K-12 Education Majors Guide

What Is K-12 Education?

Most people with a degree in education teach kindergarten through twelfth grade, collectively known as K-12 education. Your particular degree designation corresponds to the subject and/or grade level of students you intend to teach. Schools typically divide grade levels into four areas: early childhood, elementary school, middle grades and high school.

K-12 teachers use a variety of methods and materials to communicate ideas. They work with diverse groups of students, educating them in core subjects, discipline and guidance. Most K-12 educators enjoy an autonomous work environment. All states require public school teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and a teacher’s license. Private school teachers may not be required to have a teacher’s license, but they usually must have a bachelor’s degree or higher in order to be considered for a position.

K-12 Education Degree Programs

On-campus and online schools offer many degrees and certifications to K-12 educators. The type of degree you pursue depends on your current level of education and experience, as well as your desired career. Online degrees in K-12 education have become more common in the field; they can be particularly useful for career changers, who want to move into teaching without losing income.

Associate Degrees in K-12 Education

You can choose from a variety of associate degree programs in K-12 education, depending on the grade level of students you wish to work with. For instance, if you would like to work with children in grades K-3, you may choose to pursue an associate degree in early childhood education. Online associate degree programs are primarily available in the areas of child development, day care work and early childhood education.

Bachelor’s Degrees in K-12 Education

Bachelor’s degrees in K-12 education are usually specific to the grade level and/or subject you wish to teach. A bachelor’s degree program in early childhood education is designed around teaching grades K-3, while a program in elementary education may cover teaching grades 1-6. If you are considering a career teaching middle grades or high school, you may need to take courses in your primary subject area in addition to teacher training courses. For instance, if you wish to teach math to high school students, you would earn your bachelor’s degree in mathematics education. Your primary courses would be in mathematics, but you would also take courses on teaching.

All states require a bachelor’s degree to obtain your teacher’s license, and the degree takes about four years to complete. Private schools typically require a bachelor’s degree, but may occasionally make exceptions for teachers with extraordinary life experience. The courses in a bachelor’s degree program vary depending on the grade level and subject area of focus.

Post-Baccalaureate Degrees in K-12 Education

Many schools offer advanced teacher certification programs for bachelor’s degree holders who have no teacher education training. These programs are designed around the education and skills that are necessary to apply for teacher licensure. Courses are often similar to those in a bachelor’s degree teacher training program.

Some post-baccalaureate programs emphasize a particular subject area, such as science or mathematics, in addition to the teacher training courses. This degree should not be confused with a master’s degree. It is supplementary to a bachelor’s and not considered a graduate degree.

What Can You Do With a K-12 Education Degree?

Teacher Assistant

A teacher assistant’s primary job is to support the classroom teacher. Teacher assistants aid in instruction, and they often handle the administrative tasks in the classroom, such as taking attendance, grading papers, and recording grades. They may also help students on an individual basis, or in small groups.

Teacher assistants work at every grade level, and in every subject, often in a part-time capacity. Many teacher assistants assist with special education students, taking care of physical needs the student may have and assisting with the student’s classwork. Schools often require teacher assistants to have some career training or an associate degree. Requirements vary by state and school district.

Kindergarten or Elementary School Teacher

Most kindergarten or elementary school teachers oversee one classroom of students per day and are responsible for teaching them skills in social studies, science, math, and language arts. Other teachers focus on a specific subject area, such as art or music. These teachers may work with many different groups of students during the day.

In both cases, elementary and kindergarten teachers educate and enrich their students. They work with pupils from all backgrounds, and they teach using a variety of methods. Kindergarten and elementary school teachers record students’ progress through exams and grade reports, while offering guidance and enforcing discipline when needed. To succeed in their roles, they must also work well with staff members and parents.

A public school teacher is required to have a bachelor’s degree and be licensed to teach in the state they are employed. Private school teachers are usually required to hold a bachelor’s degree and teacher’s license, though not always.

Middle School and High School Teachers

Middle school and secondary school (high school) teachers typically specialize in one subject. They focus on a limited topic, such as math or science, in which they instruct several classes of students per day. Middle and secondary school teachers must be experts in their subject, able to impart that knowledge to their students using a variety of methods. Duties are similar to those of kindergarten and elementary school teachers, including administering examinations, recording grades, and working with other teachers and parents.

As with kindergarten and elementary school teachers, schools require job candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree, as well as licensure in their state.

College Professors

Though a professional who has earned a degree in K-12 education typically teaches students in those grades, some educators advance to a career in postsecondary education, usually to instruct other aspiring K-12 teachers. Postsecondary schools is a designation for schools beyond high school, especially colleges and universities.

College professors often enjoy flexible schedules, but many also teach night or weekend classes. They must stay current in their field by participating in continuing education programs and by maintaining licensure. Educators in the postsecondary setting work the traditional ten-month school schedule, with two months off in the summer. They often use these months to teach extra courses, to research, to publish or to simply enjoy some well-deserved vacation.

Education Administration

Education administrators oversee the day-to-day organization of educational institutions, ranging from childcare centers to universities. Administrators typically start their careers as teachers, often in the field of K-12 education. They advance to positions in administration through a combination of education and experience as an educator.

Most administrators of colleges and universities have doctorates, though a master’s degree may be sufficient in secondary schools, elementary schools and child care centers. A college or university administrator usually has experience as a professor, and then advances to department chair, dean, or president.

Educational administrators manage staff and students in addition to the daily operations of their facility. They work with members of the community, including parents of students and school board or trustee members. Though the school may follow the traditional 10-month schedule, administrators work year-round. Their attendance is often required at nighttime meetings and fundraisers.

K-12 Education Certification, Licensure and Associations

Before applying for a position in the public school system, you must obtain a teacher’s license specifying the age group and the subject area you wish to teach. You must have a bachelor’s degree to qualify for a teacher’s license and complete a teacher-training program approved by the state in which you seek the license. As part of the teacher-training program, you must complete some supervised practice teaching. Though most bachelor’s degrees in education contain the teacher-training program as part of their curriculum, some do not.

In addition to your bachelor’s degree and completion of a teacher-training program, you must pass a competency test. Different states used different tests, with the Praxis Series popping up more frequently in many parts of the country. The Praxis Series tests general pedagogy and principles of learning and teaching, as well as knowledge of the specific subject areas and grade levels you will teach.

Once you have earned a teacher’s license, you must renew it every few years. Though requirements vary by state, licenses are usually renewed by taking recertification courses. Recertification courses are usually offered during the summer; their purpose is to keep teachers undergoing continuing education so they can be aware of advances in the field of education.

National accreditation is also available to teachers through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. This certification requires teachers to submit a portfolio of their classroom work before taking an additional exam. Unlike a state-awarded teacher’s license, all 50 states recognize this national certification. Teachers earning a national certification often receive benefits such as higher salary or tuition reimbursement for continuing education.

Other Associations and Certification Bodies

  • American Association of School Administrators (AASA)
  • American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education(AACTE)
  • Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
  • American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
  • Coalition for Education in the Life Sciences (CELS)
  • The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC)
  • The International Reading Association
  • The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
  • National Association of Elementary School Principals (NASSP)
  • National Council of Teachers of English
  • National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
  • National Education Association (NEA)
  • National School Boards Association (NSBA)
  • Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK)
  • Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE)

Article Sources


  1. “Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers
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