Professionally speaking, teachers of all grade levels—elementary, middle, and high school—have a lot in common. They need to earn teaching certifications and licenses, they have similar workdays, and they're skilled at managing classrooms. Regardless of the grade they teach, teachers have a profound impact on how their students learn.
But if you're a prospective pedagogue and you're considering what grade level to teach and how to prepare for the job, there are some distinct and important differences to know.
One of the biggest things to consider when pursuing a teaching career is how and with whom you want to build relationships.
"No matter what level a teacher teaches, building relationships with students is the key to being successful," says Nancy Barile, a veteran English and language arts high school teacher and a contributor to Western Governors University's Hey Teach! content hub where she has documented her experience building relationships with students.
But connecting with a 5-year-old is different than connecting with a 15-year-old. Elementary school students are in the early stages of their social and academic development, so they experience tremendous growth in a year. When teaching this age group, your relationships with students are more nurturing and parental, as these young students are more dependent on adults than high schoolers.
That changes in middle school, when adolescents gain a new sense of independence. They push boundaries and challenge authority, but they're as vulnerable as ever, so they still need adult allies. Teaching middle schoolers isn't for everyone, but many middle school teachers feel a special kinship with their students. Cult of Pedagogy's Jennifer Gonzalez says that she landed a middle school job with plans to move to high school but ended up staying. "These students need adult allies to guide their growth and set them up for future success," she writes.
High school students are still works in progress, but they're now a lot closer to adulthood, and their unique personalities, interests, and quirks are coming into full bloom. High schoolers are curious and passionate, and they frequently test boundaries as they get ready for the next steps in their lives and educational careers.
Understanding the distinctions between, and needs of, different age groups can help you determine not only what grade level you want to teach, but also how you want to affect your students' lives. If you're a strong nurturer, elementary school might be a good fit for you. If you enjoy empowering young adults to make their own decisions about their futures, high school might be better.
Content and pedagogy.
Content, classroom management, and teaching styles will look a lot different depending on grade level, too.
"Elementary school teachers are usually generalists," Barile says—they teach all subjects to the same set of students over the course of the year. Elementary teachers are tasked with not only teaching students the content, but also the basic skills for collective and independent learning, such as how to stay focused and engaged for extended periods of time.
Teaching becomes more specialized in middle and high school, where teachers teach within specific disciplines. That means teachers need to have much more specialized knowledge of their subjects. If you're passionate about chemistry or math, for example, and hold a specific teaching degree in that field, you'll likely be happiest as a high school teacher, where you can directly apply that specialized knowledge in the classroom.
Teaching licensure and salary.
In general, the older the students, the more it pays to teach them—but not by much.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for elementary school teachers is around $58,000, while middle school teachers make an average salary of around $59,000, and high school teachers make around $60,000.
This minor pay gap is largely caused by differences in subject matter specialization. Older students learn more advanced content in high school, so their teachers need deeper knowledge of each subject. This means that high school teachers are also likely to face an additional—or possibly more challenging—licensing exam. Every state is different, though, so you should look up your state's requirements before pursuing a particular career track.
Developing the right foundation.
Deciding what grade level to teach is ultimately a personal decision. Whichever you pick, it's important to keep a few things in mind. First, good teaching is good teaching. Whatever, wherever, and whomever you teach, you'll need foundational knowledge and practice in effective, research-based instruction to make a difference. Second, as Barile, Gonzalez, and other teachers attest, you can always change grades. Many teachers switch grade levels over the course of their careers as their professional interests shift. Finally, teaching is a life-changing profession regardless of the grade you teach. No matter what, you'll have the opportunity to shape kids' lives in significant ways.