How to Become a Preschool Teacher: A Guide
October 05, 2021
Successful preschool teachers feel called to the profession. The work is challenging, but the paybacks—in the form of love, admiration, and sticky-fingered hugs—make it all worthwhile.
Many people regard preschool as daycare for the prekindergarten crowd, but they're wrong. Preschool is a learning environment designed to foster young children’s socialization and teach them the foundational skills and tools they'll need in their subsequent schooling.
Do preschool teachers dole out snacks and put their students down for naps? Yes, but they also do a lot more. Research suggests that early education is critical to child development. Preschool teachers provide this education and guidance
Given that, you might assume that becoming a preschool teacher involves earning a master's degree in early childhood education. However, you can become a preschool teacher with a bachelor's degree in early childhood education or even an associate's degree in education. A graduate degree might help you excel at your job, but it isn't required.
Your most crucial qualification might not be a degree or a certification. Rather, your desire to make a difference in young children's lives might count the most. Kids between the ages of three and five are like sponges, soaking up social skills and academic lessons through observation, play, and repetition. You'll do some teaching as a preschool teacher, but your number one job will be to create a supportive and engaging learning environment in which your young students can learn and grow.
Ready to learn more about teaching the youngest students? In this article about how to become a preschool teacher, we answer the following questions:
- What's the difference between preschool, pre-K, and daycare?
- What do preschool teachers do?
- Do preschool teachers need teaching certificates?
- Can you become a preschool teacher without a degree?
- What is the average salary of a preschool teacher?
- Will I earn more as a preschool teacher with a master's degree?
- What makes a great preschool teacher?
What's the difference between preschool, pre-K, and daycare?
This is a challenging question because naming conventions vary among institutions. These terms do not have universally agreed-upon definitions.
Young children do plenty of learning at daycare, but in-home daycare and daycare centers typically exist to provide childcare, not to educate. Some daycare centers have preschool or prekindergarten programs, however, and some don't officially bill themselves as preschool or pre-K programs but operate as such. There also are preschool programs that are essentially an extension of daycare and preschool programs. These programs are typically no different from pre-K programs. Some public schools have special education preschool and prekindergarten programs, but no mainstream early childhood education classrooms.
Most preschool teachers and assistant teachers work in daycare centers, not in schools. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 58 percent of preschool teachers work in daycare services. Only 16 percent work in state, local, and private schools.
The main differences between preschool and prekindergarten tend to be the students' age and how they spend their days. Many preschool programs are geared toward children ages three and four, while students in pre-K programs are often four or five and headed to kindergarten in a year or two. Preschool students spend more time learning through play, picking up knowledge related to letters, numbers, colors, and shapes along the way. Children in prekindergarten spend more time doing structured activities and developing advanced school readiness skills like reading and writing. Their teachers do more traditional teaching.
What do preschool teachers do?
Preschool teachers work with young learners between ages three and five in standalone preschools, private schools, and early childhood education programs in public school districts. They usually work with relatively small groups of students, teaching foundational skills through structured learning, and guiding students through play-based learning activities. They also help children learn vital social and emotional skills, reinforcing the lessons students have hopefully begun learning at home. They need strong communication skills to keep parents informed about their children's progress.
Preschool teachers may not need specialized knowledge to help their students recite the alphabet, count to 20, or learn their colors, but they still need a plan based on learning outcomes. When you become a preschool teacher, you'll:
Develop lesson plans
You'll create lessons and projects that meet pre-school learning objectives. This may include teaching students to write their names, listen, and learn the alphabet.
Assess students' behavioral and academic progress
Pre-school is a significant developmental period. For instance, you may notice the emergence of a long-term behavioral issue. As a teacher, you'll need to manage a classroom, and measure students' progress.
Work closely with parents to help students meet learning goals
Communicating with parents is essential for preschool teachers, especially because students likely don't have the skills to convey all their needs. Cultivating a positive relationship between teachers and parents can improve the school experience for all involved.
In some ways, your days will look a lot like those of kindergarten teachers, but you will spend more of your time on bathroom visits, snack time, and helping students regulate their emotions. It can be exhausting work, but it also can be extremely fulfilling. You'll have the privilege of facilitating a scaffold in each student upon which all future knowledge and skills will be built.
Do preschool teachers need teaching certificates?
Standards for early childhood teachers differ from state to state. In some, preschool teachers are licensed in the same way as elementary school, middle school, and high school teachers. New York, for example, has multiple teaching certificates for preschool teachers:
The Early Childhood Education (Birth-Grade 2) certification allows you to teach birth through second grade. After completing their education, applicants must pass four tests: Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST), Educating All Students Test (EAS), Content Specialty Test (CST), edTPA.
Nursery, Kindergarten, and Grades 1-6
This certification approves you to teach through sixth grade, meaning you'll prepare to teach early childhood and beyond.
Students with Disabilities (Birth through Grade 2)
This program allows you to teach young students with disabilities. It requires completing a state-approved program, plus a certification exam and specialty test.
In California, on the other hand, you can teach preschool with the state's traditional K-12 teacher credential, a CTC Child Development Permit, or the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential. The CDA Preschool Credential is one of the more common qualifications that childcare centers, private schools, and public school districts require of preschool teachers.
Some states give teaching licenses to those with a Certified Childcare Professional (CCP) credential, a two-year credential open to teachers without a college degree. You can determine whether preschool teachers have to be licensed or otherwise certified in your area by contacting the state department of education. If you don't meet the requirements for teacher licensure, you may still be able to work as a preschool teacher at a private school or in the preschool program at a daycare center.
Can you become a preschool teacher without a degree?
Technically, yes. Most public school districts require preschool teachers to meet specific minimum education requirements, but independent daycare centers with preschool programs and private schools are generally free of such regulations. Having an associate's degree can help you launch a career teaching preschool; you might even find a position with just a high school diploma. That said, completing a bachelor's degree program can make it easier to find work in positions like lead teacher and help you negotiate for higher salaries.
Plus, if you want to work with small children in a public school, a center-based Head Start program, or in early education programs overseen by the state, you'll need a bachelor's degree. About half of Head Start programs in the US require their preschool teachers to have a college degree in early childhood education (ECE) or a related field. Most public schools require preschool teachers to have a bachelor's degree in addition to assistant teaching or aide experience and/or their CDA credential. You'll also need to pass a background check.
How long it will take you to become a preschool teacher depends on:
Though it's possible to teach without a degree, having an education in education is better. Many early childhood education degrees lead to licensure.
Fieldwork requirements depend on the state. You'll typically complete at least part of your fieldwork through a bachelor's degree program.
Licensure and certification
States typically require applicants to pass multiple exams. Remember, New York has four. As you progress past your initial licensure, you'll be required to complete more exams and fieldwork to continue teaching. In certain states, such as New York, you'll even need to earn a master's degree.
What is the average salary of a preschool teacher?
The average preschool earns a median pay of about $32,000. Preschool teachers in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and the District of Columbia earn $10,000 more; the highest-paid preschool teachers earn about $58,000. Keep in mind, however, that top-earning preschool teachers often work in areas with the highest cost of living.
The BLS reports that preschool teachers who work in state, local, and private schools earn the most. In contrast, those employed by daycare centers, religious organizations, and other settings not associated with schools make the least.
Will I earn more as a preschool teacher with a master's degree?
Unfortunately, there's no way to definitively answer this question unless you're working for a public school district with a preschool or pre-K program. In those districts, you can look up the preschool teacher salary schedule to find out if you'll earn more with an early childhood education master's degree.
Private preschools can pay teachers whatever salaries the market will support. Given that the average preschool teacher salary is almost $30,000 less than the average elementary school teacher salary, think carefully before investing in a master's degree in early childhood education. Earning a master's degree might make you more hirable, but probably won't give you a big salary boost if you plan to continue working in preschool settings. If, however, you're planning a career path that leads to a job in elementary education, then enrolling in an early childhood education MAT or MEd program makes sense.
What makes a great preschool teacher?
Milk and cookie breaks are a part of the average preschool teacher's day, but it's essential to remember preschool teachers aren't babysitters. They're serious educators with an obligation to help their students meet learning objectives.
Maybe you're considering becoming a preschool teacher because you love spending time with young children. Maybe you have babysitting experience, or you've worked at a daycare. Both of those will help you in a preschool teaching career, but that's not all you'll need to succeed.
Preschool teachers have to be:
Teaching preschoolers is exhausting. It's also a huge responsibility. You can't just love kids. You have to love finding new ways to reach and teach them, which can mean putting in a surprising amount of work after hours learning about early childhood development, pedagogical techniques, and child psychology.
Young kids are unpredictable. They have relatively short attention spans. Minor setbacks can upset them in a big way. Bathroom accidents are a fairly regular occurrence in preschool classrooms. Preschool teachers are both educators and parent stand-ins. In this role, you have to be able to let frustrations roll off your back and laugh when things go sideways, 100 percent of the time, so students feel confident enough to try new things and make mistakes.
Children learn in different ways, and their learning styles are influenced by family structure, culture, life experiences, and neurological differences. Becoming a great teacher means acknowledging that the best path forward for one child may not be the best path forward for another. Some children learn best when they can move, others through repetition. The best preschool teachers also work hard to make every student feel included by choosing stories featuring characters from different races and cultures, and by making sure every student's holiday traditions are represented in class activities.
Preschool-age children thrive in structured environments. The best preschool teachers have designated places for everything in their classrooms, fixed daily schedules that help students transition between activities and curricula that progress logically. Students and their families know what to expect daily and over time.
Most preschool teachers start out each year with big goals for their classrooms—then they actually meet their students and have to adjust those goals. A great lesson may go over some students' heads. There may be children in the classroom with developmental delays or learning differences. Students should never be held to standards they can't meet. Sometimes this requires adapting lesson plans to meet the needs of individual students. It also can mean adjusting lessons on the fly in favor of alternate activities that meet the needs of the moment.
However, the most important thing you'll need to succeed as a preschool teacher won't be adaptability or a proven organizational system. It also won't be your degree in early childhood education or your certifications. It will be your commitment to your students and their development. For many children, the preschool day is the longest they've ever spent apart from family. They know their teachers don't love them the way mom and dad do, but they’ll depend on you for your care, guidance, and encouragement. That teacherly love is a big part of what motivates the youngest students to explore the world, try new things, and risk making mistakes.
There's no denying that, as a preschool teacher, you may feel underpaid for all you do. The upside is that all the passion and care you put into your work will pay off in your students’ lives in countless ways for years to come.
(This article was updated on October 5, 2021.)
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