Early Childhood Education Careers

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Tiny hands, bright eyes, growing minds, and endless possibilities.

Teaching in a preschool environment is like no other. One minute you may be teaching the ABCs and the next you may be tying shoelaces. Another minute you may be exploring ways to implement basic math and counting skills into your lesson plan and the next you may be calming a tantrum. It’s a truly unique learning environment where the youngest learners are first introduced to academics, proper social behavior, and group learning.

Your job will include encouraging creativity, fostering academic growth, and nurturing your tiny learners. It’s a rewarding and fulfilling profession reserved for those who love children and the learning process, who have equal parts enthusiasm and patience, and who feel right at home with paint on their fingers and a storybook in their hands.

Preschool may be a place for circle time and learning to stand in line, but there’s no mistaking its significance in our nation’s educational system.

A strong body of evidence shows that early learning is vital for children’s future learning and development. According to the U.S. Department of Education, preschool is vital for expanding educational equity and opportunity by giving every child a strong start.

As a result, preschool enrollment and spending for preschool programs continues to increase. As of the 2014-15 school year, state-funded pre-k programs served almost 1.4 million children, an increase of more than 37,000 from the previous year. State spending grew to $6.5 billion during this time, an increase of $553 million from the year before. The following year, 32 states increased spending for preschool programs, an increase of $767 million to nearly $7 billion.

Preschool teachers provide our next generation of learners with a solid foundation for achieving future academic and social successes, which benefits them, their families, and society as a whole.

The Job Duties of Today’s Early Childhood Educators

As an early childhood educator, you are responsible for providing safe and developmentally appropriate programs that are aligned with all relevant federal and state initiatives. Your job duties will include:

  • Adapting daily routines to meet the interest and needs of the individual child and the group
  • Developing activities that promote literacy and math concepts
  • Ensuring that the facility and all equipment is clean, well-maintained, and safe
  • Establishing policies and procedures, including disciplinary policies
  • Maintaining and scheduling weekly and monthly activities
  • Participating in on-going in-service and education development opportunities, and participating in the ongoing development and evaluation of the program’s goals and objectives
  • Planning and implementing activities that meet the physical, intellectual, emotional and social needs of their students
  • Providing a classroom environment that encourages parent participation
  • Providing adequate equipment and activities

Regardless of whether you work in a private, public, federally funded, or nonprofit preschool setting, your responsibilities will always include:

  • Ensuring that all children are supervised at all times
  • Establishing routines
  • Building children’s self-esteem through positive guidance and nurturing
  • Communicating with parents and discussing their children’s development
  • Implementing positive discipline
  • Observing children and making notes of progress and development
  • Promoting literacy and early education
  • Providing a safe and secure environment where children feel comfortable
  • Providing age-appropriate experiences and activities for children, including storytelling, games, and songs
  • Integrating special needs children in a positive and respectful manner

The Skills, Knowledge and Abilities Required of Early Childhood Educators

A preschool teacher job is not for the faint of heart!

Your job as a preschool teacher involves not only teaching (of course), but being in tune with your young students’ unique challenges and needs. You must remember that children at 3, 4, and 5 years of age have amazingly short attention spans and a constant desire to be on the move. They are almost always in motion, looking for the next stimulus that will hold their attention. That means you must come to work with some serious energy and expect to keep your students interested and engaged. You must not only be a teacher, but an entertainer!

You must be able to relate to your students on their level, without losing sight of your teaching objective. This often involves not just teaching a concept, but doing so in a way that will keep your little ones’ attention spans for a few precious moments. Songs? Absolutely. Funny dances? You bet. Glue, glitter, and construction paper? Always a must.

As most preschool teachers will tell you, it’s an exhausting but highly rewarding endeavor.

What makes preschool a truly unique learning environment is that you are likely teaching foundational skills like proper social behavior and manners alongside academic skills. Standing in line, keeping their hands to themselves, listening to the teacher, not talking at certain times, and raising their hands when they have a question are all skills they will learn in preschool and carry with them as they advance to kindergarten and beyond.

Preschool teachers must also be the nurturers of these little souls. Very young children often need encouragement, compassion, understanding, and kind words as they navigate an environment that’s completely foreign to them. For many children, a preschool setting is the first experience outside of home in a group environment. Tears, breakdowns, and outbursts are all very normal but common behaviors in preschoolers. You must be able to meet these emotional struggles with a soft voice and kindness, all the while encouraging your students the importance of obeying, following the rules, and adapting to the school environment.

You must be able to demonstrate:

  • Compassion
  • Consistency and fairness
  • Cultural awareness and sensitivity
  • Flexibility
  • Respectfulness

You must also have a specific set of skills that will allow you to provide the highest quality teaching and childcare programs, such as:

  • Analytical and problem solving skills
  • Decision making skills
  • Effective verbal and communication skills
  • Knowledge in child development and early education theories and practices
  • Knowledge of relevant legislation, policies, and procedures
  • Knowledge of safe and appropriate activities for preschool children
  • Supervisory skills
  • Team building skills
  • Time management skills

Qualifying for Early Childhood Educator Jobs

Given the increased attention being placed on high-quality preschool programs, program administrators, school districts, and federal programs, such as Head Start, are finding significant value in hiring and retaining preschool teachers who hold a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and specialized training in teaching pre-k.

As of the 2013-14 school year, of the 57 state-funded pre-k programs in 45 states (plus Washington D.C.), 33 states required a bachelor’s degree for at least some of their state-funded pre-k programs, compared with 27 states in the 2007-08 school year.

Further, many federal programs, such as Head Start, now require at least 50 percent of the teaching staff in any Head Start program to possess a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

Although minimum education requirements for preschool teachers still vary from one state to the next (all but 9 states offer state-funded preschool programs, but most have different criteria for preschool teachers), there is a clear and concerted push toward the bachelor’s degree to be the educational standard for preschool teachers in both public and private school settings.

Further, many preschool teachers are now pursuing advanced degrees in the field, particularly for state licensing purposes or to achieve administrator jobs in the field of early childhood education.

Assistant preschool teachers are often required to possess an associate’s degree in early childhood development and/or a nationally recognized teaching credential, such as the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential through the Council for Professional Recognition. The CDA credential requires the completion of at least 120 hours of professional education, at least 480 hours of professional experience, and the completion of a professional portfolio.

Early Childhood Educator Jobs: Where They’re Found and Who’s Funding Them

Preschool teachers may work in any number of settings and positions. Your position may be funded at the federal, state, or local level, or it may be privately financed. It may be part of a large program or it may be a small, locally operated program.

You will find variations in everything from salary and benefits to work schedule and minimum educational requirements, depending on where the preschool program is located, how it is financed, and the size and structure of it.

Most states license center-based preschool programs. Licensed preschool programs must adhere to state standards, which typically include minimum educational and training requirements for preschool program directors, teachers, and teacher assistants.

Head Start Preschools

Head Start is a federally funded educational program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start Bureau. State monies are also often used to fund Head Start programs.

Head Start was established in 1965 to meet the needs of low-income children and their families. The goal of Head Start is to increase school readiness by delivering comprehensive services to children and their families. Head Start is usually free to eligible children and their families.

Although Head Start has several programs, preschool is provided through center-based Head Start programs. This type of program is provided in a group setting and operates on a specific schedule with a qualified teaching staff. Head Start services eligible children who turn three years old before the first day of school.

Faith-Based and Non-Profit Preschools

Faith-based preschools that are sponsored by a faith-based organization often provide a comprehensive development alongside religious education. Many of these programs are located in churches and other religious structures. Nonprofit preschools are operated by non-profit organizations and open to the general public.

For-Profit Preschools

For-profit preschools (e.g., KinderCare, the Goddard School) are operated by private organizations and are open to the general public. Many of these preschools offer additional enhancements, such as a second language, alongside comprehensive preschool programming. Many are located in childcare/daycare centers.

Universal Preschool/Pre-Kindergarten

As of the 2015-16 school year, 45 states and Washington D.C. provided state-funding for pre-k programs. Although many school districts offer pre-k programs within the schools, many also offer programs in childcare centers and Head Start programs due to limited space and personnel. Most state boards of education require preschool teachers in universal preschool settings to hold state teacher certification, which often requires a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a similar degree. For example, teachers in public school pre-k settings in New York must hold a NYS certification in early childhood birth through grade 2, which requires a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

Preschool Charter Programs

Charters schools are independently run public schools that enjoy a greater flexibility in their operations in return for a greater accountability for their performance. Preschool teachers in charter schools must observe the charter school’s contract that details the school’s mission, program, and performance goals. As public schools, most charter schools must adhere to public school educator requirements.

Preschool Special Education Programs

Many states oversee preschool programs for children with disabilities. These programs are designed to support children with developing the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in the educational process. It is typical for preschool teachers in these settings to work alongside other professional who provide related services, such as speech,

Early Childhood Educator Career Resources

Resources abound for individuals seeking a career in early childhood education:

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