Elementary Education

Why Get a Master’s Degree in Elementary Teaching?

Why Get a Master’s Degree in Elementary Teaching?
Understanding how children learn can equip you with better tools to teach your students math, science, and language arts, whether you're working with young learners in grades K through 2 or presiding over a classroom of much more sophisticated fourth- or fifth-graders. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 16, 2020

Earning a master's in elementary education can level up your classroom management skills and boost your education career. A graduate degree can translate into a bigger salary, broader network, and more open doors.

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A degree in elementary education can’t magically bestow the qualities it takes to thrive in challenging K-5 classrooms. There’s no master’s program that will teach you patience or the best way to help a young student recover from a skinned knee. If you’re not a fan of having your personal space invaded or answering invasive questions, going to grad school won’t change that.

What you will get out of a master’s in elementary teaching program are advanced skills and knowledge that help you:

  • Design better lesson plans
  • Manage your classroom more effectively
  • Address the unique needs of individual students who may be at different developmental stages

A master’s degree in elementary education can also be a boon professionally. You might not need one to advance in the public school system in your state, but chances are you’ll still earn more and be a more attractive candidate for open positions with one. And while no one has yet proven that having a master’s degree can make someone a better teacher, it’s clear that there are plenty of great reasons to get a master’s in elementary education, whether you’re an experienced elementary school teacher or you’re hoping to become an elementary school teacher.

In this article, we discuss the question why get a master’s in elementary education and cover the following:

  • What is a master’s in elementary education, and do I need one to teach?
  • Are there different kinds of elementary education master’s degrees?
  • What will I learn in a master’s in elementary education program?
  • Is teaching the only thing I can do with a master’s in elementary education?
  • What are the top 10 reasons to get a master’s in elementary education?

What is a master’s in elementary education, and do I need one to teach?

The master’s in elementary education isn’t a degree but rather a category of degrees designed for teachers who work with children in kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade. Prerequisites for public school teachers in these grades vary significantly from state to state, so whether you’ll need a master’s degree in teaching to maintain licensure depends on where you teach.

You will not need a master’s degree to receive your initial teaching license. In most states, elementary school teachers can obtain a teaching certificate and stay licensed with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in education, provided they meet continuing education requirements. In some states, teachers can even work in K-5 classrooms with subject-specific bachelor’s degrees, provided they commit to getting a degree in education within a specified period.

There are, however, a few states where elementary school teachers are required by the state department of education to hold a master’s degree in education. In Connecticut, Ohio, Maryland, and New York, all public school educators must earn a graduate degree within a fixed period (usually five or ten years after becoming a teacher) to maintain licensure. There are also states, like Massachusetts, with a tiered system of teacher certification. In those states, you may not be able to upgrade to the highest-level—and highest-paying—teaching license until you earn a master’s in elementary education.

You should also know that the number of teachers earning master’s degrees is increasing. Having a master’s in elementary education is optional if you’re working in a state that doesn’t require K-5 teachers to have advanced degrees. Still, you may not be able to accomplish all of your professional goals without one.

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Graduate degrees for teachers fall into two categories: the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and the Master of Education (MEd). Many resources indicate that the MAT is the best master’s degree for teachers, while MEd programs are primarily for aspiring educational administrators, policymakers, and other current education professionals who aspire to work outside the classroom. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.

Both MAT and MEd programs tend to be concentration-based, and while there are more part-time and full-time Master of Arts in Teaching programs focused on advanced pedagogic theories and skills, there are also plenty of Master of Education programs with grade-level, subject-area, and student-population concentrations.

In some areas of the US, a teacher with a master’s degree at the top of the salary schedule can earn close to $40,000 more than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that going to graduate school will lead to a substantially bigger paycheck. The only way to know how much you’ll earn after graduating with a master’s in teaching or master’s in education is to look at the salary schedule in your district. You should be able to see at a glance how your education and experience will translate into dollars. (source)

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Are there different kinds of elementary education master’s degrees?

Some people assume that the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in Elementary Education is the gold standard of teaching degrees for elementary school educators. However, different kinds of practical master’s degrees focus on K-5 instruction.

You might, for instance, earn a Master of Education in Elementary Education (MEd) or a Master of Science in Teaching (MST) in Elementary Education. All three degree programs can cover topics relevant to teachers who plan to spend their careers in the classroom and can lead to initial licensure if you’re not already a licensed teacher.

Before applying to any program, read the program guide carefully. Colleges and universities typically make it very clear whether their master’s degree programs for teachers are geared toward experienced educators or aspiring teachers and whether those programs are designed to support teachers in the classroom or help teachers transition into administrative roles.

What will I learn in a master’s in elementary education program?

In general, part-time and full-time students in elementary education master’s programs take 30 to 40 credit hours in various content areas to expand their understanding of how young students learn. Coursework covers pedagogy, educational psychology, child development, curriculum design, and teaching methodologies.

For example, teachers and aspiring teachers enrolled in the MAT online program offered by American University‘s School of Education take courses like:

  • Children’s Literature: A Critical Literacy Perspective
  • Effective Teaching for Diverse Students
  • Foundations of Education
  • Foundations of Special Education for Exceptional Children
  • Teaching Literacy in Elementary School
  • Teaching Mathematics in Elementary School
  • Teaching Science in Elementary School
  • Teaching Social Studies in Elementary School
  • Theories of Educational Psychology and Human Development

Most elementary education programs require graduate students to complete one or more research projects in their classrooms or one or more student teaching practicum sessions and field experiences.

Is teaching the only thing I can do with a master’s in elementary education?

One-year and two-year master’s-level elementary education degree programs in the United States are generally designed for students who want to launch classroom careers or enhance their teaching skills. However, that doesn’t mean that teaching is the only thing you can do with an elementary education master’s.

In many public school districts and private schools, teachers need graduate degrees to advance into educational administrator positions, but those degrees can be in any discipline. Consequently, it’s possible to transition into school administration and education policy roles or to qualify for positions like curriculum designer or instructional coordinator with a MAT in Elementary Teaching. That said, earning a master’s in elementary education probably isn’t the most efficient way to transition out of the classroom and into other positions.

What are the top 10 reasons to get a master’s in elementary education?

10. You’ll receive advanced pedagogical training

Teaching at the elementary level involves more than reading stories and playing games. Understanding how children learn can equip you with better tools to teach your students math, science, and language arts, whether you’re working with young learners in grades K through 2 or presiding over a classroom of much more sophisticated fourth- or fifth-graders. In an MAT or MEd program, you’ll learn specialized teaching techniques that help you reach students with diverse learning styles. As a result, you’ll become a more confident and more effective teacher.

9. Your field and research experiences will provide perspective

Most master’s in elementary education programs build student teaching, practicum and capstone experiences, research projects, and other practical degree requirements into the curriculum. If you tackle a research project in your classroom, you’ll gain new insights into your students. If you complete a placement in a local community classroom, you’ll benefit from interacting with a group of learners who may be very different from those you teach in the future. The more varied your field and research experiences, the more open-minded you’ll be in the future.

8. Some programs let students specialize further

Some master’s degree programs in elementary education let students choose sub-specialties like curriculum and instruction development, literacy, early childhood education, or special education instruction. There are even master’s in elementary education programs with a focus on educational leadership. If you have a passion for a specific area of elementary education—like working with diverse learners, teaching English as a second language, or educational research—or you want to transition into leadership roles in the future, look for schools that let students customize their degrees with electives or concentration tracks.

7. You’ll brush up on the basics

Elementary school teachers have to be generalists—masters of multiple domains—and what you learned in your grade school math, science, English, and social studies classes may not be what kids today are learning. MAT and MEd programs focused on elementary education don’t just teach how to teach, but also new information about the material students in elementary classrooms have to learn.

6. Graduate school is a great place to network

You’ll meet interesting people when you pursue a master’s-level elementary education degree. The teachers and aspiring teachers in your graduate program classes will become a part of your support network in the future, and your program may help you connect with local schools and districts. The connections you make while in graduate school can lead to compelling and lucrative opportunities in the future.

5. Your master’s degree in elementary teaching can lead to private sector careers

Your MAT or MEd plus your teaching experience can help you find work in curriculum development, textbook editing, tutoring, or educational consulting. Some teachers work with nonprofit organizations devoted to promoting technology in classrooms, expanding access to education, or making education more equitable.

4. A master’s in elementary education can lead to various career opportunities in the classroom

Some elementary school teachers earn master’s degrees because they want to qualify for adjunct teaching positions at a college of education. After earning a graduate degree, you may be able to find a position teaching courses in a bachelor’s in education program. As part of your post-secondary work, you may also participate in research that shapes future education policy.

Even if your current goals all involve teaching, it’s good to have options. You may decide later in your career that you want to specialize in literacy instruction, mathematics education, school counseling, or educational leadership, and chances are that making the switch will be easier if you already have a master’s degree.

3. You’ll be a more competitive candidate when job hunting

Master’s degrees in teaching and education represent more than 20 percent of all master’s degrees awarded, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 50 percent of teachers have graduate degrees. That means a lot of the teachers competing for the jobs you want will have master’s degrees. You’ll have an easier time landing well-paying positions if you have an MAT or MEd in Elementary Education.

2. A master’s degree in elementary ed will boost your earning potential

Teachers with master’s degrees earn more. In most large school districts, education level is one of the factors used to calculate teacher pay. In the first year after graduation, a teacher with an MAT, MEd, or MS typically earns about $2,800 more than those without. Once they reach the top of their earning potential, they may earn $7,000 to $10,000 more than their colleagues with bachelor’s degrees.

1. You’ll know you’re doing everything you can to improve as an educator

The key to becoming a great teacher is being a great student. You can’t let your skills stagnate, which is why so many states build continuing education and professional development and teacher education requirements into the mandated teaching certification renewal conditions. Pursuing a master’s degree may not be a requirement for teachers in your state, but it is a sure way to boost your skills and, consequently, your effectiveness in the classroom.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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