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What is Early Childhood Education?

Early childhood education is an important part of every child’s growth and schooling journey. The field focuses on providing effective learning materials and environments for children from birth through the age of eight. During this time, many students learn important basic academic knowledge like reading, writing, and mathematics, but also learn important social and communication skills to better interact with the people around them. Studying early childhood education can open the way for a variety of important and fulfilling careers including becoming a preschool teacher, kindergarten teacher, childcare center director, special education teacher, or school counselor.

In recent decades, the state of Alabama has been taking important strides forward in expanding its pre-K and early childhood education systems, topping national rankings, and improving access to families throughout the state. Alabama invested a budget of nearly $100 million in early childhood education in 2018 alone and supported the expansion of 164 pre-k classrooms that could serve 21,000 children in 2019. There are a variety of early childhood education programs offered throughout the state, like the First Class and Head Start programs, which provide plenty of opportunity for local students graduating with early childhood education degrees to enter the field and build careers. To become an early childhood educator, individuals must have a degree in a related field and pursue a state teaching license, so it can be helpful to clarify particular areas of interest. For instance, those looking to teach in pre-k through 4th-grade classrooms should consider majoring in elementary education and teaching, one of the most popular online degree programs in the state of Alabama, while those looking to work in special education should major in special education and teaching.

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Early Childhood Education in Alabama

Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education (AS)

The good news for students interested in working with children between the ages of 0-8 is that many entry-level positions are open to them if they complete an associate degree in early childhood education. Upon graduating from their associate program, students can apply for positions as a teachers assistant or childcare worker, provided that they also pass the requisite licenses necessary for working in a classroom. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the rates of these types of job titles through 2028 are projected to increase by around 4% and 2%, respectively, reflecting a moderate growth in job opportunities at this level. On average, according to Payscale, graduates with an associate degree in early childhood education can expect to earn an annual salary of $35,381.

Bachelor's Degree in Early Childhood Education (BS)

A bachelor’s degree in early childhood education has, in recent years, become the entry-level degree required to become a teacher and run your own classroom. Many preschools and even daycares are increasingly becoming more stringent in their hiring practices and requiring a degree. In some cases, these types of childcare institutions may explicitly require applicants to have attained a bachelor’s-level degree in the field. Attaining a BA or BS in early childhood education can, over time, lead to more upper mobility throughout one’s career even if it was not an initial requirement for hiring, as most individuals with associate degrees tend to be hired into the more entry-level job titles. Someone holding a bachelor’s degree can work as a preschool teacher or childcare worker, but they may also have the opportunity to work as a childcare center director, child welfare social worker, special education teacher, kindergarten teacher, and more. Even with similar job titles, those holding a bachelor’s degree can expect to receive a better annual salary, with Payscale recording the average bachelor in early childhood education holder as earning $45,785 a year.

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Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education (MS or MC)

A master’s degree in early childhood education is rarely listed as a requirement for individuals seeking to build careers in the classroom, particularly for those looking to become pre-K or kindergarten teachers. However, individuals working in the field who have attained a master’s degree will often see many advantages in terms of early promotion, further demand and advantages during the hiring process, and more opportunities to receive on-the-job training compared to other candidates without a master’s degree.

In fact, there are certain jobs in early childhood education, like those in administration (such as a principal or vice principal position) or who wish to teach soon-to-be teachers in college courses, that may specifically require candidates to hold a master’s degree because they are holding much more responsibility and are required to have more training. Those with a master’s in early childhood education can expect to see a modest boost in average salary and can earn around $50,333 a year according to Payscale.

PhD Degree in Early Childhood Education (PhD)

For those who are looking to work at the frontline of early childhood education, teaching in classrooms, or working directly with children and families as childcare or social workers, completing a doctorate is rarely a prerequisite. Those who look to pursue a Ph.D. in Early Childhood Education will most likely be interested in forwarding the academic literature and research in the field, coming up with theories about how teaching styles can affect children’s academic results in the long-term, and leading education departments at the university level. For instance, in recent years, many thought leaders in the early childhood education field have been researching issues like whether providing the resources to allow children from underprivileged families to attend preschool can have a significant positive impact in closing the education divide over their lifetimes. Individuals with doctorate degrees in the field also often become professors who continue to educate future students in the field or become policymakers who are in charge of crafting legislation affecting the future of many important early childhood education programs.

Become an Early Childhood Education Teacher in Alabama

While completing a broad degree in early childhood education can be enough for students to begin their career in most positions in the field, students might also want to have some idea of what their particular interest is when working with children. This is because most states, Alabama included, often requires those who work with children as preschool teachers or kindergarten teachers to obtain additional licensing, specialized training, or even relevant work experience before they can be hired into certain positions, such as school administration, special education, and more. This helps to protect children and families and ensure that educators are qualified to do their jobs.

However, before an early childhood education teacher can even consider gaining special certifications, they must complete everything required for a preschool teacher’s license in Alabama. Every state has the right to create their own laws governing what is required for this licensure, though most requirements are similar. For those who are looking to work as fully fledged preschool or kindergarten teachers, rather than substitute teachers, they must first gain admittance to and complete a State-approved Educator Preparation Program at an Alabama college or university. Admittance to one of these programs will require either passing scores on the ACT work keys prior to September, 2017 or must pass the Core PRAXIS tests to gain admittance after September 2021, which include tests in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Once students have completed a teacher prep program, they may apply for certification through the institution itself. There are various other ways to get into preschool teaching if you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field (by completing a master’s in education), if you have a degree from another state (must already have certification from another state), and in other situations.

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While a master’s degree might help you move into administration or another related field, Alabama only requires early childhood educators to obtain a bachelor’s degree. These degrees usually include around 120 credit hours of courses that will cover childhood development, pedagogy, student teaching, and other important factors. After you have completed this, you must pass the PRAXIS exams focused on early childhood education. This will include #’s 5204 and 5022 (Early Childhood Education and 5622 (Principles of Learning and Teaching: K-6).

Below is a quick overview of the different employment options that are available for each of the major early childhood education areas:

  • Preschool or Elementary School Teacher:
    To become a preschool or elementary school teacher in Alabama, all individuals must obtain a valid professional educator certificate before they can apply for jobs in these fields. Most bachelor’s programs focusing on elementary education will prepare students to pass the requisite examinations to obtain these types of licenses upon graduation. ALSDE has also made it clear that teachers who have received training and certification in another state can easily apply for Certificate Reciprocity so that their teaching license is recognized as valid in Alabama.
  • Special Education Teacher:
    To become a special education teacher, students must have completed an educator preparation program focused on special education at an accredited college or university. A broad degree in early childhood education is usually not enough - the educator must have undertaken a course of study specific to special education. If not originally certified by the state of Alabama, special educators can also apply for Certificate Reciprocity so that they are allowed to teach within the state.
  • Administration:
    Studying early childhood education allows individuals to be well-versed in the different educational resources and teaching methods out there that can help younger children learn effectively. This makes them ideal candidates for jobs in school administration or educational administration at licensing or state education departments. Typically, educational administrators will also complete a certification in the field while they are still in school and many will have completed a master’s degree and have worked in the education field before they are hired.
  • Professor of Early Childhood Education:
    To become a professor of early childhood education, most candidates will look to apply for positions with an Alabama college or university. While candidates will not necessarily need to have completed their doctorate at an Alabama university, they will likely need to show a strong track record of research and teaching in the field before they are considered for a professorship.

Top College Programs in Alabama for Early Childhood Education

Students looking to pursue early childhood education programs in Alabama can consider attending these top-ranked programs in the state:

  • The University of Alabama:
    The University of Alabama is the top-ranked school in the state, offering many education-specific degrees and two early childhood education programs. Located in Tuscaloosa, this large public university has more than 100 students studying elementary education and teaching and more than 50 students studying special education and teaching every year.
  • Auburn University:
    Auburn University is the second-ranked school in Alabama offering an early childhood education program. In 2015, the large public university graduated 41 students studying for their bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and teaching, providing a good network of peers for students to tap into throughout their careers. Besides programs specific to early childhood education, Auburn University also offers degrees in special education, elementary education, English/language arts teacher education, and more.
  • The University of Alabama at Birmingham:
    This third-ranked early childhood education university in the state of Alabama offers four programs specific to the field and many other education-related majors for students interested in mixing and matching a few different educator specializations. In 2015, more than 100 students graduated with degrees in early childhood education and many others pursued specialties in areas like counselor education, special education, speech communication, and teaching English as a second language.
  • Alabama State University:
    This medium-sized public school is the fourth-ranked early education program in the state and offers two degrees specific to early childhood education. In 2015, 17 students graduated with a specialty in early childhood education. Students looking to attain additional educational specialty training can also major in areas like counselor education, instructional technology, elementary education, and speech communication.
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  • The University of Montevallo:
    As the fifth-ranked education studies program in the state of Alabama, the University of Montevallo offers many education-related majors for students interested in building careers in this field. Popular specialties include counselor education, elementary education, English language and literature, and speech-language pathology.

Careers for Early Childhood Education Graduates

  • Preschool Teacher:
    Preschool teachers have the important job of educating groups of extremely young children under their care. Preschool programs can be available for children as young as a few months old all the way up until school age, with the majority of young students in preschool programs being around 3-5 years old. Preschool teachers are responsible for crafting the age-friendly curriculum for their students, keeping their classrooms safe, and interacting with parents.
  • Elementary School Teacher:
    Elementary school teachers will work with students generally between the ages of 5-12, teaching them important academic skills ranging from reading, writing, mathematics, science, and spoken communication skills. Classrooms will typically include between 15-35 students and elementary school teachers will often work with other teachers in their grade level to establish an effective curriculum and maintain a healthy classroom environment.
  • Preschool/Elementary School Administrator:
    Preschool and elementary school administrators are in charge of ensuring that institutional policies and curriculums have been established according to existing laws. They are also in charge of hiring new teachers, ensuring current teachers are compliant with all certification requirements, and connecting the school with important teacher development resources. Other responsibilities include conflict resolution within the school and maintaining budgets.
  • Childcare Facility Director:
    Childcare facility directors are in charge of maintaining the regular functions of a childcare or daycare facility. This includes ensuring that the learning environment is safe and may include many administrative tasks like helping curriculum development, overseeing staff management and hiring, managing facilities, creating a budget, meeting with parents and teachers, and marketing the facility to new families with children who might be interested in their services.
  • Preschool/Elementary School Principal:
    The preschool or elementary school principal is the person who is seen as the main leader of the school community during their tenure. The principal is in charge of making most large management decisions and supervising major administrative tasks, as well as communicating between teachers of all grade levels. They are in charge of creating important school rules, like establishing a dress code and communicating with parents in the community about major issues like curriculum changes, safety policies, introduction of new educational programs, or school district policy changes.
  • Special Education Teacher:
    Special education teachers are educators who have acquired specialized training and can support students with additional needs that may make it difficult for them to learn in a traditional classroom environment. Special education teachers will often work with students with physical or mental disabilities, and some are trained to work specifically with autistic students, those with emotional disturbances, or those with learning disabilities. They are specially trained for these types of classrooms and provide the support necessary for these children to do their best.
  • Teacher for the Physically/Visually/Hearing Impaired:
    This type of teaching position is a subset of the special education field. Students who are physically, visually, or hearing impaired will often require additional assistance in the classroom. This may include specialized curriculums designed to help them cope with and overcome their physical disabilities, as well as slower-paced lessons, extra patience, and teachers who can easily communicate with them through American Sign Language (ASL).
  • Nanny/Childcare Center Worker:
    Nannies or childcare center workers are mostly in charge of supporting children’s needs in ways that help foster early childhood development. This includes preparing and organizing meals or snacks for children, keeping track of their physical health including medications, and ensuring that children maintain a sound nap schedule between their lessons.
  • School Counselor or Psychologist/Guidance Counselor:
    Guidance counselors and school psychologists will help monitor students’ emotional health to ensure that they can succeed academically. This may include working with students on any learning obstacles or anger management, as well as working closely with families and parents to ensure that students can thrive at school.

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