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Elementary Teaching vs. Secondary Teaching: Which Is Right for You?

November 16, 2022

Aspiring educators become teachers to help all students learn. But many prospective teachers want to know more before they determine the type of student they want to teach. 

In determining whether to pursue an advanced education and career in elementary teaching or secondary teaching is a better fit, aspiring educators have many factors to consider:

  • The expectations and responsibilities of elementary teachers compared with secondary teachers
  • The work environments they teach in
  • The subjects elementary teachers can teach compared with those taught by secondary teachers
  • The salary and compensation for teachers, depending on whether they work in elementary or secondary school

Roles and Responsibilities 

As the US population grows, so does the need for competent school teachers. In 1955, around 1.29 million teachers led public and private elementary and secondary schools, according to Think Impact. Statista estimates that the US will have 3.39 million public school teachers and 520,000 private elementary and secondary school teachers by 2029. 

Elementary Teaching Responsibilities

Educators who specialize in elementary teaching are responsible for classroom management, lesson plan creation, and the assessment of students who attend elementary school. Typically, elementary schools support students ages 5 to 10 in kindergarten through fifth grade, but some schools vary. 

Many elementary teachers work in self-contained classrooms, where the same group of students learns multiple subjects taught by the same teacher throughout the day. As leaders of self-contained classes, elementary teachers are often responsible for knowing how to teach multiple subjects, such as math, reading, writing, and science, at an age-appropriate level. 

Elementary teachers also often must support their students through state-mandated standardized tests. Most kindergarten and elementary teachers don’t work during the summer months.

Secondary Teaching Responsibilities

Educators who specialize in secondary education have similar responsibilities to elementary teachers. They handle classroom management, lesson plans, and student learning assessment—but these teachers support students ages 11 to 18, or grades 6 through 12. 

Many US states require that students complete coursework in core areas, including:

  • Math (such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and statistics)
  • Social studies (including history, economics, geography, and political science)
  • Science (biology, chemistry, and physics)
  • English 

Secondary schools often also offer elective classes in:

  • Visual and performing arts
  • Computer science
  • Business
  • Foreign languages
  • Vocational education 

Given the variety of subjects taught at the secondary education level, secondary teachers often need to specialize in one. 

While some schools offer self-contained classes for secondary education students, most US school systems require teachers to teach multiple groups of students each day. 

Factors to Consider When Deciding Between Elementary and Secondary School Teaching

School and school district expectations for teachers can vary widely. That makes it challenging to determine whether to pursue elementary teaching or secondary teaching. In general, though, prospective teachers should consider the following big differences between these roles.

Student Maturity Levels and Development Needs

Not surprisingly, the difference in maturity between a classroom of 6-year-olds and a classroom of 16-year-olds is drastic. Understandably, elementary teachers may need to devote more energy to classroom management compared to high school math teachers. 

Even in elementary schools, some teachers distinguish “upper elementary” students and “lower elementary” students based on the differences in student maturity and developmental needs. These needs vary between kindergarteners and fifth graders who may share the same school building. 

Parental Involvement

There tends to be more parental and guardian involvement in elementary school education than in middle school or high school education. Teachers who welcome regular communication with families may be drawn to the elementary teaching experience, whereas teachers who prefer to interact with parents and guardians less may be drawn to teaching secondary school, where students tend to be older and more independent.  

Subject Specializations

Secondary teachers may be expected to specialize in a single subject, such as chemistry or history. Elementary teachers may be expected to teach multiple subjects, such as math, reading, and science, to their students in a self-contained classroom. 

Student Skill-Building Opportunities

Teachers get to take pride in student success. When deciding whether to teach elementary or secondary school, prospective educators should imagine what types of skills and knowledge they feel most rewarded by when they teach. 

For a second grade teacher, helping a student become a better reader can be a huge reward. For a middle school chemistry teacher, seeing students collaborate constructively on a group project may be deeply satisfying. Prospective teachers should reflect on what kinds of educational opportunities they’re most passionate about creating and then think about the educational path they need to take to get there. 

Salary for Educators at the Elementary and Secondary Levels 

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary for elementary school teachers (except special education teachers) was $61,400 in May 2021. For kindergarten teachers, this salary was slightly less, at $60,900 per year in May 2021.

Middle school and high school teachers earn similar salaries. The BLS reports the median annual salary for middle school teachers was $61,320 in May 2021, and the salary for high school teachers was $61,820 that same year.

Benefits of Elementary Teaching

The work of an elementary teacher can be deeply satisfying and make a tangible difference in student well-being and educational outcomes. These are some of the benefits of elementary teaching:

  • Elementary teachers tend to spend full days with the same group of students in self-contained classrooms, which can lead to strong bonds between teachers and students. 
  • Elementary teachers also get to teach multiple subjects, such as math, reading, and science, in stimulating, age-appropriate ways—so being an elementary teacher is continually interesting. 
  • Elementary teachers who like to work with parents and guardians to shape a child’s life early on will find that elementary school teaching provides that contact. 

Advance as an Educator Who Makes a Difference 

Are you ready to support students through elementary teaching or secondary teaching? American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program in Elementary Education can prepare graduates to be multidisciplinary teachers who lead educational change. 

Explore AU’s MAT program, where future educators can develop the skills and knowledge they need to become compassionate, competent teachers to future generations.