Elementary School Teacher Career Guide

Elementary school teachers are early education providers who primarily teach children in kindergarten through the fifth or sixth grades (K-5 or K-6, depending on the state or district). Some states or school districts include pre-K and/or the seventh and eighth grades (K-8) as elementary school. An elementary school educator must be able to communicate well with younger students and possess the ability to be flexible and creative with lesson plans to reach students of varying abilities. This guide provides further information on what elementary school teachers do, how to become one, and their salary and job outlook.

Elementary School Teacher Job Description

An elementary teacher helps young children develop social skills and positive learning habits in an enthusiastic, stimulating, and positive classroom environment. This can be a rewarding career, as elementary educators help foster the social and intellectual development of their students. Since most K-5/6 teachers provide instruction in all subjects, they typically lead a single class of children through the school day. However, some elementary schools follow the subject specialization model in which teachers teach the same subject to at least two different classes of children. Many elementary school lesson plans are activity-based, though some teachers will supplement learning with more formal lessons to prepare children for later education. In addition to planning instruction and supporting activities, teachers in elementary schools interact frequently with students’ parents and guardians with progress reports, teacher meetings, and other communication. Elementary school teachers also participate in continuing professional education on a regular basis to keep skills current and discuss new ideas to utilize in classroom learning.

Elementary School Teacher Requirements and Common Tasks

Elementary school teachers will generally possess at least a bachelor’s degree as well as certifications specific to the individual licensing requirements of their state. Teaching degrees in early childhood development and other behavioral sciences can be especially helpful for teaching at the elementary level. Teachers are expected to continue their education throughout their careers and demonstrate a commitment to professional development. Because of teacher shortages and difficulty placing teachers in urban or rural positions, most states offer alternative licensing pathways which allow prospective teachers to begin their careers while still attending school.

Elementary educators are expected to prepare lesson plans and teaching guides that follow local, state, and federal standards to help students develop socially and academically. Lesson plans must include age-appropriate activities designed to stimulate young minds and aid the learning process. Teaching methods and materials must prepare students for advancement by ensuring state-mandated standards for a given grade level have been met or exceeded. Mastery of these standards is assessed and teachers are reviewed according to student performance and classroom observations. Depending on the age of the students taught, some elementary teachers also provide basic childcare such as monitoring nap times and helping with hygiene.

Helpful Skills and Experience

As elementary school teachers are expected to teach foundational skills in a wide variety of subjects, a liberal arts background supplemented by study in science and math is a helpful starting point for beginning educators. Characteristics such as patience and flexibility are integral for prospective teachers looking to work with young learners. Most elementary educators gain experience in classroom management during their baccalaureate program, which is helpful when applying to full-time positions following graduation.

How to Become an Elementary School Teacher

Elementary teacher requirements depend on the state or region in which the prospective teacher is seeking certification, but generally, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and completion of a state-approved teacher preparation program is expected. For traditional students, the following is the typical process to become an elementary school teacher:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
  2. Complete an internship in an elementary school classroom.
  3. Take your state’s licensing exams for elementary teachers.
  4. Apply for a license through your state board of education.
  5. Once you have received your license, begin applying for open positions.

Elementary education programs include coursework in child psychology, special needs, English as a second language learners, educational psychology, child development, curriculum development, and teaching methods. Most elementary education programs also include student teaching and practicum experiences during the junior and senior years of study.

In most states, certification is required to work as an elementary school teacher in public schools, though state licensure is not a requirement to teach in all private schools. Elementary education degrees are offered through on-campus programs as well as through online distance learning, though to qualify graduates for licensure, online degrees must typically include an in-person student internship component. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, a master’s degree in elementary education that leads to initial teacher certification may be an alternate pathway.

Elementary School Teacher Salary & Job Outlook

The median salary for kindergarten and elementary school teachers was $61,690 per year as of 2022.1 Salaries vary greatly according to the number of years of teaching experience, the highest degree earned, and the location/district of the school. Employment of elementary teachers is expected to grow 4% through 2031, which is about as fast as average.2 The number of jobs available in a given region will vary based on school sizes and budgetary concerns. Educators who teach math, science, or bilingual studies or who hold multiple endorsements may find more job opportunities.

Other job opportunities for certified educators include kindergarten teacher, middle school teacher, instructional coach, child special education teacher, supervising teacher, and preschool teacher. Early childhood jobs such as childcare in daycare centers, non-profit organizations, and community childcare programs may also be available to graduates of elementary education programs.

Elementary Teacher Career Interviews

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What are the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) teacher requirements?

Answer: The ESSA is a federal law that replaced the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2015. While NCLB had minimum requirements requiring public school teachers to be highly qualified, defined as having an appropriate bachelor’s or master’s degree and state certification, ESSA leaves it up to each state and district to decide teacher requirements.

Question: What other skills or knowledge can position a prospective educator as highly qualified?

Answer: In many states, there is currently a high demand for educators who have endorsements in math and science. Many areas also have shortages of bilingual teachers, as well as shortages of teachers who are willing to work in urban or rural school districts. Specialized preparation in these in-demand areas can help prospective teachers achieve highly qualified status and become competitive in the job market. Some districts award the “highly qualified” designation based on in-class teacher observations and performance reviews.

Question: What degree do I need to teach elementary school?

Answer: To teach elementary school, you need a bachelor’s degree in a subject that is teachable in school or in a related area of study such as early childhood education. Prospective teachers must take courses that provide a broad education in all of the subjects taught in the primary grades, such as math, English, reading, science, and social studies. In addition, prospective teachers must generally complete a teacher preparation program at a university to become certified as a teacher according to state requirements.

Question: What is the average elementary school teacher salary?

Answer: According to the BLS, elementary school teachers (not including those in special education) earned an average salary of $61,690 per year as of 2022.1 The salary for elementary school teachers depends on factors like the number of years they have been teaching, the type of school, the degree they hold, and the geographic location of the school.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Elementary School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252021.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm