Becoming an Elementary School Teacher

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Elementary school teachers play an important role in society. Their efforts can make lifelong positive impacts on young learners. A 2021 Stacker review ranked grade-school teachers as the third-most trusted profession in the United States, behind only doctors and nurses.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects to see rising school enrollment rates drive increased demand for elementary teachers. The BLS projects a job growth of 4% for these professionals from 2019-2029.

This guide provides a detailed explanation of the process for becoming an elementary school teacher. It covers education and experience requirements along with the licensure process. The guide concludes with job search tips and resources.

What Is an Elementary School Teacher?

An elementary teacher’s job description covers the following core duties:

  • Preparing lessons plans and leading classes
  • Working with students individually and in small groups
  • Building a positive and supportive classroom environment
  • Evaluating student performance
  • Supervising students during the school day, both in and outside of the classroom
BLS data states that private schools employ only 13% of U.S. elementary school teachers.

Teachers mainly interact with the students in their classes and with students’ parents. However, they also work with school administrators, such as principals and superintendents. A large majority of teachers work in public schools. BLS data states that private schools employ only 13% of U.S. elementary school teachers.

The link below explains an elementary school teacher’s typical duties in greater detail.

Read More About Elementary School Teachers

Required Education for Elementary School Teachers

Becoming an elementary school teacher usually takes at least five years of schooling. As the BLS notes, aspiring teachers usually need at least a bachelor’s degree in education. During college, candidates often choose to earn a specialized degree in early childhood or elementary education.

States differ in their teacher education standards. Some accept applicants with general or specialized education degrees. Others expect teachers to hold dual degrees in education and an elementary school subject such as math or English.

In addition, certain states ask teachers with bachelor’s degrees to upgrade their education. For example, elementary teachers in Connecticut and New York must complete a master’s degree in education within five years of accepting their first teaching job. Otherwise, they do not qualify to renew their teaching license.

A teacher’s educational journey also includes gaining classroom experience. Most states request that candidates complete practice teaching hours before seeking licensure. Individuals planning to teach a certain subject may need to pass a knowledge test in that subject area in addition to general certification exams.

Discover Which Education Path Is Right for You

Required Experience for Elementary School Teachers

Emerging teachers need clinical practice experience before seeking a license. Clinical practice is more commonly known as “student teaching.” As with other aspects of becoming an elementary school teacher, states differ in their specific requirements.

Candidates gain the necessary experience by enrolling in student teaching programs. Some colleges build these programs into their education degrees. Others prompt aspiring educators to complete student teaching after earning their degree.

Most student-teaching programs include field observation and supervised teaching experiences. During field observations, candidates learn by watching established teachers lead classes. Supervised teaching experiences put the student in charge of a classroom. Licensed teachers or college faculty members observe and evaluate student teachers.

State teacher licensing boards set minimum times for clinical practice experiences. For example, New York asks aspiring teachers for at least 14 weeks (one college semester) of supervised teaching experience. After meeting these minimums and all other requirements, candidates qualify for licensing exams.

Internship Opportunities

Many teacher’s colleges offer internship opportunities to their students. Unlike clinical practice requirements, teacher internships are usually optional. That said, they can significantly boost a student’s career prospects.

Teaching internships cover similar activities as student teaching programs. Participants observe licensed teachers and lead classes under expert supervision. However, internship programs often assign higher levels of responsibility than student-teaching programs. As such, some employers consider them more valuable.

Teacher’s colleges may offer optional internships as part of their degree programs. Internships normally meet the student’s clinical practice requirements. Interested students apply for limited placements through a competitive screening process. Teaching internships typically last one college semester and may pay a modest stipend.

Certification and Licensure for Elementary School Teachers

Despite some differences, most states’ licensing processes for teachers share several common requirements. After candidates complete educational and training requirements, the final step covers certification and licensure.

Most states use ETS Praxis tests as their standard teacher exams. Before becoming certified, aspiring teachers must pass their state’s standardized test(s). The minimum passing score may also vary. ETS’s website lists current state-specific standards.

ETS Praxis tests include three main exam types: core tests, subject tests, and content knowledge for teaching (CKT) tests. Aspiring teachers may need to pass a core test to enter a teacher-training program. After finishing their training, candidates usually take content knowledge and/or CKT tests to complete the certification process.

Notably, the terms “licensure” and “certification” mean the same thing in some states and different things in others. Where the terms differ, a “license” usually refers to the state-issued credential that legally permits an individual to work as a teacher. “Certification” is an optional, advanced endorsement in a specific subject area.

These technical details speak to the importance of understanding your state’s own licensing and certification standards. Finally, remember that criminal background checks form another mandatory part of the teacher licensing process.

How to Become an Elementary School Teacher

The standard method of becoming an elementary school teacher unfolds in three stages. First, the candidate completes a bachelor’s or master’s degree in early childhood or elementary education. They then obtain the necessary field observation and practice teaching experience. Finally, they take their licensure or certification exams.

Some aspiring teachers double-major in education and another subject or earn a dual degree. Certain states require subject-specific elementary educators to hold a degree in the subject they teach. For example, an elementary-level Spanish teacher may need a Spanish degree.

Many states also offer alternative paths to earning a teaching license. This option may appeal to aspiring teachers with degrees in subjects other than education. Alternative paths usually entail enrolling in a teacher training program for college graduates. After finishing their program, graduates complete clinical practice requirements and take licensing exams.

Steps to Becoming an Elementary School Teacher

How to Become an Elementary School Teacher: The Standard Path

  1. Earn an Education Degree. The journey usually begins with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education. Aspiring elementary teachers often earn a specialized degree in elementary or early childhood education.
  2. Add Another Degree. Many emerging teachers elect to double major or add a second bachelor’s degree in another subject. In some states, elementary educators who teach a particular subject must hold a degree in that subject to qualify for licensure.
  3. Fulfill Clinical Practice Requirements. Students usually need to complete at least one college semester’s worth of clinical practice. This experience includes field observations and several weeks of supervised practice teaching.
  4. Pass Licensing Exams. Most states use ETS Praxis tests as their teacher licensing exams. Check with the state licensing board where you plan to work for local details.
  5. Obtain a Teaching Licence. Beyond meeting academic and testing requirements, teachers must also pass a background check before becoming licensed.

How to Become an Elementary School Teacher: The Alternative Path

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree in Any Subject. People who follow an alternative path usually decide to become teachers after completing a degree in a subject other than education.
  2. Enroll in a Teacher Training Program. These specialized training programs cater to college graduates. They usually take 1-2 years to complete. Candidates may need to pass an ETS Praxis Core Test to gain entry.
  3. Complete Clinical Practice and Licensing Requirements. The teacher training program prompts the student to complete their field observation and practice teaching hours. The licensure process then unfolds the same way as it does in the standard path described above.

Should I Become an Elementary School Teacher?

Becoming an elementary school teacher is a major commitment. Candidates should honestly evaluate their needs and goals before starting down the standard or alternative path.

Good teachers share several common traits. They are excellent communicators and demonstrate patience and empathy. They listen well to their superiors, peers, and students alike. Effective teachers also consider themselves lifelong learners and constantly strive for self-improvement.

Teaching is not for everyone. The job includes extensive interactions with students and parents. It also comes with a lot of work and responsibility outside the classroom. People seeking to work fixed, regular hours may not suit the education field. Likewise, people aiming for careers with strong earning power rarely find fulfillment in education.

For the right candidates, elementary teaching delivers powerful rewards. Getting there requires a lot of schooling and hard work. Be sure the profession matches your aptitudes, personality, and career goals before you begin your journey.

A Day in the Life of an Elementary School Teacher Salary and Job Outlook for Elementary School Teachers

The Job Hunt

Many aspiring teachers source their first job leads during their schooling and training. Clinical practice programs and internships expand students’ professional networks. These experiences offer a good place to start building your contacts before seeking your first teaching job.

Another common strategy is to go straight to the source. Compile a list of all school districts in the city or region where you want to work. Then, search their websites for current openings and submit your application for teaching.

These five job boards and career-building resources may also help:

  • SchoolSpring: This popular website lists opportunities for both new and established teachers. Job-seekers can create profiles, take advantage of powerful search tools, and receive alerts for suitable positions.
  • Education America Network: Teachers can search available job openings by type and location. They can also upload their resumes and cover letters for employers to discover. International job seekers can use the service for a monthly fee.
  • K-12JobSpot: Focused on public schools, this website covers practically every U.S. school district. Users have secured more than 1 million jobs. The site currently features 50,000 job postings.
  • Education Crossing: Users must pay a subscription fee, but this service offers inside access to exclusive job postings. A permanent staff of more than 100 researchers works to source job listings not available on other sites.
  • TeachingJobs.com: This site debuted in 2015 and is free for job-seekers to use. It features a dedicated STEM section for educators specializing in the sciences, technology, and mathematics.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What degree do I need to become an elementary school teacher?

    The standard path to becoming an elementary school teacher includes a bachelor’s or master’s degree in early childhood or elementary education. Many students also double major or earn a dual degree in a second subject area, which they can later teach.

  • Are there tests to pass to become an elementary school teacher?

    Yes. Most states require aspiring teachers to pass one or more ETS Praxis tests to obtain a teaching license. Aspiring teachers following alternative paths to licensure may also need to pass an ETS Praxis test to get into a teacher training program.

  • How many years does it take to become an elementary school teacher?

    The standard path to becoming an elementary school teacher takes at least five years to complete. Teachers who earn graduate degrees and those planning to work in states with particularly rigorous requirements may need seven years or longer to become fully qualified.

  • What is the job description of elementary school teachers?

    An elementary teacher’s job description includes preparing lessons, leading classes, assisting students individually and in small groups, and grading assignments. Many teachers also take on extracurricular duties, such as coaching sports teams or leading after-school interest groups.


Featured Image: Marko Geber / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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