CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a preschool teacher.
Is becoming a preschool teacher right for me?
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High School & Volunteer Experience
Courses in English, creative writing, health, sociology, and psychology will prove to be valuable for prospective preschool teachers.
While in high school or while obtaining your GED, consider volunteering in childcare settings. This exposure will achieve two important objectives: it will help to determine your suitability for working with children and it will lay an early foundation for a career in teaching preschool.
Certificate or Undergraduate Degree in Early Childhood Education (ECE)
A Certificate in Early Childhood Education is the fastest credential to earn. Some aspiring preschool teachers choose to obtain a certificate, gain some experience before taking control of an entire classroom of preschoolers, and then consider studying for an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree. Certificate programs cover the fundamentals of the early childhood education career; creative expression and play; disciplining young children; cultural diversity; movement and music; and early childhood literacy.
An ECE Certificate can lead to employment as a Teacher’s Aide or Assistant Teacher. In these roles, individuals work under the supervision of a lead teacher and help in the classroom as needed. Job duties often include working one-on-one with students, assisting with record keeping, helping at mealtimes, or providing general supervision.
ECE Associate’s Degree
Two-year Associate’s programs focus on the specifics of helping young children learn. Curricula typically cover child health, safety, and nutrition; basic psychology; lesson planning; creating a positive learning environment; and classroom management techniques. These programs commonly include some real-world experience in classroom settings.
An Associate’s Degree qualifies a preschool teacher for entry-level early education positions in most U.S. states. It also satisfies the minimum requirement to teach in state-funded Head Start programs (programs designed to ensure that children from low-income families are ready for school) and some – but not the majority of – public schools.
ECE Bachelor’s Degree
Curricula for four-year Bachelor’s Degree programs focus on teaching strategies; classroom management; early childhood literacy; child psychology; strengthening behavior observation skills; health, safety, and nutrition for young children; assessment and evaluation methods; and ECE trends and leadership topics. Bachelor’s programs also comprise a teaching practicum or internship.
Graduates with a Bachelor’s in the field are sought after by public schools and especially by Head Start programs, where a nationwide mandate requires that at least fifty percent of preschool teachers hold a relevant Bachelor’s Degree. In addition, these graduates have a wider range of opportunities available to them. They may choose to teach full time or they may advance to work as preschool program coordinators and managers, training and development specialists, or childcare/learning center directors. While these positions do not entail as much contact with students, they provide opportunities to design and monitor curricula, hire and supervise teachers, create training materials, determine budgets, and establish policies and procedures.
Preschool teachers who hold a Bachelor’s may also qualify to teach at the elementary level.
Licensure & Certification
Preschool teachers generally become licensed by fulfilling the educational requirement (ECE certificate or Associate’s Degree or Bachelor’s Degree) and undergoing the background checks of the state in which they wish to work. Those working in childcare centers must maintain current first-aid and CPR certifications.
Some jurisdictions and many preschools and childcare centers – regardless of where they are located – also require that teachers hold a nationally recognized certification. The most widely held is the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential granted by the Council for Professional Recognition. To be eligible to receive this designation, candidates must have at least 120 hours of formal early childhood education training and 480 hours of professional experience.
Some preschool teachers pursue the Child Care Professional (CCP) credential granted by the National Early Childhood Program Accreditation (NECPA) Commission. This certification is common among teachers whose degree is in another field or who do not hold a college degree. To be eligible to receive this designation, candidates must have at least 180 hours of education/training reflecting the NECPA Commission’s nine professional ability areas and 720 hours of child care experience.
While having slightly different requirements, both the CDA and CCP credentials serve as measurement of an individual’s level of competence in early childhood education. In most states, the CDA and CCP certifications are recognized as the same.
To keep their state license current and maintain their CDA or CCP credential, preschool teachers must complete continuing education/professional development courses.
For information on resources, events, and additional accreditations, visit the website of The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Graduate degree (optional)
A Master’s Degree in early childhood education allows preschool teachers to pursue very senior positions in the field.
How to become a Preschool Teacher
The education track for preschool teachers is not as straightforward or structured as that for primary or secondary school teachers. This is because different kinds of preschool programs fall within the scope of different state regulatory agencies, from the state’s Board of Education to its Department of Health and Human Services. Because preschool teachers may work in public and private programs, for school districts, or in federally funded programs, requirements often vary from one employer to the next. What is universal, however, is that regardless of the setting in which they work, preschool teachers must bring a certain level of education or training to the job.
Preschool teachers in public schools are generally expected to hold a Bachelor’s Degree in early childhood education, while private preschool teachers or those found in childcare settings may only be required to have an Associate’s Degree. Degree programs typically include classes in early childhood development and literacy, child psychology, strategies for teaching young children, children’s literature, and basic courses in math and science.
In most public and private preschools, lead teachers, supervisors, or administrators are required to hold a Bachelor’s or even a Master’s degree in early childhood education (ECE) or a closely related field.
The Council for Professional Recognition offers the Childhood Development Associate (CDA) credential. The Council’s programs are available to applicants with a high school diploma or equivalency, as well as junior and senior students enrolled in a high school vocational program in early childhood education. The nationally transferrable CDA credential is based on a core set of competency standards, which guide early care practitioners as they work toward becoming qualified teachers of young children. The CDA credential, however, may also be pursued by working preschool teachers seeking a national certification.
The National Early Childhood Program Accreditation (NECPA) Commission awards the Certified Childcare Professional (CCP) credential, which is designed especially for teachers who have not completed a college degree or whose degree is in another field.
Many states stipulate that preschool and childcare center teachers be licensed. Some states recognize and accept the CDA or CCP credential for licensure. In most cases, the licensing process also requires that applicants submit immunization records and undergo background checks.