How to become a teacher: ultimate guide
A teaching career is uniquely rewarding. It offers unparalleled job satisfaction and teachers are always in demand across the country. An inspirational teacher can have a powerful effect on a child’s attitudes and success. If you are considering teaching as a career, this step-by-step guide will show you how to become a teacher.
Should I become a teacher?
You might consider a teaching career if you are looking for a stable position with excellent job prospects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in education are projected to grow by 7-24% between 2020-2030.
The other benefits of teaching include the opportunity to shape young minds. Teachers not only impart knowledge to their students but help develop behavior and social skills. Teaching may not be the most lucrative career—it generally pays about average or slightly better compared to other occupations, depending on the level taught—but its rewards are potentially immense. Teachers play an essential role in shaping societal values and are uniquely placed to effect positive change in their community.
What makes a good teacher?
A good teacher is an excellent communicator, an effective motivator, adaptable, a team-player, and empathetic by nature. A career in teaching suits individuals with a disposition toward service to the community, who enjoy working with and helping people.
Types of teachers
K–12 teacher is a broad designation for educators of children from kindergarten to twelfth grade, or between the ages of 5 and 18. This includes kindergarten, elementary, middle, and secondary or high school teachers. Younger children are taught by preschool teachers.
Special education teachers can teach children of any age who have learning disabilities. ESL teachers focus on students of all ages who wish to improve their English skills
Preschool teachers instruct children between the ages of 3 and 5, usually in smaller groups. They teach basic motor and language skills and promote social-emotional development. Although highly rewarding, careers in early childhood education can be uniquely stressful. One is routinely called upon to be not only an educator but a surrogate parent.
Kindergarten & elementary school teachers
Kindergarten and elementary school teachers instruct young students in foundational subjects such as reading, writing, and math. The curriculum is broad and elementary teachers are expected to instruct their students in multiple subjects. Similar to preschool teaching, a career in elementary education is for you if you enjoy interacting and working with young children.
Secondary school teachers
Secondary school teachers are usually required to specialize in a particular area (e.g., mathematics, chemistry, or history). To work in secondary education, a bachelor’s or advanced degree in the field taught is expected. Secondary school teachers require excellent classroom management skills. It is vital that they can both lecture from the front of the class and engage students in discussion.
Special education teachers
Special education teachers instruct children with various learning disabilities and developmental disorders. They are required to develop and adapt their teaching methods specifically to the needs of every child. Careers in special education often require participation in professional development programs that specialize in teaching children with disabilities. Moreover, an undergraduate degree in psychology is highly recommended for prospective special education teachers.
An ESL teacher provides support to students who are learning English as a second language. One route into this profession is to study a bachelor’s in ESL. Since they typically work with students from different cultures, ESL teachers need to be adaptable, creative, and sensitive to cultural differences.
ESL teachers often work abroad with students of all grade levels. In the U.S. they tend to take pupils out of their regular classroom to a designated space, where they work with them in small groups to improve their English skills.
5 steps to become a teacher
Below we outline the typical steps required to become a teacher. Note that there are also other routes into the profession, for example alternative teaching certificate programs.
Step 1 – Earn a bachelor’s degree
A 4-year bachelor’s degree in education is the conventional route into the teaching profession. This degree provides a general background in child development and the history, psychology, and philosophy of education. However, the best degree for teachers also depends on the grade level and subject you would like to teach.
Step 2 – Complete a state-approved teacher preparation program
The next step is to enroll in a state-approved teacher preparation program to complement your major. This program may be completed while simultaneously working toward an undergraduate degree in education, or after earning a degree in your chosen subject area.
All certification programs include student teaching experience as a final component. The required duration of the teaching internship varies by state and the type of teaching license you wish to obtain. Therefore, it may last from 14 weeks to a year.
Responsibilities of a student teacher
Lesson and activity planning for students that align with the state curriculum
Instructing large and small groups, as well as individual students, in collaboration with the supervisor
Providing regular feedback to students
Building relationships with students and colleagues
Using research-based, peer-reviewed teaching strategies in the classroom
Attending professional development events hosted by the school or school district
Step 3 – Pass the required state exam(s)
Passing at least 1 of the following Praxis tests is a requirement for becoming a teacher in most states:
- Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators (Core)
- Praxis Subject Assessments
- Praxis Content Knowledge for Teaching Assessments
The purpose of these tests is to check a student has the necessary knowledge and skills to become a qualified educator. Only 5 states do not use them: Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Michigan. These states either require their own tests, or use a mix of their own assessments and the Praxis Core or the Praxis Principles of Learning and Teaching (PLT). The cost of testing ranges from $150 to $300.
Step 4 – Apply for teacher certification
The final step in becoming a teacher is to apply for a teaching certificate, normally issued by your state’s department of education. The cost of teaching certification ranges from $40 – $200, depending on the state.
The certificate is conditional on passing the required assessments, as well as a criminal record check. The initial certificate is usually valid for between 1 and 5 years and needs to be renewed every few years. Teacher certificate renewal usually requires the completion of graduate-level courses in general education, your subject area, or specific courses designated by the state.
Step 5 – Get a master’s degree (optional)
Teachers who wish to invest in their professional development may choose to pursue a master’s degree in education. Getting a master’s is a way to improve knowledge and instructional skills in a particular subject, especially for those teaching at middle and high school levels. It can also pave the way to becoming a principal, or to a job in a school board administration.
Another reason to complete a master’s degree is if a candidate has their bachelor’s degree, but hasn’t completed a teacher preparation program. In this scenario, a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or a post-baccalaureate program is an option to become eligible for certification.
An advanced degree takes 1-2 years to complete and generally guarantees a higher income. On average, a teacher with a master’s earns between $2,760 – $7,358 more each year than those with a bachelor’s degree. Some school districts require their teachers to have a master’s degree within 5 years of entering the profession, while others offer automatic wage increases for teachers with a master’s in education.
University of Southern CaliforniaUSC Rossier School of Education – Master of Arts in Teaching online (MAT online)
Earn your MAT online from the top-ranked USC Rossier School of Education in as few as 12 months. This program offers Multiple-Subject (Elementary) and Single-Subject (Secondary) concentrations. Students may also pursue a CA Education Specialist Credential or CA Bilingual Authorization in Spanish.
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Financial aid and scholarships for teachers
Grants and scholarships for teachers do not need to be repaid, and they are either needs-based (most grants), merit-based, or a combination of both. Grants tend to be awarded by federal or state governments and offer continuous financial support over several years. Scholarships can also be awarded by colleges and private entities, usually as a single lump-sum payment.
Loans, on the other hand, are repayable – with interest. A range of federal loans are available to education majors, usually at lower interest rates and more favorable repayment terms than private loans.
Finally, the Federal Work-Study Program offers needs-based non-repayable funding to students in the form of part-time work on campus. Graduate students may benefit from similar arrangements in the form of fellowships and teaching or research assistantships.
All of the above financial aid may be accessed by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Teacher loan forgiveness
Student loans can quickly add up and leave a candidate saddled with debt upon graduation. Fortunately, eligible teachers can benefit from the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program and have up to $17,500 of their federal student loans forgiven. The main requirement is that you spend 5 consecutive years teaching in a school serving low-income students.
What is a TEACH grant?
You can bypass the need for loan forgiveness by qualifying for a TEACH grant, which provides up to $4,000 per year in exchange for a commitment to teach 4 years in a school serving low income students.
The TEACH Grant is also accessed by completing the FAFSA, although there are a few other eligibility requirements, such as being enrolled in a participating school and program and maintaining a GPA of at least 3.25. Failure to fulfil the service obligation would see the TEACH Grant converted into a loan, repayable with interest.
How much does a teacher make?
While the average teacher salary was $61,730 in 2018-19, it varies greatly from state to state. In 2020-21, Mississippi, Florida, and South Dakota were bringing up the rear with average teacher salaries of $45,192, $48,800, and $49,220, respectively, while New York had the highest average teacher salary at $87,543, followed closely by California at $84,659.
Moreover, the adjusted average teacher salary has decreased by 6-12% over the last 2 decades in states at the lower end of the spectrum, and was 12-16% higher in New York and California, at the top end. Secondary school teachers earned slightly more than kindergarten and elementary school teachers in 2020, with a median income of $62,870 reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), versus $60,660 for the latter.
Salary for a teacher by state
The nominal salary is the unadjusted salary paid.
The real salary is adjusted to consider the purchasing power by state. We multiply the nominal salary by a state purchasing parities index to indicate the relative value of salaries by state. For instance, while New York or California might pay the highest nominal salary, these states are relatively expensive and so the real value of the salary is often less than a cheaper to live in state with a lower nominal salary.
When available we provide 2020 state level salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earnings to provide the range of salary experienced by each career. Salary data is aggregated from the actual reported income of the US labor force, and is considered the most trustworthy data source for salary information.
Payscale is a salary survey service meant to provide employers and employees with salary data at local levels to benchmark and compare. While Payscale has a much smaller sample size than BLS, Payscale does update more frequently so data may be considered fresher. Payscale also indicates salaries at a wider range of roles whereas BLS sometimes aggregates numerous professions into one category which may skew salary data. For this reason, we find Payscale to be a good secondary salary indicator. All information received from payscale is via a paid API. You can read more about payscale and their data methodology here.
District of Columbia
- 10th percentile: $40,790
- 50th percentile: $53,440
- 90th percentile: $64,910
Highest salary states
Fastest growth by state
Job outlook for teachers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of K-12 teachers is projected to grow 7-8 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Meanwhile, employment of teachers at the lowest and highest educational levels—preschool and postsecondary teachers—is projected to grow 18-24% in the same period, more than double the average for other occupations.
Some types of teachers are more in demand than others. For example, those who teach certain subjects, such as math and science, are highly sought after, highlighting the value of specialization. ESL teachers are also in demand as at least 1 in 5 children speak a language other than English at home.
Future outlook for teachers
Future Outlook Projections are taken from the Projections Management Partnership (PMP). The PMP is funded by the Department and Labor, Employment and Training Administration, with direct support from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The PMP provides data-driven projections of future workforce needs.
District Of Columbia
Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education total employment
Annual openings include jobs available due to both an increase in demand, and regular employee turnover (retirees, career switchers, etc.).
The estimated increase in jobs (2018-2028) is the increase in total jobs expected and does not consider employee turnover.
To provide context to estimated job growth, we employ a “fire and ice” system, which compares projected career growth to the national average of 5.2%, as follows:
|<-10% = 3 ices|
|Btwn -5 to -9.9% = 2 ices|
|Between -5% to-.1% = 1 ice|
|between 0- 5.5% = neutral|
|Between 5.5%-10% = 1 fire|
|Between 10-20% = 2 fire|
At the state level, we simply sort the states from fastest growing to slowest within the particular career, or 1st to 50th.
Online teaching degrees
Many colleges and universities offer a wide range of online degree programs leading to teacher certification. Online bachelor’s degrees in education are less common than online graduate degree programs designed for current teachers. Opting for either is unlikely to hurt your job prospects as the stigma of remote learning is fading fast.
» Read: Online vs on-campus courses
Keep in mind that you need to choose a state-approved program, and while coursework can be completed online, you are still required to complete a semester of student teaching in person, although this may be done locally.
How long does it take to get a teaching certificate?
Teacher certification, including supervised student teaching, typically takes up to a year.
What is student teaching?
Student teaching is unpaid field experience (or an internship) in a classroom setting. The student teacher is overseen by a certified educator who monitors progress and offers suggestions for improvement.
How long does it take to get a teaching degree?
A bachelor’s in education takes 4 years to complete. Those who complete a master’s can expect another 1-2 years of full-time study.
What degree do you need to be a teacher?
You need at least a bachelor’s degree to be a teacher, with either a major or minor in education preferred.
How long does it take to become a teacher?
It can take up to 5 years to obtain a degree and complete teacher certification, including the obligatory student teaching period.
The AAE is the largest professional educator’s organization. It aims to advance the teaching profession with a modern approach.
The NEA consists of over 3 million educators intent on improving public education.
The AFT represents more than 1.3 million members at all educational levels across the U.S.