9 Very Real Tasks You Might Not See in a Preschool Teacher Job Description
If you don’t know any better, the role of a preschool teacher seems pretty straightforward. They’re the pros educating and caring for young children. This includes teaching children early skills like identifying colors, shapes and numbers, planning a curriculum that targets various areas of child development and developing schedules that keep children healthy.
But we all know there’s more to it than that. That description and the other tasks you’ll see on job postings don’t exactly explain the real day-to-day responsibilities of the job. For that insider information—you’ll want to talk to preschool teachers themselves.
“I always knew that I loved children, and I enjoyed the quirky and innocent way that they approached the world,” says Theresa Bertuzzi, chief program development officer and co-founder of Tiny Hoppers. “I did not realize that they would each steal my heart so completely.”
“When it is time for them to move on to kindergarten you feel like your heart is breaking,” Bertuzzi says. “Yet you fall in love with the next group of children just as completely.”
There are so many beautiful and fulfilling surprises a career as a preschool teacher offers—and there are a few nuts-and-bolts responsibilities to prepare for as well. To give you the most realistic and detailed insights possible into the preschool teacher job description, we asked some experts in this field to share what their days on the job are really like.
What you might not find in a preschool teacher job description
1. Scaling back your instruction
You spend lots of time in school learning how to teach children this age and how to support their development. But when you actually start your job, you might be using that very knowledge to step back in your role.
“I was surprised how much children can create and learn from an ‘invitation to play’ [activity],” says Genevieve Gorback, early childhood educator and board member for the California Kindergarten Association. When she began her career, she set up activities with a clear objective and outcome in mind. For example, a counting activity that was teacher-focused and clearly demonstrated a child’s knowledge of number sense.
“I did this because it was easy for me to document the knowledge demonstrated,” Gorback says. “But, when I let go of control a little bit, stepped back and created invitations to play, the children worked together to create complicated social situations in which they’d need to communicate and problem solve.”
For example, Gorback made sensory bins full of unrelated objects and watched the children explore them and interact. “When I took the time to truly watch and listen during their imaginative play, I saw them demonstrate a myriad of school standards.” Gorback documented these games and the knowledge the children were showcasing in a regular newsletter for the parents.
“We as ECE professionals have to be able to recognize the learning and development taking place while the children are ‘just playing’.”
2. Educating parents
Were you thinking preschool teachers only work with little ones? It might surprise you to learn that educating parents, caregivers and other family members can be a very real part of the job. “One of the things that surprised me most was the requirement to do parent education,” Gorback says. “I was surprised at how little parents knew about child development and the concept of learning through play.”
Gorback was approached many times by parents demanding homework and other developmentally inappropriate academic activities for their 3- and 4-year olds. But Gorback realized parents just needed a little help identifying what was happening in classroom play and activities.
“I eventually decided to write a weekly email with photographs and descriptions of all the learning taking place in the classroom,” she says. “I did this on top of the required wall documentation. It took a long time, but it was totally worth it. My weekly newsletter guided them to notice their children’s amazing leaps in development in play, instead of just quizzing them on their ABCs and 123s.”
Going this extra mile gave Gorback better relationships with families of her students and more freedom in the classroom.
Speaking of documenting and educating—just writing things down can be a bigger chunk of your time than you’d think. “I pictured myself interacting with students and participating with them in all sorts of fun, hands-on activities,” Bertuzzi recalls. “What I didn’t realize is the massive amount of paperwork, documentation and research that goes into designing those activities.”
Specifically, Bertuzzi notes that daily observations need to be made documenting the children’s progress and pinpointing areas of improvement. Additional observations into the children’s interests need to be recorded so activities can target what they need in an exciting way.
“Add in attendance logs, daily parent logs, play yard logs and various checklists that need to be filled out and completed,” Bertuzzi says. “And suddenly you are faced with a mountain of paperwork that must be completed in addition to those fun hands-on experiences.”
4. Potty training ... and cleaning
“No one wants to have to think about poop, but let’s be honest, the life of a preschool teacher involves a whole lot of it,” Bertuzzi says. “Being a preschool teacher can be a little bit gross.” Your day will include cleaning up bathroom accidents, changing diapers and wiping bottoms.
“Have you ever potty trained a child? Well, preschool teachers need to potty train their entire class of 24 students.”
If that sounds like a bummer, don’t worry. Bertuzzi says you become so efficient and experienced that these things will hardly phase you after a while. And while there might be days when you feel overwhelmed by the mess—hello, flu season—your adorable students will at least make the work worthwhile.
5. Helping out with transit and other operations work
Schools often rely on their teachers to assist with daily operations—ensuring that children get from place to place safely. Adam Cole, music teacher at First Presbyterian Preschool, runs the walkie-talkie and number board at carpool duty. “I like this job because it gives me a chance to do something intellectually challenging at carpool time,” Cole says. “It’s the kind of responsibility I enjoy.”
Side jobs like this can vary a great deal depending on the size and resources of your school, but assisting with transportation, recess, lunchtime or other school operations is often part of the job.
6. Creating units on the fly
This one can be both a blessing and a curse. Since preschool has fewer standardized regulations than elementary school, preschool teachers typically have more freedom with lesson plans. Gorback was used to the rigorous academic expectations of elementary school when she moved to preschool.
“A child could bring in a bird’s nest in the morning, and I had the freedom to scrap that day’s lessons and create games and activities all around learning about birds,” Gorback says.
“But the freedom of not having a prescribed curriculum was terrifying to me at first,” Gorback says. “I was surprised that there wasn’t a pre-written list of activities or a calendar of topics to cover. It ended up being such a blessing, because it forced me to assess my students and get to know their personalities before diving in with curriculum design.”
The end result was an elaborate chain of units that targeted her students’ interests. “It was much more beneficial to them than just following a prescribed curriculum book written by a stranger,” Gorback says.
7. Helping them showcase what they’ve learned
As their teacher, you are keenly aware of all the little victories and the huge leaps in progress your students make. But the other adults in their lives don’t always get to see the same thing. Parents, of course, spend more time with their kids than you do—but they might not have the chance to see that their little ones are conquering certain fears, recognizing new symbols or adapting their behavior around other kids.
For many preschool teachers, helping parents and caregivers see inside the classroom is a big part of the job “As the music teacher I create four shows a year to showcase the singing talents of the children,” Cole says. “I have to find engaging ways to prepare the little children over a two-month period to sing challenging songs in public.”
The reward for this task is twofold—equipping students with extra skills and helping parents see all the amazing things their little ones have been learning.
8. Advocating for your students
“I mentioned the need to educate parents on developmentally appropriate practices, but there are other times when we need to educate our own bosses, too. This can be very intimidating,” Gorback says. But for a myriad of reasons, preschool teachers sometimes face directives from authority that aren’t in line with what ECE professionals know is best for children in this age group.
As an example, Gorback points to circumstances where colleagues were required to create report cards from scratch, or times when schools canceled or limited free choice time, center time or outdoor play. “I’ve seen teachers lament about being required to teach ‘academics’ for a minimum number of minutes, which hampers their ability to develop project-based or play-based curriculum based on their specific students’ interests or needs,” Gorback says.
If you have an education in ECE, you know why play-based, free exploration time is important to a developing child, but Gorback says you aren’t always prepared to educate your superiors on the research. “I speak to many ECE professionals who feel burnt out because they are trying to meet expectations set by people who don’t understand child development.”
When something like this happens, it can be hard to know what to do. But Gorback says there are thriving ECE educator groups on Facebook that can be a sounding board for teachers who aren’t sure how to proceed. “I am constantly seeing teachers asking for advice.” Gorback says many will gather information: My admin said that I could only do free choice once a week for an hour. Is this what you do in your classroom?
“Then, throngs of helpful ECE professionals will provide details so the teacher can return to their admin to discuss common practices throughout the country,” Gorback says. “In my experience, the more you educate the parents, the less you hear from administrators. I hope graduating students are prepared to use their voice to protect their students from unrealistic expectations.”
9. Laughing with and loving your students
For many teachers, engaging with the students is everything they hoped and more. “The part I love the most about working with preschoolers is the hilarious things that they say,” Bertuzzi says. “I literally spend my day laughing when I am with children. They speak their mind so openly and honestly and get themselves into the silliest predicaments.”
Bertuzzi remembers a student who proudly announced that she had dressed herself that day. “I gave her a high five. When she pulled off her snow pants she was only wearing tights. She looked down shocked and said, ‘Oh no! I forgot to put my skirt on!’” Bertuzzi laughs, “Just waiting to hear what they have to say next makes my day.”
Above all other jobs—caring for your students is obviously the most important. “Remember that each and every child you work with has a family that loves them more than anything else in the world,” Bertuzzi says. “They are trusting you to care, love and protect the person they cannot live without. Involve parents and families in the classroom, and let them know what’s going on in their child’s day.”
The heart of a preschool teacher
If you think the preschool teacher job description with all its pros and cons still sounds like a pretty amazing way to spend your career, you might have the heart of a preschool teacher! You might be someone who knows just how incredible these little learners are.
Find out what it would take to pursue this career in our article “How to Become a Preschool Teacher: Your 4-Step Lesson Plan.”