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Elementary School Teachers and Leaders: Guiding Early Childhood Education

January 10, 2023

Teachers change lives. Nearly everyone can tell a story about how a teacher affected them, giving encouragement, building confidence, or introducing them to a field of study that they grew to love. But even the best teachers need a support system to be their most effective. Creating that support is the job of elementary school leadership.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are over 98,000 elementary schools in the US, and each strives to build a culture based on concern for the students, a love of learning, and a spirit of teamwork and engagement that creates a positive and powerful educational foundation. It’s the job of elementary school teachers and leadership to foster that culture, developing an environment where children feel safe, valued, and challenged—where learning flourishes and creative thought is cherished. This attitude starts in the classroom but continues up through school leadership and to the district and national levels. 

While developing this attitude and the knowledge that supports it is the foundation of a quality Master of Arts in Teaching program, teachers who aspire to leadership roles in the profession may also want to consider an advanced degree in education like the Master’s in Education in Education Policy and Leadership. Whatever their academic background, elementary school teachers and leaders know that creating the right culture is paramount to the future of childhood education in the US.

What is Early Childhood Education?

“Early childhood education” refers to the period of learning for children from birth to 8 years old. This duration represents a fertile time of learning, as it coincides with a timeframe of remarkable brain development. By providing educational opportunities at this time, seeds that can potentially flourish into rich individual, social, and economic gains later in life are planted in a child’s mind. It can also foster a deep love of learning, a characteristic that later on in life can translate into the pursuit of a fuller personal and professional life.

Successful approaches to early childhood education can also lay the roots of several beneficial outcomes for a child. According to the National Education Association (NEA), children enrolled in early childhood education programs are less likely to repeat a grade and less likely to be identified as having special needs. They’re also more prepared for education at higher levels and more likely to graduate high school. The potential benefits can continue after high school, as these children can go on to earn higher wages in the workforce.

The tail end of early childhood education coincides with the first few years of elementary education, although some circles differentiate elementary education from preschool environments. These educational environments concentrate on building a child’s knowledge and understanding of fundamental concepts such as reading, math, and science. This setting also helps create the building blocks needed for proper social interaction. This aspect covers a wide range of social constructs, such as how to interact and collaborate with other people or how to behave in specific situations.

While the lessons and concepts taught at the early childhood education level may appear to be simple to adults, they are the elements that support more complex expressions of learning over time. Without the critical work of those in early childhood education roles, like elementary school teachers, children may be deprived of reaching their fullest potential later in life.

Types of Elementary Schools

Every child is different, and different kinds of elementary schools serve different needs. Elementary school leadership in each type of school must be sensitive to its focus.

Public Schools

This is by far the largest category of elementary schools. Statista reports that in 2020 there were 28.6 million elementary students in US public schools. Because they are funded through local taxes, resources vary widely from location to location. Each state has its own requirements for both teacher and school leadership licensing.

Private Schools

Private schools are funded by tuition, usually paid for by students’ parents. Private schools may have a distinct focus, such as religious education, special needs, or a specific talent. Because private schools cannot depend on government funding, budget and fundraising skills are an important part of school leadership. Curriculum development and quality assessment are also key to successful private education. According to Statista, there were 3.45 million students enrolled in US private schools in 2020.

Montessori Schools

Montessori schools are private schools that focus on self-directed education. Children are guided by highly trained teachers to explore their own interests and develop the necessary skills to follow their passions. Montessori schools focus on holistic learning that makes education fun and relevant to each child. According to the American Montessori Society, there are around 5,000 Montessori schools in the US. Of these, 500 are public schools and 4,500 are private schools.

Religious Schools

Religious schools are private schools affiliated with specific faith groups or denominations that incorporate spiritual instruction in their curriculum. Often they get at least partial financial support from churches, synagogues, mosques, or other religious organizations. According to the NCES, in 2019 there were 1.7 million students enrolled in Catholic schools and 1.8 million students enrolled in other religious schools.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are publicly funded but are administered separately from regular school districts. Parents actively choose charter schools for their children, and the schools are expected to be especially responsive to a community’s needs. Charter schools generally do not have to follow the same regulations as district schools. Therefore, they can design specialized curricula that are tailored to their students’ needs. According to the NCES, there were 3.4 million students enrolled in charter schools in 2019.

Importance of Elementary School Teachers and Principals

An elementary school teacher can have a profound impact on the lives of children at an impressionable age. This impact can go beyond the simple lessons of math, science, and reading. While such lessons can teach them important concepts, they can also be used to cultivate growth and development in more abstract ways. For example, science can be used to help a child cultivate a sense of curiosity that could help give them a passion for expanding their worldview later on in life. A solid reading program built around a wide range of children’s books can help a child nurture confidence, a trait that can serve them well later in life.

These opportunities for short-term learning experiences to be transformed into long-term impressions and characteristics can be optimized by the educational setting. This is what makes the school principal so vital to the educational process. Elementary school principals use their leadership skills to set educational goals that ultimately promote a high level of instruction. They work to develop a school’s educational goals, ensuring that they evolve within the context of societal expectations. 

Principals also provide ample support to the educators teaching the children the basics. They can create additional programs designed to provide children with even more opportunities to learn beyond the classroom. In addition, they can take on the role of counselor, ready to help children cope with educational challenges inside and outside the classroom. These duties all coalesce into a single goal: That is, to ensure a safe and secure learning environment for students so that they can thrive, both at the early childhood level and beyond.

Levels of Leadership in Early Childhood Education

Across these different approaches to early childhood education, the leadership challenges are similar. Great elementary school leadership begins in the classroom, but the tone and atmosphere of a school are set by its principal and, more broadly, the school district. Even state and national policies have a bearing on the effectiveness of each teacher in the classroom.

Classroom Leadership

An elementary school teacher who is an effective leader will not only demonstrate but teach leadership techniques to their students. Teachers can assign classroom duties so that students become engaged in the running of the classroom. Group projects help students learn how to work effectively together, honing communication skills, cooperation, and task management. 

Teachers can use examples from history or literature to illustrate effective leadership and how the concepts they are teaching can be applied. Setting specific goals for the classroom or adopting service projects are other methods that individual teachers can use to instill leadership in their students.

School Leadership

Principals and vice principals are the primary leaders of elementary schools. Principals usually rise through the ranks, transitioning from being classroom teachers, and they must have earned a master’s degree in education. They are responsible for the day-to-day operations of their school, but they also manage staff and hiring, help to develop curricula, establish the rules and discipline in the school, and work to create an effective and harmonious atmosphere for learning. 

Effective principals develop and schedule ongoing teacher training and education and solicit their teachers’ input on important decisions about the curricula and the culture of the school. By fostering creative teaching methods, enabling collaborative approaches among teachers, and promoting communication, principals can build a nurturing environment for teachers that is effective and inspiring.

National Leadership

Both state and national programs can have a huge impact on teacher effectiveness, and education professionals can help develop policies that create change in schools across the nation. Elementary school leadership at the state and national level develops programs such as the Small, Rural School Achievement Program, which helps to fund music classes, anti-bullying seminars, and ESL programs in underfunded school systems. 

The US Department of Education’s Teach to Lead program offers grants to teachers with innovative ideas for learning and to struggling districts to enable them to attract and retain high-quality teachers. The DOE has also developed programs to encourage excellence in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), especially in high-need schools. And there are hundreds of nongovernmental agencies and organizations that work to support education in programs that range from setting up reading groups to partnering with major businesses in mentorship programs.

Becoming a Leader in Elementary Education

Skilled leaders are crucial to all phases of elementary education. A degree in educational leadership, such as the online Master of Arts in Teaching and online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership from American University can help graduates become more effective elementary school teachers and leaders to make a real impact in the field of education. 

These unique programs take advantage of the university’s Washington, DC, location to connect with educational policymakers. Graduates will be able to use their newfound knowledge to address the challenges of modern educational leadership. Whatever your goals, American University’s School of Education programs can help you navigate the path to success.