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How to Become a Teacher: Steps, Requirements, and Tips

November 9, 2022

Some people are certain from a young age that their calling is to be a teacher. Others have fulfilling careers in another field and later decide that they want to become teachers to share their knowledge with the generations to come. In either case, there are a few steps to becoming a teacher that an individual should be aware of as they consider the career path.

First, though, it’s important to understand the full picture of what being a teacher entails. Teachers are responsible for developing their own curricula for their students, planning and teaching courses, proctoring exams, and focusing on each student to help them achieve academic success.

Teachers can choose the environment in which they would like to pursue teaching, such as at a university or at an elementary school, or even running an online course for students who are earning their degrees remotely.

You can determine what type of teacher you’d like to be—elementary, middle, high school, or higher education—by knowing what goes into each role and pursuing a teaching education

Teaching for Each Age Level

While the ultimate goal of teaching is to encourage learning, the approach to this goal depends on the age level of the teacher’s students. Understanding these age levels can help an individual decide what type of teaching role best suits their career interests.

Kindergarten and Elementary School             

Kindergarten and elementary school are where students learn basic skills in subjects such as in reading and math. You will find that many elementary schools incorporate select activities into the school day, such as art and music activities, to help young students begin to expand their minds and widen their knowledge base. 

Students also begin to learn personal skills such as study habits, as they start to do homework, and interpersonal communication skills, as they interact with others in a classroom setting. That being said, someone hoping to help develop a student’s basic study and life skills would be interested in pursuing a career in elementary education.

Middle School           

Sixth through eighth grades are considered middle school grades. Most schools hire teachers who have expertise in certain subjects, such as chemistry or mathematics. During this time in their lives, children are becoming more advanced learners and can be held to higher standards of educational performance.

High School              

High school teachers teach a specific area of study, such as English or US history. Their main priority is expanding students’ knowledge and preparing them to pursue higher education at a university or to enter the workforce. A side responsibility of a high school teacher may be to mentor students for college admissions essays or standardized testing to achieve high scores.

Higher Education              

A similarity among teachers of all ages is their schedule, as most teachers are employed during regular school hours and also have two or three months off from work during the summer. College professors’ schedules may vary, depending on when they teach classes and when they are researching, though they can also take summers off or choose to teach summer courses.

The Future of Teaching

Before committing to any career path, it is critical to know the potential for professional development in your chosen job as well as the projected job growth for the role.

Some teaching positions are expected to be in higher demand than others in the future, particularly those in specialized fields. The health care industry, for example, is facing a shortage of nurse educators who are qualified to teach the next generation of nurses how to provide effective patient care. This shortage has consequences, as some programs may turn nursing students away due to a lack of qualified faculty to teach them. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of jobs for preschool teachers is predicted to grow 18 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is significantly higher than the average 8 percent growth the BLS predicts for all professions during this period. 

The reasons for the projected boom include higher demand for early education and the education field’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. Graduates of undergraduate programs who are certified at the preschool level are likely to have an easier time securing a job than other types of teachers.

Postsecondary teachers are also expected to have a higher job growth rate compared to the average. The BLS predicts 12 percent job growth for this role, thanks to the growing number of students choosing to attend college. 

In addition to the level of teaching, job growth potential is heavily determined by location. Some states need teachers more than others, and employment opportunities may be greater in inner-city or rural areas.

Teaching Salaries

Teacher salaries vary widely based on multiple factors, the main one being the state in which you live and teach. Whether you work in a private or public school, or you teach summer school, the subject you teach, your experience level, the grade you teach, and the degree you hold are other variables that contribute to teacher salaries.

Securing a job with a great salary is made simpler when you have an alumni network across the country. An extensive network provides insight into many different teaching jobs and school systems. When you graduate from AU, you become part of a diverse network of talented students from all over the United States and more than 150 countries.

Steps to Becoming a Teacher

Today, aspiring teachers can take many routes to reach their goal. Below are some of the most common steps to becoming a teacher.

1. Earn an Undergraduate Degree               

If you fall into the category of individuals who know they want to be teachers by the time they enter college, it is a viable option to pursue an undergraduate degree in education. In fact, all states do require K-12 public school teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree, specifically in elementary education for kindergarten and elementary school teachers.

Requirements for the type of undergraduate degree you hold vary from school system to school system. Some require K-6 teachers to major in a content area, such as social science or math. It’s also common for high schools to prefer that their teachers have earned a degree in a particular subject area rather than an education degree.

If you do pursue an undergraduate degree in something other than education and come to find that a degree in education is required of you, there are other options available. A common alternate path is pursuing a higher education graduate degree that will provide you with the knowledge and skill set to successfully take a state licensure exam. Thus, the undergraduate degree you earn will not be an impediment to your teaching career.

Types of Teaching Degrees

As you begin to explore teaching programs, you will see that there are multiple degree options in education alone. It is suggested to move forward with the degree program that is most tailored to your interests and goals in teaching. Some of the most popular teaching degrees are in special education, physical education, education administration, secondary education, and early childhood education.           

  • Special education. This is a great path for those who want to work with children with special needs who require unique education and training. After graduating with a degree from a special education teaching program, one would be prepared to handle the needs of students with developmental or learning disabilities, as well as those with emotional, behavioral, or physical disabilities            
  • Physical education. This degree should be considered by those who hope to teach physical education, coach athletic programs in a school setting, or develop the athletic and physical capabilities of students who may wish to pursue a degree that focuses on athletic training, such as in sports management or dietetics.       
  • Education administration. This degree is commonly pursued by students who already have several years of teaching experience, or hope to continue their education, earn their doctoral degrees, and ultimately move into school administration, research, or curriculum development.              
  • Secondary education. This degree is specific to teachers who want to work with high school students. It prepares future teachers for the unique challenges of this age group while allowing them to gain extensive knowledge in the subjects that they hope to teach. This degree also often translates to teaching middle school.
  • Early childhood. This education teaches aspiring teachers how to work with young students up to age eight. Principles and theories in child development are emphasized.

2. Gain Teaching Experience           

Equally as important as an undergraduate degree is having hands-on experience in the classroom. This is the part of becoming a teacher that would prove to be tricky if you earn a degree in a field other than education; however, it is not impossible.

Teachers must have a certain number of hours supervising in an educational environment to take the exam to earn a teaching license. This can be done during undergraduate studies, through an internship at a school, or during the time between graduation and starting full-time employment.

American University requires students in both the on-campus and online MAT programs to obtain over 600 hours of hands-on classroom experience to graduate. We work closely with online students to find collaborative student-teaching experiences in partnership with high-quality teachers in locations near their homes.

3. Obtain Teaching Certification or Licensure              

Along with completing the required steps to becoming a teacher, public school teachers must obtain licensure or become certified. Certification follows grade level, with separate licenses for preschool through third grade, first grade through sixth (or first through eighth), and seventh grade through 12th.

Certification and licensure regulations vary from state to state, so it is crucial that prospective teachers look into their respective states’ specific rules. Most states require teachers to successfully pass a general teaching certification test, in addition to tests in the individual subjects that they are interested in teaching.

All states offer alternative routes to certification for prospective teachers who hold a bachelor’s degree but lack the education courses necessary for immediate certification. These alternative programs often allow candidates to begin teaching immediately under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Candidates are awarded full certification upon completion of the alternative program.

It is important to note that private school teachers are not required to be licensed by the state. However, many private schools mandate that their teachers hold valid state certification. It is generally recommended that all teachers obtain the appropriate license or certification of their respective states so that they will not be limited in their employment options.

Continuing Education for Teachers              

While a master’s degree is not necessary in most places to become a teacher, a postsecondary degree brings major benefits no matter where you are or what you want to teach.

Essentially all public school teachers are asked to complete a minimum number of continuing education or professional development course hours in order to maintain their state licenses.

Many public schools do encourage their teachers to earn a master’s degree, which can make it a productive step to becoming a teacher. This also provides the opportunity to be eligible for higher salaries, greater job flexibility, and a career projection into administrative positions.

Once you’ve decided to earn your master’s in teaching, you need to prepare for the application process. Applicants to AU must take the Praxis Core exams and show that they have earned a satisfactory score or better. Each applicant must also submit a statement of purpose, two letters of recommendation, and a résumé.

Earning a Master of Arts in Teaching

American University offers a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree, both on-campus and online, for students with no background or preparation in education who intend to earn licensure in elementary education (grades 1-6).

After completing AU’s MAT program, you will be eligible for licensure. It is important to note that granting teaching licenses is a state responsibility as opposed to a process offered by any university. AU’s MAT program is approved through the District of Columbia, which encourages the earning of your licensure there. This process involves passing the Praxis Core and Praxis II and completing an application that includes a background check.

One of the many benefits of completing AU’s MAT program is the access to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC). This is due to a partnership and reciprocity agreement with the city of Washington, DC. If you plan to pursue licensure to teach outside of DC, your certification earned from the AU MAT program can allow you reciprocal certification in over 40 states.

Another way to pursue professional development in teaching is to obtain National Board Certification, a voluntary and advanced teaching credential. To earn this status, teachers must complete a rigorous peer-reviewed certification process that includes submitting videos of their teaching and student work samples, as well as passing a three-hour exam.

Obtaining a Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree is a good choice for those who desire to enter the highest administrative levels of education, such as by becoming a superintendent of a school or a professor of higher education or another subject area. The degree could also support an educational goal for students wanting to pursue research, curriculum development, or high-level governmental positions.

Students who take doctoral courses can expect to learn about the newest research and studies in education. It is the highest level of in-depth learning, providing students with a skill set that will help them pursue new responsibilities. Quality control, research analysis, strategic planning, assessment techniques, and data management are some of the many skills that a doctoral degree in education will provide.

Timeline for Becoming a Teacher

Generally speaking, it takes an individual about four to five years to become a teacher. This timeline represents the time required to complete the minimum qualification for the teaching profession at an elementary, middle school, or high school level. 

Depending on the level and type of career they want, teachers should also prepare for additional years of study if they plan to earn an advanced degree, such as an MAT or a doctorate degree in education. The doctoral degree takes several years to obtain, as opposed to a master’s degree, which takes up to three years. The time to complete a doctorate in education can also depend on how long the student takes to complete their dissertation, or research project, which the student must also defend before a panel.

Choosing Your Teaching Degree Program

Before you take the steps to become a teacher, you should consider several elements when selecting a program. The first element is to make sure a program is accredited, as accreditation provides proof that a college or university can sufficiently prepare students for their chosen field. A degree from an unaccredited institution could negatively impact your career.

Another factor to consider is a program’s course curriculum. While all programs will cover foundational concepts associated with teaching, some programs may offer more robust course options geared toward a teaching specialty that is particularly relevant to your interests.

Other elements to consider when looking for a teaching degree are driven by personal choice or preference. These can include cost, class size, flexibility, and online versus in-person instruction.

Begin Your Teaching Journey Today

Teaching is more than a noble profession. It provides an opportunity to have a significant impact on the lives of others and to influence how society moves forward in areas such as scientific research, the arts, and government policy. This can make teaching one of the most satisfying professions to pursue.

American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching program can be an important part of your teaching journey. Our program is designed to help you gain expertise in fundamental education concepts, giving you the tools you need to provide a quality and equitable education experience to all students. Learn how we can help you get ready to excel in the classroom.