Elementary school teachers instruct young children in the basic subjects of math, science, reading and writing to prepare them for more complex subjects in higher grades. The goal is to make sure each student understands, retains and can use what they learn. Other important areas of instruction are helping children learn to behave and act properly in school and in life, learn to become good citizens who appreciate others and can work together, as well as learn how to solve problems.
Ask an elementary school teacher what they love about their job and they typically talk about the experience of teaching and working with kids. Elementary school teachers have many different opportunities to work with children, but most teach in kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms. Individuals interested in a career can gain needed skills by completing a degree program in elementary education.
A Day in the Life of an Elementary School Teacher
The day of an elementary school teacher can start long before the first bell rings and it may not end after the children have gone home. In fact, elementary school teachers may continuously plan and think — early mornings, evenings and weekends — about the best ways to reach and teach students.
Elementary school teachers can work in a variety of settings, with public schools being one of the most common options. Elementary school teachers may also find jobs at private schools that follow a particular approach, such as Montessori or Waldorf, or schools that have a religious basis.
An elementary school teacher has many different responsibilities. Some of these include:
- Planning instruction for students and ensuring instruction meets state standards in a public school setting
- Finding enriching materials to use for instruction
- Assessing students on their progress and learning
- Identifying gaps in learning and creating intervention opportunities
- Meeting with other teaching professionals to plan support for students with special needs
- Setting up a classroom management plan
- Grading papers and tracking grades
- Keeping parents and caregivers apprised about grades, class activities and behaviors
- Meeting professional goals that are required by a school or district
Of course, there are many different situations and settings that lead to different teaching experiences. These are some of the factors that can impact the teaching setting:
- Location. Different types of community and federal resources may be available in suburban, urban or rural settings.
- Different languages. Teachers who are bilingual, who are certified in English as a Second Language may be sought to serve schools with diverse language populations.
- Students with special needs. Elementary school teachers who specialize in math or reading can been needed to support students who require extra help.
- Extracurricular activities or specialized academic focus. Music and art teachers can employed at elementary education public or private schools. Some districts now have funding available for computer teachers or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers. Charter schools may also focus on particular academic or non-academic disciplines.
- Title I funding. A school may receive additional federal funds due to the percentage of enrolled students who come from low-income families. These schools may have extra money to hire more teachers overall or include teachers with specialized skill sets.
- Substitute teaching needs. Licensed teachers may choose to work in short-term or long-term substitute positions where the pay may be more.
While teachers may work extra-long days during the school year, most get time off during the summer months to relax and prepare for the next year. However, overcrowded districts may use year-round or multi-track school schedules, which give teachers time off during other parts of the year. Nevertheless, a teacher's contract usually specifies the number of required teaching days, and it always includes a break or breaks.
Important Characteristics for Elementary School Teachers
Many elementary school teachers feel they have a natural ability and desire to teach — something that can help prospective teachers stay committed in college as they learn how to become effective educators. Beyond a general love for teaching others and helping them grow as individuals, elementary schools educators also need to be patient and persistent. And they need to be willing and able to work with children who are at different points of intellectual, physical, social and emotional development.
Communication skills figure prominently among the necessary traits. Teachers need to be able to explain complex concepts effectively so children can understand them.
Elementary school teachers should also be resourceful, organized, creative and flexible. These skills can help teachers respond to the challenge of teaching students that come to class from diverse cultural backgrounds, different home environments or health situations, and varying abilities.
The connections that elementary school teachers make with their students, including giving them the confidence to achieve and learn, is often cited as one of the reasons elementary school teachers find their career to be incredibly rewarding.
Typical Steps for Becoming an Elementary School Teacher
The steps for becoming an elementary school teacher are fairly straightforward, but the licensure process can vary state to state. More details on education and the licensing process are provided directly below.
1) Obtain a bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree in elementary education is needed to become a teacher. A teacher training degree program gives students the opportunity to learn about the foundations of knowledge, psychology of children, strategies for teaching children in specific content areas, and assessments.
Individuals who already have a bachelor's degree in another area can complete a master's degree program in elementary education, commonly known as a Master's of Arts in Teaching (MAT).
Both bachelor's and master's degree programs require students to do a period of credit-based student teaching in a classroom, where they work with others and are observed on their skills. Students also can find many online bachelor's and master's degrees in elementary education. Although many courses in these programs are available through distance learning, the on-ground student teaching component still is generally required for degree completion.
Bachelor and master's degrees in elementary education can have many different names. Some of the titles for these educational programs are listed below:
- BS in Elementary Education (Teacher Licensure)
- Bachelor of Elementary Education
- Bachelor of Arts Interdisciplinary Studies (Elementary Education)
- Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education with an emphasis in English as a Second Language
- Elementary Education BS with Endorsements in Reading K-12 and ESOL
- Online Elementary Education Program
- Online Master of Arts in Teaching
- Master of Arts in Teaching
- Masters in Elementary Education
- Music Education Master of Arts in Teaching
2) Seek state licensure. Graduates who want to teach in a public school need to have state licensure. The licensure process varies state to state, but details are usually listed on a state's board of education. Generally, applicants need to have completed an elementary education program and student teaching and passed any required examinations. Background checks and fees are required as well.
3) Look for employment. Many prospective teachers are able to find jobs through the district where they completed student teaching.
4) Seek endorsements or a master's degree. Licensed teachers who want to expand their skills can seek certification, or endorsement, in a variety of fields including:
- English as a Second Language
- Reading Strategist
- Bi-Lingual Education
- Gifted and Talented Education,
- 21st-Century Educator
Some school districts may require teachers with a bachelor's degree in teaching to obtain a master's degree within a certain number of years. These can vary in focus, but include instruction and planning, multicultural education, curriculum, assessments and more.
5) Maintain licensure. A state's board of education requires teachers to maintain their licensure by completing a certain number of continuing education credits within a certain number of years. Teachers should understand what these requirements are to avoid a lapse in licensure.
- Adding an Endorsement, State of Washington, http://www.k12.wa.us/certification/teacher/Endorsement.aspx, accessed October 2017
- Bachelor of Arts Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Governors University, https://www.wgu.edu/education/teacher_certification_elementary_bachelor_degree#, accessed October 2017
- BS in Elementary Education (Teacher Licensure), Walden University, http://info.waldenu.edu/walden-programs/education/bachelors/bs-in-elementary-education, accessed October 2017
- Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm
- Online Master of Arts in Teaching, Eastern Kentucky University, http://onlinemat.eku.edu/, accessed October 2017
- Title I, U.S. Department of Education, https://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg1.html, accessed October 2017