The youngest minds need an encouraging touch and tremendous dedication. Think that is the right place for you? Preschool education may be your perfect niche.
Being a Preschool and Early Education Teacher
As research continually restates the importance of early childhood education in conjunction with intellect stimulation, preschool and early childhood teachers are extremely vital to the beginning of a child’s learning path. Focusing on environments that encourage exploration and problem solving, rather than tests and homework. Also known is this: a valuable teacher is just as important as the environment. If helping a young child reach milestones and blossom as a young learner appeals to you, becoming a preschool teacher might be the perfect fit.
There is a wide variety in what the term “early education” or “preschool” means, depending on the state where you live, and you’ll need to decide if you plan to work in a preschool setting, a daycare setting, or in a Pre-K environment. The key differences are whether the programs are regulated through your state’s department of education, because that will direct teacher eligibility requirements.
In the US, preschools are licensed as daycare centers, unless the preschool is a “Year 4” or “Pre-K” program that offers formal education for children the year before they start kindergarten. And while a preschool might be licensed as a daycare center, preschools that are offering learning-readiness programs will be in search of more qualified professionals, and having the right education and license will be important.
Pre-kindergarten education for special needs children is distinct and understanding the terms will help avoid confusion. “Early intervention” is the term most often used for state sponsored therapy programs for special needs children from birth to three, and being a provider in these programs requires a degree in a specialty area and a specific certification. This is different than becoming a preschool or early education teacher.
Preschool teachers may also work in Head Start programs. Head Start is a federal program overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, with a mission of ensuring that quality early education is provided to at-risk children.
2. Get the right education for early education and preschool teaching
Once you’ve learned what early education means in your state, you can decide on an education track.
If you are interested in becoming a preschool teacher, your state may require you to have an associate’s degree in early education or a related area. Some states require a high school diploma and a certain number of college-level classes. In a few states, the education requirements are minimal, but any preschool provider may set more stringent requirements for education. By the end of 2011, all Head Start teachers will be required to have associate’s degrees.
If your state offers a Pre-K or Year-4 program and you want to teach in that setting, you will likely be required to meet the educational requirement of a regular, licensed teacher. This will generally mean completing a bachelor’s degree in education, or completing a teacher education program after you’ve received your bachelor’s degree. Most states are interested in a certain amount of coursework that addresses the unique educational needs of young children.
3. Get an early education/preschool teaching license.
Like the education requirements, the license and certification guidelines vary widely depending on the state where you live.
All preschools need to meet the license requirements for day-care centers, so any state approved preschool will have providers with licenses. In addition to the education requirements, many states will require a candidate to pass an examination and almost all states have a minimum age requirement. In some states, professional experience in early childhood settings can be substituted for the education requirement.
If your interest in early education is in the area of Pre-K or Year-4 programs, you’ll need to complete the standard teacher license process in your state, which will include passing competency examinations. Your state may also require you to have specific certifications in the area of early education in order to qualify to teach in a pre-kindergarten program.
Almost all states will require that preschool and early education teachers register their fingerprints with the state, and some will require a background check.
The CDA Credential
Some states require that a preschool teacher have a Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential, or will allow a CDA credential to fulfill the education requirement. The CDA credential is available for several program areas, including preschool. The CDA credential requirements include 120 hours of education in the relevant program areas, as well as 480 professional experience hours. People interested in becoming preschool teachers in federal or state sponsored programs may be required to hold the CDA credential. The CDA credential is sponsored by the Council for Professional Recognition (www.cdacouncil.org). The CDA Credential has an issue period, and needs to be reviewed every three years.
4. Connect with other early childhood educators
When looking at a career in the area of early education, it’s important to consider how what we know about the learning process changes over time. Practices that are considered best now may evolve, state regulations may change. Becoming part of an organization that helps you keep up with the newest guidelines and research will help you be the best teacher possible.
If your setting is part of the local school district and you hold a regular teaching license, you may be required to complete a certain number of continuing education hours to renew your license, and this will allow you to stay current in your field. But if your setting is a preschool environment, you will need to be proactive about seeking out professional peers and education. You may choose to join a national organization that offers support and networking opportunities to educators of young students, such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (www.naeyc.org). These organizations offer publications and workshops that will help you keep abreast of the latest information about teaching preschool-aged kids.