“Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people.” These are some of the early words in Robert Fulghum’s best-selling book, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Add some letters and numbers, concept readiness and the very beginning of cognitive organization, and you have the beginnings of what you need to know to be a kindergarten teacher. It’s no simple task to take a classroom of playful, disorganized but eager children and turns them into students. It takes patience, the ability to motivate, gentle but firm leadership and more patience. If creating an environment where a child’s first exposure to education is a positive one, becoming a kindergarten teacher might be for you.
Becoming a kindergarten teacher in the public schools requires a bachelor’s degree in all 50 states. The degree itself varies depending on the state you live in.
Some states require that teachers complete a bachelor’s degree in teaching or education. In addition to the general education requirements that all bachelor’s candidates complete, the subject curriculum for education majors includes learning principles and theories, education and instruction practices and often includes coursework on child development.
Other states require that teachers complete teacher education programs after completing a bachelor’s degree. These programs are often the equivalent of 1 to 2 years of full-time instruction. In these states the subject area for the bachelor’s degree is not mandated for kindergarten teachers, but candidates who know early on that that’s the career trajectory they’re interested in may consider bachelor’s degrees in child development or early education.
Because many states issue their teaching licenses or certificates for specific grades, you may be required to pursue a course of study specific to the instruction of younger children in order to become a kindergarten teacher. Most programs will require you declare your area of interest early in the coursework so you can select the appropriate classes and be placed in the appropriate student teaching environments.
Many states set standards for the education programs that their teachers complete. This may mean meeting a standard the state sets individually, or being accredited by one of the national teacher education accreditation agencies. Check with your state to make sure the education programs you’re considering meet the necessary approval requirements.
2. Take the Required Teaching Exam
Most states require that a teacher pass a competency examination before a license, certification or credential can be issued. For teachers in early education environments, this is often a basic skills test. Because early education teachers are responsible for all subject areas, the state wants to ensure a degree of basic competency across a full range of academics. Basic skills tests assess the areas of reading, writing, mathematics and may include some science, history or other subject. Some states also require kindergarten teachers to pass specific examinations in the area of early education or instruction.
States that require teacher candidates to pass an examination may choose to develop and administer their own examinations or use the Praxis exams. The Praxis examinations are developed and sponsored by a nationwide organization, and are often offered online for people who may have challenges getting to a testing center. Regardless of what testing procedure is being used, the state will establish its own pass criteria, and determine which tests need to be passed in order to become a kindergarten teacher.
3. Gain Your Classroom Experience
Few people could imagine graduating from college, passing the tests and then walking into a classroom to teach for the first time. Fortunately, most teacher programs can’t imagine that either and a student teaching regimen is an integral part of a teacher’s education.
While learning theories and teaching principles is important, it doesn’t prepare a future teacher for applying those principles in a classroom. The student teaching experience, which is required in all accredited teacher education programs and most state-approved programs, is designed to create an environment of progressively greater responsibility to apply the skills they are learning. Student teaching experiences are scheduled in the later part of the curriculum, after the essential coursework has been completed. Some programs require that you pass the appropriate teaching examinations before the experiences begin, and some districts may require proof of immunization or a health screening before placement can be arranged.
Student teachers are paired with a mentor teacher in the school to learn the essentials of hands-on classroom instruction. While a teaching candidate interested in kindergarten instruction will likely have some of their student teaching in kindergarten classrooms, rotations will also include other younger grades, and may include some exposure to older grades. Accredited teacher education programs are also tasked with ensuring that student teaching experiences include exposure to children with special needs, and some field-work with ethnically diverse populations.
Because kindergarten is unique in its use of play as instruction the student teaching experience in a kindergarten classroom is especially important to see this principle in action, and to learn how to lead play in such a way that it teaches essential concepts. The proper balance of instruction and play-based activity is what creates the framework for early reading and mathematics learning, and the student teaching experience is the ideal environment for learning these skills, which are as much art as science.
Additionally, the student teaching experience is where you will learn and refine some of the more practical aspects of the job such as parent-teacher and inter-professional communication, lesson planning, testing and data recording and conference participation.
4. Get the Right Teaching License
All states have an oversight process for teachers, and all states issue a formal declaration that gives an individual the right to teach. This declaration may be called a license, a certificate, or a credential, depending on the state where you live.
The three basic steps for becoming a teacher are: complete the necessary education, pass the necessary examinations, and complete the state’s teacher application process. Regardless of what your state calls the process or the permit it gives, there is an agency that is responsible for it, generally a state board of education or professional standards commission. The steps are established by each state, but a common process is as follows:
Completing the state’s specific application
Mailing certified copies of your transcripts to the state board
Sending testing scores to the state board
Completing a background check
Registering your fingerprints with the state
Sending letters of recommendation
Paying an application fee
As most states issue licenses or certifications for specific grades, you will be completing the application unique to your credentials and qualifications. A kindergarten teacher may need an early education (preschool to grade 3) or early elementary (K to grade 3 or 6) license/certificate.
Almost all states require license renewal which includes paying a fee and updating your personal information, and many states require a teacher to fulfill a continuing education requirement.
Teachers may also purse supplemental certification in specialty areas. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, for instance, offers an early education certification for professionals who teach children between the ages of 3 and 8. While these certifications are not generally required for licensure, they do enhance candidate desirability and can be used to navigate up experience ladders in a given school district.
5. Stay Current with Kindergarten Teacher Education
What you learn through a teacher education program is only the tip of the iceberg compared to what you will learn working in a classroom with real, eager, young children. But the principles and practices you learn will continue to evolve and change as research advances, and the way you teach may adjust in response to changes in legislation. Keeping up with best practice means continuing to be a student while you grow as a teacher.
Continuing education is mandated in most states as part of the license renewal process. Most states require anywhere from 8 to 12 hours per year, for licenses or certificates that expire every two to three years. Many states have criteria that must be met in order to be a continuing education provider, so make sure you confirm that any class you take is approved if you intent to use to meet a continuing education requirement. Courses can generally be in education theory and principles, specific subject content, or ethics and legislative issues. Courses can be taken in person, but more and more teachers are finding that they can complete continuing education courses online, which many teachers find is a convenient option.
National organizations for teachers can also offer excellent resources for continuing education and professional growth. Many offer workshops, journals, newsletters or conferences. You may choose to join the National Education Association (www.nea.org) as a means to connect with other educators, or organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (www.naeyc.org) to connect with other educators (as well as parents) of the younger students. The choice is yours, but viewing your career as something that grows and changes can lead to a lifetime’s worth of a rewarding teaching career.