Alternative Teacher Certification Guide

Alternative or non-traditional teacher certification was initially introduced to fill critical teacher shortages. Today, alternative certification has been widely adopted as a way to recruit talented individuals in all subjects who have a passion for teaching but do not have backgrounds in education. According to a 2012 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 14.6% of teachers leading classrooms in public schools entered teaching through an alternative pathway.1

Alternative routes to teaching are available in the majority of states and offer those who have not completed coursework in education the opportunity to meet standards and become educators licensed to teach in public schools. If you are interested in becoming a teacher, continue reading to find an overview of the most common options for alternative certification as well as links to our state-by-state guides.

Requirements for Alternative Routes to Certification

In most states, candidates for alternative routes must have at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably with a major in the academic subject he or she would like to teach. This education allows individuals to accelerate their transition to the classroom, as teacher preparation programs for these candidates can be completed in as little as one to two years.

Alternative and online teacher preparation programs may lead to a post-graduate certificate or a master’s degree, depending on the program followed and the guidelines of the state in which a candidate is pursuing certification. Many states have pathways that grant individuals who are enrolled in an alternative program a transitional or provisional teaching certificate, which enables students to teach full-time while completing a teacher preparation program.

Alternative Certification Requirements by State

Common Alternative Teaching Certification Options

Every state has its own routes and certification requirements for those who have a degree in a subject other than education and are interested in becoming a teacher. For those considering out-of-state or online alternative programs, it’s important to know that the majority of states require prospective teachers to attend a program that has been approved by that state’s teacher licensing or certification board, or by the licensing or certification board in the state where the program is located.

In addition, in most cases, prospective teachers will need to pass the same exams for educator licensing as traditional-route educators but may be granted additional time to do so depending on the routes available.

Those considering becoming a teacher through alternative routes should be sure to check with the educator licensing agency of that state for current requirements and limitations. Many states do not issue certain types of teaching certificates to alternative route candidates; for example, special education and early childhood education are commonly excluded from alternate route pathways because those who have a bachelor’s degree in another subject will not be able to meet the intensive coursework requirements for these endorsements. In addition, some states limit alternative route teachers to teaching only in shortage areas or at certain grade levels, commonly secondary (grades 9-12).

1. Alternative Teacher Preparation Programs

Nearly all states have an alternative route that involves post-graduate teacher preparation. Candidates following this route to become a teacher attend a teacher preparation program as would traditional-route educators. The major difference between this option and traditional teacher preparation is that alternative route candidates are completing preparation after earning a bachelor’s degree, as opposed to traditional route candidates who usually complete teacher preparation as part of a bachelor’s degree.

Because candidates pursuing certification through these programs already hold undergraduate degrees, many programs are available that lead to the award of a master’s degree while qualifying graduates for teacher licensure. Master’s degree programs usually take two years to complete, whereas certificate-only programs can be completed in as little as one year in many states. Due to growing acceptance of alternative routes, many schools now offer online alternative teacher certification programs. You can read more about online master’s programs for new teachers through our online master’s in education guide, which also features our unique ranking of the top schools offering online teaching programs.

2. Transition to Teaching

In addition to university and college based teacher preparation programs, there are many national and regional transitional alternative programs. Three of the largest and best-known national programs are the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which offers online alternative preparation programs in the 11 states where it is accepted; Teach for America, which is a pathway to licensure in over 25 states and metro areas; and TNTP Teaching Fellows, which offers programs in eight states and metro areas.

More locally-based programs include the Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago, New York City Teaching Fellows in New York, the Arkansas Teacher Corps, and the Mississippi Teacher Corps.

Since each state has different guidelines on which programs will be accepted, prospective teachers should be sure to check with their state’s current requirements for alternative certification programs.

3. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is a national, non-profit organization that offers certification for accomplished educators. NBPTS certification is widely respected, and in some cases can be used as a stepladder to state licensing. States that incorporate NBPTS certification as a route to teacher licensing include Arkansas and New Hampshire. In other states, NBPTS certification may not meet the requirements for initial licensure, but may allow those who hold the certification to advance to a higher-level license.

4. Alternative Certification in Career and Technical Education

Career and technical education, or CTE, is a broad area that covers subjects such as agriculture, business, information technology, and health sciences. Though “career and technical education teacher” is the preferred term for these educators, in some states they are referred to as vocational, occupational, technical professional, or career tech teachers.

Many states have options that allow prospective career and technical education (CTE) teachers to substitute previous experience and education for the typical bachelor’s degree requirement. The most commonly adopted guidelines for prospective CTE educators allow individuals who have sufficient experience and knowledge in their CTE subject and have secured an offer of employment from a school district to teach full-time under a provisional certificate while being mentored by an experienced teacher.

A common requirement for those on this pathway is to fulfill a professional development plan that includes supplemental coursework in teaching standards and strategies. Successful completion of these requirements and any testing requirements adopted by the state can allow these teachers to advance from a provisional teaching certificate to a regular teaching certificate.

5. Emergency and Provisional Teaching Certificates

Also known as limited teaching certificates or licenses, emergency and provisional certificates are most commonly encountered in states that have severe shortages of teachers in one or more subject areas (frequently science, math, and English as a second language) or in low-income school districts. These certificates may allow those who have sufficient education and experience and can demonstrate deep knowledge in a content area to teach without completing a teacher preparation program. These types of teaching licenses are generally limited in duration (one school year is common), cannot be renewed, and in most states cannot be used as a pathway to full licensure. However, in states that have portfolio evaluation or experience equivalency pathways, teaching under this type of certificate may help individuals launch their teaching careers.

6. In-District Training Pathway to Licensure

Though less common than the routes outlined above, a few states do have pathways that include teacher training within a school district, or with supplemental coursework in lieu of a full-time teacher preparation program, that lead to teacher licensure. Individuals may receive a provisional or limited certificate to teach while completing a teaching mentorship and training program. In states that allow this approach, the school district may recommend those who excel in teaching practice and complete the mentorship and training program for full licensure. Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma have variations of this route to licensure.

7. Teaching Equivalency and Portfolio Evaluations

Alternative routes based on teaching equivalency or portfolio evaluations are not typical but are offered in a select number of states. In states where it is offered, the teaching equivalency pathway allows prospective educators to substitute experience teaching in private or post-secondary schools (in which a teaching license is not usually required) for the usual requirement of completing professional teacher preparation. States that have this option include Arkansas, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin.

Portfolio evaluations are a less-common alternative related to teaching equivalency pathways. States that accept portfolio evaluations usually require candidates to demonstrate through teaching experience that they meet state standards for educators without having graduated from a teacher preparation program. States with licensure by portfolio evaluation include Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont.

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: How do I become a teacher if I already have a bachelor’s degree?

Answer: Most states offer alternative pathways that are specifically designed for those who majored in another subject and wish to become a teacher without an education or teaching degree. To become a teacher if you didn’t major in education, in most states you will need to complete an alternative teacher preparation program. These programs typically must be approved by the state’s board of education and lead to a post-graduate certificate or a master’s degree plus licensure. Many states have approved online alternative programs to allow working professionals a degree of flexibility in completing the requirements.

Question: How do I become a teacher if I don’t have a degree?

Answer: To become a teacher without a degree, the recommended route is to complete a bachelor’s degree that includes a teacher preparation program. However, if you have several years of professional experience in a career and technical education subject, you may be able to substitute this experience for the typical degree requirement and become a career and technical education teacher. There are also “career switcher” programs in some states for those who wish to transition to the classroom. Check with your state’s teacher licensing agency for current guidelines and options.

Question: How do I become a teacher if I have a master’s degree?

Answer: If you already have a master’s degree but did not major in education, you may be eligible for accelerated or intensive teacher preparation if such a program is available in your state. You may also be able to teach in private schools to gain experience in order to apply for teacher licensure by portfolio without completing additional education. States that have alternate routes that may accelerate licensure for those who have already completed post-graduate education include Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

1. National Center for Education Statistics: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/xls/sass1112_2014_01_t1n.xlsx