Deciding what grade to teach can be challenging, but it’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make when you set out to become a teacher. It’s an intensely personal choice driven by your interests and goals and how you envision yourself relating to your students. If you feel called to teach younger students, you may well be headed for a career in elementary education.
The steps you’ll take to become an elementary school teacher are the same regardless of what grade you’ll teach. However, there’s a world of difference between overseeing a classroom of first-graders and teaching in a fifth-grade classroom. Throughout a career, many elementary school teachers do both.
Elementary school teachers are in the unique position of being generalists when it comes to subject matter and experts regarding the developmental needs of students in different grades. The education and training you receive before becoming a teacher may not address this particular aspect of teaching in K-5 schools, so be ready to fill in any gaps. As much as you enjoy working with a specific age group, your school or district’s needs may determine which grade you teach in any given year.
That said, whether you teach first grade or fifth grade, you will play an outsized role in the lives of children. Fortunately, the steps you’ll take to prepare to step into that role are relatively straightforward. In this article about how to become an elementary school teacher, we answer the following questions:
In all 50 states, teachers can apply for provisional, initial, or even full teaching licenses with an undergraduate degree. If you haven’t yet earned a bachelor’s degree, becoming an elementary school teacher is a relatively straightforward process that takes about four years. Step one is enrolling in a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts program focused on elementary education. Your undergraduate degree will train you in teaching methods, child development, and the basic skills necessary to manage a classroom. At some colleges and universities, you can also choose a program that combines an elementary teaching major with a second major in a relevant subject like math, science, or English.
Nearly all bachelor’s-level education degree programs for teachers build teaching internships and student teaching fieldwork into the curriculum. Prospective teachers must complete these—or equivalent—experiences to qualify for their teaching certificates. In several states, teachers must meet additional academic or practicum requirements before taking the required state certification exams.
Connecticut, Ohio, Maryland, and New York are the only states that require elementary school teachers to earn a graduate degree. States allow different time frames—typically between five and ten years—for teachers to complete their degrees. A few other states, e.g., Massachusetts, have tiered censure levels and only allow teachers with master’s degrees in education or their subject areas to upgrade to the highest-level license.
The easiest way to deterimine whether your state requires teachers to hold graduate degrees is to reach out to the department of education with your questions. That way you’ll know for sure whether you need to make earning a Master of Arts in Teaching, Master of Science in Teaching, or Master of Education part of your long-term career plans.
The requirements elementary school teachers must meet to receive a license to teach from each state vary. Forty-four states require candidates to take and pass one or more exams to qualify for a teaching certificate. Most states use the PRAXIS exams, administered by the Educational Testing Service, to determine whether teachers are prepared to enter the classroom.
Many states also require aspiring teachers to take state-specific tests. In Ohio, for instance, candidates for licensure take the Ohio Assessments for Educators (OAE) exam. In Massachusetts, they take the Communications and Literacy Skill MTEL test plus subject-matter knowledge exams.
Some controversy surrounds teacher licensure exams. According to one archived report published by the US Department of Education, “the examinations required, for the most part, are not rigorous… pass scores tend to be low” and “states routinely waive their standards and allow school districts to hire individuals who don’t meet licensure requirements.” While elementary teacher certification exams may be relatively easy, taking them can be expensive. Some aspiring teachers spend $1,000 or more on registration fees before passing.
Putting together a comprehensive list of the traits and professional skills that make elementary teachers effective is no easy task. One Los Angeles Times study found that effective teachers bring all kinds of different skills and qualities to the table. Elementary school teachers need to be knowledgeable and dedicated, of course, but beyond that, it’s a grab bag. There are as many great teachers who are stern as there are teachers who are silly. You might assume that elementary teachers need to be extraverts, but plenty identify as introverts.
There are, however, some skills and qualities you can nurture in yourself to ensure success—where success equals job satisfaction and good relationships with your students. For example:
Elementary school teachers have to find creative ways to do new things with the resources they have, reach students who aren’t responding to the usual lessons, and keep students engaged in lessons and activities. Elementary school students respond well to schoolwork that’s fun and hands-on. It will be up to you to make relatively dry topics (e.g., addition or spelling) more interesting.
Middle school teachers and high school teachers have the luxury of specializing in a single discipline. Elementary school teachers are expected to be masters of everything, from mathematics to music. You will need to keep abreast of the subjects you teach throughout your career so you don’t miss out on new scientific discoveries, new classroom technologies, or new teaching methods.
Patience is vital, both in the younger grades, where students are still learning the rules, and in the older grades, where they begin to test them. There’s no room for tempers in modern elementary classrooms. Practicing mindfulness can help you learn to cope better when your students are exasperating.
The best teachers are collaborators who have good relationships with their coworkers and supportive networks of fellow educators. Working with other teachers—either as part of a grade-wide team initiative in your district or with teachers you’ve connected with through professional development—can help you do your job more effectively.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree in any discipline, you can become an elementary school teacher without completing a four-year bachelor’s program for teachers. The non-traditional route to becoming an elementary school teacher takes about two years. It involves completing either a state-approved teacher preparation program or a one-year or two-year master’s in teaching program.
Colleges and universities often administer alternative certification programs that don’t grant degrees. Other options include private for-profit programs and teaching certification programs run by the state. Aspiring teachers in these programs typically complete six months to one year of synchronous or asynchronous coursework before beginning a one-year paid teaching assignment under a mentor’s supervision. Master’s in education programs with licensure tracks also build supervised teaching experiences into the curriculum, so students meet certification requirements. Be aware that these are typically more expensive than teacher preparation programs.
One of the fastest ways to become a teacher is to apply for emergency certification programs in states with severe teacher shortages. These programs allow aspiring teachers without degrees to step into elementary school teacher jobs with temporary teaching licenses, provided they commit to working in public schools in high-need areas for a fixed number of years. In many cases, you’ll be eligible to teach after passing a background check, though you’ll need to fulfill the state’s education requirements at some point to continue teaching.
Districts group K-5 students together, but because kids move through developmental phases so quickly, kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade classrooms are very different from third-grade classrooms, which can be very different from grade four and grade five classrooms.
In some ways, working with young children is easier. Students are more enthusiastic and receptive and won’t be critical of your lesson plans. They’re generally supportive of one another and inclined to follow the rules. On the other hand, you’ll spend more time on classroom management—especially wrangling kids if you specialize in early childhood education. Just lining your class up and getting them to the lunchroom can be an ordeal. Also, part of your job will involve dealing with runny noses and bathroom accidents.
In the upper elementary grade levels (which include sixth grade in some districts), you’ll be able to dive more deeply into core subjects because you’ll spend less time teaching manners and hygiene. Starting in fifth or even fourth grade, students in some schools begin taking some subject-specific classes during the day, so you may be able to specialize in English, math, or science. Teacher Jana Maiuri has found teaching fifth grade to be particularly enjoyable because students are “mature enough to engage on adult topics of social justice and right and wrong, but still seeking adult approval and fun times. This is the sweet spot, as far as I’m concerned.”
However, you also have to consider that most fifth graders are on the cusp of adolescence. On her blog, Performing in Education, April Smith writes about how critical older elementary students can be. “The kicker with fifth graders is that they will definitely pick up on it when you mess up. They will point out your mistakes. All. The. Time. And they’re not always nice about it.”
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs elementary school teacher median income at $59,420 (for private school teachers, the average is $48,100). According to US News & World Report, the average elementary school teacher earns about $58,000. The best-paid elementary school teachers earn just over $75,000, and the lowest-paid 25 percent earn about $46,000. The dramatic differences in elementary school teacher salaries are often driven by the cost of living. The states where teachers earn the most—New York, California, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—are also some of the most expensive places to live.
Luckily, public school teacher salaries are often a matter of public record, and pay increases in nearly all states happen on a set schedule determined by districts or the state. You can easily find out how much you’ll earn as an elementary school teacher in your area and how much more you might earn with a master’s degree (which might be anywhere from $1,400 to $11,000 annually) by reaching out to the department of education.
Of course, no one becomes an elementary school teacher because they’re hoping to get rich. Chances are you’re considering this profession because you’ll be able to make a significant difference by working with younger students. Teacher Larry Kaye sums up the rewards of teaching in the elementary school grades this way: “I think education is upside down, and the most resources and best teachers should be lured into elementary. If a kid can experience the rush that comes from understanding, you can form a knowledge addict.”
This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the subject.
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