How to Become an Elementary School Teacher

how to become an elementary school teacher

Interested in becoming an elementary teacher but need help figuring out where to start? You’ve come to the right place! Many people are interested in teaching elementary school but feel overwhelmed by the process of becoming a certified teacher. In this article, we’ll go over what elementary teachers do, how to become a certified teacher, and the skills needed to be an effective elementary teacher. We’ll also discuss other topics, such as elementary teachers’ salaries and common career paths for teachers.

What is an elementary school teacher?

An elementary teacher teaches various topics and skills related to the core academic subjects of math, reading, writing, science, and social studies. Elementary teachers provide students with the foundational knowledge needed to succeed in school and beyond.

Types of elementary school teachers

Elementary teachers typically teach one grade in grades K-5, although some may teach pre-K or 6th grade. Elementary teachers can work in public, private, charter, or specialized schools such as STEAM or fine arts academies. Most elementary teachers work in a traditional classroom setting, although some may take on more specialized roles, such as math, reading interventionist, or gifted and talented teacher.

What does an elementary school teacher do?

Elementary teachers use state standards to plan and teach developmentally appropriate lessons in the core academic subjects of math, reading, writing, science, social studies, and sometimes health. In many schools, prekindergarten through second-grade teachers teach all core subjects to one class. Beginning in third or fourth grade, teachers may specialize in one or two subjects, such as math and science, and teach two or more class periods during the day. This varies by school; some schools may have first-grade teachers focus on specific subjects, while others may still have their 5th-grade teachers teach all core subjects.

Elementary teachers also use appropriate assessment strategies to monitor their student’s progress and share this information with parents or guardians.  Job descriptions for elementary teachers also require that the teacher follows state and federal educational policies such as IDEA.

How to become an elementary school teacher

Becoming an elementary teacher involves a similar process across most states. This usually involves earning a bachelor’s degree, completing an educator preparation program, and taking required certification exams.

Earn a bachelor’s degree, preferably in education or a related field.

Earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step in becoming a certified teacher in any subject or grade level. Many elementary teachers are primarily in early childhood education or elementary education. Some elementary teachers major in the subject they wish to teach and minor in education, although this route is usually more common for middle or high school teachers.

Complete an approved educator preparation program.

An educator preparation program includes education courses and field experience in the classroom (often referred to as student teaching). If you are majoring in education, chances are that your educator preparation program is embedded into your degree plan. However, check with your academic advisor to ensure this is the case.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree and did not complete an educator preparation program in college, you must complete an educator preparation program designed for alternative certification.

Planning to teach in Texas? 240 Certification has an affordable, state-approved alternative certification program that can be completed in 12-18 months!! 

Pass your state’s required certification exams.

To become a certified elementary school teacher, you must take at least two certification exams: one for general teaching practices and one specific to elementary education. Most states now also require all elementary teachers to take an exam that covers reading instruction, such as the Foundations of Reading or Science of Teaching Reading. Depending on your state, you may also need to take additional tests covering basic educational skills.

Different states use different certification exams. Many states use Praxis or NES exams. Other states like Texas, California, and Florida use their exams like the TExES, CSET, or FTCE. Don’t underestimate the difficulty level of these exams. Teacher certification exams can be surprisingly challenging, even for those with an education degree. Be sure to use study guides and practice tests to familiarize yourself with the exam format, content, and style of questions. 240 Tutoring has study guides, free practice tests, and exam overviews for several elementary education exams, including:

GACE Elementary Education (501)

TExES Core Subjects EC-6 (391)

FTCE Elementary Education K-6 (060)

Praxis Elementary Education Multiple Subjects (5001)

ILTS Elementary Education Grades 1-6 (305)

NES Elementary Education 

And many more!

Once you pass your exams, you’ll need to apply for certification in your state. This typically requires a fee, paperwork, and a background check. For additional information on certification applications, check your state’s Department of Education website.

Apply for an elementary teaching position.

After completing your teacher preparation program and passing your certification exams, it’s time to apply for jobs! One of the best ways to find up-to-date job openings is by looking on school districts’ employment websites, but you can also check sites such as Indeed, SchoolSpring, or ZipRecruiter.

In some states or districts, you can apply for jobs and start teaching while you work towards your certification. In these cases, you will be hired under a probationary contract and have a set amount of time to pass your certification exam. Remember, however, that you’ll still need a bachelor’s degree.

Tip: Work as a substitute teacher in the school or district you wish to teach in. This will give you valuable experience, and school administrators are often more likely to hire someone when they’re already familiar with their work as a substitute.

Helpful Skills for elementary school teachers

The most effective teachers have strengths in many of the following areas:

  • Communication skills – Successful elementary teachers know how to communicate effectively with students and other teachers, administrators, and parents.
  • Interpersonal skills – Successful teachers of any grade level make a point to form meaningful relationships with their students by learning about their individual interests. This will help you know how to motivate your students best and show them that you care about their lives and overall success.
  • Patience – Patience is a crucial trait for teachers of any subject or grade level, but especially necessary when teaching elementary school. Working with children can be challenging at times, but with patience and understanding, it is an incredibly rewarding career.
  • Innovation – The most effective teachers always look for new ways to make their lessons more engaging and effective. Elementary teachers should strive to plan creative and innovative lessons that help create lifelong learners.
  • Flexibility – The world of education is constantly changing, with new strategies and best practices being introduced regularly. Successful teachers know to be flexible and willing to adapt to these changes.
  • Organization – Elementary teachers typically teach more than one subject and often teach allcore academic subjects. Organization skills are vital for planning various lessons, gathering supplies and materials, and for keeping records of each student’s progress.

Common career paths for elementary school teachers

Many elementary teachers work as classroom teachers throughout their careers, although they may move to different schools or teach different grade levels. Common career paths for those who don’t include reading or math interventionists, department leads, curriculum writers, educational diagnosticians, counselors, or school administrators.

Interventionist and department lead roles do not always require a master’s degree, but the other career paths listed usually do. Most of the career paths for elementary teachers involve employment within the school system, while curriculum writers may work within a school district or for outside curriculum companies.

Elementary teacher salary and job outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for elementary teachers is $61,350. However, depending on location, an elementary teacher in a metropolitan area of New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania can make nearly $95,000 annually. In comparison, teachers in nonmetropolitan areas of South Dakota have an average salary closer to $40,000.

Regardless of your location, the job outlook is promising for teachers across all subjects. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicts that from 2021 to 2031, elementary teacher positions will increase by an average of four percent. Teachers across all grades and subject areas are in high demand right now, so if you’ve been thinking about a career in education, now is the time to do it!

Elementary school teacher FAQs

How long does it take to become an elementary school teacher?

This will vary based on where you’re currently at in your career.

  • If you are just starting college, you must earn a bachelor’s degree, complete an educator preparation program, and take the necessary certification exams. From the start of college to passing your certification exams, this usually takes 4 – 6 years, depending on how quickly you earn your bachelor’s degree. For education majors, the educator preparation program is usually included as part of your degree plan, so this part should not add additional time.
  • If you already have a bachelor’s degree and are working in another field, you must complete an alternative certification program and pass your certification exams. Most alternative certification programs take about six months to two years to complete.

Interested in teaching in Texas? 240 Certification has an affordable, state-approved alternative certification program that can be completed in about 12-18 months!

  • If you are already teaching at another grade level, you will likely need to register and take the necessary elementary certification exam(s). This can be done quickly if you are adequately prepared for the exam. Remember that while passing the required exam(s) will qualify you as a certified elementary school teacher, many schools may prefer candidates with a background in elementary education or early childhood development.

What is the salary range for elementary teachers?

The salary range for elementary teachers varies based on your location and years of experience. Teacher salaries can range from $33,000 to over $100,000! While that’s quite a range, the good news is that school districts often publish teacher pay scales on their website, making it easy to see whether a job will meet your income requirements. Generally, you can expect a higher salary in states with a higher cost of living or in larger metropolitan areas.

Most teachers’ salaries are based on years of teaching experience, so your salary will usually increase slightly each year. If you’ve taught in the past, this should count toward your years of experience.

Can I teach elementary school without an elementary education degree?

Yes! Many elementary teachers have degrees in other areas. While a degree in education will certainly help prepare your career and certification exams, it is not a requirement in most schools. Many teachers who move to education later in their careers have degrees in completely different areas. The most important thing is that you have a bachelor’s degree and are certified to teach elementary school in your state.

Are there benefits to earning a master’s degree?

Having a master’s degree may be beneficial in some circumstances. Some schools may prefer to hire teachers with master’s degrees, and most school districts have a slightly higher salary for those with master’s degrees.

Another reason to get a master’s degree is if you would like to move into other educational roles, such as a curriculum writer or school administrator. If this is the case, you’ll want to choose a master’s degree focusing specifically on your desired career path, such as a master’s in curriculum and instruction or a master’s in educational leadership.

Remember that a master’s degree may not always be worth the additional cost and time. While it’s true that salaries are higher for those with master’s degrees, it is usually only a small difference. If you plan on being a classroom teacher for several years, and if schools in your area don’t prefer their teachers to have master’s degrees, it may be best to hold off on a master’s degree for now.

What certification do I need to become an elementary school teacher?

The certification requirements for elementary teachers vary by state but typically require a general teaching or professional responsibilities certification plus a certification specific to elementary education. Many states now also require a third exam covering reading instruction. For example, in Texas, you must take the TExES Pedagogy and Professional Responsibilities EC-12, the TExES Core Subjects EC-6, and the TExES Science of Teaching Reading. Some states require additional exams covering basic knowledge. For example, in Florida, you must take the FTCE General Knowledge, FTCE Professional Education, and FTCE Elementary Education K-6.

Your college or alternative certification program will be able to direct you to the exams you need in your state. You can also check our free test series resources for articles on common teacher exams and free practice tests.

What other certifications can I get to advance my career?

Some schools or districts prefer that their teachers have certifications in other areas, such as special education or English as a second language.

If you plan to move into an administrative role later in your career, you’ll likely need to earn a Master’s degree and take additional exams such as the TExES Principal as Instructional Leader.

Interested in teaching a specific subject? Check out these additional articles:
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How to Become a History Teacher
How to Become an English Teacher
How to Become a Physical Education Teacher
How to Become a Math Teacher
How to Become a Science Teacher
How to Become a Music Teacher
How to Become a Substitute Teacher