How to Become a First Grade Teacher


Every September, first grade teachers are tasked with one of the greatest challenges in education – a room full of students who can only read and write a word or two, or in some cases, cannot read and write at all. By June, if everything goes as planned, first grade teachers have thirty or more children reading short books and writing basic sentences on their own. Given that learning to read and write are the most critical skills one learns during the course of their education, the importance of first grade teachers cannot be overstated. Through 2022, an increased demand to accommodate the growing number of students entering their first full year of elementary school means first grade teachers will find increasing job opportunities across the U.S.

How can I become a first grade teacher?

First grade teachers must complete at least a bachelor’s degree program, and become licensed to teach in their state of residence. The typical pathway an individual follows to become a first grade teacher differs according to state-specific requirements, but generally includes the following steps:teacher helping primary student

  1. Earn an Undergraduate Degree: Throughout a student’s four-year curriculum, aspiring first grade teachers typically complete courses that prepare them to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills to very young children, alongside coursework associated with child psychology and development. Additionally, some states require the completion of undergraduate credit hours for certification in a specialty field, such as for a degree in Elementary Education. For example, the state of New Jersey certifies elementary school teachers who have completed a minimum of 60 liberal arts credits, or pursued a major in the liberal arts and sciences, such as philosophy, history or literature.
  1. Complete a Teacher Preparation Program: Like all teachers, aspiring first grade teachers must complete a certain number of teaching placements and undergo real-world experiences within a classroom as part of their training. While placement may be in any elementary grade, they are advised to complete at least one placement in a first grade classroom. This process typically lasts one to two semesters, and involves being guided and assessed by an experienced educator. During this time, student-teachers learn how to manage a classroom, as well as formulate lesson plans and evaluate classroom dynamics.
  1. Pass Exams: To obtain certification as a first grade teacher, passing a state-issued exam is a requirement. Many states rely on the Praxis Series tests as part of their licensing and certification processes. The most common test taken is the Praxis® Core Academic Skills for Educators, which measures a prospective first grade teacher’s ability to teach reading, writing and mathematics to elementary school students. Teachers who have been trained to teach a specific subject or address specialized needs of children, such as special education, will take the Praxis® Subject Assessments (formally known as the Praxis II) to become certified in their field.
  1. Apply for Licensure: Prospective first grade teachers must apply for licensure before they can accept a position at a public elementary school – it is a requirement upheld by all U.S. states. Each state has its own guidelines for licensure, which typically includes administering a criminal background check, paying fees, and requesting college transcripts. Depending on the school, it is not expected of all teachers to earn a license when pursuing a position at a private learning institution.
  1. Gain Specialized Training: A first grade teacher with an Early Childhood Education degree or certification can teach preschool through third grade students. Obtaining specialized training is one way a teacher can expand his or her employment opportunities by qualifying for more in-demand job positions, such as special education teacher.

While many five- and six-year-olds learn how to read quickly, a small percentage of students struggle. For this reason, select teachers may train to participate in a 12- to 20-week intervention program called Reading Recovery, which aims to help bring struggling readers up to the level of other students. First grade teachers complete a full academic year of specialized Reading Recovery training, either concurrent to, or following their teacher certification – earning graduate credit under the guidance of a registered Reading Recovery teacher leader.

  1. Earn Optional Certification: Licensed first grade teachers with years of experience under their belt also have the option to earn certification related to a specific discipline, such as art or reading. The credential enhances a job candidate’s resume, and can increase the number of positions he or she qualifies for when applying for employment at elementary and private schools looking for versatile teachers to fill in-demand job openings.
  1. Pursue an Advanced Degree: First grade teachers with a master’s degree in Elementary Education or Early Childhood Education not only qualify for a greater number of job positions, but can also command a higher salary in many instances. These educators have studied advanced subjects, such as child psychology and language development, and the added knowledge is attractive to potential employers. Those who concentrate their studies on a specific field, such as Special Education, also tend to be in the highest demand since there are fewer overall first grade teachers trained to accommodate this student demographic.
  1. Professional Development Training & Continuing Education Credits: Elementary school teachers are subject to certification renewal, whereas the minimum number of professional development hours for license renewal varies according to state. For example, teachers in the state of New York must complete 175 hours of professional development every five years (amongst other requirements) in order to maintain the validity of their Professional Teaching Certificate.

What can I expect as a 1st grade teacher?

First grade teachers are the bedrock of every student’s educational experience and, as a result, they must be especially patient and skilled at teaching foundational literacy skills. Because they educate students that are usually seven years old, first grade teachers spend their time planning lessons that are shorter and more rudimentary than the assignments of elementary school teachers in higher grade levels.

As any survey or research on children’s literacy quickly reveals, teaching children to read is a complex endeavor. Over the past fifty years, American educators have adopted many different approaches to teaching students how to read. While phonics was emphasized in the 1970s, by the early 1990s, most teachers had replaced this method with a more holistic approach. For this reason, first grade teachers are also expected to understand, and be familiar with, the history of these approaches and be prepared to defend their reasons for adopting one over another.

A primary responsibility of first grade teachers is to utilize various teaching techniques to accommodate the different learning styles and levels of maturity of elementary school students.

Academically, first grade students are demonstrating increasingly expressive language, and typically learning their ABC’s and reading their first sentences during this time. First graders also start understanding more abstract concept in mathematics.

Socially, this is the first time a majority of students in this age group encounter a full day of school. Social interactions increase, a sense of humor develops, personality differences are acknowledged, and friendships form amongst classmates. First-graders are also becoming more aware of how their classmates behave; some will try to mimic what they see and hear.

First grade teachers typically follow a curriculum that:

  • Introduces math problems with real-life applications
  • Explores the value of money and concept of time, and presents basic geometry lessons
  • Teaches spelling conventions and sentence structure
  • Develops motor skills, such as handwriting and coloring

The work schedule of elementary school teachers is primarily marked by a daytime schedule that accommodates student learning during school hours. First grade teachers must be prepared to meet with parents and students before and after school. Their presence is typically required or requested for after-school activities and schoolwide gatherings, such as evening plays and fundraising events. Many first grade teachers work the traditional 10-month school year, and enjoy a two-month break during the summer. Some teachers opt to oversee summer programs; therefore working all year-round.

Teachers employed in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 8 weeks in a row with a one-week break before the start of a new session of school. This type of work schedule also sees midwinter breaks lasting five weeks.

Overall, becoming an elementary school teacher is viewed in many circles as a well-paying employment opportunity that provides numerous benefits. U.S. News & World Report even deemed the profession as the third-best Social Services job in the nation, and it holds the #39 position on their 100 Best Jobs list.

What is the typical salary and benefits of a first grade teacher?

In 2014, the median annual salary for an elementary school teacher (with the exception of special education teachers) was $54,120, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest paid teachers in the nation made approximately $36,000 per year, while the highest paid teachers earned close to $84,000 per year.

With various factors affecting the amount of money that elementary school teachers earn, annual salaries for first grade teachers differ across the U.S. One of the most defining elements to consider as an educator is geographic location. For example, while the average reported annual income for an elementary school teacher in New York State is $74,830, first grade teachers employed in the state of Texas report average annual incomes of $51,100.

The cost of living in a state additionally plays a role in how much teachers make. For example, while the state of Ohio pays first grade teachers an average of $58,092, the state’s cost of living increases the value of their salary to $62,802. Government funding and school budgets also have a profound effect on the hiring of educators. A budget deficit often leads to a hiring freeze or layoffs of teachers with fewer years of experience.

First grade school teachers typically enjoy health benefits and employer retirement contributions. Like their counterparts in other public service positions, elementary school teachers working full-time, who meet all the other conditions, are also eligible for student loan forgiveness – especially when employed at a learning institution located in an underserved community, such as an urban and rural elementary school.

What is the career outlook for becoming a first grade teacher?

In 2012, there were over 1.5 million elementary school teachers in the United States. With a projected 12% growth rate over the coming decade, an additional 150,000 elementary school teaching positions are expected to open up between now and 2022 – with a proportion of these openings filled by first grade teachers.

School district decisions and statewide education trends often establish legislation and goals that can have an effect on the hiring of teachers. For instance, schools in Ohio place an emphasis on smaller class sizes, delegating an average of one teacher to every 15 students. This approach translates into the need to hire more teachers to accommodate an increased number of school classrooms and student enrollment. The state of Ohio also has strong teacher unions, which lobby for higher wages on behalf of educators.

Increased employment opportunities and higher-paying job positions are typically available to first grade teachers who possess the following qualifications:

  • An advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in education (M.Ed.), which can qualify teachers for an advanced administrative position.
  • Specialized training or a background in Special Education, counseling, or any state-specific, in-demand area of education.
  • Bi-lingual skills, and the ability to teach English-as-a-Second-Language students.
  • Voluntary certification 

In conclusion, first grade teachers play a pivotal role in the educational journey of children. Equipped with training and education related to teaching young minds, as well as coursework in child psychology and child development, graduates of an accredited degree program must pass exams and become licensed to teach first graders within the public school system. As student enrollment is expected to rise, the teaching field will continue to seek qualified educators to introduce four to five year olds to the basics in reading, writing, mathematics and socialization.

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