -- provide the best opportunity for future teachers to evaluate and strengthen their skills in these vital areas.

Communication Skills

Nearly every job requires a level of communication skills, but educators carry enhanced responsibility to communicate effectively. Beyond explaining new academic concepts to young people -- both individually and in groups -- teachers must also collaborate and discuss complex issues with coworkers, administrators, parents, and guardians.

Patience

Each school year, teachers start fresh as they face new students with new personalities and ability levels. Working to grow the collective knowledge of a group of children can prove difficult, and teachers must possess the patience to deal with those who struggle, those who can't sit still, and those with behavioral problems.

Physical Stamina

Keeping up with one young child can sometimes present a challenge for adults, and teachers work with large groups of children on a daily basis. In order to maintain control of the classroom and retain students' attention, elementary teachers should possess extensive mental, physical, and emotional stamina.

Resourcefulness

No matter how efficient and clear-cut a lesson plan seems, students may still struggle with academic concepts. A resourceful and creative teacher can work through these inevitable difficulties by explaining things in a different way and/or providing supplemental information. Resourceful solutions can also encourage student engagement and strengthen classroom management.

Interview and Resume Tips

On a teaching resume, consider listing your teaching certification details before your education history. Additionally, use a brief personal statement or objective to discuss your passion for the job, and include any recent volunteer work or prior employment experiences that involve working with children. During your official interview, share specific details in response to questions. If interviewers ask whether you possess experience in a certain area, for example, rather than providing a simple affirmative, share a brief anecdote or summary to demonstrate your abilities in a concrete and relevant manner.

Job Settings

The majority of early childhood education teachers work in public schools, but education professionals can seek employment in other school settings, including at private schools, charter schools, and online/virtual schools. Elementary teacher salaries and requirements can differ widely depending on the job setting. Private schools, for example, do not always require a state teaching certification as a prerequisite for employment, and teachers at charter schools generally work longer hours each day (as well as a slightly longer school year) than those in the public school system.

Public Elementary Schools

In this most common elementary education environment, teachers typically work 180 school days each year, hold current state certification, and serve as government workers (while receiving relevant government benefits). Public school teachers must adhere to structured state curriculum and learning goals in their classrooms.

Private Elementary Schools

Private elementary schools often take a more holistic professional and personal approach when hiring teachers and may not require teaching certification. Private schools generally offer greater freedom with curriculum and smaller class sizes, although the average financial compensation at private schools is lower than at public schools.

Charter Schools

Demand for quality charter school educators often outweighs the number of applicants, providing attractive employment chances for new teachers. However, the flexible, direct-involvement structure of charter schools often requires teachers to work extra hours while also earning a lower average income than public school teachers.

Online Schools

From teaching English to children in China to working with homeschooled learners, the requirements and benefits of online classrooms vary extensively. Online schools may or may not require teaching certificates, and employment can be on a full-time, part-time, or contract basis. Additionally, these teachers may or may not receive benefits.

Elementary and Secondary Schools by Work Environment
Elementary and Secondary Schools, Local 85%
Elementary and Secondary Schools, Private 12%
Source: BLS
  • National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators NAECTE publishes a quarterly peer-reviewed journal, hosts annual conferences, and supports members from around the globe. Additional resources for members and nonmembers include access to job announcements, newsletters, grant and funding award opportunities, and scholarly research networks.
  • National Association for the Education of Young Children More than 60,000 individuals make up NAEYC -- a professional membership organization dedicated to increasing learning opportunities for all children through practice, policy, and research. Members enjoy access to a selection of scholarly publications, events and conferences, and professional development opportunities (both in-person and online). NAEYC also offers accreditation to early learning and higher education programs.
  • Association of American Educators The largest nonunion organization for professional educators in the U.S., AAE works to advance the education profession through nonpartisan educational advocacy and teacher representation. Membership benefits include access to liability insurance and legal protection, a third-party discount program, scholarship and classroom grant opportunities, and an assortment of professional resources.
  • National Education Association The nation's largest professional employee organization, NEA consists of 3 million educators and represents teachers from every grade level, from preschool to graduate school. Dedicated to advancing the cause of public education since 1857, NEA advocates on behalf of its members through national lobbying. The association also offers support and classroom/curriculum tools to members and nonmembers.