The Beginner’s Guide on How to Become a Teacher
If you are interested in getting started in a teaching career, this guide will help you learn the steps and key information you should know about how to become a teacher. There are two routes to become certified: the traditional route that involves completing a bachelor’s degree and teacher preparation program and the alternative route for candidates following non-traditional pathways to the classroom, which vary by state. Understanding the process to becoming a teacher can help you develop a plan for fulfilling all the requirements for teacher certification in your state. Continue reading below to find out more about how to become a teacher.
Table of Contents
Deciding If Teaching Is Right for You
Choosing a School with a Teaching Preparation Program
Testing Requirements for Teachers
Scholarships and Financial Aid
Curriculum for a Teaching Degree Program
Fulfilling Requirements for Teacher Certification in Your State
Alternative Teacher Certification
Getting Hired as a Teacher
Continuing Your Education with Graduate School
Deciding if Teaching Is Right for You
Teaching as a career can be tremendously rewarding and meaningful. Good teachers make positive impacts on young people on a daily basis. They teach their students not only academic skills, but also how to behave appropriately, how to socialize with others, and how to work hard to achieve goals. If you are hoping for a career through which you can contribute to society and make a real difference in the world, then you may consider the profession of teaching.
Many who choose to become an educator have long, satisfying, and rewarding careers, though there are some who exit the field early in search of other work, for a variety of reasons. Before you put forth the time and energy for certification and the education required to find a teaching position, it is very important to be certain that you are right for the job and that the job is right for you.
Assess Your Interests and Talents
To know if education is really the right career path for you, make sure you have an understanding of what makes a good teacher and that you have the skills and characteristics compatible with teaching. To be a good teacher, you must enjoy being around other people and interacting with them, especially young people. Teaching is a social job that involves constant interaction with others.
Good teachers are also patient. If you lose your temper easily, a school setting may not be the right workplace for you. Teachers are flexible and good at quick decision making. They should be able to make adjustments when things don’t go exactly as planned (because they often don’t). Teachers must be strict to an extent and able to enforce rules, but they also need to pick their battles.
Most importantly of all, teachers care. They care about their students and student success. Without this characteristic, being a teacher will become a chore after a while. If you feel passionate about a particular content area or about learning in general and you truly care about others, you have the potential to become a great teacher.
Volunteer in a School, Shadow a Teacher, or Become a Substitute Teacher
To really understand the job and to decide if it is right for you, find a way to get into the classroom. Experienced teachers can tell you what their careers are like and that is an excellent place to start. If you are still interested, contact local schools to find out if you can volunteer or spend a day or more shadowing a teacher. As a volunteer, you may be able to help out in a classroom as an assistant. While shadowing, you may be able to visit different classrooms and grade levels to get an idea of what different teachers do. You can also consider substitute teaching as a way to introduce yourself to the teaching profession.
Make Practical Considerations
Now that you have examined the characteristics of a teacher and observed teachers in action, you should take a look at the practical considerations. Think about salary, the education you will need, certification requirements, and the availability of jobs in your target area before making a final decision about a teaching career. For expert advice from current teachers about what it is like to be a teacher and more, read our teacher career interviews.
Choosing a School with a Teaching Preparation Program
Once you are certain that teaching is the right career for your future, the next step is to select a certification program. In each state in the US, you must be certified in order to work as a teacher in a public school. It is important that you consider the rules laid out by the state in which you hope to live and work so that you can get the correct certificate. While it is possible to transfer a teaching certificate from one state to another with certification reciprocity, it is not always an easy process.
Understand Your Choices
Before you select a school and a certification program, make sure you understand what your options are. You can find a comprehensive list of teaching preparation programs by state at the National Council on Teacher Quality. Depending on your state, you may have many options, or just a handful, but either way, this will give you a starting point to make your choice.
It is also important to know what types of preparation programs are available and which one will meet your needs. If you do not yet have a bachelor’s degree, you may want to get into a program that will allow you to work towards both that degree and your teacher certification. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you might consider a post-baccalaureate program for certification only or a master’s degree program that includes teacher preparation. Whichever route you follow, be sure that the program you choose is appropriately accredited. Accreditation for teacher certification schools is discussed in further detail below.
Look for Accreditation
Not all teacher preparation programs are created equal. Some are of a higher quality than others and an important indicator of a good program is accreditation. Be sure that you select a teacher certification program at a school that is accredited by a regional accrediting agency, since every state requires regional accreditation for teacher certification. There are also national accreditations that signal quality in teacher preparation, such as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). To earn this accreditation, a school must prove that it meets high standards and graduates teachers of excellent quality.
In many states, a teaching program must also be approved by the board of education for the state in which the program is located to qualify graduates for a teaching license. Be sure to check that the teacher preparation program you are considering is on your state board of education’s approved list before enrolling.
Consider Practical Factors
To further narrow your choices, consider logistical concerns such as cost and location. Calculate the total cost of tuition and other associated expenses, like room and board. If you can choose a school that is close to home, you may be able to save money by qualifying for in-state tuition and living locally instead of on-campus. Consider whether or not you will be looking for scholarships, financial aid, or loans, and find out what each school has to offer you.
Another important practical consideration is timing. Some schools offer accelerated programs to get you certified and into the workplace quickly. If you need to work at another job while pursuing your certification, look for a program that offers coursework in the evenings and on weekends or online.
Speak with Graduates of the Program
Finally, once you have narrowed your choices down to one or two schools, it is a good idea to speak with individuals who graduated from the program. They can give you valuable insight into the positives and negatives of the institution and the certification program. Each school you are considering should be able to get you in touch with graduates. Be sure to ask about the instructors, the ability to get a position after graduating, and anything else that may concern you.
Testing Requirements for Teachers
To enter a teaching program at a university or college, you must meet certain requirements. Those requirements vary by program. The best way to fully understand what you must accomplish in order to become a teacher is to visit your state’s education department website. You can also read more about certification requirements in general or by state on our Certification Guide.
Praxis Series and Other Entry Exams
Many schools require a test for entry into a teaching program. The Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators tests, or the Praxis Core, is used by many schools as an entry exam for teacher preparation programs and is also required in many states to earn teacher certification. The Praxis Core is designed to assess basic skills in math, reading, and writing. If you are earning a bachelor’s degree at the same time as your certification, you will take this test early on in your college career. The Praxis Core is administered by ETS. Some Praxis exams are offered year-round and others are only offered during certain testing windows. You can register online by creating a Praxis account.
Praxis Subject Assessments
Once you have gained entry to a teacher preparation program and completed the requirements, such as coursework and student teaching, you will be ready to apply for your state’s certification. This means you must take another exam. Many states that use the Praxis system from ETS will require that you take the Praxis Subject Assessments. This series of tests is actually several exams by subject area. You will take the subject tests for your particular area of certification. For instance, if you are applying for certification as a secondary social studies teacher, you will take the social studies Praxis Subject Assessment. You may take more than one subject area test if you are applying for more than one type of certification. As with the Praxis Core, the subject area tests will also be taken by computer and can be registered for by logging into your Praxis account.
Praxis Principles of Learning and Teaching
The Praxis Principles of Learning and Teaching (PLT) exam assesses beginning teachers’ understanding of student learning and instructional theory. Many states require prospective teachers seeking endorsements in grades 7-12 to earn a passing score on this exam.
Praxis Content Knowledge for Teaching (CKT) Test
Another common test requirement in the Praxis series is the Praxis Elementary Education: Content Knowledge for Teaching (CKT) test. The CKT measures both subject area and specialized content knowledge for teaching in the elementary grades. It measures how well prospective teachers can apply their content knowledge in the classroom. As implied by the name, these Praxis tests are only for those who will be teaching at the elementary level. There are four CKT subtests (Reading and Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies). As with the others in the Praxis series, this exam is also taken by computer.
There are states that do not require the Praxis exams for teachers, but may require it for other types of school positions such as administrators, speech pathologists, or school psychologists. In some cases, the Praxis system may be taken in conjunction with or replaced by the state’s own designated tests. These states are California, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.
To find out what tests you need to take in your state, visit the department of education website for your state, the Praxis website, or our Teacher Certification Requirement Information by State guide.
Scholarships and Financial Aid
Once you have decided to become a teacher and have begun to select a program for certification, it is time to think about tuition. College can be expensive, but there are ways to ensure that you can afford your education. Begin by choosing a college or university that has reasonable rates, but also think about looking for scholarships and financial aid opportunities. With a little help, you can afford to earn your degree and certification.
If you can qualify, scholarships are a great way to pay for your education. Unlike loans, they do not need to be paid back. Scholarships tend to be competitive, so be prepared to showcase your skills, awards, honors, and qualifications on your application. Check for scholarships particular to your state as well as those offered at the national level.
The US Department of Education offers TEACH Grants to help students become teachers. These grants have a service obligation attached to them, so make sure you will be able to meet those conditions. Otherwise, your grant will turn into a loan. The requirements include teaching for at least four years in a high-need field. If you already know what subject you want to teach, you may want to look at a national organization like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which gives out one $10,000 scholarship each year.
Financial Aid and Loans
In addition to scholarship opportunities, you should consider financial aid options. Every college and university has a financial aid department. Make an appointment with an advisor at your school’s department. An advisor can guide you through the process of finding, applying for, receiving, and paying back loans and aid. You can always apply for a private loan, but government-backed student aid is usually a better choice. Your financial aid advisor can help you make this decision.
To begin the financial aid process, you will first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will help you determine what type of aid you qualify for and what types of grants and loans you may be able to apply for. These include Pell Grants, which are given to undergraduate students, Perkins loans, which are low-interest federal loans, or PLUS loans, which you can use for graduate school.
There are also teacher loan forgiveness and cancellation programs in place, which may assist you with paying off your school loans. These programs are intended to encourage young people to enter the field of teaching, so take advantage of them if you can. There are certain eligibility requirements based on the type of aid you receive and how long you plan to teach, so read more on the Department of Education website to be sure you qualify for loan forgiveness.
Curriculum for a Teaching Degree Program
The curriculum that you can expect for a teaching certification program will vary depending on the university or college that you attend. However, there are similarities among most education programs. If you do not already have a bachelor’s degree you will need to select a major and possibly a minor area of study. You will take coursework related to those subjects as well as courses that are specific to education. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a teachable subject, you may only take the education courses. Most teaching programs will also require that you get some practical experience in a classroom as a student teacher. For more information on typical programs in education, read our Best Colleges for Education Majors guide.
Choosing a Major and Minor
When selecting a major and minor area of study, you should have in mind the subjects that you hope to teach. Most education programs will limit the availability of major and minor choices to those that are teachable. For instance, a major in chemistry is a teachable major because chemistry is a major subject taught in schools and you might also be able to teach other science-related courses. A major in fashion design, on the other hand, may not be acceptable since that is not a subject typically taught in public schools. You may also be asked to choose a minor, depending on your school, which should also be in a teachable subject.
Much of your coursework will count towards your major and minor. If you are majoring in Spanish, for example, you will take numerous Spanish language and culture classes. You may also need to take certain electives required by your university. This could include a variety of courses to complete a liberal arts education such as humanities, social sciences, English, and math.
In addition to courses that relate to your major and minor, you will take education classes to earn your teacher certification. The specific classes you need to take will depend on whether you are getting certified in elementary, secondary, or special education, or another area. Regardless of the type of certification you are pursuing, there are certain types of education classes that every prospective teacher can expect to take:
- Child development or psychology: These courses will help you better understand the minds of children and teens and how they develop.
- Curriculum and instructional design: These courses will teach you how to develop and write curricula and lesson plans for your classes.
- Methods: Teaching methods courses focus on the practice of teaching or pedagogy, including how to explain and demonstrate concepts, how to lecture, and how to hold an effective discussion.
- Assessment: In courses on assessment practices, you will learn how to assess student learning by creating tests, using oral exams, designing projects, and other techniques.
- Special Education: Whether or not you are pursuing special education certification, you will likely be required to take some coursework in this area. Even general education teachers must understand special education to some extent.
Many teacher certification programs require students to get classroom experience as they work towards their degree. Student teaching is often completed during the final year of study. You will need to accumulate a certain number of hours of classroom experience, which may also include volunteering in schools or tutoring programs, observing classroom teachers, and actively participating in classrooms. Most likely your education program will help you set up this experience, but you may be allowed to connect with schools on your own as well.
Becoming a teacher involves several steps. The education and certification process culminates in a real-world teaching experience. Most universities and colleges refer to this step “student teaching.” This means that you work side-by-side with a classroom teacher to hone your skills, learn from a mentor, and practice being a real teacher before you get your own position at a school.
The specific requirements for your student teaching experience will depend on your university or college certification program. It may be just one semester at one school, it could be a full year at one school, or it might be split between two different classrooms. In most cases, your program will have an office dedicated to placement in student teaching positions. Colleges realize the importance of matching you with an experienced mentor who teaches a subject that is compatible with your certification area.
There will be certain requirements that you must meet in advance, such as completing certain courses before you can start a student teaching position. Be sure that you understand these requirements ahead of time and that you plan for your student teaching experience so that you do not miss an entire semester and delay graduation. Also be sure to submit all of your required forms and paperwork on time.
Making the Most of the Experience
Student teaching puts your learning into practice. The practical experience you will gain by student teaching in the classroom will help you develop your skills. Work with your mentor teacher and allow him or her to guide you. Accept advice and constructive criticism and use it to improve. Another great way to take advantage of this experience is to record yourself as you student teach. When you can see and hear what you are doing, you can begin to understand the areas in which you need improvement.
Your certification program may accept alternative experiences in the place of student teaching. Contact someone in the department to find out what other experiences may be accepted. For instance, if you previously worked as an instructor in a charter or private school that did not require you to be certified, that may count towards your student teaching credits. Another possibility may be a teaching position you held with a volunteer organization such as the Peace Corps. Check with your school for more information how to become a teacher through alternative experiences.
Fulfilling Requirements for Teacher Certification in Your State
Gaining admission to a university or college with a teacher preparation program, completing the coursework, and earning your degree are just part of becoming a teacher. Once you have completed your education, you need to make sure that you meet the teacher licensing requirements specific to your state. Certification for teachers is left up to individual states, so it varies from one to the next. Make sure you find out exactly what you need to do in the state in which you are considering finding a teaching position.
All states have certification requirements in common, which generally include earning a bachelor’s degree and the completion of a formal teacher preparation program. Once you have completed your program, you will need to pass some kind of test. Most states require the Praxis Series, but even those which require their own tests will typically include both a general test and a section on the particular subject area for which you are seeking certification.
Most states also require a period of student teaching. This may also be called “mentored teaching” or “classroom experience.” Typically, this is completed at the end of your teacher preparation program, before you graduate. Finally, in most states you will need to pass a criminal background check at the state level and through the FBI.
To find out the specific requirements for certification for your state, you can research online. This site provides information on requirements for both traditional route teacher certification and alternative route teacher certification by state. The University of Kentucky’s College of Education hosts a useful page with quick links to the board of education for each state and Puerto Rico to help you contact your state’s Department of Education directly.
If you become certified as a teacher in one state but want to move to another and still be able to work as a teacher, you must meet the requirements for teacher certification in that new state. States that are part of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, or NASDTEC, may have interstate agreements. In these agreements, each state outlines which other states’ certificates are acceptable for transfer. For instance, if you received certification in Alabama and want to move to Georgia, you can immediately begin to seek work there under their interstate agreement. You will, however, need to meet certain additional requirements within a specified amount of time. See our guide to reciprocity for further details on transferring teacher certification.
When you get your teaching certificate, you will see that it lists your endorsements. These are the subjects and grade levels you are qualified to teach. For instance, a high school teacher might have a secondary language arts endorsement and a secondary biology endorsement if she majored in English and biology while earning her secondary teaching certificate. However, your certification is not set in stone. You have the option to add endorsements to it if you meet the right qualifications.
Why Add More Endorsements?
You may consider adding extra endorsements to your certificate to make yourself more marketable to schools and districts. The more subjects you are qualified to teach, the more likely you are to be hired. Districts prefer to hire teachers who can fill more than one position if needed. You may also think about adding an endorsement if you already have a teaching position and there is a void in the school that you hope to fill. Just be sure that when you add endorsements that you are willing to teach those subjects and grade levels. You may not have a choice of which of your endorsements you use, since school administrators will typically ask you to fill the position that is needed most.
How to Add an Endorsement
Adding an endorsement requires that you meet the qualifications for it. The process will vary by state, but there are some basics that hold true in all states. The first is that you must complete the appropriate coursework and/or pass a competency exam in the endorsement subject area. This may mean having enough college credits to qualify for a major in a subject area, or it may require fewer credits. Once you have completed the required credits, you will need to pass the certification test for the area of endorsement in which you are interested. Finally, you will need to apply to have the endorsement added to your certificate.
For example, in Florida adding an endorsement requires submission of an application, completion of the required courses, and completion of a Florida school district’s approved in-service add-on program. In Texas, teachers can add “Additional Certification by Examination” by passing a certificate area test. In Washington state, teachers must complete required coursework, complete a supervised practicum, and pass the content area test.
If you are unsure where to start, contact an advisor in the education department at your university or your state board of education.
Alternative Teacher Certification
The traditional route to becoming a certified teacher outlined above is not the only route to becoming a teacher. Most states in the US offer alternative routes to earning certification. These alternatives are typically centered on real-world teaching experience for candidates who have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Teach for America
Teach for America is an organization that recruits people to teach in areas of the country where schools and students are struggling, often in urban and poverty-stricken areas. Recruits need not have prior teaching experience and can work towards certification while teaching. In most cases, the experience gained while working for Teach for America fulfills student teaching requirements.
The American Board, or ABCTE (formerly known as the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence), is accepted as an alternative route for teacher preparation in 12 states. This program involves online study as well as professional knowledge exams that lead to American Board certification; in states where it is recognized, American Board certification can also lead to teacher licensure; these include Arizona, Arknasas, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tenneessee, and Utah.
Other Alternative Programs
There are additional programs that recruit and train new teachers through alternative means, such as Michelle Rhee’s The New Teacher Project. It recruits new teachers and trains them to be effective and to work in districts with high poverty and minority students.
Other alternative programs are location-specific or are not accepted in all states. The Academy for Urban School Leadership specifically trains new teachers to work in underperforming schools in Chicago and helps those teachers become certified. Trainees work for a full year with a mentor teacher.
Additionally, many states have designated alternative certification pathways for teachers that are run by local schools and school districts. For more information on available alternatives in your state, see our alternative teacher certification guide.
Getting Hired as a Teacher
With certification in hand, it is now time to find a position working as a teacher. As a new teacher, you have some things working for you and against you in your job search. You lack experience in the classroom, but on the other hand, districts like to hire new teachers because your position will be lower on the pay scale. The key to getting hired as a new teacher is to focus on the classroom experience you do have. If you can do this while giving a professional interview and providing excellent references, you can increase your chances of getting hired.
Begin the Search
Your search should start with looking for districts that are hiring. If you are open to any location, your search can reach far and wide. For guidance, review our Best States to Be a Teacher Index, where you can search the best states by teacher salary, average home value, projected job openings, and more. If you are restricted to one area, you may need to target districts that have not advertised an open position. Contact the districts you are interested in directly, either through email or by phone, and find out if they are hiring. Even if they are not hiring at the moment, you may be able to send in a resume to keep on file. For the latest teacher job openings, check out our jobs board.
Join a Professional Organization and Network
Networking is important for finding a job in any field and that includes teaching. You can network through social media and through friends and family, but do not ignore the power of professional organizations. As a student or recent graduate you can join the student or associate programs of teacher unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Joining as a student will get you access to job search resources and other benefits. There are also non-union groups that you can join for networking opportunities like the Association of American Educators and Pi Lambda Theta.
Networking, searching for, and contacting districts are just the preliminary steps towards getting a teaching position. Once you have found open positions and scheduled an interview, the real work begins. Be ready for your interview by preparing ahead of time. Practice interviewing with a friend or fellow job seeker. You can interview each other and ask the questions you think you might be expected to answer. Read more about others’ experiences on our Career Interviews page.
Also be ready to share all the experiences you have in the classroom. This could include student teaching, volunteer work, or working as a substitute teacher. Have your materials ready to present in a professional portfolio. Include lesson plans that you have created, letters of recommendation from your mentor teacher and university instructors, and, if possible, video of you teaching a lesson. Many districts are now asking prospective teachers to teach a real lesson to students or to a panel of peers while administrators observe. Come prepared for this by preparing a lesson plan that you feel comfortable with.
Finally, be patient. This is a tough job market for everyone, including teachers. If you do not find a position for your first year after graduation, use that time wisely. Consider working as a substitute teacher so that the teachers and administrators can get to know you. When a position opens up, you may be first in line for it.
Continuing Your Education with Graduate School
Once you become certified as a teacher and find a position in a school, you may think your work is done, but it is not. As a teacher, you must continue to improve your skills and expand your knowledge. This can be accomplished through professional development opportunities, usually provided by your district, and by taking graduate-level courses. Each state sets different requirements for how much education you must complete after certification and how often. Consult your state’s department of education or your university for more information.
If your state requires that you earn a certain number of graduate credit hours after being certified, you have many options. You can continue taking courses at the university where you earned your certification, as most teacher education programs offer graduate level courses. Another increasingly popular choice is to take online courses. More and more schools are offering graduate education classes online to help teachers meet their requirements. Examples include Central Michigan University and Eastern Kentucky University.
Earning a Master’s Degree
Some states require that you earn a master’s degree to keep your certification or to be fully and professionally certified, while others encourage you to earn a degree by offering extra compensation.
If you choose to earn a master’s degree, you have several options. Many teachers earn a degree in education and teaching, which can include specializations such as instruction, curriculum, or special education. You can also earn a master’s degree in counseling or administration if you hope to move into an administrative position. Less common, but still a possibility, is to earn a doctoral degree. If you choose to take this route, you open the door to other opportunities, such as becoming a superintendent of a district or a professor at a university. You may also move to teaching at the college level with a doctoral degree.