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Better Teachers Brighter Futures

Teaching Certification, Licensure and Career Guide

Teacher Certification Degrees is a comprehensive certification guide for individuals who want to learn how to become a teacher or further their teaching career by earning an advanced degree. This page covers teacher certification and licensure processes.

Table of Contents

Teacher Certification Information by State
Guide to Certification
How Certification Works
Traditional Teaching Certification
Alternative Teaching Certification
National Board Certification
Teaching without Certification
Featured Teacher Interviews
Frequently Asked Questions

Teacher Certification Information by State

Teacher certification is the process used in all 50 states to ensure that prospective teachers are adequately prepared to teach at the level(s) and in the subject(s) they wish to teach. Because education in the US is typically viewed as a state and local responsibility rather than a federal one, each state sets its own requirements for prospective teachers. In general, the process involves achieving at least a bachelor’s degree or higher, completing a state-approved teacher preparation program, completing a student teaching experience, passing knowledge and skills tests such as the Praxis series of exams, and passing a background check. Click on your state below to find out more about its specific requirements. If you already have a bachelor’s degree and are looking to become a certified teacher, you may be interested in reading more about alternative route teacher certification. If you are already certified and are looking for information about pursuing certification in another state, visit our guide to teaching license reciprocity.

Guide to Certification

Before you can land a job as a teacher in a public school, you must first earn certification in your state, which is known as a teaching certificate, a teaching license, or a teaching credential. The following guide provides the essential information you should know before you start your journey to pursue certification.

How Certification Works

Each state’s board or department of education sets the requirements for achieving teacher certification within that state so that all educators are adequately prepared. Teaching certification programs are typically run by colleges and universities, although alternative certification programs for those who already have a bachelor’s degree may be run by school districts and nonprofit organizations. All certification programs are designed to give future teachers the skills needed to write and implement effective lesson plans that deliver the content of the required curricula, to manage classroom behavior, to assess student progress, and to work within a professional framework.

Traditionally, the first step towards earning teaching certification is pursuing a bachelor’s degree that includes a teacher preparation program at a college or university that has been regionally accredited and approved by that state’s board of education. Regardless of the path taken, once all criteria set by the state are met, each candidate must apply to the state for a certificate.

Traditional Teaching Certification

While each state sets its own teaching certificate requirements, there are some key commonalities, which are discussed in the steps below.

1. Choose a bachelor’s degree and teacher preparation program.

The traditional route to certification in any state begins with earning an undergraduate degree. The major that a teaching candidate should pursue is selected based on the grade level(s) and/or subject(s) that the candidate wishes to teach. For example, a major in Elementary Education would be appropriate for those seeking to teach kindergarten through fifth grade, while an individual who is seeking certification in the secondary grades will typically major in the subject area he or she wishes to teach, such as History or Math. Another component of traditional licensure is the completion of a teacher preparation program that is sequenced to complement the prospective teacher’s major. A teaching candidate may complete this program while simultaneously earning an undergraduate degree in education or after earning a degree in a teachable subject area.

2. Complete a student teaching experience.

All certification programs include practical teaching experience as a final component. The required duration of the student teaching experience varies by state as well as by the type of teaching license the candidate wishes to pursue. However, nearly all programs will require at least one semester (15 weeks) of student teaching under the mentorship of an experienced teacher.

3. Take your state’s required exam(s) for educators.

Most states require that prospective teachers pass at least one of three Praxis tests: the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators (Core), the Praxis Subject Assessments, and the Praxis Content Knowledge for Teaching Assessments, to become teachers. In addition to these exams, there is also the Praxis Principles of Learning and Teaching (PLT), which is required in some states and usually taken before the junior/senior student teaching experience. Only five states do not use the Praxis series: Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Michigan. These states either require their own tests or use a mix of their own content assessments and the Praxis Core or PLT. As you plan for the total cost of certification, you should expect to pay between $150 and $300 for testing requirements.

4. Apply for teacher certification.

With all requirements complete and a degree in hand, the final step in becoming a teacher is to apply to your state’s department of education for a teaching certificate. The cost of teacher certification varies from state to state but typically costs between $40 and $200. In addition to receiving a passing score on the required assessments for your state, you will also need to pass a fingerprint and background check proving that you have no criminal history. The first certificate earned is usually valid for between one and five years and will need to be renewed every few years. Renewal usually requires continuing education coursework and/or the completion of graduate-level courses. Some states require specific courses to be taken for renewal, while others require general education or subject area coursework.

Alternative Teaching Certification

Many states have approved one or more alternate routes to certification in order to get more qualified educators into the classroom. Common routes are as follows:

  • Certification through a formal alternative teacher preparation program
  • Transition to Teaching
  • National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) certification
  • Career and technical education certification
  • Emergency and provisional teaching certification
  • In-district training
  • Teaching equivalency and portfolio evaluations

While each alternative route may vary by state (discussed in further detail on our alternative certification page), most share the following four steps.

1. Choose an alternative route teacher preparation program.

Each state board of education has established acceptable routes to alternative certification for prospective teachers in that state. These alternative routes to teacher licensure are most commonly university-based, are designed for those who already have a bachelor’s degree, and can frequently be completed in an accelerated format.

Many states also recognize master’s-level alternative preparation programs that are designed for bachelor’s degree holders who did not previously complete a teaching program. Master’s degree teaching programs are offered in traditional, on-campus formats as well as in hybrid and online formats. You can learn more about hybrid and online graduate degrees for teachers through our Top-Ranked Online Master’s in Education Programs resource.

Although most alternative certification programs are university-based, there are state-level programs approved in specific states as well as national programs that are approved in multiple states. These last two types of programs are typically experientially-based with a coursework component, such as Teach for America. You can read more about such national and in-district programs on our guide to alternative teacher certification.

2. Apply for a provisional teaching certificate.

Many states allow you to apply for a provisional teaching certificate while you are pursuing the necessary education to become a teacher, which can allow you to teach while you are completing your teacher preparation program. Check with your state’s board of education to see if you are eligible for a provisional certificate. Note that in some states, you must apply for such a certificate through a participating school district.

3. Take your state’s required exams for educators.

Once you have completed your teacher preparation program, you will need to take the state exams for prospective educators. If your state allows provisional licenses during teacher preparation, some of these required exams, such as the Praxis Subject Assessments, may be completed before Step 2. For information on your state’s required exams, check the Praxis website or your state’s department of education website. You should plan on paying a fee of between $100 and $300 per exam.

4. Apply for teacher certification.

The final step towards becoming a teacher by following an alternative route is to formally apply for your initial teaching certificate with your state’s department of education, for which you should expect to pay between $40 and $200. As part of your application, you will need to pass a fingerprint and background check and show passing scores on the Praxis exams and/or on your state’s required exams. With state certification, you can apply to be a teacher at any state public school. You will also need to renew your certificate every few years by completing continuing education courses and paying a renewal fee. Check with your state to verify specific requirements for certification renewal.

National Board Certification

In addition to being an alternative path to certification in some states, achieving National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) certification, commonly referred to as National Board Certification (NBC), is also a voluntary certification for individuals who want to go beyond the basic requirements of state licensure. Candidates undergo a rigorous peer-reviewed certification process to demonstrate the skills needed to be a teacher of excellence. By working towards this certification, educators are not only improving their teaching skills but in some states, they may be eligible for higher salary tiers based on achieving National Board Certification.

To become a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), candidates must have gained substantial teaching experience before passing a tough, peer-reviewed process, as well as extensive self-analysis. In submitting lessons, student work, video of interactions with students, documentation of achievements outside the classroom, and more, candidates must demonstrate their qualifications for National Board Certification. The submissions need to prove that the candidate has strong content knowledge, can design effective learning experiences, is proficient in creating assessments that help inform instruction, and is successful in forming helpful working partnerships with colleagues, parents, and community members. According to NBPTS, over 100,000 teachers in the US have successfully completed the process.1 Nearly half of these educators work in schools with the greatest need for quality teachers.1

Teaching without Certification

For a career in the teaching profession, getting certified either through the traditional route or through an alternative program is ideal. However, it is also possible to get teaching jobs without being certified. These teaching jobs can be a good way to gain experience in the classroom before fully committing to the certification process. Some of these jobs can even become lifelong careers. The following are some ideas about how to teach without a teaching certificate.

Get a teaching support position in a public school.

Many states hire substitute teachers without certification. There are typically some requirements for substitute teachers, such as a college degree or a certain number of college credits, but certification is typically not required. Teacher’s aides, who are also known as teacher’s assistants, paraprofessionals, and educational aides, may also work directly with students and under the supervision of teachers without a teaching license. Some assist in full classrooms, while others are assigned to work with individuals or small groups with special needs. In most states, teacher’s aides are only required to have a high school diploma or an associate’s degree and to be licensed as paraprofessionals. The majority of states have adopted the ParaPro Assessment as the licensing exam for prospective teacher’s aides.

Consider a teaching position overseas.

Another option to teach without certification is to work overseas. Schools around the world recruit well-educated English speakers to teach the English language and other subjects. Most of these jobs do not require you to be certified. Working abroad for a year or two can be a great life experience and a good way to get practice teaching. Read more about teaching English abroad on our TEFL teacher career guide.

Apply to teach at a private or charter school.

Private and independent schools offer another option for those without certification to find teaching jobs. Schools that do not receive government funding do not have to meet the same requirements as public schools and therefore are not limited to hiring certified teachers only. Many of these schools do prefer certification, though, so it is important to understand a particular school’s policy before applying.

Consider volunteering for teaching jobs or going an alternative route.

Finally, as discussed above, consider alternative certification and volunteer programs for teaching jobs. Volunteer-based organizations like Teach for America are dedicated to getting talented but non-credentialed educators into classrooms with the highest need, mostly in urban or low-income areas. Other regional alternative programs allow people to lead classrooms before being certified for the same reason. Working towards certification is often part of the agreement, but these programs allow time for becoming certified while working full time in a classroom setting. You can read more about alternative certification on our alternative certification guide.

Featured Teacher Interviews

“Collaborate with other veteran teachers and modify or borrow lessons you find to fit your classes and share your own successful lessons if you have the chance to share them. There is no need to reinvent the wheel or insist upon using your own wheel, so to speak. There are a vast number of great math teachers out there who are sharing and working with one another already.” –Scott Keltner, Kansas Teacher of the Year Nominee

“I wish I had known that it was okay to not know some things. I worried and stressed myself out thinking everything had to be perfect and run like clockwork. I didn’t know that it takes years to learn how to run a smooth classroom. I wish I had known to reach out to others and ask for advice and suggestions, instead of thinking I had to figure it out on my own.” –Dana Lester, Tennessee First Grade Teacher

michelle griffo interview“Try to get exposure to what a classroom environment is like and see what age of students would be best suited for your personality type. If you feel overwhelmed, know that that is perfectly natural. While in college, it seems as though it will take forever to get your credential and your own classroom, but once you do, it will be worth all of your hard work!” –Michelle Griffo, California Kindergarten Teacher

“Making math engaging is all a matter of bringing as much clarity to the concepts and procedures as possible. Lots of that has to do with understanding what will bring students to the idea that, yes, they can get it wrong, but if they persist and keep trying, we can arrive at the correct solutions, no matter how many solutions there are.” –Jose Vilson, New York Math Teacher and TED Speaker

View all 59 Teacher Career Interviews

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is teacher certification?

Answer: In all 50 states, teacher certification is used to ensure that a common set of standards has been met before teachers begin to teach. The certification process varies by state but generally involves achieving a bachelor’s degree or higher, completing a state-approved teacher preparation program, completing a student teaching experience, and passing a series of exams.

Question: What is the difference between a certified teacher and a licensed teacher?

Answer: In most cases, there is no difference between a certified teacher and a licensed teacher; certification is typically the term used for the license needed to teach in the public school system. Some states use “certificate,” others use “license,” and still others use the terms interchangeably. State-licensed teachers may choose to seek additional certification beyond their state license, such as National Board Certification. This type of voluntary certification is never referred to as a license, as licenses are provided by the state.

Question: How do I get a teaching certificate?

Answer: To get your teaching certificate, you must meet the guidelines set by your state’s board of education. As mentioned, for traditional certification, you will need to pursue a bachelor’s degree, complete a teacher preparation program with a student teaching practicum, and pass the exams required by your state. To find out more about the process for acquiring a teaching certificate in your state, read your state teacher certification page.

Question: What is National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification?

Answer: NBPTS certification (or National Board Certification) is a voluntary, advanced credential for teachers who are already state-certified and can prove that they are accomplished teachers via a rigorous certification process. Board-certified teachers may command higher salaries than their peers.

1. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards: https://www.nbpts.org/