Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Pre-Kindergarten Teaching in the Public Schools

Being a preschool teacher can mean many different things, depending on the setting and the job expectations. There are career options beyond what one might expect. A person can work as a preschool teacher in the public sector – even the public school system -- and the rewards can be many.

Changing Expectations

Expectations for preschool -- and preschool teachers -- have traditionally been smaller than those of the mandatory grades. Preschool was more academic than daycare but comprised just a few hours of a child's day. Children spent some time learning at the rug and some time doing seatwork. They may, for example, have traced their ABCs and their numbers. They likely exited preschool able to write their names.

In this traditional model, teachers have had little preparation as educators and have earned low salaries often not a lot more than minimum wage. Some are obviously very talented. Some make little children’s days sparkle. Some spend a lot of time planning activities and arranging their centers and reading nooks. But they’re often not getting a lot in the way of compensation for their hours of planning and creativity.

Alternatives, though, exist. They exist everywhere, though in some states there are more than in others.

Educator Preparation

Opportunities are typically greater for professionals who have academic degrees and specific preparation in early childhood education. A person without early childhood education can plan academic activities, but one with specialized training is better able to do so in ways that are developmentally appropriate and responsive to individual needs. PBS has provided some glimpses into what preschool looks like in Oklahoma’s lauded system ( Children can be observed carrying out various activities from playing with circuit-embedded connecting blocks and creating simple robots to brainstorming (with teacher assistance) adjectives that describe a leaf. Even traditional centers like housekeeping can be rich places to build literacy and numeracy.

Licensed educators go through a rigorous training and assessment process. Some states require early childhood teachers (along with elementary teachers) to take the Pearson Foundations of Reading test and show that they understand literacy development on a deep level.

Public Sector Options

Head Start has high expectations, higher indeed than it did just a decade ago. Head Start is required to have at least 50% of its teachers at the bachelor’s level. The actual percentage is much higher – more like three in four. Many states have a tiered licensing system for licensed teachers; it is typically based in part on experience. Some states note that Head Start teaching experience can be credited.

Public schools, though, may set the highest standards and offer the most benefits -- at least the most benefits outside the emotional ones.

Becoming a Lead Teacher

One way to move up the ranks is to meet qualifications for lead teacher. Preschool classrooms need a lower staff to child ratio than most other school settings. However, the staff members don't all have the same preparation, level of responsibility, or salary. In preschool settings, there is often a designated lead teacher. This position will typically come with its own higher mandates.

Some states make public pre-kindergarten widely available. Oklahoma has been a leader in the pre-kindergarten arena, piloting a public pre-kindergarten program in 1980. In Oklahoma, pre-kindergarten is voluntary but is available to students across socioeconomic lines. Lead teachers are certified bachelor’s level professions who are on the same salary scale as their K-12 counterparts.

Special Education/ Blended Options

Children with disabilities are entitled to public school education at the age of three. Many states have a non-categorical early childhood developmental delay category. These are children who may or may not remain in special education throughout their school careers.

Three- to five-year-old children who qualify for preschool under IDEA are often not in self-contained classrooms. In many cases, classrooms are blended. One may find several children with augmentative communication devices (used for conditions such as autism or cerebral palsy) sitting at a table, participating in activities with typically developing peers.

Many states have an early childhood teacher certification. Typically, this covers pre-primary and primary grades (often, all the way to grade three). Some states have a narrower band, such as pre-kindergarten to kindergarten.

Early childhood certifications are often designated as ‘unified’, or some similar term. Teachers have preparation for working with typically and atypically developing children. There may be a significant block of special education coursework.

Many states have a distinct early childhood special education category.

Preschool teachers classified as special education are well compensated. Early childhood special education is at least a bachelor’s level -- and sometimes a master’s level -- profession. In many states, a preschool special education teacher makes as much as, or more than, the average general education teacher in a kindergarten or elementary classroom.

Building a Career as a Pre-Kindergarten Teacher

If a person wants to work in preschool but doesn’t see it as a feasible long-term option – not a ticket to buying a house or raising a family – they may be pleasantly surprised. The salaries listed for preschool teachers are low, but those figures come from averaging many different things together.

In some areas, it’s just as feasible a career as K-12, if one’s a strong candidate. What’s more, the same program that prepares a person for Pre-K can also prepare them for kindergarten or the primary grades. A teacher can spend part of his or career in Pre-K, part in kindergarten or first grade.

It’s a world of opportunity, though one with a high level of state-to-state differences. California, for example, has a not-quite-kindergarten program: voluntary transitional kindergarten for children who would have qualified for kindergarten under old laws but don’t under newer laws. Those September, October, and November fives can, if their parents enroll them, receive a bonus year of school. They receive a modified curriculum, designed for an earlier developmental stage – and one that may appeal to teachers who feel that kindergarten, in its modern conceptualization, isn’t quite for them any more either.

Further Reading

National Association for the Education of Young Children