How to Become a Teacher: Teacher Certification vs. Master's Degree - (2023)

How to Become a Teacher: Teacher Certification vs. Master's Degree - (1)

Steps to Earning a Teaching Position

Teachers have the important job of educating young minds for the future. There are many paths to becoming a teacher, including routes for those who did not study education in college. Whether you’re completely new to the field, have a bachelor’s degree in another field, are re-entering the teaching industry, or are a new college graduate, there is a path for you to become a teacher!

Teaching license requirements vary from state to state.1 However, it’s important to note that most teaching positions within the United States require the following:

  1. A bachelor’s degree in any subject – While a degree in education is preferred and can speed up the licensing process, a bachelor’s in any field can get you started. The bachelor’s degree must be from a regionally accredited institution, and the Department of Education must recognize the degree. Research your specific state, and carefully check the individual requirements for licensing in that state.
  2. US Citizenship – Aspiring teachers must be eligible to work in the U.S. and hold a valid green card or US citizenship.
  3. Clean criminal history – Teacher’s must be able to pass a background check.
  4. Teacher certification – Following degree completion, teachers must enroll in an accredited teacher certification program. If aspiring teachers have a degree in a different discipline, they may opt to do an online/on-campus/hybrid program for accelerated teacher certification. Some bachelor’s degree programs include the teacher certification program.
  5. Work history – While not always required, supervised experience or previous teaching experience on your resume and application is a plus.
  6. State certification – Teachers must apply for state certification and pass the state licensing exam to officially become a licensed teacher. Be prepared to retake the licensing exam every 4-8 years depending on the state.

How long does it take to become a teacher?

1. I don’t have a degree – If you don’t have a degree, the first step would be acquiring a bachelor’s degree. It is recommended to earn your degree in the field of education, as many education programs include the licensing component within the degree program.

Depending on your desired teaching specialty, you may need a degree with an emphasis on a specific discipline, such as science or math. If seeking an education program online, it is extremely important to research which schools have programs that lead to licensure in your state. Not all programs lead to licensure, and not all states have reciprocity agreements with other states or universities.

2. I have a degree in an unrelated field – If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, it is possible to take a teacher preparation program at an accredited college or university. It may also be worthwhile to supplement the bachelor’s degree with a master’s in teaching program — especially if you live in one of the states that require an education master’s degree after a certain period of time in the field anyways.

3. I have a degree in education but no teaching license – The great news is that by having a degree in education, you are already a few steps into the process. Here are the next steps:

  • Complete a teacher preparation program
  • Get practical teaching experience through field experience or student teaching
  • Apply for state licensure

Be sure to check for specific state requirements on an additional master’s degree is required to remain licensed.

4. I want to work in education outside the US and have an unrelated degree: If you want to teach and travel, the great news is you won’t have many requirements for licensure or certification exams. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Thailand, China, Saudi Arabia, and more offer teaching positions from US teachers. While it is not mandatory to have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification to find a teaching job overseas, schools may ask for it. For a small fee, TEFL certification courses can often be completed online. From there, you’ll be ready to start applying for jobs.

5. I want to work in education but I’m not sure I want to commit to being a teacher or getting licensed yet: There are a variety of other positions available to people interested in teaching, but not quite ready to take the plunge. Alternative options include becoming a teacher’s aide, substitute teacher, or volunteer teacher at charities and organizations.

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What Is A Teaching Certificate vs. A Teacher Certification?

While the terms teaching certificate and teacher certification are often used interchangeably, they mean two different things. A teacher certification is a license, which is mandatory for teaching in public schools and some private schools.

A teaching certificate is a certificate provided to aspiring teachers for completing an academic program related to teaching. To become certified, applicants must have a bachelor’s degree, complete a recognized and accredited teacher training program, and pass a state exam.

There are also alternative certification options for future teachers who have a degree in the subject they wish to teach but lack formal licensure. To become licensed, students are asked to take an additional 1-2 years of coursework in teaching in an accredited program paired with 1-2 years of classroom teaching experience under a temporary license. State regulations vary, but some allow aspiring teachers to complete only 1-2 years of graduate level study in education to qualify for teaching licensure.

Teaching Certificate Specializations

For teachers who have a bachelor’s degree, it is possible to earn a certificate to specialize in a certain area of teaching. Some options include:

  • Elementary and Middle School Education
  • Secondary Education- with subject endorsement
  • Nationally Recognized Teacher Certification/Board Certification
  • Special Needs Education

What is a Bachelor’s in Education Degree?

A bachelor’s degree in education program is a four-year program at an accredited university or college. A bachelor’s degree can be in any subject, but it is highly encouraged that students who want to become teachers aim for a bachelor’s degree in education. Teachers with a bachelor’s degree make an average of $59,140-$62,870 per year.

Bachelor’s in Education Career Paths

CareerSalaryProjected Job Growth (2020-2030)About the Position
Special Education Teachers$61,5008%Teachers specializing in special education work with students with hearing, visual, physical, or learning impairments and need specialized care.
Career and Technical Education Teachers$59,1402%Career and technical education teachers are primarily focused on assisting students in developing trade skills. They teach a variety of subjects including but not limited to graphic design, auto mechanics, landscaping, 3D printing, blueprint development, computer-aided design (CAD), and more.
Elementary, Middle School, and High School Teachers$60,660, $60,810, $62,8704%Elementary, middle, and high school teachers aid in the development of students in different age groups. Teachers will support and inspire students, monitor progress, offer educational guidance, lesson plan, deliver lectures, lead class discussions, and grade assignments.

What is a Master’s in Education Degree?

There are three states that now require teachers to obtain a master’s degree in their field of speciality within 5-7 years of certification: New York, Connecticut, and Maryland. The master’s degree typically comes with higher pay benefits. According to the data, a teacher with a master’s degree can expect to earn an average of $2,760 more in the first year following obtaining the degree and up to $7,358 more per year at the height of their career.2 On average, teachers with a master’s degree earn $52,750-$61,015 per year.

Master’s in Education Career Paths

CareerSalaryProjected Job Growth (2020-2030)About the Position
Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals$98,4908%Principals are tasked with overseeing the administrative responsibilities of a school. They evaluate teacher performance on a consistent basis and oversee all operations.
Instructional Coordinators$66,97010%Instructional coordinators work in a variety of educational environments and analyze and assess the effectiveness of school curriculum and standards.
School/Career Counselors$58,12011%School counselors play an important role in making sure students are mentally and academically prepared for the school environment. They ensure students reach certain benchmarks to move onto the next level. Career counselors are primarily tasked with aiding working professionals or college students with developing career skills and/or finding meaningful work.

Becoming a Teacher FAQ

How long does it take to become a teacher?

This can vary depending on the requirements per state. At a minimum, teachers are required to possess a four-year, regionally accredited bachelor’s degree in education. For teachers interested in teaching high school, they are often required to choose a subject specialty. Teachers should also gain licensing, pass a background check, and complete a one to two-year supervised student teaching stint. As a conservative estimate, the process can take 4-7 years.

(Video) Is a Masters in Teaching Program Right for You?

How much do teachers get paid?

Teachers new to the industry can expect to be paid around $40,000 per year. The average salary for teachers in the United States is $60,477 per year.

Are teaching positions expected to grow?

Job prospects for teachers for grades K-12 are expected to grow as fast as average at 4%. However, post-secondary teachers have an expected job growth above average at 9%.

Can someone from another country become a teacher in the US?

It is possible, but there are a series of requirements that must be met, including having an accredited bachelor’s degree. Non-native English speakers will be required to take a teaching exam in the state they are interested in teaching in, so good English language reading and speaking ability is a must. Potential teachers must notify the US embassy in the country of their intention and apply for a temporary or permanent visa for work purposes.


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Leticia Gonzalez

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Leticia Gonzalez is an honors graduate from Columbia University Teachers College. She is currently a Principal in South San Francisco, CA. Her career in education has spanned almost 20 years and has included working in the elementary, secondary, and at the college level.

(Video) 10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Pursue a Master’s Degree in Education


Do you need a master's degree to teach? ›

The general route to get into teaching after finish school is: Bachelors degree (three years) Relevant work experience. Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) courses.

Do you need a masters to teach in New Jersey? ›

The minimum education requirement for New Jersey teachers is a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited college or university. The only exceptions are for Career and Technical Education licenses, which can be awarded based on experience when other requirements are met.

What qualifications do I need to be a teacher in university? ›

You'll need a good degree pass, for example first class or upper second class, relevant to the subject you want to teach. You'll also need to have completed a postgraduate master's or PhD qualification, or be working towards one. It's common to have had academic work published.

Does a masters degree help as a teacher? ›

A Masters in Education is an extremely useful qualification that can help benefit your career in the education industry, whether that's in the classroom or out of it.

How do I get teacher certification? ›

Traditional Teaching Certification
  1. Choose a bachelor's degree and teacher preparation program. ...
  2. Complete a student teaching experience. ...
  3. Take your state's required exam(s) for educators. ...
  4. Apply for teacher certification. ...
  5. Choose an alternative route teacher preparation program. ...
  6. Apply for a provisional teaching certificate.

How long does it take to get a teaching certificate? ›

How many years do you have to study to be a teacher? The minimum number of years to become a qualified school teacher is four years.


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