How to Become a Preschool Teacher


Introduction

If you love children and recognize the value of early learning, there is a growing demand for preschool teachers across the United States. Growth in the preschool teaching field can be attributed to two factors. First, the number of preschool-age children is on the rise. Second, there is a growing recognition of the short- and long-term benefits of preschool education. Both dynamics are leading municipal and state governments to invest in preschool education at an unprecedented level.

Research supporting the benefits of early childhood education is compelling. Studies consistently conclude that preschool education strengthens children’s language, pre-reading, and pre-mathematics skills and prepares them for success in the school system. Some studies also report broader long-term impacts. The Abecedarian Project, a long-term study on the impact of early childhood education, discovered:

  • Children who engage in early intervention programs are more likely to attend college
  • Children report higher cognitive test scores
  • Children achieve higher levels of academic achievement in reading and mathematics from the primary grades through to young adulthood

Studies also suggest that children from groups with historically low college participation rates are especially likely to benefit from preschool programs. This is precisely what appears to be motivating some municipalities, like New York City, to invest in preschool education. In 2014, New York City launched a program that will eventually offer free, high quality, full-day pre-kindergarten programs to over 73,000 students. Of course, this translates into more jobs for preschool teachers.

What is required to become a preschool teacher?

The education and training requirements associated with becoming a preschool teacher varies according to state regulations. At the minimum, the BLS states that childcare centers hire preschool teachers with at least a high school diploma and a certification in early childhood education. However, employers are more likely to hire individuals that possess some postsecondary education in early childhood education, such as:

  • An associate’s degree not only qualifies a preschool teacher for entry-level early education positions, but also satisfies the minimum requirement to teach in state-funded Head Start programs and some public school positions.
  • A bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, Child Development, or a related field increases the job opportunities for preschool teachers, as they have undergone additional training associated with classroom management; learning strategies for teaching young children; strengthening behavior observation skills; and gaining a better overall understanding of children’s development.

Job applicants with an undergraduate degree are sought after to teach at public schools and especially Head Start programs, as a nationwide mandate requires at least 50 percent of all preschool teachers in Head Start programs must have a relevant bachelor’s degree.

Additionally, research shows that teachers who have college degrees and specialized early-childhood training tend to have more positive interactions with children. The director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), W. Steven Barnett, PhD also said in a Parents.com piece titled ‘Why Preschool Matters’ that the advanced training also allows them to provide stronger language experiences and are less detached.

In the public school system, preschool teachers must be licensed in order to teach early childhood education. State requirements vary, but usually the licensure process includes passing a competency exam, in addition to possessing a degree. Most states also expect teachers to fulfill continuing education credit requirements to uphold their license.

In addition to qualifying for more job opportunities, a preschool teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education may teach kindergarten through grade 3, if they desire. With experience, some preschool teachers move into positions with a higher level of responsibility and salary, such as the director of a preschool or childcare center.

In most states, preschool teachers are also expected to have some form of certification.

  • The Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate is the most common credential, which sees prospective preschool teachers completing specific coursework related to early childhood education, pass a written exam, and gain relevant experience in the field.
  • Some preschool teachers pursue the Child Care Professional (CCP) credential, especially those without a college degree (or who possess a degree in another field). Demonstrating a teacher’s knowledge and skills related to early childhood development, obtaining the credential involves 180 clock hours of training, performance-based observations, and passing a national credentialing exam (amongst other requirements).

In the majority of states, both the CDA and the CCP are recognized as the same. While having slightly different requirements, both credentials serve as a measurement of an individual’s level of competence in regards to teaching childhood education. Other credentials, such as passing a background check, as well as completing CPR and first aid training, are typically considered desirable, or in some cases required in order to become a preschool teacher.

What can I expect as a preschool teacher?

Preschool teachers fill positions in both public and private educational settings, including childcare centers and charitable organizations. The average preschool teacher works a traditional school year that consists of 10 months with summers off, while others may teach year-round depending on their place of employment.

Preschool teachers typically find work at one of the following settings:A mother and daughter drawing in a book on the kitchen

  • Public Preschool: Funded by federal and state funds, many public elementary schools may accommodate public preschools that are governed by the U.S. Department of Education, the state’s board of education and the local school district. It is typically free or reduced for students to attend.
  • Private Preschool: Children attending a private preschool are charged a tuition fee. Since this type of school does not receive government funds, the preschool is free to establish their own standards for both the students and the hiring of teachers. Therefore, the hiring criterion varies depending on a school, and may not require licensed educators.
  • Head Start Centers: Initiated by the Department of Health and Human Services as a way to foster the healthy development of children, Head Start programs were developed to provide early childhood education to low-income families.
  • Religious Preschool: Job applicants are usually hired to follow a religious-related curriculum, and depending on the employer, may have to satisfy specific requirements, such as having a pastor’s reference from a Christian church.

Preschool teachers are responsible for the education of children between the ages of three and five years. As a result, preschool teachers must be comfortable working with very young children, as well as appreciate the educational value of play, social engagement, and experiential learning. Singing, telling stories, acting, coloring, and playing are all part of the job.

Being a preschool teacher means working in an environment where “firsts” are the norm. After all, this age group is in a constant state of discovery, learning new words, skills and concepts on a daily basis. Preschool teachers expose children to numbers, letters, and shapes; as well as teach them how to be students. During this time, teachers help children develop their social and behavior-management skills, such as learning how to raise their hand, take turns, share toys, and work well in groups.

Teachers also need to be prepared to help their students perform more rudimentary tasks, such as tying shoelaces and zipping up jackets. Preschool teachers also deal with messes of all kinds; and most consider bodily fluids, spilt drinks and paint applied to surfaces other than canvases, all in a day’s work.

While much of the job entails engaging in seemingly quotidian tasks, preschool teachers do much more than zip-up jackets, tell stories and contain accidents. Preschool teachers are being trusted to care for people’s children at a point when they may be entering the public world for the first time. This means that preschool teachers need to be highly trustworthy, personable, and at times thick-skinned. Parents often have strong opinions about what their young children should eat, whom they should play with, and when they should take a nap. For this reason, preschool teachers also need to be good listeners and communicators.

Preschool teachers are also expected to keep the lines of communication open with parents, and often send e-mails and newsletters, as well as hold routine parent-teacher conferences.

Lastly, preschool teachers play an important role in making the transition into kindergarten much easier for children to manage. Barnett said that children who attend high-quality preschool programs enter kindergarten with more advanced vocabularies, better pre-reading skills, and stronger basic math skills than those who do not attend [1]. 

What is the career outlook for a preschool teacher?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the enrollment of children in pre-kindergarten-level education programs and schools is on the rise. As the importance and value of early childhood education continues to grow, so does the number of preschool programs in the U.S. Additionally, the population of children aged 3 to 5 is expected to increase, which also translates into a growing need to hire preschool teachers.

The BLS estimates the employment of preschool teachers will grow 17 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is a faster rate than the average for all occupations in the United States.

The number of career prospects is typically highest for preschool teachers with a bachelor’s degree or professional certification. Specialty skills and training, such as having a background in special education, also translate into a preschool teacher qualifying for more job opportunities with a higher earning potential.

Schoolchildren of today represent an increasing level of diversity. Since children often arrive in preschool speaking their home language, which is not necessarily English, there is an especially high demand for preschool teachers who speak one or more foreign languages. For example, bi-lingual teachers are hired to teach at immersion schools and programs (which are on the rise across the U.S.), such as the full- and part-time Spanish immersion preschool programs in the Bay Area of California.

The occupation has also received accolades from U.S. News & World Report, which deemed preschool teachers as being one of the best jobs in the social services field, ranking it #16. The career field even made their 100 Best Jobs list, holding the #88 position.

What is the average salary for a preschool teacher?

In May 2014, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median salary for a preschool teacher was $28,120, with the child day care services industry representing the highest level of employment for the occupation.

Employing the second-largest number of preschool teachers in the U.S., New York is also the top-paying state for the occupation ($42,190 annual mean wage) – followed by New Jersey ($38,210), Alaska ($38,020), Kentucky ($37,670) and Massachusetts ($36,240).

To find the highest-paying job positions, a preschool teacher may encounter the best prospects at elementary and secondary schools on the state, local and private level. In May 2012, the BLS reported the median salary for preschool teachers in the school system as $41,520 – which meant that they earned nearly double than their counterparts providing child day care services. Schools with a more reputable standing tend to pay their preschool teachers a higher salary, and often hire job applicants who already have previous experience in the field.

Like many positions associated with the so-called “helping professions,” most preschool teachers report below average incomes. The compensation may also reflect the demographics of the profession. Most preschool teachers are women. In 2013, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 98.1% of preschool and kindergarten teachers were women.

Although overseeing the early education of students isn’t the most lucrative position amongst educators, there are many rewards associated with teaching at the preschool level. For example, since the profession requires a limited amount of postsecondary education, it is possible for individuals to become a preschool teacher quickly, and depending on the chosen route to becoming certified, can do so without accumulating a high amount of student debt.

The position also offers teachers a certain level of job flexibility. Additionally, the growing demand for preschool teachers across the U.S. means candidates applying for work in the field can find open positions within their region, and do not need to relocate.

In contrast to most teachers, additional compensation and benefits tend to be limited for preschool teachers; they often do not enjoy extended health and retirement benefits. Some employers offer full benefit packages that include health insurance, paid vacations and health insurance, while others provide no benefits. Depending on their place of employment, preschool teachers are sometimes offered alternative forms of compensation and perks, such as free or discounted tuition for their children to attend a private school program.

In conclusion, preschool serves as a child’s first experience with a formal learning environment. The government does not require a family to send their children to preschool; it is an option that an increasing number of agencies, school districts, communities and parents feel will benefit the developmental health of today’s children. As a result, preschool teachers can expect an influx of job positions to become available across the U.S. through 2022.

[1] Why Preschool Matters by Beth Kanter of Parents Magazine; Parents.com

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