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. Understanding the process of becoming a teacher can help you gain the knowledge you need to develop a plan for fulfilling all the requirements for earning teacher certification in your state and getting hired.
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 youngsters academic skills, but also how to behave appropriately, how to socialize with others, and how to work hard. If you are hoping for a career in which you can contribute to society and make a difference in the world, then you may consider teaching.
Many of those who choose to become an educator have long, satisfying, and rewarding careers, but others exit the field early in search of other work. Before you pursue the certification and degrees 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 what skills and characteristics you have that make you compatible with teaching. To be a teacher, you must enjoy being around other people and interacting with them, especially young people. Teaching is a very social job and involves constant interaction with others.
Teachers are also patient. You need not have the patience of a saint, but if you lose your temper easily, a school may not be the right place for you. Teachers are flexible and good at quick decision making. Teachers must be strict to an extent and able to enforce rules, but they also need to pick their battles. To be an educator you must be prepared to be flexible, to make changes when things don’t go the way you expect, and to take it all in stride.
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 learning and you truly care about others, you have the potential to become a great teacher.
Volunteer in a School or Shadow a 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 career is 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.
Make Practical Considerations
Making sure you have the interest and the characteristics of a teacher and finding out what teachers do every day are very important, but do not neglect the practical considerations. Think about salary, the amount of education you will need, certifications you will have to get, and the availability of jobs in the area in which you hope to live before making a final decision about a teaching career. For expert advice from current teachers about what is 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 think carefully about the state in which you hope to live and work so that you can get the correct certification. It is possible to transfer certification to another state in the event you want to move, but it is not always easy.
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 that degree, be sure that you choose a school that offers a post-baccalaureate program for certification only.
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 university whose teacher certification program is accredited by a national or regional accrediting agency, such as the Teacher Education Accreditation Council or the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. To get accreditation, a school must prove that it meets high standards and turns out teachers of excellent quality.
Consider Practical Factors
To narrow your choice down further, consider logistical concerns such as cost and location. Calculate your total cost after you find out the tuition and any 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 living there 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 at other convenient times.
Speak with Graduates of the Program
Finally, if you have narrowed your choice 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 insights 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 you may have concerns about.
Testing Requirements for Teachers
To enter a teaching program at a university or college, you must meet certain requirements. Those requirements depend upon the state in which you are seeking certification. 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. There, you should be able to find all the information necessary, including what tests you must pass in order to gain entry to a teaching certification program.
Praxis I and Other Entry Exams
Many states require a test for entry into a teaching program. Praxis I, or Pre-Professional Skills Test, is used by many states and is the first set of tests which assess your basic skills in math, reading, and writing. Each state has a minimum required score on each of the sections that you must meet in order to gain admission to a teaching preparation program at a state university. 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. If you already have a degree and are seeking admission to a post-baccalaureate program, you will need to take the Praxis I before you are accepted into a program.
Praxis I is administered by ETS and can be taken year-round on a computer or in a traditional paper format. For computer-based tests, you must make an appointment, but these are available throughout the year. The paper tests are given at pre-set dates during the school year. You must register in advance to take this test. States that do not use Praxis, still require an entry exam, but they are created and administered by the individual state. To find out what test you need to take in your state, visit the department of education website.
Praxis II and Tests for Certification
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 II. This test is actually several exams by subject. 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 II. You may take more than one subject area test if you are applying for more than one type of certification. As with Praxis I, the subject area tests may be given by computer or on paper.
There are 13 states that do not require the Praxis system at all 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 acceptable, but not the only option for assessment, while in others the state’s tests must be taken and passed. These states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.
Scholarships and Financial Aid
Once you have decided to become a teacher and have begun to select a program for certification that best suits your needs, it is time to think about tuition. No college program is cheap these days, but there are ways to ensure that you can afford your education. Begin by choosing a college or university that has reasonable rates, but then 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 need not be paid back. As such they tend to be very competitive, so be prepared to really sell yourself to get one. Check with your particular state for scholarships that may be available 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 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, turn to a national organization for scholarships. For instance, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics gives out one $10,000 scholarship each year.
Financial Aid and Loans
When you have exhausted your scholarship opportunities, consider financial aid options. Every college and university has a financial aid department. Make an appointment with an advisor at your school’s department. The advisor can guide you through the process of finding, applying for, getting, and paying back loans and aid. You can always go for a private loan, but government-backed student aid is usually a better choice. Your advisor can help you make this decision.
To begin the process of financial aid, you will fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will help you determine what type of aid you qualify for and what types of loans you may be able to get. 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 teacher loan forgiveness and cancellation programs in place which may assist you with paying off your tuition loans. These are intended to encourage young people to get into 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 teach, so read up on the Department of Education website to be sure you qualify.
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 between 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. This may be volunteer work or observation of a teacher at work.
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 you can teach science classes. A major in fashion design, on the other hand, may not be acceptable as that is not a teachable subject in most 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 plenty of 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 science.
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. Whichever type of certification you are pursuing there are certain types of education classes you 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: 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, including how to explain and demonstrate concepts, how to lecture, and how to hold an effective discussion.
- Assessment: In this type of course 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 receiving 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 may first need to have a certain number of hours of this classroom experience, which could include volunteering in schools or tutoring programs, observing classroom teachers, or actively participating in classrooms. Most likely your education program will help you set up these experiences, but you may be allowed to find them 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 call 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. This may be just one semester at one school, or it could be a full year at one school or split between two different classrooms. In most cases, your program will have an office just for placement in student teaching positions. Your college does this because it is important that you have a mentor who is experienced and who teaches a subject that matches with your certification.
Be sure that you understand the requirements ahead of time so that you do not miss an entire semester and delay graduation. There will be certain requirements that you must meet in advance, such as completing certain courses before you can start a student teaching position. Also be sure that you return all of your required forms and paperwork in time. Missing out on your student teaching can mean that you fall a semester or a year behind your planned schedule.
Making the Most of the Experience
Student teaching is the best way for you to learn how to be a teacher. Coursework can only teach you so much. The practical experience in the classroom will really 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. Another great way to take advantage of this experience is to record yourself teaching. When you can see and hear what you are doing, you can really 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 count towards it. 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.
Fulfilling Requirements for Teacher Certification in Your State
Getting admission to a university or college with a teacher preparation program, completing the coursework, and earning your degree are just part of becoming a certified teacher. Once you have completed your education, you need to make sure that you meet the requirements specific to your state. Certification for teachers is left up to individual states and varies from one to the next. Make sure you find out exactly what you need to do for your state or anywhere else 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 either a teaching preparation program or some type of acceptable alternative. You will also need to pass some kind of test. Which test that is will depend on your state, but typically will 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 what the specific requirements for certification are in your state, you can research online. This site provides information on requirements for teacher certification by state. The University of Kentucky’s College of Education hosts a useful page with quick links to requirements for each state and Puerto Rico. You can also contact your state’s Department of Education directly to find out what the requirements are and for helpful resources for meeting them.
If you become certified as a teacher in one state but want to move to another and still be able to work, 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, according to the agreement you can begin to seek work there. You will, however, need to meet certain additional requirements within a reasonable amount of time.
When you get your teaching certificate, you will see that it lists your endorsements. These are the subjects and grade levels you are qualified and certified 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. 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 might 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 like to bring on teachers who can fill several needs. 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 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 as it is at the discretion of your administrators.
How to Add an Endorsement
Adding an endorsement requires that you meet the qualifications for it, as you already did for your current endorsements. The process will vary by state, but there are some basics that should hold true in all states. The first is that you must complete the appropriate coursework or pass a competency exam. This may mean having enough credits to qualify as having a minor in a subject area. Once you have completed the 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. Depending on your state and university, this may mean contacting the appropriate office at your college or your state’s department of education.
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. If you are not currently enrolled, contact the school through which you received your certification or the school at which you hope to gain admittance to complete further coursework.
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.
Troops to Teachers
One important alternative route to certification is the Troops to Teachers program. This allows qualified military personnel to begin a new career in education. The program is run by the Department of Defense, but the licensing is completed by each individual state. Eligibility requirements are currently under review, but those who are interested can visit the site and register for the program for more information.
Teach for America
Teach for America is an organization that recruits people to teach in areas of the country where schools are struggling. These are often 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.
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 then trains them to be effective and to work in districts with high levels of poverty and minority students.
Other alternative programs are location-specific or are not accepted in all states. The Academy for Urban School Leadership trains new teachers specifically to work in underperforming schools in Chicago and helps those teachers become certified. Trainees work for a full year with a mentor teacher. The American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence is a non-profit that was created by the US Department of Education and provides an affordable alternative route to certification. Certification through this route is accepted by Florida, Idaho, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, and Oklahoma.
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 low on the pay scale. The key to getting hired as a new teacher is to play up 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 states by teacher salary, 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 in a targeted area and across the country, 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 the large 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 the networking opportunities like the Association of American Educators and Pi Lambda Theta.
Networking, searching, and contacting districts are just the preliminary steps towards getting a teaching position. Once you have found the 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 and fellow job seeker. You can interview each other and ask the questions you think you might be expected to answer.
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 go 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 lesson for real students while administrators observe. Be prepared for this by readying a lesson that you are comfortable doing.
Finally, be prepared to 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. Work as a substitute teacher in one or two districts 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 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. 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, Eastern Kentucky University, and the University of Phoenix.
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. States that require you to complete a master’s degree are New York, Connecticut, Kentucky, Oregon, Michigan, Maryland, Mississippi, and Montana. These states increase pay for earning the graduate degree. States that do not require a master’s degree, but do compensate for it include Washington, Ohio, Delaware, Georgia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Illinois, Hawaii, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.
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 in education or administration. 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.