How to Become an Elementary School Teacher – Salary, Job Description and Educational Requirements
A career as an elementary school teacher is a good choice for people who value early childhood education and are interested in teaching a broad range of academic subjects.
Elementary school teachers have a solid foundation in early childhood development concepts, theories and practices. Elementary teachers also rely heavily on primary education pedagogy. This is loosely defined as the science of teaching using time-tested, research-based methods, procedures and processes.
Teachers in elementary school are responsible for identifying students’ academic strengths and weaknesses at an early age. These insights help elementary teachers plan general and targeted curriculum to prepare students for success in middle school and beyond.
Our guide offers insights into the education, salary and job requirements for elementary school teachers. Browse through the content or use these links to jump to your desired destination:
Teaching elementary school
> Curriculum and subject matter
> Teaching elementary school online
> Educational requirements
> Salary and employment projections
> Pros and cons of elementary school teaching
At-a-glance: elementary school teachers
|Education||Bachelor’s; master’s preferred|
|Typical study time||4-6 years|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Elementary school teachers have one of the most important jobs in the country. Not only are they tasked with providing a well-rounded general education, elementary teachers play a vital role in setting a solid foundation for students’ future academic success.
Modern elementary teachers face three additional challenges:
- Introducing STEM-related topics at an earlier age
- Educating an ever-growing, culturally diverse student population
- Incorporating new models of the inclusive classroom
To meet these challenges, elementary school teaching positions are expected to grow by 12 percent in the coming decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Elementary school teacher job description
Elementary teachers should be prepared to teach children ages 5-12 in first through fifth grades. However, many elementary schools include grade six, while some private and rural public schools include seventh and eighth grades within elementary school.
The most important subjects in elementary school are reading, writing and basic mathematics. Most elementary schools also focus on beginning science, social studies and history. In some cases, particularly for sixth grade, teachers may specialize in certain subjects. Their students will spend part of the day in one class, such as mathematics, and then move on to reading and writing classes for balanced curriculum instruction from two or more teachers.
Typical duties of an elementary teacher:
- Manage classrooms and implement school procedures; work with school leaders and administrators to initiate policies.
- Plan lessons and assign homework; grade students’ work and evaluate their ability to communicate with others and work in groups.
- Administer and grade tests while staying current with state and local standards for subjects from first to fifth, and sometimes sixth, grades.
- Select reading, writing, math and other curriculum-development materials, including textbooks, in accordance with local and state guidelines.
- Prepare students for standardized tests, working within the parameters of state and local requirements, and provide diagnostic feedback.
- Meet one-on-one with students to improve performance and address behavioral issues; hold conferences with parents and guardians as needed.
Who makes good elementary school teachers?
Regardless of whether they teach first or sixth grade, elementary school teachers must have outstanding curriculum knowledge for grades one to six. They should have excellent communication skills and a demeanor that is well-suited for working with children ages 5-12.
People who teach elementary school should be:
- Relaxed when speaking in front of groups of up to three dozen students and good at inspiring children to learn curriculum
- Comfortable implementing school procedures and managing classrooms with diverse students and different learning abilities. Establishing classroom rules and holding each student accountable, shows them how a class functions best when everyone works together.
- Grounded curriculum expectations for grades one to six and knowledgeable about progress indicators that keep students on track.
- Experts in reading and writing, vocabulary and mathematics curriculum, and other subjects for elementary school students.
- Consistent and present in all students’ lives. Young students thrive on regular schedules, so keeping with a set routine is important for all teachers.
- Confident talking with students! Teachers should be able and willing to get to know their students differing personalities. Students notice genuine interest communicated by adults.
- Ready to make learning fun! Teachers provide the educational foundation that students will rely on for many years. Making class time special, creative, and enjoyable will benefit students for the long run.
Interested in becoming an elementary school teacher?
Ashley Kulik, “Teacher of the Year” at Mary Lin Elementary School in Atlanta, discusses her initial apprehensions about teaching first grade. She talks about her expectations before becoming a teacher and how her perceptions of teaching changed with experience.
Watch the video to learn more about Kulik’s challenges, discoveries and rewards as a successful elementary school teacher.
Teaching elementary school: in-depth
A career as an elementary teacher is ideal for people who enjoy teaching reading, writing and verbal communications, as well as basic math. Unlike their counterparts in middle and high school, who usually specialize in one subject, elementary school gives teachers opportunities to cover a variety of curriculum.
A broad knowledge of general education curriculum and a solid foundation in early childhood development are important for teaching elementary school. Art, music and physical education are good subjects for elementary school teachers to know, in addition to their general education functions.
The growing demand for inclusive classrooms, in which children with physical, cognitive and learning disabilities learn alongside nondisabled students, has placed special education training at the top of the list for many school leaders seeking to fill elementary school teaching positions.
People who can teach a foreign language, such as Spanish, are in demand. Schools increasingly offer classes to help students of English as a second language (ESL) integrate at the primary level, making elementary school ideally suited for bilingual teachers.
In summary, an elementary school teacher’s job is to prepare students for middle school courses in intermediate English language arts and mathematics — as well as science, history and social studies in those schools that offer these subjects.
- What do elementary teachers do?
- Educational and certification requirements
- Salary and employment projections
- Pros and cons of being an elementary teacher
Elementary schooling responsibilities
Elementary teachers should be well-versed in classroom management, teaching methodologies, and school procedures. Full-time elementary school teachers generally work eight-hour shifts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. A typical day begins with an early arrival at school to give the teacher sufficient time to prepare for class.
Here are some activities under an elementary teacher’s guidance throughout the day:
- When the morning bell rings, the teacher greets students outside the classroom door with a cheerful smile.
- Procedures — such as hanging up coats and being seated — are taught early during the first few weeks of school.
- After roll call, the teacher has a lesson prepared. This may entail distributing handouts and discussing the assignment and objectives with the entire class.
- Once students are focused on their lessons, the teacher is free to assist them one on one with their learning and answer specific questions.
- For recess, restroom breaks, lunch time, end-of-day dismissals and other interruptions, the teacher has procedures in place that facilitate smooth transitions from one activity to the next.
- Grading assignments, quizzes and tests can take place during class while students are busy; however, teachers usually grade and review student work between classes or after school.
In short, an elementary school teacher’s typical day is divided between implementing procedures and managing classroom functions. These include taking roll and putting supplies away. In addition, they teach curriculum, supervise and assist students to achieve lesson objectives.
Elementary school schedules
Most public and some private school teachers have summers off, along with various holidays and winter breaks that typically last two to three weeks. These vacations give teachers opportunities to rejuvenate. During time off, elementary teachers typically plan curriculum for the coming school year or quarter, explore personal interests, and expand career goals. It’s an ideal time to advance their own education.
Elementary teachers do more than just teach. Elementary school teachers may also coach sports teams and choir, supervise recess and monitor lunchroom breaks. They may also help out with special events and activities, such as student body elections, plays and talent shows.
In addition to teaching students and monitoring activities, elementary school teachers often supervise classroom assistants and parent/teacher helpers. They meet with students individually to improve learning or resolve behavior issues.
Elementary teachers also conduct monthly or quarterly parent/teacher conferences to discuss student performance. If a student is having difficulties learning, or is misbehaving, teachers often hold after-school meetings with parents and guardians to help them understand their child’s problems and resolve conflicts.
Other nonteaching duties:
- Prepare coursework and assignments for specific subjects and grade levels
- Grade tests and evaluate reading, writing, mathematics and other assignments
- Meet with colleagues to coordinate grade-level and classroom curriculum goals
- Hold conferences with students, parents or guardians to discuss academic progress
Elementary school curriculum
Elementary school teachers should be prepared to teach English grammar rules, spelling and basic sentence structure. They are also expected to teach introductory mathematics. This includes addition and subtraction, division and multiplication tables, weights and measures and other math concepts. Depending on the school, they might also teach science, social studies and history, art, music, physical education and other subjects.
For each subject, students are expected to expand their knowledge as they progress from one grade level to the next. For example, the curriculum-specific expectations for reading and writing in first grade continue through grades two to five but become increasingly advanced.
Here is a broad look at basic reading, writing, language and mathematics curriculum goals for first through fifth grades. These general descriptions cover what students are expected to know and be able to accomplish in each subject and grade level.
Reading and writing
- First grade: Describe characters and settings in a story; retell stories with key details; show an understanding of the message; ask and answer questions about the text; identify important words and phrases from texts; use illustrations to describe characters and setting. Write explanatory texts based on selected topics, supply facts to support ideas and reach conclusions that bring stories to a logical ending.
- Second grade: Describe how characters respond to different situations and challenges; recount stories and distinguish fables and folktales; explain the central message, lesson or moral; ask and answer who, what, where, when, why and how questions and give explanations. Write narratives of events with elaborate details and actions that convey thoughts and feelings; use expanded vocabulary to support meaning in writing.
- Third grade: Describe how words and phrases create rhythm and enhance meaning in a story, poem or song; show an understanding of beginning, middle and conclusion of story structure; describe character traits, such as motivations and feelings, and explain how these traits affect the story. Write opinion pieces on selected topics with facts and reasons that support point of view; use linking phrases such as because, therefore and for example to connect thoughts.
- Fourth grade: Determine the meanings of words and phrases and distinguish between literal and implied language; understand the difference between parts of stories and poems, such as chapters, scenes and stanzas; explain how the use of illustrations and pictures enhance texts and convey meaning. Write on selected topics using a narrator and characters; incorporate dialogue to illustrate ideas, convey meaning and help readers understand plot and characters.
- Fifth grade: Compare and contrast stories within similar genres, such as mysteries and adventures; describe how a narrator’s voice influences plot, point of view and action; analyze the use of multimedia, including still images, audio and moving video, and explain how each is appropriate for the story type, such as fiction, folktale, myth or poem. Write expository essays with transitional phrases; seek feedback from peers and incorporate critiques through editing and rewriting.
Speaking and listening
- First grade: Follow rules for discussions, speaking one person at a time and building on input from others to expand conversations; ask clear questions and follow up with polite questions for clarification.
- Second grade: Recount or describe key points and texts through conversations and oral readings; expand on answers from participants to show clear understanding and comprehension of conversations.
- Third grade: Prepare for conversations and oral readings with books and other materials that support a selected topic; follow rules to show respect for other speakers; ask questions and link different responses from participants.
- Fourth grade: Pose counter-arguments in diplomatic fashion to expose weak points and offer ideas to expand understanding of topics; learn to accurately paraphrase responses and texts; present formal written and verbal ideas for discussion.
- Fifth grade: Review ideas and express feedback, drawing conclusions based on information provided in discussions; summarize texts and oral presentations through writing; report on a topic using diverse media, including audio, still images and motion video.
Numbers and mathematics
- First grade: Based on earlier work with numbers, develop strategies for adding and subtracting whole numbers; use add-to, take-from and other models to expand understanding of numbers and relationships among single objects, pairs and sets; use sophisticated strategies for multiples of 10 to solve addition and subtraction problems within 10, 20 and 100; start composing plane and solid figures, including triangles and other geometric shapes.
- Second grade: Extend basic understanding of multidigit numbers up to 1,000 through problems of addition, subtraction and division; analyze two- and three-dimensional shapes and begin to understand concepts such as volume, congruence and symmetry; begin working with equal groups to gain a solid understanding of multiplication; work with lengths and standard units of measure, concepts of time and money in real-world applications.
- Third grade: Expand and develop understanding of division and multiplication through strategies that compare and contrast relational groups; develop an understanding of fractions starting with halves and thirds, drawing comparisons between whole objects and geometric shapes such as circles; learn the relationship between division and fractions; expand understanding of geometric concepts through linear measure and volume, perimeter and area of shapes, such as circles and rectangles.
- Fourth grade: Expand understanding of numbers and learn counting up to 1 million; learn to add, subtract and multiply fractions; understand relationships between fractions and whole numbers; begin using factors and multiples to count using multidigit whole numbers; understand decimal notation for fractions and how they relate; draw and identify lines and angles, and classify shapes by properties of their lines and angles.
- Fifth grade: Apply knowledge of fractions to add and subtract with unlike denominators; use understanding of fractions and decimals to multiply and divide and convert fractions to decimals; learn the meaning of finite decimals, computations and quotients; calculate volume using knowledge of three-dimensional objects and their measures; write and interpret numerical expressions; analyze patterns and relationships; understand the place-value system; graph points on a coordinate plane to solve real-world problems such as time/distance estimations.
What is it like to be an elementary school teacher?
“Second grade is the place to be,” declares Jenny Gaddis, second-grade teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Little Elm, Texas. In addition to her college degree in elementary education, Gaddis holds an English as a Second Language (ESL) certificate. She has taught first and second grade for more than a decade.
Check out this video of Gaddis discussing her experiences and reaction to receiving “Teacher of the Year” recognition:
What about teaching elementary school online?
Today’s computer technology advancements, combined with the increasing demand for elementary school teachers and a host of alternatives to traditional teaching — from charter schools to home schooling — make online teaching an attractive alternative for some teachers. Whether you’re a new teacher interested in working from home, a career changer seeking teaching experience, or a semi-retiring educator who wants to continue teaching in some capacity, online teaching has the potential to change the profession at every level, including primary schools.
The increasing demand for online learning helps contribute to an ever-growing supply of tools. In addition to Internet research and social media sites that can connect students and teachers with subject-specific experts, these tools can include real-time audio and face-to-face videoconferencing. These tools facilitate instruction of grammar, phonics, oral and writing exercises, and mathematics lessons in ways that were cost-prohibitive only a decade ago.
As these online tools become more common, the realm of possibilities for elementary school teachers interested in leveraging computers and multimedia technology can only expand.
How to become an elementary school teacher: educational requirements
Elementary teachers are expected to have at least a bachelor’s degree in teaching or a subject-specific area, such as math or English, accompanied by a teaching certificate in accordance with their state’s requirements.
They may have dual degrees in teaching and a specific subject or discipline, such as science, Spanish, early childhood development or special education. Teachers are expected to have strong classroom management skills, a foundation in dealing with behavioral issues, and a knack for helping students develop problem-solving and critical thinking abilities.
Certification requirements for elementary school teachers
A state-issued teaching certificate or license is generally required to become an elementary teacher. Some private schools do not require a teaching credential as a job condition. Certain parochial, or faith-based, schools require staff to have an advanced education in the subjects they teach.
Elementary school teachers generally are not expected to hold advanced degrees. Certification and licensing requirements for elementary teachers vary from state to state. Nearly all states require teachers to take professional development courses as a condition of certification.
Teaching License Reciprocity by State: Visit our state-by-state teacher licensing and reciprocity page for regulations in your state.
Alternative certification is becoming increasingly popular. An estimated 20 percent of teachers enter the profession through nontraditional means. Because of fluctuating teacher shortages, states are offering alternative ways for people who already have bachelor’s degrees to become certified and begin teaching.
Elementary school teacher salary and employment projections
The salary for all elementary school teachers across the United States ranges from about $36,190 to $85,550, based on BLS estimates. The average salary for elementary school teacher jobs generally ranges from $45,000 to $53,000.
Here are salary estimates for elementary school teachers:
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: $54,890
- Indeed.com: $43,000
- Glassdoor.com: $46,967
- SimplyHired.com: $47,454
The employment outlook for elementary school teachers appears stable in certain regions. The overall demand for teachers is still growing compared to many other professions. On a national level, the BLS estimates a 6 percent growth rate for all elementary teachers through 2024.
Pros and cons of being an elementary school teacher
- Teaching young students who are beginning to learn how to read and write, add and subtract, or are advancing in English and math subjects
- Working with children who are starting to learn procedures and understand how to interact with diverse peers in a structured environment
- Devoting time and skills to early childhood development while instilling knowledge and launching tomorrow’s learners on an education path
- Working with students who have a range of learning abilities that can result in boredom, disinterest and misbehavior
- Implementing school and classroom procedures that are sometimes bureaucratic and difficult to consistently enforce
- Teaching students at a young age how to concentrate and behave in school is difficult and challenging for most adults
Professional development for elementary school teachers
Elementary teachers seeking professional development can benefit from leveraging various technologies for educational purposes. Teachers can use a multitude of software programs to help plan, distribute and enhance lessons.
Today’s technology, which includes videos and podcasts, is attractive for elementary teachers not only for expanding their own use of computers but also to assist students in broadening their knowledge of specific subjects. For example, elementary school teachers can use computers to enhance reading and writing lessons by encouraging students to incorporate graphics, photos and videos into their assignments.
Professional associations for elementary school instructors are excellent resources. These associations offer correspondence courses, one-day seminars, symposiums and other opportunities that help teachers advance their knowledge of elementary school curriculum. Many associations also offer courses to help elementary teachers leverage computers as learning tools in their classrooms.
Whether it’s an online webinar or an annual three-day conference for primary school teachers, continuing education improves teaching skills and broadens knowledge of educational best practices. Webinars and professional conferences are terrific platforms to enhance one’s understanding of primary education while meeting fellow teachers.
Benefits of continuing education
BLS statistics support the idea that professionals with a master’s degree have a greater chance of receiving promotions and obtaining raises. Although a master’s degree is not required for elementary teachers, primary schools in many states reward teachers for continuing education efforts based on preset pay scales that recognize advanced degrees. The difference in salary between a bachelor’s and a master’s degree for a novice teacher is $3,000 annually. After 10 years of experience, the average salary increase is $4,500, according to BLS data.
Recent findings from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that students who are taught by teachers with advanced degrees benefit from their knowledge. In “The Value of a Master’s Degree for Teachers: Better Student Outcomes,” Mary Jane Pearson, PhD, points out that children, including fourth-grade students, who are taught by a teacher with a master’s degree consistently score higher on the NAEP reading and math assessments than students who are taught by teachers with bachelor’s degrees.
Pearson, a former regional director for the U.S. Department of Education, stated: “The data confirms that holding a master’s degree can be another resource teachers can draw on to positively affect their students’ performance in reading and math.”
Bottom line: Continuing education is a terrific way to expand knowledge, remain competitive, and increase one’s market value in the field of education.
What kinds of graduate programs can help elementary school teachers?
Studies, such as those provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show positive correlations between a teacher’s advanced knowledge and student achievement within their classrooms. These reports suggest students at all levels, including elementary school, benefit from teachers who have earned their master’s degrees.
Not all programs are created equal, and elementary school teachers seeking advanced degrees should be selective when considering master’s programs. For example, elementary teachers researching a master’s program may consider a degree in:
- English to speakers of other languages (ESOL)
- Early childhood education
- Inclusive classrooms and special education
- Teaching methods and curriculum
Concordia University-Portland’s online MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: Early Childhood Education concentration enhances many of the benefits associated with teaching elementary school. The program is designed to help students:
- Become familiar with advocacy for children and families at local, state and national levels through research, philosophical approaches and practical applications
- Explore opportunities for project-based learning of pre-K and primary grade students and become familiar with assessment practices, standards and benchmarks
- Learn strategies for implementing activities that engage children from birth to age 8 in play and learning and help them engage in understanding the world around them
- Examine literacy development skills for young children using reading and writing, trade books, thematic literature and field research in literacy development
- Use qualitative and quantitative methods to plan and conduct educational research that culminates in completion of a proposal using data collection resources
Professional associations for elementary school teachers
- American Federation of Teachers
- Association of American Educators
- National Education Association
- National Parent Teachers Association
- National Rural Education Association
- National Association for the Education of Young Children
- Association of Teacher Educators
- Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation
- International Society for Technology in Education
- National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification
- National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
- American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence
Related careers: jobs available to elementary school teachers outside of teaching
A variety of jobs are available for elementary school teachers seeking careers outside the teaching profession. Generally speaking, teachers are well-trained communicators. They have advanced critical thinking abilities and strong organizational skills. They are trained to be objective, with a strong sense of fairness and empathy for others.
Elementary school teachers are well-rounded in a variety of subjects — from reading and writing to basic math, science and history. Their broad knowledge of subjects is ideally suited to positions in mass communications, career guidance, staff counseling and personnel training, and other jobs that require strong presentation abilities, attention to details, and a pleasant disposition.
Jobs for elementary school teachers with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education include:
- Personnel recruiter
- Industrial safety or technology trainer
- Talent resources associate or manager
- Marketing and communications associate
- Public relations coordinator or manager
- Retail sales manager or buyer
- Executive assistant
- Manufacturing plant staff supervisor
For those interested in continuing to advocate for and/or work with children, elementary teachers can make exceptional:
- Postsecondary teachers for early childhood education programs
- Early childhood experts for non-profit educational organizations
- Museum curators
- Day care directors
Best of the Web: our favorite art teacher websites and Twitter handles
The web is ideal for elementary school teachers as a tool for research, lesson planning and presentations. Here are some useful websites and Twitter resources:
Favorite elementary teacher websites
- Busy Bees
- Ms. Cassidy’s Classroom Blog
- iTeach 2nd Grade
- Learning in Bliss
- Pencils, Books, & Dirty Looks
- Primary Graffiti
- A Year of Reading
- The Fabulous Life of an Elementary Teacher
- ProTeacher Directory
Favorite elementary teacher Twitter handles
- Kevin Jarrett: @kjarrett
- Donalyn Miller: @donalynbooks
- Paula Naugle: @plnaugle
- Kelly Malloy: @kellys3ps
- Colby Sharp: @colbysharp
- Linda Yollis: @lindayollis
- Kathrine Sokolowski: @katsok
- Susan Dee: @literacydocent
- "Elementary School Teachers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2014
- "Occupational Outlook for Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers