So you want to become a school teacher. But where do you start? Well, that’s not exactly a simple question, and it depends on a lot of different factors. The good news is that these days there are many different paths to teaching grades K-12. In this post, I’ll guide you through your many options.
University degrees and certificates
By far the most common way to get qualified for a teaching job is to attend a university. There are two options for teacher licensure at a university: a teaching degree, or a post-baccalaureate certificate.
Teaching degrees can be completed at the Bachelor’s or Master’s level. There are advantages and disadvantages to both of these options. Bachelor’s degrees offer more thorough training, but lower entry level pay. Master’s degrees in teaching are completed more quickly and help teachers get higher pay at the outset. However, in many cash-strapped states and school districts, Master’s holding teachers are “priced out” of the job market, and lower-paid four-year-degree holders are hired instead.
Post-baccalaureate certificates are not full degrees, but as the name implies, they require a completed bachelor’s degree as a pre-requisite. Post-baccalaureate teaching credentials usually certify people to teach subjects that they already have a degree in. So if you have a bachelor’s in science, math, English, history, business, etc… you can take some additional university teacher training courses and get a subject area license in your field of study. It’s also possible to get a post-baccalaureate certificate to teach elementary education, regardless of your prior major or field of study.
If you want to start teaching quickly without spending a year or more just doing coursework, an alternative certification program may be right for you. Alternative certifications allow participants to begin teaching immediately, earning their certificate in their first 2-3 years on the job.
Perhaps the most famous national alternative certification program is Teach For America. (My Magoosh Praxis Colleague Peter has done a whole post on them.) In fact, TFA may be the only truly national alternative certification program. Other multistate alternative certification initiatives such as The New Teacher Project, iTeach, and American Board also operate in multiple states, but do not cover every region of the US as completely as TFA.
State and local alternative certification programs are more common. The Mississippi Teacher Corps and Texas Teachers are two significant state-level programs, in terms of the number of people they hire and their importance within their state educational systems. Individual large cities such Denver and Chicago have thriving municipal alternative certification programs as well.
Licensure Based on Experience
Some states grant teaching licenses to individuals who have a lot of experience and training in a teaching licensed subject area. Prior unlicensed teaching experience in the subject area is usually also needed in order to receive a teaching license.
Beyond proof of experience, no actual formal teacher training needs to be completed for this kind of license, although candidates may need to pass a teacher licensing exam (such as the Praxis) and submit a teaching portfolio. Licensure based on experience is fairly rare, but is becoming slightly more common as part of present-day education reform. Actually, my home state home state of Wisconsin has been a pioneer in modern experienced-based licensing. For a look at a typical program of this type, check out this page on the Wisconsin DPI website.
Sometimes there simply aren’t enough licensed teachers to meet a school district’s needs in a certain subject. ESL and special education teachers are in especially short supply in some school districts. In this case, school districts are often wiling to employ someone on what is called an emergency teaching license. This is effectively the same as having no license, but being able to teach.
The obvious disadvantage to this is lack of job security. Schools are only allowed to employ an unlicensed teacher on an emergency basis if there is no option to employ a properly licensed teacher. If you’re hired on an emergency license, your school district will be pressured to eventually replace you with a licensed teacher if at all possible.
Another way to work as a school teacher without a license is to teach ESL abroad. Many non-English-speaking countries will hire any bachelor’s degree holding native English speaker to teach ESL in their public schools. And in some countries, having a degree isn’t even a requirement.
Degree programs and university post-baccalaureate certifications are the “best” way to become a teacher in the long run, in the sense that they will open the most doors for you in the future. Licenses earned on the basis of this kind of coursework are almost always transferrable to other states, and are universally respected by employers. Alternative and experience-based licenses are more state-specific, and teachers with this kind of licensure often have trouble finding work outside to school systems with teacher shortages. And of course, unlicensed teachers have very limited options within the USA.
Realistically though, the “best” route to teaching is the one that works for you. Going back to school for a degree program may or may not be practical for everyone. Many people find alternative certification programs to be an exciting start to a new career. And unlicensed teaching can be a low-risk, low-investment way to “feel out” the teaching profession and see if you want to stay in it.