2021 Teacher Certification (Complete Guide)
2021 Teacher Certification (Complete Guide)
What is teacher certification?
To become a teacher, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license. You might hear it called certification, license, licensure, or credential—all different regional names for the same thing. To earn your license or certification, you'll complete teaching coursework and testing and then apply to the state where you want to teach.
Each state sets its own teacher training requirements, so the rules can vary depending on where you live. We’ll walk you through the basics.
“When we think of careers that make a lasting impact on society, few can compete with teaching.”—Dr. Phillip Burchfield, Executive Director, Mississippi Association of School Superintendents
Pathways to a teaching license
If you do not already have a bachelor's degree—or you’re interested in a master’s degree, you may be able to earn your degree and your teaching certificate at the same time.
Earning a certificate through a degree program is sometimes called the "traditional" route. It means you take education coursework at a college or university and go through a “student teaching” experience.
This is the most common path, with 80% of teachers taking the traditional pathway, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality (1).
Many colleges and universities offer teaching programs that go along with a degree in education or a teaching subject, like math, history or art. So you might major in English or biology, minor in education, and earn your teaching credential all at the same time.
There’s a lot of info here, we know. If you want to download the Guide to keep handy, you can do that!
Teaching Certification Requirements by State
Certification varies from state to state. Check out our “Where We Work” page and choose the state you’re interested in.
In addition, The National Council on Teacher Quality ( offers a nationwide searchable database of teacher prep programs, including rankings, stats and testimonials. You can search by state, by institution or by the type of program you want to attend. You can also check out their Start Here guide for future teachers.
How to get your certification—step-by-step
Decide what subject area you want to teach and where
Because certification requirements vary by state, subject and grade level, the first step is to figure out where you want to teach, as well as the grade level, subjects or specialty areas (like special education or bilingual education) you’d like to teach.
Use our teacher certification directory to find the program that best fits you
No matter where or what you choose to teach, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and a professional license. That usually means you need to attend a teaching program.
To find a teaching program that meets your needs, dive in and explore individual programs through TEACH’s National Program Directory.
Your certification will probably require tests and a background check
At some point in your teacher prep, you’ll likely need to take one or more tests in order to apply to your prep program or earn your license. These are the most common:
A basic skills test of reading, writing, and math
Most teaching programs across the country, no matter what grade or subject you want to teach, require a basic skills test. Each state chooses the test that you need to take, but one that many use is the Praxis I, while others may accept scores on the ACT or SAT.
A subject knowledge test, based on the specific subject area you want to teach
This test is usually given while you're in your teaching program, though you might also need to take it before you begin the program. Check if your program requires this test as part of its application, because if it does, you’ll need to save some time to study for it.
Fingerprint and/or background check
Because you’ll be working with children, your state will probably require a background check. Some teaching programs will make it a mandatory part of their application.
Take the necessary coursework to get certified in your state
Some states have specific coursework requirements and a few have unique requirements. For example, Alaska requires teachers to take two courses on Alaskan history and multicultural studies during the first two years of teaching. California requires coursework and passing a test on the U.S. Constitution. Be sure to know the requirements of your credential. Your teaching program will help you!
Apply to your state for a license
There’s always paperwork! The last step of the process is to submit documents to the state —that’s usually the state’s department of education or instruction. When you get to this stage, reach out to a staff member of your teacher prep program to get all the details.
After you’ve taught for at least three years, think about getting your National Board Certification
The National Board Certification is considered the most advanced certification that a teacher can receive. It's purely optional, but completing the rigorous and challenging certification process is a prestigious accomplishment and could lead to a higher salary, more professional opportunities and easier transfer between states.
Transferring teacher certification to another state
“Reciprocity” is the term used to describe what each state requires in order to transfer your certification from one state to another.
In some cases, when there is a reciprocity agreement between states, the process is relatively easy; in other cases, it can be more difficult. If you are planning a move from one state to another, research the specific requirements that out-of-state certified teachers need to meet to get certified in the new state.
Have more questions?
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- National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), What makes teacher prep “traditional” or “non-traditional”?
- Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), Traditional vs Alternative Teacher Certification: What Policymakers Need to Know