How to Become an Elementary School Teacher

If you want a career that makes a lasting impact, you may want to consider becoming an elementary school teacher. Teaching students in elementary school means laying the foundation for a lifetime of learning. You’ll help form a child’s impression of the educational process, and you may be one of the keys to a student’s ongoing academic success.

There are specific hard and soft skills that an elementary school teacher should possess and certain elementary school teaching requirements that need to be met. Here, we provide an overview of what those are and how to become an elementary school teacher if you decide it’s the right career path for you.   

Elementary School Teacher Requirements

One of the first questions most individuals ask is, “What degree do you need to be an elementary school teacher?” For public schools, all states require a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and some states require public school teachers to major in a specific subject area, such as math or science, as well. Private schools typically expect the same. Generally, an advanced degree is not required, but continuing education for professional development is usually necessary.

An aspiring teacher with a bachelor’s degree in another subject will need a teaching certificate. Each state has its own certification requirements — see the U.S. Department of Education site about state-by-state licensure regulations. In California, for example, you must obtain the Multiple Subject Teaching Credential to teach elementary school, according to the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing. This credential is a two-tier system: The prospective teacher receives a “preliminary credential” that is good for five years; then, they must take additional courses and complete a fifth year of study to receive the “professional clear credential,” which can be renewed every five years.

One requirement for the preliminary credential is to demonstrate competence teaching elementary school subjects. This can be done by taking the California Subject Examinations for Teachers (CSET), which consists of four exams that test candidates on a variety of topics. Additionally, you’ll need to pass the California Basic Assessment Educational Skills Test (CBEST) and Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (RICA) and complete a program that includes student teaching and an English language skills/reading instruction course; you must also satisfy the U.S. Constitution requirement, which can be met with college courses or an examination (you can also ask the university you’re applying to about how to meet this requirement).

You can learn more about state-specific elementary school teacher requirements by visiting your state’s department of education website.

Skills of an Elementary School Teacher

Elementary school teachers need hard skills, in areas such as educational theory and instruction methods, which can be learned through training and professional development. Soft skills, however, require a certain level of emotional intelligence, including the ability to be a team player and the aptitude to assess and control your emotions in a stressful environment.

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USC Rossier's online Master of Arts in Teaching prepares you to become an effective K-12 teacher.

Other skills and qualities that are highly desirable in a K-5 teacher include the following:

  • Communication expertise: possessing the ability to speak in front of large groups of children with ease and to make learning creative and fun.
  • Understanding of elementary level academic subjects: having knowledge of reading, writing, vocabulary and mathematics.
  • Ability to help students develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills: teaching students how to communicate constructively with others and come up with solutions when faced with challenges.
  • Classroom management skills: understanding how to deal with behavioral issues, implement school procedures and maintain consistent structure.  
  • Knowledge of how to work with students of different backgrounds and learning abilities: creating an environment of mutual respect and accountability.
  • Model for lifelong learning: sharing an enthusiasm for learning and providing the message that education offers long-lasting benefits.

Fluency in a foreign language and experience teaching English as a second language at the primary school level are also in-demand skills.

Many school leaders are looking for individuals to teach elementary-level special education and the demand for teachers in this area is projected to grow, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS predicts there will be a need for more than 30,000 special education teachers through 2026.

Elementary School Teacher Job Description

Although the job description for an elementary school teacher, according to the BLS, typically includes teaching children ages 5 to 12 in first through fifth grades, some schools include additional grade levels. Many public schools go up to sixth grade, and private and rural schools may educate students up to eighth grade.

The foundational subjects covered in elementary school include reading, writing and basic mathematics, and most elementary school curriculums include beginning science, social studies and history. Schools with grade levels beyond fifth may employ teachers who specialize in certain subjects, and students will spend time in more than one classroom to achieve a balanced academic experience. 

Elementary school teachers are typically responsible for the following: 

  • Managing the classroom and implementing school procedures.
  • Planning lessons, creating homework assignments and administering tests.
  • Grading and evaluating individual student work and classroom performance.
  • Collaborating with parents, guardians, school leaders and administrators.
  • Accompanying and supervising students during activities outside of the classroom.
  • Remaining current on state sand local curriculum requirements.
  • Selecting and ordering appropriate materials.
  • Preparing students for standardized testing, conducting tests according to state and local guidelines and providing feedback.
  • Creating an engaging learning environment that meets the needs of each student in the class.

Elementary School Teacher Salary 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for elementary school teachers (not including special education teachers) was $57,160 in 2017; the highest 10 percent earned more than $92,770.

A variety of additional factors can affect an elementary school teacher’s salary, including education level, certifications, skills and years of experience in the classroom.

5 Steps to Becoming an Elementary School Teacher

Now that you know more about what the position entails, you may have decided that becoming an elementary school teacher is the right choice for you. Here are five steps to becoming an elementary school teacher:

  1. Pursue the proper education. A bachelor’s degree in elementary education is required for public school teachers, and as indicated above, some states require teachers to have a major in their topic area. During their schooling, teachers-in-training will learn skills to help them work with youngsters with different abilities and from a wide range of backgrounds. If you have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you can complete a teacher’s education program that will allow you to become certified to teach public school. Alternately or additionally, you can enroll in a graduate education program that provides the required certification(s) in your state. The online Master of Arts in Teaching program with a concentration in Multiple Subject Teaching from University of Southern California (USC) Rossier School of Education specializes in elementary school education and includes foundational coursework across a range of subject areas. It prepares students to earn their California teaching credentials. Individuals interested in teaching in other states may be eligible to obtain their teaching credentials in those states through this program (see below).
  2. Know state-specific requirements. The educational system is largely governed at the state level, so it’s important to know what the specific credential requirements are for your state or any states where you plan to teach. Students in the USC program may be eligible to obtain their teaching credentials in other states and should research the requirements in the state where they reside or intend to teach. And although a majority of educational programs require the completion of a supervised field experience — usually a form of student teaching — some may not. Many states require field experience for licensure, so it’s wise to participate in student teaching even if the program you’re enrolled in doesn’t require it.
  3. Obtain your certification. No matter where you live, if you want to teach in public schools, you will have to obtain your teaching certification, also referred to as a teaching license. Since each state has its own requirements, be sure you know what they are and complete them before graduation.
  4. Consider earning a master’s degree. Although a master’s degree is not required to become an elementary school teacher, earning a graduate degree can benefit your career in many ways. In addition to equipping you with advanced education and training, it can open doors to new opportunities and higher pay and may help you fulfill licensure requirements. 
  5. Be a lifelong learner. Participating in formal professional development is usually required in order to maintain your teaching certification. With ongoing education, you will continue to grow as an educator and learn new and improved teaching techniques. And as a lifelong learner, you’ll be an inspiration to your students. 

Learn more about the Master of Arts in Teaching online from USC Rossier.

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