So you want to be a preschool teacher. You have been dreaming of having your own classroom, of decorating the walls with students’ artwork and filling the room with laughter and games. Your lifelong hope has been to make a difference in children’s lives, and now you have found your calling.
But do you know everything there is to know about becoming a preschool teacher? There’s more to the job than reading stories out loud and helping with art projects. Before committing to a career choice, you should know what it will really be like working with little ones all day. To help you with this mission, we talked to real preschool teachers and experts to find out what you need to know before becoming a preschool teacher.
Before becoming a preschool teacher, I wish I knew …
1. To be prepared for anything
If you’re not good with surprises or the occasional deviation from your plans, you should probably reconsider becoming a preschool teacher. Yes, working with kids often means fun and excitement, but it also means skinned knees, a sick tummy and unpleasant encounters with parents.
“Every day, every child and every staff member are different, and nothing is predictable,” Nancy Gretzinger, Ed.D, says. With children growing and learning at different rates, be prepared to accommodate different types of learners. As a preschool teacher, you will deal with unruly children and unexpected emergencies that will throw a wrench in your plans—know how to take things in stride and not let the bad affect the good.
2. To have more lesson plans than you think you’ll need
When you’re just getting your footing as a preschool teacher it might be tempting to simply prepare a few things and make everything else up as you go along, but that’s not a good idea. Preschool teachers need an abundance of games and activities to keep students occupied. Preschoolers aren’t known for their long attention spans, so this can be difficult for newer teachers who aren’t quite acclimated.
“You have to have a constant supply of motivating activities that are leveled since all kids are not on the same level for most developmental stages,” Gretzinger says. “Plan extra.”
Even if it’s a few activities you have saved up in your back packet, knowing how to improvise when your plans fall short is essential for preschool teachers.
3. To remember each child is an individual
Although you’ll be teaching to a classroom full of kids, don’t forget that you need to focus on each one as individuals as well. Preschoolers follow their own development patterns. Three- to five-year-olds change every day. Preschool teachers have the responsibility of fostering this growth and helping children learn foundational social and emotional skills.
In addition, you may be tasked with teaching exceptional children. Get to know your students and their needs so that you can accommodate their learning style. Adjust activities as needed so that everyone can participate.
4. To emphasize preschool is early childhood education
While this may seem obvious to you, oftentimes people may think preschools are similar to daycares. They may think that once they drop their kid off, nothing happens except for somewhat-structured play and recess. And while some daycares provide excellent early childhood education, preschools exist to build learning foundations that will prepare kids for kindergarten.
As a preschool teacher, you may be the first teacher in a child’s life. You are the first in line to instill skills and knowledge into these children, and with that comes the responsibility to act professionally at all times.
5. To remind yourself that you are in charge
When your students are being rowdy and won’t listen, it can be tough getting them to quiet down and follow instructions. Remember that you are in charge, and with enough practice and time, your class will see you as an authoritative force.
It’s not just preschoolers that you will be interacting with. Part of the job is being available to answer any questions or concerns parents may have, as well as listening to their requests and needs.
“Make sure parents know that it is important to know about any changes in their child’s life. It may make a huge difference in the child’s behavior that day or days to come,” Gretzinger says. While many parents mean well for their children, you are ultimately the educational leader in the classroom.
6. How important it is to know how to play
Despite the label of “preschoolers,” these students are still children through and through, and play time is essential.
“Preparing to teach preschool begins early in that knowing how to play, how to be curious, how to be awed by small things like caterpillars and spiders, not being worried about getting dirty and loving unconditionally are required assets,” Edie Jones, M.A.Ed. and author, says.
Playtime is essential to child development; allowing children to explore and use their imaginations fosters creativity, among other things. As a preschool teacher, you will get messy. Whether it’s from sticky glue, paint from arts and crafts projects or from dirt that a child brings in, prepare to be accepting and encouraging of your students’ ideas and curiosities.
7. Making a difference never gets old
Being a preschool teacher can sometimes seem thankless—the long hours of dealing with rowdy kids, the time spent talking to upset parents—but the rewards are worth it. Whether it’s rambunctious greetings in the mornings or the proud look on a child’s face after they mastered that new skill, every preschool teacher has a favorite part of the job. Gretzinger says that when a child hugs you or smiles at you, you feel especially rewarded.
“Being a preschool teacher has been one of the most rewarding jobs that I’ve ever had. I truly feel like I’ve made a real difference in the early development of many kids,” says Mark Lehman, a teacher aide at PALS Christian Preschool.
Is becoming a preschool teacher right for you?
You’ve just read some of the lesser-known parts of being a preschool teacher—both the good and bad. Now it’s time to make a decision. Is becoming a preschool teacher in your future?
If you are ready to take on a classroom full of littles, you’ll want to read our article, “Your Lesson Plan for Becoming a Preschool Teacher” to kick-start your career. If you are still interested in early childhood education but would like to explore careers other than being a preschool teacher, check out “The Best Early Childhood Education Jobs for All Degree Holders.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in September 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2017.