Introduction to elementary education
Education that happens at the kindergarten through grade school levels is called elementary education. This period of schooling takes place after preschool and before junior high, or ages 5 through 12. In urban areas, it often includes elementary and middle school up to 6th grade. In rural areas, grades K-6 may all be classified simply as elementary school.
Regardless of what you call it, however, teachers at the elementary school level are tasked with a unique job. They captain the academic ship while navigating a raging sea of normal growing pains. At the forward end, there is separation anxiety, bringing blankets and stuffed animals to school, and being repelled by the opposite sex. Aft, is the early onset of puberty, hyperactivity, moodiness, and budding feelings of romance in the classroom. In other words, it takes a diverse set of skills to be a successful teacher in the elementary school classroom, and chief among them is a healthy sense of humor. Do you have what it takes to practice the science of teaching grade-school children? Let us help you decide.
Developmental milestones in elementary-age children
Because elementary school is an umbrella term for a time that usually spans roughly 7 years, children reach many developmental milestones along the way. It is easiest to break them down via age group.
Children usually begin kindergarten around the age of 5 years old. At this age, their fine and gross motor skills are becoming more refined. They can hop on one foot without falling and can use eating utensils adeptly. Most children this age can use the restroom independently, wash their hands and flush afterward.
Cognitively, kindergartners can memorize the names of letters, numbers, and colors. They can make play plans and understand that stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. They may be able to memorize and recite their addresses and phone numbers.
Socially, children this age can see differences between boys and girls, can choose the classmates they want as friends, and are grasping what it means to share and take turns.
Language skills are developing in kindergarten as well. These students can tell stories and jokes, argue with others, and understand that some things happened yesterday while others will happen tomorrow.
Teachers at the kindergarten stage need reasonable expectations of what this age group can achieve. They need to be prepared to reason effectively and to master the art of the redirect. They should also anticipate the need to administer to the parents of their tiny charges, whose separation anxiety may surpass their child’s.
In 1st through 3rd grades, children are roughly 6 to 8 years old. Some refer to this stage as middle childhood. These students have become accustomed to attending school 5 days a week, and separation anxiety is typically no longer a problem.
In a social setting, children this age want to be liked and accepted. They’re attentive to friends, and they have a basic understanding of what it means to be part of a team. At this age, they may also begin to pull away from parents in an effort to be more independent.
Academically, 1st through 3rd graders are learning to count by 2s, and they can name the day of the week. They know which way is left and which is right and can perform simple math.
Children in this age group typically speak better than they write, though they may begin reading books in earnest.
Children in this age group typically speak better than they write, though they may begin reading books in earnest. They can tie their shoes, take part in organized sports, and draw people who have heads, hair, bodies, and extremities.
As a teacher at the middle childhood level, your days may be filled with best-friend breakups, asthma, loss of baby teeth in the classroom, and the discovery of behavioral or learning disorders.
Sadly, this is also a prime time for evidence of child abuse at home to become visible in the classroom. As a teacher of 6- to 8-year-olds, it is your responsibility to be attentive to changes in the appearance, behavior, or self-esteem of your vulnerable students and to report any concerns to administration.
Children in grades 4 through 6 are usually 9 to 12 years old. They may seem awkward or clumsy as they experience rapid changes in height and weight. Hormones begin changing at this age, eventually leading to puberty. You may notice your students becoming more shy around members of the opposite sex. Developmental milestones in older elementary students include:
- growing need for privacy
- more developed sense of responsibility
- understanding of action and consequences
- feelings of insecurity and shyness
- increasing attention to peer pressure
- deeper, more developed friendships
- instances of moodiness or disrespect
Academically, children between the ages of 9 and 12 have started using multiple sources to gain knowledge, including social media, news, and magazines. They are gaining a better understanding of world issues and may be more concerned about their communities.
Socially, they may begin to develop crushes on friends, develop issues with self-esteem, and struggle with the physical changes caused by puberty.
In the late elementary classroom, expect to encounter instances of student body odor, the beginnings of facial hair growth, first periods, and identity crises. Hormones may be raging in older students, causing unexpected mood swings and awkward questions regarding sex and romance. Students may find it difficult to focus academically because of all the physical and emotional changes taking place, and teachers may wonder why in the world they didn’t become lawyers or surgeons or anything less emotionally messy.
Understanding and preparing for developmental changes in the classroom
As a teacher of young, impressionable students, it falls on you to create a safe, orderly environment for learning to blossom and flourish. If you understand and are prepared for the changes your young charges face each year, you can have more realistic expectations of how to accomplish this objective.
For instance, developing a sixth sense regarding a classroom romance can drive your decision to change the seating chart, making the day more productive for at least 2 of your students. Similarly, understanding that a student needs additional time in the restroom for female issues may help you avoid an awkward or disruptive situation during class.
As you gain experience in teaching and learn to anticipate issues before they bloom into big, emotionally charged problems, you’ll develop this sixth sense.
As you gain experience in teaching and learn to anticipate issues before they bloom into big, emotionally charged problems, you’ll develop this sixth sense. This necessitates having a keen understanding of what to expect from each age group to facilitate the process.
Teaching in the public and private school systems
Most parents don’t know public school teachers need specific credentials to teach, while private school teachers may not.
To become an elementary teacher in the public school system in America, you need at least a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, along with a license to teach in your state. Additional requirements, such as internship and testing are normal parts of the process, as well.
Requirements may be more lax for those who wish to teach in the private sector. Still, a bachelor’s degree is a good place to start if you want to be a competitive candidate.
Advantages and disadvantages of teaching in a private school
The requirements to teach in a private school are often more relaxed than those needed to teach in a public school. This means it may be easier to obtain a teaching job in the private sector. Unfortunately, this may also translate into lower pay and fewer benefits. Sometimes, private schools lack the diversity found in their public counterparts. Attendance is usually limited to those who can afford to pay pricier tuition, or it may be geared to specific religious affiliations.
Advantages and disadvantages to teaching in a public school
Public school teachers have met strict requirements to obtain positions within the school district. As such, they typically draw better pay and may have better benefits. Regardless, many teachers consider themselves underpaid and surprisingly, many parents agree. Getting your foot in the door at a public school is a good steppingstone for your teaching career.
Getting your foot in the door at a public school is a good steppingstone for your teaching career.
Drawbacks to teaching in the public school district include having to prepare students for an abundance of standardized testing, teaching with too-few supplies, and having too-little behavioral help in the classroom. Some public school teachers buy their own supplies because school budgets are inadequate.
Upsides include personal fulfillment, decent pay and benefits, and a diverse classroom experience.
Choosing which grade to teach
Do you enjoy being around children who are kindergarten-age? Or do you feel more comfortable teaching pre-teens? Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. The best way to discover your ideal classroom is to spend time teaching at all 3 levels. Read on to discover the characteristics of each level.
Kindergartners are noisier, more curious, and often more undisciplined than children who have been attending school for a few years. Teaching this age group can be very rewarding. Watching that bulb light up over a kindergartner’s head when they grasp a new concept is highly motivating. In addition, children at this age are less reserved, more eager to please their teacher, and hold fewer emotions back. In other words, you can usually tell when a kindergartner has mastered a new skill or suddenly knows the answer to a question. For many kindergarten teachers, this can be more rewarding than any raise or promotion.
As children get older and progress through the grades, this unfettered joy typically begins to fade. Students become more aware of who is watching, and the instant enthusiasm wanes. This is a feature you may miss if you move from teaching kindergarten to teaching pre-teens.
Another factor to keep in mind is that, out of all the grade levels, teachers are typically most appreciated by students at the kindergarten level. This is one arena of life where you can become a superhero to 20 or so tiny individuals. At this age, it’s still a thrill to sit next to the teacher’s desk. It’s a bragging point if the teacher picks you to pass out papers.
You may be more popular as a teacher in the kindergarten classroom than you’ve ever been anywhere else in life. This is something to keep in mind if you enjoy working with small children but are unsure where your calling to teach lies.
In general, children in 1st through 3rd grades are still enthusiastic learners. This can mean that while there are still thrills to be had by imparting your wisdom, students are becoming more independent.
These students understand the daily routine and are relatively disciplined when it comes to attending school. They understand that there is an assigned chair to sit in and that they need to raise their hands for permission to speak. These classrooms are more orderly and sometimes more productive than kindergarten classrooms, and the material covered is based more on academics and less on behavior.
As a teacher at this grade level, you won’t encounter the awkward pre-teen issues. However, you may spend more time trying to find creative solutions to reading problems. This is the age group where learning difficulties usually become obvious. There may also be times when it feels like every child in your classroom needs additional help in one form or another.
You may have children under your charge who have English-language issues, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and more. In an ideal setting, these children with special needs will have aides to help them. But if you teach in a rural or impoverished school district, you may be the only island in a sea of swimming children. You’ll need patience, the ability to think on your feet, and that little voice that tells you when a student needs more help than you can give. In this case, finding the right person or service to address the needs of the child may be your responsibility.
These children are established students. By this time, they’ve discovered whether they like sports or reading, art or skateboarding. Personalities are more developed, and they are more apt to question the things you say and do.
Teaching pre-teens can be both challenging and very rewarding. A student may be having a bad day without really knowing why, and the classroom dynamic is always crackling with the electricity of first crushes, the beginnings of body awareness, and a dawning sense of world issues such as racial injustice, discrimination, and global warming. These students have begun to form their own ideals and opinions of the world, and you may find these issues infiltrating your classroom on a somewhat regular basis.
As a teacher at this level, your job is to prepare your students for what comes later, meaning junior and senior high. You can hold engaging conversations with these students and glimpse their unique perspectives, which can make for a fun and engaging day at work.
Becoming a special education teacher
This career path can be highly satisfying for someone with the right temperament and desire to effect change. Special, or aided, education instructors are lifelines for students who have learning, emotional, developmental, or mental disabilities. They are also important resources for the families of these children.
To become a special education teacher, you typically require a bachelor’s degree in elementary education or special education. Many pursue dual degrees for this purpose.
Licensure varies between states. You may need a certification to teach in special education, or you may need a license to teach in a specific type of disability.
Becoming a special education teacher, will required high levels of compassion and dedication.
Becoming a special education teacher, will required high levels of compassion and dedication. This may be one of the most thankless areas of education because achievement markers may be slight with students often unable to express themselves clearly. Your relationship with the families of your disabled students may challenge your skills as well. Many parents of special-needs children can be overprotective, wanting to spare their children embarrassment or disappointment, yet unknowingly depriving their children of the benefits of new experiences, such as a quality education.
Career opportunities at the elementary school level
The kindergarten teacher has a range of specific responsibilities that include maintaining a safe and orderly classroom while teaching basic skills, such as the names of colors, numbers, and letters. Additionally, they must find ways to encourage continuous learning, and teach students to persevere through tasks they find challenging. As a kindergarten teacher, you may also find yourself encouraging students to maintain proper personal hygiene and helping them to develop acceptable social skills. To be successful in this arena, you need to:
- enjoy working with young children
- be able to think creatively
- have good organizational skills
- be able to establish and maintain positive working relationships with students, parents, faculty, and administration
Lastly, teachers of young children require dependability, flexibility, and unwavering integrity. If this describes you, you can likely flourish in the kindergarten classroom.
How to become
To teach public school at the kindergarten level, a bachelor’s degree and a license to teach in your state is required. There are several different routes you can take to achieve the goal of becoming a kindergarten teacher. Most commonly students will earn their undergraduate degree in one of the following areas:
- Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education
- Bachelor’s degree in child development
- Bachelor’s degree in elementary education
In addition to completing a bachelor’s degree it is essential for students to also complete a teacher preparation program. Usually this is paired with your undergraduate degree, so by the time you complete the program you will be ready for licensure examinations in your state. A teacher preparation program will have coursework in teaching methodology, classroom management, and assessment techniques. Another important part of a teacher preparation program is student teaching. Many states require student teaching experience to be eligible for licensure.
Before you can step foot into your kindergarten classroom, you will need to pass your state’s examinations. Many states use the Praxis series, which will test your content or subject specific knowledge. Once these examinations are passed, you are eligible to apply for licensure in your state.
Some students may have already earned a bachelor’s degree in another field that did not have a teacher preparation program. These students may be interested in a postbaccalaureate or master’s program with teaching tracks for prospective educators.
Elementary school teachers
Teacher responsibilities in grades 1-6 include the establishment and enforcement of classroom rules. Creative ways to assist students at different academic levels without falling behind in the curriculum schedule is an important skill to develop. At this level, you may teach students individually or in groups, using methods such as demonstration, lecture, or open discussion. Expect to confer regularly with parents and administration regarding student progress.
To be a successful elementary school teacher, you need the following prerequisites:
- being highly observational
- the ability to extract information from various sources
- capable of developing and implementing lesson plans
- exhibit sensitivity
It also helps to be reliable and efficient in everything you do, possess unshakeable ethics, and a results-driven personality.
How to become
To become an elementary school teacher, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and a license to teach in a public school in your state.
Many elementary educators earn their bachelor’s degrees in elementary education. This program adequately prepares them for careers teaching this age group. An important element of any undergraduate program is it’s teaching components. This is because most states require student teaching experience to be eligible for licensure.
If you have finished your undergraduate studies in another field that did not have a teacher preparation program, you can earn a postbaccalaureate certificate or complete a master’s program that prepares you for teaching. One common route is by completing a master’s in elementary education with a teaching track. This ensures that you are not only completing necessary coursework, but also the teacher preparation program.
After the completion of your studies and teacher preparation program, you must pass your state’s exams. Most states require the Praxis series, which measures content and specialization knowledge, but some states have their own examinations. Once the required exams are passed, you can apply for a teaching license in your state.
The responsibilities of a teaching assistant (TA) incorporate the preparation and distribution of educational materials, classroom preparation, and assisting with student management. Tasks may include:
- making copies of materials
- listening to children read aloud
- helping struggling children to complete tasks on time
- lesson planning and record keeping
If you want more time to enjoy working with children without bearing all the responsibilities of the classroom teacher, becoming a teaching assistant may appeal to you. In this position, patience, the ability to instruct, and the ability to build a healthy rapport with students, teachers, and administration are important.
You may also enjoy working as a TA while earning your teaching degree. It can be a great experience that helps to fulfill your internship requirements
How to become
In most public schools, TAs need an associate degree and, depending on the state, may also need to pass state a TA certification.
Most teaching assistants pursue associate degrees in the following disciplines:
Median salary: $98K
Elementary school principals are responsible for the overall operation of a school, including hiring and evaluating teachers, maintaining a positive learning environment, and building relationships with students, families, faculty, and the community. The school principal usually answers to the school superintendent.
Median salary: $51K
The elementary school librarian, or media specialist, maintains the school library. The librarian is responsible for helping students borrow and return library materials, ordering new books and materials, and helping students use technology, such as school computers, effectively.
Are you still interested in exploring a career as an elementary school teacher? If so, now is the time to act. This career field is expected to grow through 2029. And the world will always need teachers, especially those who have the compassion, the desire, and the drive to motivate their students to achieve excellence.