Perhaps you’re thinking about a career as an educator, but you haven’t even started your undergraduate education yet, and the idea of waiting four years to complete a bachelor’s program is just too much. While you can’t get a job as a lead teacher in a public school without at least a bachelor’s degree, you can get into the classroom to start your career with a two-year education degree: more specifically, an associate degree in early childhood education.
People with associate degrees are qualified to work as teacher assistants, preschool teachers, child care workers, substitute teachers, and even as lead teachers in some private and religious schools. All you have to do is take two years of courses at a community college (if you attend full-time) and perhaps complete a student teaching assignment (often referred to as a practicum in the community college curriculum), and you’ll be ready to go. And better still, if you decide at that point that you want to earn a bachelor’s degree in teaching, you’ll already be halfway to your goal.
Read on to learn how to earn an associate degree in education and what opportunities it can open for you.
An associate degree is a two-year undergraduate degree. It occupies the academic space between a high-school diploma and a bachelor’s degree.
Associate degrees are most frequently conferred by community colleges, technical colleges, and vocational schools. Some four-year colleges and universities offer associate degrees, but most do not.
However, many four-year colleges and universities have transfer-articulation agreements with community colleges, under which community college students who earn an associate degree with a minimum GPA can transfer to the four-year school as juniors, and then complete a bachelor’s degree program. Note that many community colleges offer both a transfer and non-transfer track associate degree in early childhood education; the former ensures that your credits will transfer to a four-year program, the latter does not.
An associate degree in education is a two-year degree with a specialization in teaching. The most popular associate degree in education is in early childhood education, as this is the field in which jobs for someone with an associate degree are most likely to be available. This degree prepares students to work in elementary education with children through age eight in a variety of education and pre-education settings.
Courses cover child psychology and learning theory, child development, child health and safety, communications skills, and effective teaching techniques and strategies.
Most people earn their associate degree in education from a community college, a two-year institution of higher education where studies focus on workplace-appropriate skills and subjects. Community colleges are public institutions that typically charge very low tuition rates. Because their mission is to provide education opportunities to the greatest number of students possible, they often impose minimal admission requirements. Some require nothing more than a high school diploma or GED, and some don’t even require that.
The greatest barrier to entry at some community colleges is capacity. The schools can only handle so many students, and if more than that apply, some must be wait-listed. Capacity issues impact the most popular fields the most (e.g., associate’s degree in nursing), and at some schools admissions for these programs can be selective, but teaching is not an area in which this is typically an issue.
Once you are enrolled in a community college education program, all that’s left is to take and pass your courses. Some degree programs also require a practicum, a student-teaching placement in which you will observe and assist a licensed school teacher in the classroom. An associate degree in education usually requires a curriculum of between 60 and 72 credit hours of coursework and field experience. The program can be completed in two years by a full-time student; most community college students attend part-time, as they typically work, raise families, and have other obligations that preclude full-time study.
There also are online programs offering associate degrees in education. Students should exercise caution when considering this option, which can be much more expensive than equivalent community college programs. Tuition for an associate degree from Strayer University, for example, would run you $29,600. In contrast, a North Carolina resident attending Durham Tech, a public community college, would pay an estimated in-state tuition and fees of $5,396 as a full-time student (and you may be eligible for financial aid).
You can’t become a public school teacher with an associate degree. You need at least a bachelor’s degree and some form of teaching license as well, but that doesn’t mean that someone with an associate degree can’t get a job in the classroom. There are, in fact, a number of classroom positions available to those whose highest degree is an associate degree, as well as other jobs that, while not classroom-based, are related to education and children.
Listed below are some roles for which someone with an associate degree in early childhood education is qualified.
A teacher’s assistant, sometimes called a teacher’s aide, an instructional aide, or a paraprofessional, helps a classroom teacher in a variety of classroom management capacities (which vary by teacher, who supervises and sets the role for the assistant). Among the tasks teacher assistants perform (or help with) are:
Overseeing morning organization and attendance record keeping.
Helping organize and record the flow of incoming in-class and homework assignments.
Setting up the classroom for activities and creative projects.
Helping direct attention to individual students as they work independently and cooperatively.
Assisting in schedule maintenance and classroom goals.
Attending off-campus visits to ensure safety and organization.
Keeping an eye on students outside classroom settings in other activities on campus.
Teacher’s assistants are sometimes assigned to work individually or in small groups with special education students. Salary.com reports that the average salary for a teacher’s assistant falls between $21,815 and $30,909.
A preschool teacher works with young children from ages three to five. You might suspect that not a lot of teaching goes on with kids that age, and it’s true that your students likely won’t be reading or doing math (or even using the bathroom every time they have to go), but they will be learning lots, and you’ll have a lot to do with that. Your students will be developing important social and motor skills, and they’ll even learn some important concepts, such as colors, shapes, numbers, and the alphabet. Salary.com reports an average salary for preschool teachers of $35,100, with a 25th-to-75th percentile range of $31,740 to $39,960.
Child care centers offer a less-structured environment than preschools, and they serve a much wider age range of ages; kids anywhere from six weeks to thirteen years old attend child care (sometimes referred to as daycare). This means that a child care worker’s work is more varied than a preschool teacher’s, but it also means that there can be less teaching involved. Child care workers:
With such a broad age range, supervision is critical for child safety.
Children may be in child care for long hours, making new and challenging activities an important element of care.
With children at various stages of development, potty time and diaper changes will be critical.
Feedback for parents helps them understand how their child is adjusting and coping with their time in day care.
Child care workers sometimes work in a commercial space, but some run child care centers out of their own homes, and others still work in the child’s home. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), child care workers earn a median wage of $25,460 per year, with an hourly rate of $12.24.
By law, public schools can only hire teachers who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree and state teacher certification.
Private secular schools and religious schools are not uniformly bound by those certification regulations, however, and while many follow the same hiring guidelines as public schools, some will hire teachers who hold only an associate degree. Such schools offer teachers with an associate degree the opportunity to lead a classroom and gain valuable hands-on experience. We don’t have income data for this group, but private and religious schools typically do not pay as well as public schools, and the pay for teachers who are associate degree holders is almost certainly lower than pay for a teacher with a more advanced degree.
Many students who earn an associate degree at a community college continue directly to a four-year institution to complete their bachelor’s degree. Some start at a community college in order to save money; others start out thinking they only want an associate degree but then change their minds. Earning an associate’s degree in education qualifies them for all the jobs listed above, allowing them to work in the teaching profession, while pursuing their bachelor’s degree and then, perhaps, a master’s degree. In terms of both income and personal fulfillment, it definitely beats flipping burgers.
As far as investments in education go, it’s hard to beat a degree from a community college; community college courses are almost always the least expensive option in higher education. Enrolling in an associate education degree program can improve your earning potential and open up opportunities in a career that you are genuinely passionate about.
Our advice to you is this: if this article intrigued you in any way, contact your local community college and sign up for an education course. If you love it, great; you’ve started down the road to that associate degree and maybe a teaching career. If you find it’s not for you, well, at least you’ll know, and you won’t have spent a lot of money to learn that. That sounds like a win-win to us.
(This article was updated on October 20, 2021.)
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