How to become a school teacher

How to Become a Teacher: The Complete Guide

Written by Alicia Betz, reviewed by the EducationCorner.com Team

Teaching is one of the hardest yet most rewarding and important jobs out there. Every day, the future of our world relies on teachers to help raise, mold, guide, and educate the next generation. As a teacher, you get the opportunity to have a great impact on hundreds or even thousands of kids throughout your career. It’s a great responsibility that can be extremely rewarding.

Why Become a Teacher?

Becoming a teacher isn’t just about the predictable schedule and summer vacations (did you know that teachers don’t get paid holidays or vacations?). Becoming a teacher is about having a passion for helping others and loving kids. When they truly invest in their career and their “kids” (the term many teachers use to refer to their students), teachers are able to make an incredible impact.

A little over ten years ago, I was in the same position you are. I was considering becoming a teacher, but I was confused and overwhelmed by all the requirements, clearances, and certifications. As a college freshman, so many other career paths seemed simpler to navigate. I’m proud to say I stuck it out, and I’ve learned a lot about how to become a teacher on my own journey to well, becoming a teacher.

So, why should you become a teacher? Here are a few solid reasons:

  • Every single day is different and interesting.
  • Teaching keeps you young. There’s nothing like being around young and energetic kids every day to keep you on your toes and feel a constant sense of energy.
  • You’ll never stop learning as long as you’re a teacher. Not only will your own students teach you new things every single day in your classroom, but many school districts foot the bill for teachers to formally continue their education.
  • There’s no doubt about it--a teacher’s schedule is ideal, especially if you have kids in school, yourself. You’ll work the same hours they are in school, allowing you to maximize the time you spend with your own kids.
  • You have an opportunity to change the world, even if it’s only for a few students--you can’t deny that teachers matter. Every single person in every single career has learned what they know from teachers.
  • If you love to be around people, this is a very social profession that allows you to interact with others every day. You won’t be stuck in a cubicle with limited social interaction.
  • Although there are guidelines you need to follow, you get to be the boss of your own classroom every day. If you like to create order and control your day, this is ideal for you.
  • While every day brings new and fun surprises, teaching also provides a lot of structure and routine. If you thrive on structure, you’ll enjoy the daily schedule teachers follow.
  • You can travel as a teacher. Anywhere there are kids, there are teaching jobs. Additionally, your days off are predictable, so it’s easy to plan vacations during summers or holidays without using up personal days.
  • Teaching is fun! It would be hard to get through a day of teaching without laughing at least once.
  • The world needs teachers. As some professions are getting pushed out by Artificial Intelligence, real human teachers aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
  • It’s a simple way to contribute to the community. Schools and the activities they put on are often the cornerstone of communities.

Should I Become a Teacher?

Nobody can tell you whether you should become a teacher or not, but while there are many reasons teaching is an extremely fun and rewarding career, there are drawbacks to the profession as well.

The best way to tell if a career is really for you is to get in the trenches and experience a day in the life as much as you possibly can. Teachers do way more behind the scenes work than most people realize. Often, during student teaching, prospective teachers get a taste for how much work teachers actually do on a daily basis. Until you get to that point, here are a few more things to consider if you’re on the fence about becoming a teacher.

Teaching doesn’t end when the final bell rings and you walk out of the building. Many teachers take on extra duties such as coaching, advising clubs, or chaperoning activities. Even if you don’t have an official commitment after the school day has ended, most teachers also take home work they couldn’t get done during the school day such as grading or lesson planning.

And if you’ve managed to go home without anything to do? More often than not, your students will still be on your mind long after you’ve gone home for the day. If they’re not on your mind, you’ll likely find them at the grocery store, at the park while you’re walking your dog, or working the drive thru when you get your coffee. Teachers truly are ingrained in the community and the lives of their students.

As a teacher, you’re constantly in the public eye and teaching is a job that is difficult to truly escape. Especially if you teach in a small town, students and parents will notice your personal life. This can be taxing if you prefer to keep a low key existence.

A teacher’s job is not boring, which is usually good, but it can also make for a very stressful workday. You can plan your lessons for the day and think you have an idea of how the day will go, but when you throw children into the mix, you never know what is going to happen. It can be frustrating to realize you wasted time preparing a lesson that didn’t work or to have to rush to gather a week’s worth of materials for a student who just informed you he’s leaving for vacation tomorrow. You definitely learn to expect the unexpected when you’re a teacher.

Although you should choose passion over money if you want to be truly happy with your job, it is important to note that teachers are notoriously underpaid. On average, teachers make about 20% less than those with the same degree in a different field. What you can make as a teacher depends largely on your location, your education, and your years of experience. Teachers can also make more by adding on extra duties such as coaching or tutoring, but if you’re looking to make the big bucks, teaching isn’t the job for you.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Teacher

It typically at least four years to become a teacher as that is the amount of time it takes most people to earn a bachelor’s degree. With student teaching included in most teacher preparation programs, you won’t need to complete any additional coursework, training, or internships to begin teaching once you earn your degree and certification.

However, due to the rigors and requirements of teacher education, many prospective teachers are not able to earn their degree in just eight undergraduate semesters. Many take courses during the summers, load up their course schedule, so they’re taking more than 15 credits per semester, or spend an extra semester at school in order to complete their degree.

Another reason it might take longer than four years to become a teacher is if you earn your degree in a field other than education. We’ll explain more on this below, but this would require you to take some extra coursework and earn your teaching certificate separately from your bachelor’s degree, which would take longer than four years.

Requirements to Become a Teacher

Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few requirements you’ll need to meet in order to be trusted with teaching children. Requirements vary by state, but at the bare minimum, teachers need to have a bachelor’s degree, have experience teaching (usually accomplished through student teaching), and hold a valid teaching certificate in their state (more on how to become certified below).

Surprisingly, you don’t have to major in education to become a teacher. Most prospective teachers do major in either early childhood education, elementary education, or secondary education, but that isn’t the only path you can take.

Many teachers major in other disciplines and earn their teaching certificate separately. This is a great path to follow if you’re not completely sure you want to be a teacher. Earning your degree in a field related to the one you want to teach can also be beneficial to help you become an expert and really gain a deep understanding of the field.

Of those who choose to major in a field other than education, some earn their teaching certificate immediately after finishing their bachelor’s degree while others return to a certification program after they’ve worked for a few years in a different field. Many colleges offer teacher certification programs.

One important caveat to keep in mind is that private schools and preschools may have different requirements for teachers than public schools. While some have less strict requirements, many private schools have higher standards and a set of very specific requirements teachers must meet. Typically, degree and certification programs prepare students to meet all the requirements to become a teacher in their state, but if you are planning on teaching in a different state or in a private school, be sure to research the requirements early on in your education journey.

Regardless of the route you take to earn your degree and certificate, as part of your degree or certification program, you’ll need to complete an internship or field experience, commonly known as student teaching. To prepare for student teaching, you’ll likely have earlier field experiences that mostly involve observing. Many education programs also require early hands on experiences, such as tutoring or volunteering.

What Is Student Teaching Like?

During student teaching, you’ll be placed in a classroom (in some cases, multiple classrooms) and will learn how to teach students. Sounds simple, but it will likely be your most stressful and rigorous semester of college. Typically, student teaching encompasses your entire final semester.

You’ll have a mentor teacher who will guide you, teach you, and give you feedback as you begin teaching. You might have projects to complete in addition to teaching, such as completing a case study on a student, preparing a unit from start to finish, or cooperating with a teacher in another classroom, for example.

In most cases, you’ll slowly take over the teaching duties until you are responsible for everything a regular classroom teacher is responsible for. This includes:

  • Planning lessons
  • Writing lesson plans
  • Teaching lessons
  • Creating worksheets/handouts
  • Copying materials
  • Grading student work
  • Communicating with parents
  • Conducting parenting teacher conferences
  • Attending meetings
  • Creating seating charts
  • Attending professional development
  • Collaborating with other teachers
  • Making IEP accommodations
  • Creating sub plans
  • Setting up labs or activities
  • And much, much more!

In addition to a mentor or cooperating teacher, you’ll also have a supervisor from your college or university. This person will periodically observe your teaching with planned and unplanned observations. This person will also assign your student teaching grade when you are finished.

Student teaching is a rigorous experience as it throws you right into the trenches. It’s the ultimate test to see if you’re cut out to be a teacher. Although it’s exhausting and overwhelming, it’s the only way to truly get a feel for the career.

Student teaching should be taken very seriously. When you’re later applying for jobs, the recommendations from your mentor/cooperating teacher and supervisor will be major factors considered in your application.

How to Become Certified as a Teacher

Every state has different requirements to become certified as a teacher, but the common requirements include:

  • Earning your bachelor’s degree
  • Completing student teaching
  • Passing at least one competency exam
    • Most states require prospective teachers to pass a general knowledge test first followed by a more comprehensive subject specific test. Students must pay a fee to take the tests.
  • Obtaining clearances such as background checks or child abuse clearances. You must pay fees for clearances as well.

Some other common requirements include:

  • GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Completing specific undergraduate courses (a certain number of courses in your chosen discipline or a special education course, for example)
  • Completing additional certifications such as CPR or mandated reporter training

To become certified, you’ll first need to meet all the requirements of your state. Then, you’ll need to apply for your license through your state department of education. You will likely need to pay a fee to become certified.

In most cases, your degree program will be designed to naturally help you meet the certification requirements, but it’s important to make sure you know the requirements for yourself so you don’t miss anything. If you get hired as a teacher but are still waiting on your certification to be approved, you won’t be able to start teaching.

You must become certified in every area and age group you want to teach. Someone certified as a secondary math teacher, for example, would not be qualified to teach elementary school. Earning multiple certifications can be beneficial, as it can help you be more marketable when you’re searcing for jobs. Depending on your circumstances, earning additional certifications might require additional coursework and student teaching.

Don’t go overboard with your certifications, though. Only become certified in areas and age groups you actually want to teach. If you really want to be a math teacher but also decide to become certified in special education, for example, the school district you work for could place you in a special education position. If you wouldn’t be happy teaching a certain subject or age group, don’t get certified in that area.

Maintaining Your Certification

Once you earn your certification, you’re far from finished with your teacher certification. It’s very important for teachers to continually be educated on advancements in their field and in the field of education as a whole.

Continuing education and certificate maintenance requirements vary widely by state. Some states require teachers to earn their master’s degree within a certain number of years of earning their certificate. Other states require educators to complete a predetermined number of continuing education credits according to a set schedule.

For example in Pennsylvania, teachers are first issued a Level I certification. Teachers need to earn their Level II certification within six years of service, and they can do so by earning at least 24 continuing education credits, teaching for at least three years, and completing a new teacher induction program. Then, once teachers earn their Level II certification, they must complete at least 180 hours of professional development every five years in order to maintain their certificate.

California has similar requirements. Teachers first earn their preliminary credential, which is valid for five years. Before those five years are up, teachers must earn their clear credential by completing a teacher induction program or by becoming certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. Once teachers hold their clear credential, however, they do not need to complete continuing education credits.

While teachers in California don’t need to continue their education to hold their certificate, teachers in Connecticut must earn their master’s degree in order to maintain their certification.

In many states, teachers must also keep their clearances valid throughout their entire teaching career.

Because requirements vary so widely, it’s imperative you understand what the requirements are for your state. Even if a state does not require teachers to earn their master’s, many teachers go on to receive this degree regardless as it improves their craft and often results in a pay raise.

General Information About Becoming a Teacher

Many schools require teachers to complete field training before they enter a program or while they are in the very beginning stages of their program. This might include tutoring, observing veteran teachers, being a camp counselor, or volunteering with kids in any capacity.

In most states, certifications are broken up into age groups, with early childhood and elementary education teachers being certified to teach a wide range of subjects. Middle and high school teachers are typically more specialized in their training for a specific subject. There are some specialties in which teachers are usually certified to teach students in any grade (K-12), and these usually include the specialty courses such as art, music, or physical education.

Because each state is different, your certificate may carry from one state to the next, or it may not. When you’re working toward your degree and earning your certification, keep this in mind if you think you might want to teach in a different state. Contact any other states you’re thinking about working in to find out if your certification will carry over or if there are any other requirements you need to meet. In some cases, you might need to obtain additional clearances or pass a different exam.

How to Become a Preschool Teacher

Because many preschools are not run by the state, requirements can vary widely from one preschool to the next. Some preschools may require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree while some may only require a high school diploma. Preschools that don’t require a bachelor’s degree will likely require previous experience, an associate’s degree in early childhood education, or a Child Development Associate credential (CDA).

How to Become a Kindergarten Teacher

Kindergarten teachers must be fully certified. A typical degree of a kindergarten teacher is in early childhood education or elementary education and most teachers are certified to teach grades K-3 or K-6. Kindergarten teachers must complete their degree, complete student teaching, and earn their teaching certificate in their state.

Kindergarten teachers must be prepared to teach students in a wide variety of academic areas, and they also help children acclimate to school as they learn how to become students. In most states, kindergarten teachers must pass competency exams in a variety of subject areas to prove their knowledge.

How to Become an Elementary School Teacher

Elementary school teachers must be certified, and many states certify elementary teachers for grades K-6 or grades K-3. Elementary school teachers might complete student teaching in two different grades because there is quite a difference between first graders and sixth graders.

Elementary school teachers must be prepared to teach a wide variety of subjects, as they are often responsible for the education of all core subjects. In some cases, elementary teachers in higher grades might specialize in a certain area rather than teaching all subjects as a classroom teacher.

Like kindergarten teachers, elementary school teachers must pass tests in a variety of subject areas since they will teach multiple subjects to their students.

How to Become a Middle School Teacher

There is great overlap in middle school teachers, and depending on the state and the grade you want to teach, you might major in elementary education or secondary education. Middle school teachers might be certified in grades K-6, 4-8, or 7-12.

In most cases, middle school teachers are certified to teach specific subject areas, although some are certified to teach multiple subject areas, especially in the lower middle school grades.

Most middle school teachers must pass a test in the specific subject area they are training to teach. If you’re planning on teaching multiple subject areas, you’ll need to pass multiple tests.

How to Become a High School Teacher

High school teachers must be certified through their state, and many high school teachers hold a degree in secondary education. In most cases, you’ll be certified to teach a specific subject in grades 7-12.

High school teachers must pass a subject test specific to the area they plan to teach. If you want to become certified in multiple subjects, you’ll need to pass each subject test for each certification you plan to receive.

How to Become a Substitute Teacher

Many states are facing substitute teacher shortages, so if you’re looking to find consistent work, becoming a substitute teacher might be perfect for you. The requirements for substitutes vary widely across states; some states require a high school diploma while others require substitute teachers to be fully certified. Regardless of the state requirements, you’ll need to apply for the job and in most cases be approved by the school board before you can start working as a sub. Check out each state’s requirement here.

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Regular classroom teachers are not qualified to be special education teachers; they teach students with special needs in cooperation with trained special ed teachers. Special education teachers typically teach in their own classroom or they collaborate with regular classroom teachers to support students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Special education teachers need to take courses that educate them on teaching and accommodating students with differences and disabilities such as autism, learning disabilities, or physical disabilities, for example.

Special education teachers must also take tests specific to special education and educating students with special needs. Depending on the state, there are many different certification areas for special education teachers. Some may become certified as a general special education teacher for grades K-12, while others may become certified as a special education teacher for a specific subject in grades 7-12. Still others might be certified to help students with specific disabilities, such as hearing or vision impairment.

Naturally, your student teaching experience will be focused on special education as well. You might be placed in a fully contained classroom or you might follow students throughout their day to different regular education classrooms.

The Bottom Line

Although there are many different paths you can take to become a teacher and each person’s path will look different based on a large number of factors, the most common route to become a teacher is:

  • Complete your bachelor’s degree
  • Complete student teaching (usually as your last semester of college)
  • Pass the exam(s) required by your state
  • Obtain any required clearances, such as fingerprints or child abuse clearance
  • Apply for your certificate in the state you wish to teach

The road to becoming a teacher can seem long and daunting, but don’t let that deter you if this is a career you are passionate about. Finding a quality teacher education program will make the process much easier because you’ll have professors and advisers who have been there, done that and know exactly what you need to do to become certified and be an amazing teacher.

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