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How to Become a Teacher
Your complete guide to a rewarding career. Subscribe for updates!
How to Become a Teacher
Your complete guide to a rewarding career. Subscribe for updates!

Great teachers are always in demand.

As part of a dynamic professional workforce, teachers help shape lives and strengthen communities. If you’re ready to bring your creativity and passion to work, we’ll help you find the path to the classroom that’s right for you! 

Like other high-skilled professions, you’ll need to meet the professional requirements, and each state has its own requirements. We’ll walk you through it all in our comprehensive guide to the profession.

What’s in this Guide?

Overview: The steps to become a teacher

  • Decide what you want to teach.

    The subject, grade or specialty you want to teach will help determine your next steps. (But don’t worry if you’re still undecided!)

    Read More
  • Earn a bachelor's degree.

    You’ll need a degree to teach most subjects. Which major? That depends on what you want to teach. Read on!

    Read More
  • Choose an educator prep program.

    Educator Prep Programs (EPPs) are where you’ll complete state requirements and get experience in the classroom. You can enroll during your bachelor’s or after you’ve earned your degree.

    Read More
  • Pass the teaching tests.

    You’ll likely need to pass one or more tests to earn your teaching license. We’ll outline the most common requirements.

    Read More
  • Apply for your teaching certificate.

    Once you’ve met all state requirements for your license, you’ll apply directly to your state department of education.

    Read More
  • Get a teaching job.

    Depending on your EPP, you may have already been a student teacher or completed a fellowship or mentorship program. Put all of it on your resume and start applying!

    Read More

Decide if teaching is right for you.

As a teacher, no two days are the same. You’ll plan lessons, work with students, use new technologies and collaborate with colleagues and school leaders. Teaching keeps you growing and learning—with opportunities to grow creatively and professionally.

Teaching Career Basics

When school is in session, you’ll spend some of your time planning lessons and reviewing student work, planning ways to help each student grow. You may plan lessons on your own, or alongside other teachers in your grade level or subject.

Lesson planning allows you to bring your creativity and passion for your subject to create inspiring learning experiences for your students.

Of course, you’ll spend much of your day working directly with students in the classroom. But don’t worry—that doesn’t mean you’ll be standing at a chalkboard talking endlessly to a class of seated students. (OK—maybe sometimes.) You can arrange students in groups, use learning games and set up discussion circles—just to name a few options.

Read about “The surprising ways teaching is changing in the 21st century.

During school breaks, many teachers take the opportunity to attend professional development courses, continue their education with advanced classes or even teach additional enrichment courses. But yeah, you’ll get plenty of vacation time, too.

  • What do teachers do everyday?

    When school is in session, you’ll spend some of your time planning lessons and reviewing student work, planning ways to help each student grow. You may plan lessons on your own, or alongside other teachers in your grade level or subject.

    Lesson planning allows you to bring your creativity and passion for your subject to create inspiring learning experiences for your students.

    Of course, you’ll spend much of your day working directly with students in the classroom. But don’t worry—that doesn’t mean you’ll be standing at a chalkboard talking endlessly to a class of seated students. (OK—maybe sometimes.) You can arrange students in groups, use learning games and set up discussion circles—just to name a few options.

    Read about “The surprising ways teaching is changing in the 21st century.

    During school breaks, many teachers take the opportunity to attend professional development courses, continue their education with advanced classes or even teach additional enrichment courses. But yeah, you’ll get plenty of vacation time, too.

  • What will my first classroom/school be like?

    Teachers work in many different types of schools and learning environments. Many teachers choose to teach in the same area where they grew up. If that’s the case for you, then you may have already been in your future classroom—as a student!

    If you’re branching out from your hometown, you can research the school communities where you think you’ll fit best. You may prefer to teach in a small town or in a large city. While you’ll probably find more openings in a larger district, many rural areas are looking to attract teachers, too.

  • Will I teach online?

    The short answer—probably! 

    In the Spring 2020 semesters, many teachers transformed their face-to-face classrooms into virtual learning environments when schools were closed due to COVID. Many schools will continue offering hybrid course opportunities both online and in person. 

    No one knows quite yet what the future holds for online teaching and learning. It’s safe to say that you’ll probably have opportunities to develop strong instructional practices online and off.

  • Where does a teaching career lead?

    You have many opportunities to grow as a teacher and leader in education. What starts as a career in the classroom can take you as far as you want to go.

    You can grow as a master teacher and mentor to your colleagues. Or work toward school and district leadership as a principal, superintendent or other administrator. Many nonprofit leaders and national advocates got their start as teachers.

    In our recent live event, Be the Change: The Impact of Black Teachers and How You can Join the Profession, we heard from three nationally renowned educators. They all started as teachers and took different paths:

    • Dr. Precious Symonette has been a teacher in Miami Dade County for 14 years, earning nation-wide accolades and honors.
    • Mr. Sharif El-Mekki grew his career from classroom teacher to school principal. He’s now the founder and CEO of The Center for Black Educator Development.
    • Dr. John B. King, Jr. is the president and CEO of the Education Trust and served as U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. He is a former teacher and principal.

    Learn more about your career options on our Career Paths page.

Teaching salaries and job outlook

Salary

Wondering how much you’ll make? We don’t blame you. The truth is that teacher salaries vary widely from state to state. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1), nationally, teachers make a median salary of $61,600. 

Of course, a median salary just tells you the salary in the middle, which includes teachers with many years of experience. So, beginning teachers will start at a lower salary and experienced teachers will earn more.  

Check out the National Education Statistics report for more information and to find your state. (2)

Job Outlook

In addition, the Bureau projects that teacher employment will increase by 5 percent over the next decade. Between 2014 and 2024, there will be almost 2 million job openings for teachers across the country.

Job prospects are even better if you choose to teach in a high-needs subject, specialty or location. These change from year to year, but usually include math, science, English as a second language, world languages, special education and many subjects in rural schools.
 

Questions to ask yourself—is teaching a good fit?

For this ever-changing work, you can ask yourself a few of the more obvious questions (3). Do you enjoy being around kids? Are you dependable? Do you have a genuine passion for an academic subject? (Calling all history buffs, book worms and data nerds!)

We recommend thinking through some less obvious questions, too.

  • What’s your motivation? Some teachers became educators because they were inspired by their own teachers. Some are responding to a need in their community for teachers from diverse backgrounds with unique insights and experiences.
  • Can you try out teaching before you commit? If you’re able to explore jobs, consider trying out teaching through a job or volunteer experience. You can tutor, work as a teaching assistant or help with an after school program. If you decide teaching is right for you, having relevant experience on your resume will help you stand out.

A step-by-step guide to becoming a teacher

By now you know you need a teaching certificate to teach in public schools (some states call it a license—but it’s the same thing). Depending on your starting point and your state, your path may be very different from another future teacher’s path. We break down the key steps you’ll take no matter where or what you want to teach.
  1. Decide what you want to teach.

    OK—this doesn’t necessarily need to be your first step, but it can help you make a few key decisions if you have an idea what you’d like to teach.

    If you already know the subject or specialty you want to teach, consider heading over to your state department of education for a list of subjects and grade levels for your certificate (4). For instance, some states may certify middle school teachers with different requirements than high school teachers. Others may offer general or specific content areas, like secondary science versus biology or physics.

    If you’re still undecided, don’t worry, you’ll be able to narrow it down as you learn more!

  2. Earn a bachelor’s degree.

    You’ll need a bachelor’s degree to be eligible for a teaching certificate in almost all subjects. For some skilled career and technical positions—think electrical engineering or health sciences—you may be able to substitute work experience.

    Some states require teachers to earn a master’s degree, though you may be able to work towards your degree while you’re already teaching. 

    Finally, if you don’t already have your bachelor’s degree, you can often earn your degree and your teaching certificate at the same time. If you’re wondering about your major, we answer those questions below!

  3. Choose an educator preparation program.

    You will need to complete a state-approved educator preparation program (EPP) to earn a teaching certificate. Your EPP will provide you with the coursework, tools and resources you need to be successful in the classroom. 

    In many states, you can enroll in an EPP while still in your bachelor’s program, so you graduate with your degree and your teaching certificate. If you’ve already earned your degree, you can choose an EPP that offers a master’s degree or a certificate-only option.

    Some EPPs are designed with working adults in mind, so you can find an option that allows you to work and get certified at the same time. You may even be able to start teaching while working towards your certificate. There are many options! Check out our Program Explorer to start your search for programs in your state.

  4. Pass the teaching tests.

    Depending on your state and the EPP you choose, you’ll need to take one or more tests as part of your certification process. Usually this includes a subject-matter test that shows you know enough about your chosen subject to teach it.

    Most states require the Praxis tests (5) in your subject. Some may also require a test covering teaching methodologies or an assessment that includes a portfolio of teaching materials. Finally, some states have their own state-specific tests, such as the TExES in Texas or the MEGA in Missouri.

  5. Apply for your teaching certificate.

    Once you’ve completed your program and passed the required tests, you’re almost a certified teacher! Since teachers are licensed at the state level, you’ll need to apply to your state education agency to make it official. 

    You’ll typically provide proof of your degree, your EPP and your test scores. You’ll need to pass a background check as well. States might have additional requirements depending on your grade and subject. Your EPP should help you prepare for this final step.

  6. Get your teaching job!

    As you complete your requirements, you’ll start looking for your first teaching job. Check out district job fairs, virtual fairs and recruiting events with your EPP. In some cases, your EPP may have connections with one or more specific school districts. 

What is “alternative certification"?

You may have heard the terms “alternative certification,” “alternative licensure” or “alternate path to teaching.” Don’t let the name confuse you—there’s nothing “alternative” about the training and preparation you’ll receive in high-quality alternate path programs.

These programs are typically created with working adults in mind, so they have different processes and timing than traditional undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Many programs offer online and part-time modules or shorter timelines that get you in the classroom faster.

Here’s a few examples of an alternative certification program:

  • Residency programs prepare teachers for certification with on-the-job training. With a residency program, you get a paid job at a school and work with a mentor teacher. Some residency programs allow you to earn a master’s degree at the same time. 
  • Accelerated programs are designed for mid-career professionals interested in teaching. If you’re thinking about a career switch but need to keep working while you earn your license, an accelerated program could work for you. They typically offer hybrid online and in-person coursework and flexible arrangements for practice teaching.
  • School district programs allow you to apply directly to a school district that has teacher openings to fill. In many cases, these programs run in large school districts that have the resources to prepare their own teachers. You’ll apply in the spring or summer, take courses in the summer or fall and then work during the school year with a mentor teacher before taking over your own class in the district.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Didn't see your topic above? We answer a few other common questions below. It's a good idea to talk with staff at the teacher prep programs too. They're experts on teacher certification in your state!
  • Do I need a degree in education?

    The short answer is, probably not.

    Here are three common scenarios:

    • You have a degree in the subject you want to teach. For most secondary subjects, you likely have a degree or significant coursework in your subject. For example, if you want to be a math teacher, you’ll need junior- and senior-level coursework on your transcript and the ability to pass a rigorous math test. Same with science, English, art and other middle and high school subjects.
    • You have a degree in education. If you want to teach in elementary grades or specialties like special education, a degree in education can provide a strong foundation. Check with your college counselor if you’re still earning a degree, or with your teacher training program if you’ve already graduated.
    • You have a degree in any subject + testing or work experience. If you have a degree but want to teach in a different subject, you still have options. Depending on your state, you may simply need to pass a content test in the subject to qualify. In other states, you may need to take additional subject coursework while in your EPP or have relevant professional work experience.
  • Do I need a teaching certificate to teach?

    You need a teaching certificate or license in order to teach in public schools. You may be able to begin teaching under a mentor teacher before you’ve earned your certificate. Or you may be able to work as a teaching assistant while you’re completing your requirements. Check with your state education agency and your local school district to learn about your options.

  • What is the difference between a teaching degree and a teaching certificate?

    A teaching degree leads to a teaching certificate. If a college offers a “teaching degree” it means that you will take all of the courses you need to be proficient in your teaching subject along with coursework that prepares you to plan lessons and lead a class.

    At the end of this degree program, you will still need to apply to the state for your teaching certificate or license. So a degree is awarded by the college whereas the certificate is awarded by the state.

  • How do I know what educator prep program is best for me?

    Start with the basics. First, you’ll want to narrow down the EPP options in your state to those that:

    • Are approved by the state to offer an EPP.
    • Have a program for the specific grade, subject and specialty you intend to teach.
    • Offer a program for your current educational background (undergraduate, graduate or career changer)

    Once you’ve narrowed the list, you can find programs that work for your specific needs and goals. Consider the following criteria:

    • If you’re working towards a degree, does the program work with your degree?
    • How long will it take to complete? And are the courses and required elements offered at times that work with your schedule?
    • Can you meet all of the requirements for applying to the program?
    • Is it affordable? Or, does the program offer a teacher-while-you-learn option?

    For more, check out this article on Choosing Your Training.

  • How long does it take to get a teaching certificate?

    Typically, it takes anywhere from nine months to four or five years to get a teaching certificate depending on where you are in your career or education. Alternative educator prep programs are usually the shortest route if you already have a degree, while programs that result in a bachelor’s or master’s degree take longer. 

    In some cases, you can begin teaching while you earn your certificate.

  • What are subject matter assessments?

    The curriculum for your educator prep program prepares you for the specific tests your state requires. These tests often focus both on specific subject matter and general teaching methods and practices.

    Some states require you to take and pass tests before you can enter the classroom. Others allow you to begin teaching while preparing for the test.

  • What if I already have a teaching certificate from a different state?

    You may be eligible to teach in your desired state by transferring your certificate or some of the requirements through “state reciprocity.”  

    This term applies to the rules and regulations that each state applies to teachers from outside the state. So whether or not your current certificate meets all the requirements of the new state will depend on your new state’s reciprocity rules. Start by checking with your state education agency to see if you can fill out a simple application for a certificate. They will let you know if you need to complete additional requirements.

Want to keep exploring?

We know this is a big decision, so take the time you need to explore your options and do your research. Here are a few more resources that can help.
  • Learn More

    Check out how-to articles and expert stories about teaching and applying to programs.

References

  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook https://www.bls.gov/OOH/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm
  2. National Education Association. Rankings of the States 2018 and Estimates of School Statistics 2019. http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/2019%20Rankings%20and%20Estimates%20Report.pdf
  3. Seymour, Justin. "Is Teaching the Right Career For You? (6 Questions to Ask Yourself)."  https://www.huffpost.com/entry/is-teaching-the-right-career_b_10107856
  4. U.S. Department of Education. State Contacts. https://www2.ed.gov/about/contacts/state/index.html
  5. Educational Testing Service. The Praxis® Tests. https://www.ets.org/praxis