Teaching Specializations: What Do They Mean?

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by All Star Staff

female teacher with three diverse students
elementary teacher with class who has considered what teaching specialization to pursue

Teaching is one of those careers that can allow for a great deal of specialization. That’s an asset when it comes to designing your ideal career, but it can also cause a lot of confusion. What are all the options? We decided to make it a little easier for you by defining what the different teaching specializations mean, but before we get to that, here’s a quick visual:

[Infographic] What Teaching Specializations Actually Mean: Career and Degree Levels by Grade. Level: Early Childhood Education; Pre-K to 2nd Grade. Elementary Education: 1st to 5th or 6th grade. Middle School: 6th or 7th to 8th Grade. Secondary Education: 9th to 12th grade. Higher Education includes certificates and diplomas, associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and doctoral degrees. This infographic reflects the definitions most relevant to teacher education and training. Local school districts determine which grades are educated in their primary, middle, and high schools.

Because of school district and state policies, some teacher job postings may use different names for the same specialization. It can be hard to know exactly what grade or age range a school wants you to teach if they use different terms, so you’ll find a breakdown of them below.

While there are specializations that refer to subject area, such as English as a Second Language (ESL) or special education, these are usually not restricted by grade level. Should you want to add such specializations, you can always do that once you’re already a teacher, or you can add those on as you study once you know where you want to be: early childhood education, elementary education, middle school, secondary education, or higher education.

Keep reading to better understand what teaching specializations actually mean, as well as get an overview of the types of degrees and jobs you can get under each.

The Definition of Early Childhood Education

Early Childhood Education: Pre-K to 2nd Grade

Early childhood education is where many children begin their education journey, as it covers education from birth to age eight. When children begin their schooling is decided upon by both their parents and the state. Children are required to start between ages five and eight, depending on the age requirement of the state, though some parents may wish to have their young ones start before the required age.

This also means that the grade level at which children start may vary by state. Infant and toddler education is a subset of early childhood education, and it covers education for children between birth and age two. Teachers in early childhood education focus on early child development, such as sensory and motor skills.

You might see job postings for preschool, nursery school, prekindergarten, or kindergarten teachers. All of these fall under the early childhood education branch. Some states require kindergarten attendance, which means children start around ages five or six.

The Definition of Elementary Education

Elementary Education: 1st to 5th or 6th Grade

Under elementary education, you may teach grades one to four, and sometimes up to grade six, depending on the state and school district. There are also some states and districts that may even place kindergarten within elementary education. Though a less common name in the United States, primary school is another term used to describe elementary school.

Elementary school teachers are usually generalists, covering a set curriculum decided upon by the district if they are a public school. This means there is little to no expectation that students will choose classes that are different from their peers, unless, for example, a foreign language option is offered.

The Definition of Middle School

Middle School: 6th or 7th Grade to 8th Grade

Middle school usually refers to grades six through eight. While the majority of schools follow this policy, some may place sixth-grade students in elementary school for a variety of reasons, including the capacity of the facilities available in the district.

You may also hear about junior high schools, a designation that usually covers grades seven through nine and is considered separate from middle school and high school. Middle schools may also be known as intermediate schools (upper primary or lower secondary schooling).

The Definition of Secondary Education

Secondary Education: 9th to 12th Grade

Secondary education is synonymous with high school. Many high schools cover grades nine through 12, though they may only cover grades 10 through 12 if there is an accompanying junior high that includes grade nine.

In secondary education, students are able to personalize their education more. High schoolers are made up of students with vastly different capabilities and interests. While there, they can tailor their education enough to fit their needs and prepare for a secondary education in a certain field.

As a high school teacher, you often have more leeway for how you teach a subject. Schools that offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which are college-level, give teachers even more opportunity to engage or challenge students as they see fit.

The Definition of Higher Education

Graphic with the text "Higher Education"

Any education that occurs beyond high school is known as higher education. This may include certificates and diplomas or associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, post-graduate certificates, and doctoral degrees. Institutions of higher education can include community colleges, colleges and universities. Higher education is also commonly known as post-secondary education.

It is almost always required that those who teach in higher education have at least a master’s degree to prove subject-matter expertise. As a higher education instructor, you’re usually given full reign over your curriculum, including textbooks and exams.

Adult education is also placed under higher education, since it covers continuing education past traditional childhood learning. Most adult education programs are accessible through local community colleges and university extensions.

What Can I Teach?

That’s a great question. Each teaching specialization is so unique that it really allows for teachers to be experts in their area. If you’re curious about some of the most common teaching jobs you can get for each of these specializations, take a look at the chart below. You’ll also find what degrees are necessary for each career, though education and certification requirements vary by state and school.

Teaching Specialization Recommended Degrees Career
Early Childhood Education High school diploma or Associate’s in Early Childhood Education Early childhood aide, childcare worker
High school diploma and credentials, Associate’s or Bachelor’s in Early Childhood Education Preschool teacher
BA in Early Childhood Education Kindergarten teacher
Elementary Education BA in Elementary Education or a BA in a specific field Elementary school teacher of any grade
Middle School BA in Education or a BA in a specific field Middle school teacher of any grade
Secondary Education BA in Secondary Education or a BA in specific field, though many teachers have Master’s in Teaching or a Master of Arts in Education High school teacher of any grade
Higher Education Master’s degree in your field is accepted at many community colleges, though most universities require a doctorate in your field College professor, assistant professor or lecturer

Note: Those who earn a Doctorate in Education or an Education Specialist degree usually find a career in education administration or curriculum and instruction, which usually means you are not spending your time in a classroom.

Public vs. Private School Teaching Requirements

One thing to note is that public schools and private schools do not necessarily share the same requirements for hiring and for student education. Local school districts and their boards dictate the policies and regulations for public elementary and secondary schools, though school district must follow certain state guidelines.

Private schools have self-appointed boards of trustees and raise their own funding, usually through tuition. Some private schools may be affiliated with a religious institution, which also sets them apart. Though public and private schools don’t fall under the same regulations, most private schools aim to closely follow the curricula of public schools to ensure that students can easily transfer between them and so secondary students can meet expectations for state graduation.

What Should I Do Next?

If you’re just thinking about starting your education for teaching, it’s important to spend some time in a classroom to really make sure this field is right for you. Many schools offer volunteer opportunities, so contact your local schools to see what’s available.

If you’re already in school, be sure to ask about teaching practicums so you can start evaluating what your options are. And if you’re curious about what some teachers have to say about entering the teaching field, read some of our teacher interviews.

Ready to Get Started?