What Elementary School Teacher Careers Entail
Every teacher is impactful, especially those that work with children early in their educational paths.
Becoming an elementary school teacher is hard work but can be very rewarding. Deciding if your personality, education and career aspirations are a fit for the job is important to consider before diving into the field.
What Does an Elementary School Teacher Do?
Preparing youth for their future education means more than teaching them standard school subjects. A key component to being an elementary teacher is devoting your efforts to children’s mental and emotional development, as well as their ability to socialize with others.
Elementary school teachers typically have job duties such as these:
- Create lesson plans to teach students specific subjects and skills, like English, art, science or music
- Model good behavior and communication skills so students can learn how to communicate with and treat others
- Grade homework and other assignments so students receive proper feedback day-by-day and on their report cards
- Communicate with parents about their child’s progress
- Pay attention to students who require extra help or guidance
- Prepare students for any standardized tests required by the state
- Supervise children in and out of the classroom, including during recess, assemblies and lunchtime
- Participate in faculty meetings and collaborations
- Prepare for class outside of work hours or during the summer
- Help children who are sick or hurt
- Stay in the know about new teaching methods, activities or technology that can be implemented in the classroom
Elementary school students usually spend most of their time in one classroom every day, which means that you will have your own classroom dedicated to the students you have that respective year. This includes decorating it to make it engaging and comfortable for your specific students.
A school teacher’s work schedule usually consists of a 9 – 10-month school year and 2 – 3 month summer break. However, if you’re working on a year-round school schedule, it will require 8 weeks in a row with a one-week break in between.
But, before you start sending advance payments to a teacher training program, it’s best to stop and learn what a day in the life of an elementary teacher really looks like. Check out this fifth-grade elementary school teacher’s daily schedule to see if a teaching career is truly for you.
One Teacher’s Daily Schedule
- 7:15 – Arrive at school, get coffee and review lesson plans
- 7:30 – Early meeting (full-faculty, upper elementary, student council, parent conference…) and any last-minute preparations
- 8:10 – Pledge of Allegiance
- 8:15 – Take attendance; do lunch count; make announcements; look at any notes from home (while helpers pass out any needed materials)
- 8:25 – Teach English lesson
- 9:00 – Library, computers, art or physical education, depending on the day
- 9:25 – Teach Social Studies lesson
- 10:10 – 20-minute snack/recess for students on the playground; review daily tasks with teacher’s assistant (T.A.); take a short break (sometimes individual help, paper-grading or prepping items for upcoming lessons take up this break)
- 10:30 – Review of math facts with timed drill; T.A. meets with struggling students or small groups
- 11:15 – Spelling/Spelling Game
- 11:40 – Lunch/Recess (Two teachers alternate on lunch duty, serving every other day); 20-minute teacher break
- 12:30 – Band lessons take some students out of class; remaining students enjoy story time (those in class summarize story for those who were not present), play enrichment games, work on homework or read silently
- 1:15 –Teach Reading lesson
- 1:40 – Teach Science lesson
- 2:20 – Choir takes another few students out of class; assign teams of four to organizational tasks that maintain a smoothly-functioning classroom
- 2:35 – Quick game, if time permits
- 2:40 – Go out to car line; optional one-hour study hall begins in classroom
- 3:00 – After-school care begins (provided by a separate team of workers)
- 4:00 – Parent conference (when needed); grade papers; input grades online; prepare for next day’s activities (Wednesdays – prepare lesson-plans for the following week)
- By 6:00 – Go home, bringing any unfinished work (as little as possible)
Education Needed for Elementary School Teachers
There are a lot of factors to consider when dealing with students, especially children, which is why there are several educational requirements for teaching elementary school students. All states require elementary school teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Most teachers major in elementary education, while some states require them to also specialize in a content area, like science. Other teachers major in related fields with relevant elementary education coursework and field training in the classroom.
Teachers-to-be usually join their university’s teacher preparation program where they can learn about educational practices, curriculum and child psychology. These courses allow them to be prepared for teaching children with varying abilities, backgrounds and needs. There are some states that require teachers to earn a master’s degree after their teaching certification, so it’s important to check the requirements of your state.
Elementary School Jobs with an Associate’s Degree
In a majority of school districts, an associate’s degree is all that is necessary to step in and start assisting elementary teachers in a variety of ways.
These paraprofessionals can be found throughout the elementary system performing jobs as varied as special needs assistants, library and literacy resource aides, nutrition specialists and physical education and activities directors.
They can also be found working as after school play and tutoring program coordinators, computer technology resource personnel, natural resource and environmental education program leads, and arts and music program assistants. Those with knowledge of special needs or teaching English as a second language (TESOL) are in especially high demand among the many elementary teacher job openings.
Bachelor’s Degrees for Elementary Teachers
If you picture yourself in front of a classroom as an elementary education teacher, a bachelor’s degree along with state certification is often all that is required.
While an elementary education degree is certainly a bonus, a bachelor’s degree in just about any discipline can open the door to an elementary education job in many districts around the U.S. Some elementary teaching jobs will require a few additional education-based credits, but many will allow you to teach and earn the credits simultaneously.
Private schools often hire elementary education teachers with bachelor’s degrees in their subject area and don’t require teacher certification. So simply getting a non-education bachelor’s degree is all you need to start your teaching career in many instances.
And if your degree is in the field of computer science, music, art, drama, earth or marine science, agronomy, speech and hearing pathology, foreign language or psychology you’ll find elementary schools looking for teachers with those skills for district-wide programs as well as classroom teaching positions.
Master’s Degrees for Elementary Teachers
With the implementation of an aggressive local, state and national mandate to improve the quality of education, it’s becoming more common for districts to tie increased compensation to continuing education. For many, a master’s degree has become the gold standard associated with teaching excellence.
If you’re entering education from another field, a master’s degree in education, nutrition, special education, computer technologies, curriculum development, or counseling and family services can push your resume-and teacher salary-to the top of the stack for many elementary education jobs. The more elementary education you get, the better your chances are of getting a raise or a promotion.
Teachers with a master’s degree are eligible to become National Board Certified Elementary Education Teachers. Like board-certified doctors and accountants, teachers who achieve National Board Certification meet rigorous standards through intensive study, expert evaluation, self-assessment and peer review.
Doctors in the Elementary Classroom
While a doctorate is not required for most elementary teaching jobs, it can be surprising to discover how many people with doctorates in fields such as law, business, science, computer science, agriculture and the arts can be found in elementary school buildings. Most often these people are drawn toward elementary education because of their passion to improve the lives and education of children.
District, state and national-level jobs abound for those with doctorates in one of the many education specialties. From research, curriculum development, special education and learning disability programs, to gifted student and accelerated learning programs, a doctorate focused on a specific area of elementary education can help you land a job shaping thousands of young minds instead of only those in a single classroom. A doctorate is truly the pinnacle of elementary teacher training.
In addition to the bachelor’s degree, all public-school teachers must earn their teaching certification or license. Those who teach in private schools are not always required to be certified, however, most states will have applicants complete a background check. Elementary teachers are usually certified for early childhood education, which is preschool to third grade, or elementary school education, which is first through sixth or eighth grade. While they don’t teach just one subject, some states require teachers to pass a content area test to gain certification. There may also be annual development classes required to keep licensure.
Getting hands-on experience is paramount for good teachers, which is why classroom training is a core part of teacher education. This kind of student teaching allows potential teachers to have a mentor teacher and experience the classroom dynamic. Depending on your location, you’ll need to spend a certain number of hours in this supervised environment, learning from an experience educator.
You also have the option of demonstrating your commitment and increasing your likelihood of being hired with a National Board Certification. By pursuing this voluntary certification, you’ll be tested in four areas:
- Written assessment of content knowledge
- Reflection on student work samples
- Video and analysis of teaching practice
- Documented impact and accomplishments as a teaching professional
Teachers with this national certification are more likely to receive higher pay, leadership positions and recognition. It shows that you’ve gone out of your way to dedicate yourself to the field, and, therefore, the success of a school.
Traits and Skills of an Elementary School Teacher
There’s a lot more to being a teacher besides the lesson plans. Consider if you have the following qualities, which are necessary for an effective and rewarding elementary school education. Remember, it’s not just kids you’re working with. Your job will require you to interact with other teachers, administration and parents.
Overall, all teachers need to be able to stay calm under stressful situations, as no day in the classroom will go as predicted. Really loving children should be a given, as should enjoying being in a mentorship position. It’s important to keep in mind that teachers should be able to play an authoritarian role to provide structure and safety for everyone.
Patience – Working with children in general requires a patient person who is willing to explain things in a way that children can understand. It is also necessary to be able to work with students of varying abilities and needs.
Resourcefulness – With multiple learning styles possible in a classroom, it is paramount that a teacher can come up with many ways of explaining a concept or answering a question. If students aren’t engaged, you may need to come up with a new activity on the spot to keep the pace and energy moving.
Creativity – Keeping kids engaged can be tough, so consider if you can be creative. From lesson plans to homework assignments, creating material that is effective and interesting can be difficult.
Empathy – Elementary school children are going through lots of emotions and experiences as they navigate through adolescence. Keep their perspectives in mind when planning or participating in discussions and activities.
Physical stamina – Whether it’s standing in front of the classroom or running after kids on the playground, you’ll need to be able to be on your feet for hours on end.
Organization – Being organized doesn’t just help you with lessons and grading, it also helps your students learn better and helps parents or substitute teachers stay in the know.
Communication – This applies to giving your lessons and to daily conversations you have with your students. It can definitely be tough to know how to talk to kids, explain things to them or understand where they’re coming from, so being open is key.
Here are some other abilities that will help you do well in your elementary teacher role:
|You love kids and want them to succeed||You’re a creative problem solver|
|You enjoy practical work||You like interacting with different people|
|You have clear expectations||You like being systematic|
|You want to make the world a better place|
Types of Jobs Within Elementary Teaching
Being in this field doesn’t mean you will be restricted to just one type of classroom dynamic or set of job duties. There are several career options available to those interested in being an elementary school teacher.
Grade-level or subject-specific teacher – The traditional route is sticking with one or a few grades to teach. When it comes to subject matter, many teachers specialize in a field, such as art, and teach that for their entire career.
Resource teacher – A resource teacher is also known as a special education teacher. Their work takes place in a specialized environment, or designated resource room. This typically involves working with special needs students who have physical, emotional or mental disabilities.
Reading specialist – A reading specialist supports the reading program at a school by supplementing what is taught in the classroom. They may also need to design specific instruction for individual students with literacy needs.
ESL teacher – ESL, or English as a second language, is a popular field in the U.S. Teachers who are qualified to teach speakers of other languages help these learners better understand English so they can learn their subject matter more easily.
The job outlook for these teachers is growing as fast as the national average, which is about 4% through 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Over the next decade the employment change should account for about 54,900 jobs. With more access to education, student enrollment is expected to increase over time, but employment growth varies by region.
Elementary school teachers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union, compared with workers in all other occupations, according the BLS.
Elementary school teacher salaries increase significantly with additional education, certification and experience. National Board certified elementary teachers with a master’s degree can expect much more impressive compensation packages than beginner teachers with minimal education. Take a look at 2021 BLS salary data below:
Median Salary: $61,690
Projected job growth: 4%
10th Percentile: $45,470
25th Percentile: $49,120
75th Percentile: $78,860
90th Percentile: $101,310
Projected job growth: 4%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|District of Columbia||$80,610||$62,070||$103,750|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
Some areas are currently experiencing a teacher shortage-especially in the subject areas of math, science, Spanish and special education-so districts with those teaching needs offer special teacher perks such as signing bonuses, housing assistance, continuing education classes and even free at-school child care to attract and retain quality teachers.
Something to keep in mind when considering your potential elementary salary is the fact that, on average, teachers get over 12 weeks of vacation per year.
Teachers who choose to work during the summer can also significantly increase their salary. Some prefer to follow other interests, but teaching opportunities that take place in the summer include teaching summer school, tutoring and leading summer programs at community centers or learning institutions.