Teaching and education – degrees, certifications and careers

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Introduction to teaching and education

Wondering if you have what it takes to be a teacher? As an educator at any level, much of what you do and say has the ability to greatly impact a student. But with great power comes great responsibility, as they say. For this reason, teachers must walk a fine line that teeters between extremes: being firm, but tactful, strict, yet forgiving. Educators who veer too far in either direction risk losing their effectiveness. As a result, classrooms may dissolve into chaos, or students may lose morale along with motivation.

If you are someone who has mastered the art of connecting with children, or if you enjoy working toward that challenging goal, then the job of educator is one you may find rewarding and fulfilling. Teaching is, most definitely, not for everyone. But often for those chosen few, it is beyond compelling. For these are the educators whom students will remember long after they have advanced through the grade levels. These are the teachers students mention in their valedictorian speeches and talk about to their children. If this describes you, and if you have the willingness and the disposition to truly connect with students in the classroom, then congratulations. Teaching may very well be your calling.

Is teaching right for you?

There is much more to teaching than lecturing before a classroom filled with students. True educators desire to engage the children they interact with every day. Engagement means inciting curiosity. It means inspiring exploration and creativity. And it means allowing children to play a leading role in how and why they learn. Teaching is challenging, but it is also rewarding. It encompasses more than just academics. Today, teachers are responsible for more than just sending children home with newfound knowledge and heightened communication skills. They are responsible for maintaining a safe environment for learning to occur, as well. Many of today’s students come to school hungry, overly tired, anxious, or depressed. An educator’s job is to notice and report instances of suspected abuse, neglect, or endangerment.

Is teaching right for you? Simply that you are considering entering this career field that can be stressful and often thankless is a good indicator that you are qualified. It is important to have realistic expectations, however. The world needs more teachers, more school support staff, more high school principals. If you make that commitment, the rewards will be forthcoming. So will the frustrations and the failures. Make sure you are prepared to weather both equally, because it is the children lining the desks in your classroom who have the most to lose or gain.

Where do you fit in?

So, you are certain education is your calling, but where will you fit in? Will you teach early learners how to read and write? Will you hang with the middle-school crowd, weathering the hormones and tragedies of puberty? Or would you rather teach in a high school setting, preparing older teens for what happens after graduation?

Will you even teach at all? Maybe you are more the administrative type who prefers to interact with students and parents from the comfort of an admissions office, perhaps in a postsecondary institution. Or perhaps, you would rather counsel students through difficult life transitions from the role of guidance counselor. This is an important question you must answer before deciding on a career in education. How do you want to interact with students in the classroom, and what goals do you want to help them achieve?

How do you want to interact with students in the classroom, and what goals do you want to help them achieve?

Teaching in different age groups

The job of an educator varies according to the age group of the students taught. Obviously, the needs of a child in middle school have little in common with those of a high school senior, yet some developmental stages do overlap. Children also mature at different rates. This means that as an educator at the middle school level there is no unwritten rule that you won’t be faced with adult problems, such as drug or alcohol abuse. There is also no guarantee that your early learners won’t come to school wise beyond their years. Flexibility is a good attribute to have as a teacher, so is a good poker face. Developmental stages at each level include:

Early childhood education

Early childhood education generally encompasses children kindergarten-aged and younger. Preschoolers, for instance, are early learners, usually aged 3 to 5. Children of this age learn by playing, which means they need ample space to move.

Working in early childhood education is a fun and rewarding field. Children are growing quickly and continuously learning to piece together the world around them.

Careers in early childhood education

Early learners are working toward multiple developmental milestones, including:

  • using age-appropriate scissors effectively
  • helping to dress themselves appropriately
  • noticing differences between genders
  • singing the words to a song
  • riding a tricycle
  • engaging in give-and-take with other children

The responsibilities of a preschool educator are to provide a safe space that encourages learning, to keep order in the classroom, to interact with staff, administration, and parents, and to plan and execute engaging, age-appropriate activities that facilitate learning.

An early childhood educator needs to be:

  • compassionate
  • firm
  • tactful
  • confident
  • consistent
  • flexible
  • organized

Additionally, they require superior skills in oral comprehension and oral communication. In other words, they are good listeners. They are also able to communicate effectively with a small child whose whole world has just been turned upside down by the trauma of an untied shoelace.

Early childhood educators typically enjoy social interactions. Preschool teacher is probably not the best job for an introvert. Creatives, however, may flourish in the preschool classroom, as they guide children through artistic processes using various forms of media.

It is possible to become a preschool teacher with as little as an associate degree. However, a bachelor’s degree is often preferred. If you are thinking of pursuing this career, consider taking an associate or bachelor’s degree in the following areas:

Elementary education

Elementary education comprises kindergarten through 5th grade in many regions. In more rural areas of the country, it may also include the 6th grade. Generally, this encompasses children as young as 5 or 6 years old and progresses up through age 11 or 12.

Children in this age group are learning to read and write and to draw meaning from written content. They have longer attention spans and can identify the main ideas in a written passage. They are using more complex sentences in their speech and are able to follow simple strings of commands. Body awareness is developing, as is the social need to be included in peer groups.

Explore careers in elementary education

Children in elementary school share common characteristics, including:

  • telling time
  • using a telephone
  • composing letters or email
  • grooming and dressing themselves without help
  • understanding personal space
  • developing a best friend

As an elementary school teacher, prepare to deal with a variety of issues. At the end of the spectrum, many children have entered the first stages of puberty. While your primary role is not to wade through mazes of hormones with your students, you should be aware that they will impact the classroom dynamic.

A teacher at the elementary level is generally:

  • well organized and able to plan ahead
  • adept at interpersonal communication
  • outgoing and social
  • creative
  • confident in their own abilities
  • compassionate

Elementary school teachers are interacting with children throughout stages of great change. Student hormones are evolving, their personalities are developing and becoming more complex, and their emotions are often unstable. As a primary school teacher, you need the flexibility to roll with the hypothetical punches without taking things personally.

It is also helpful to have a firm understanding of boundaries — where your job begins and ends. Every teacher wishes they could clothe, feed, and encourage every student, especially those who begin life with few advantages. However, this is simply not a reasonable goal. Part of a teacher’s job is knowing how deeply to become involved and when to pass the torch onto other authorities

To teach at the primary school level, you need a 4-year bachelor’s degree. This bachelor’s program should be taken alongside a teacher preparation program that includes student teaching. Before enrolling in a program make sure it prepared you for a career in elementary education. The following bachelor’s degrees are typically earned:

Additionally, if you wish to teach in a public school, you need to obtain licensure from the state. Often, this means completing your coursework and then passing the Praxis test.

Secondary education

Secondary education usually includes grades 6 to 12, although it may begin at grade 7. In many areas of the country, secondary education begins with middle school. Middle school, or junior high, usually includes children up to grade 8. Upper secondary education comprises grades 9 -12. In many school districts, middle school is located in a separate location from high school. Rural school districts with fewer students may combine both levels.

For many children, the secondary school years begin awkwardly and smooth out as they advance through the grades. Peer pressure plays a huge role during the secondary years, and children often feel confused about who they are and who they wish to become. For your students, days may be punctuated with the fear of feeling different, fear of not fitting in, or fear of being excluded. Children may also demonstrate poor judgement at this age.

Explore careers in secondary education

Students in secondary school are dealing with adolescence and what comes after, including:

  • experiencing deeper feelings of friendship
  • entering into romantic relationships
  • seeking social acceptance
  • thinking logically and understanding consequences
  • solving problems systematically
  • struggling with identity

Secondary school teachers interact daily with older adolescents and young adults. As such, they need superior skills in active listening, relationship building, and time management. As a middle or high school teacher, you need the ability to communicate effectively with students, parents, other faculty, and administration. Being creative helps, so does the ability to perform well under pressure.

Secondary school teachers require skills in:

  • resilience
  • collaboration
  • interpersonal communication
  • adaptability
  • multi-tasking
  • patience

Additionally, it helps to have confidence in your own teaching abilities. Students this age can sense when the teacher is unsure and may take that opportunity to push boundaries. However, self-confidence is best tempered with empathy. Middle and high school students may come to school angry, depressed, or anxious. They are often dealing with problems at home, problems with friends, or troubled relationships. They may be trying to balance extracurriculars such as sports with academics and may be sleep-deprived as a result.

To teach at the secondary level, a bachelor’s degree and state licensure is required. The requirements may vary by state, but all states require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and a teacher preparation program. The following bachelor’s programs are typically taken:

Other students may take a bachelor’s degree in the subject they want to teach and take the teacher preparation program after as a postbaccalaureate or master’s degree.

Special education

Special education includes education for special-needs students, students who are gifted and talented, or students who have exceptional needs. This educational category may sometimes be called aided education. Depending upon the demographic in which you specialize, you will need skills unique to that set of students.
Because there’s great diversity among students enrolled in aided education classes, it is not possible to group them together under a single umbrella. Rather, your skill sets must be particular to your individual classroom and the goals and objectives it is designed to accomplish.

Explore careers in special education

Students with special needs generally hit their developmental milestones later than other children. In some instances, they may never develop the same skills as other children their age. Still, they are loving, feeling children who deserve the same high quality education as their peers.

By definition, a child with special needs is someone who suffers from a physical, emotional, behavioral, or learning disability that requires specialized services or accommodations. This could mean a student struggles with dyslexia or blindness. It may also refer to a child who is autistic or developmentally delayed. It could also encompass children who have problems managing their anger, and children who are socially inappropriate.

While students in a special-needs classroom may have limitations that differ from other children, most are still capable of making progress. As a special-needs teacher, it is your responsibility to treat children with patience and respect, to keep a safe and orderly classroom, and to encourage each student to succeed at their best capacity.

Educators who work in the special-needs classroom need a variety of skills that go far beyond traditional teaching credentials, including:

  • providing emotional support
  • providing personal care
  • supplying medical care
  • showing empathy
  • setting and enforcing boundaries
  • patience and adaptability

As a special-needs educator, you may have to cope with situations that don’t normally occur in a traditional classroom, such as helping a student to and from the restroom, tying a student’s shoes, or helping a student understand the concept of personal space.

You will need a bachelor’s degree in elementary education or special education and a license from the state to become a special education teacher in the public school system. Many students pursue the following bachelor’s degrees:

Some students may choose to earn a master’s degree in special education before teaching to enhance their knowledge or to have an administrative role in a special education program or school.

Ecology of education

Every public or private school has its own ecosystem, with a hierarchy of staff and faculty that enables it to run effectively.

School administration

At the top of the hierarchy, you’ll find the school administration. This includes positions such as principal, vice principal, and assistant vice principal. Your school superintendent oversees these positions, and your school’s support staff assists them.

School administration is responsible for managing all school operations, from hiring new teachers to enacting guidelines for school safety. Administrators often interact with parents and families within their school district to address topics important to the community.

To work in school administration as a school principal, for instance, you need at a minimum a master’s degree in education, along with a proven record of experience in educational leadership. Other school adminstrative leaders might consider pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership.

School support staff

School support staff includes a wide range of positions such as:

  • guidance counselor
  • resource officer
  • social worker
  • school psychologist
  • school nurse
  • special education instructor
  • athletic director

These are the specialists who assist members of the school administration and provide specialized services to students and families.

The requirements to join the school support staff vary by job title. For instance, a resource officer may need as little as a high school diploma plus experience in law enforcement, while a school psychologist may require a doctoral degree.

Support staff also provides a full range of services to students and families. Some of the more recognized titles include:

  • Median salary: $52K

    A school counselor may act in a guidance capacity or as a mental health liaison for students who are experiencing emotional difficulties. As such, a counselor may direct students toward scholarships, assist them in choosing a career path, counsel them after the death of a friend or family member, or recommend additional mental health services.

    See more
  • Median salary: $49K

    The school resource officer is usually a member of local law enforcement. They often remain on school premises during school hours to guard the safety of students and faculty. They may help de-escalate altercations between students and keep the premises safe from intruders with ill intent.

    See more
  • Median salary: $40K

    The school secretary is responsible for multiple tasks such as answering phones, recording attendance, typing, filing, verification of doctor’s notes, and notifications home in case of absence.

Certification and licensure to work in education

Teaching certification

To become a teacher at the elementary or secondary levels, including special education, you must first obtain your bachelor’s degree. As part of your degree, you’ll participate in a student teaching experience that nets you the required number of hours in a classroom setting. Next, you take the licensing or certification test that is required in the state where you wish to teach. Upon passing the test, you can then apply for your state teaching license. As part of obtaining your teaching license, you must undergo fingerprinting and a background check.

Once you have 3 years of licensed teaching under your belt, you can sit for your national board certification. National board certification not only gives you advanced opportunities in teaching, but it also benefits your students. Teachers who possess national board certification have proven their superior teaching ability.

Certification to work in school administration

The process to work as a school principal or vice principal varies between states, but typically you begin by obtaining your master’s degree in education. Afterward, you commonly attend a state-approved program for certification. You also need to have several years of prior teaching experience and have passed the required background check.

Certification to become a school superintendent

A school superintendent typically needs a master’s degree, prior teaching experience, prior supervisory experience, principal certification, and the ability to pass the background check. After this, you may take the exam to obtain your superintendent certification.

Degrees in education

An associate degree in education is a 2-year program which prepares students for either entry-level positions in education like teacher assisting, or to transfer credits – up to the full two years – to a bachelor program for full teacher certification.

To teach at a public school in the United States teachers must attain a license. Each state has different licensing requirements, but all require a bachelor’s degree as a minimum education requirement. Most bachelor’s programs are built to fulfill student teaching requirements for certification, as well as to prepare for required testing for initial licensing.

Master’s programs are alternative paths to teaching certification, prepare students for administrative or leadership roles, or specialized certification such as Reading Specialist Certification or Autism Specialist Certification.

In education, doctorate degrees may be offered as Ph.D.’s or Ed.D.’s. This strengthens the skills necessary for employment in either research or advanced leadership roles.

Job outlook for teachers

Every community needs teachers. Regardless of how rural or how isolated, every town in America has children. And children are required, by law, to gain an education. While homeschooling is an option, it remains underutilized in the United States. As of 2016, only 3.3% of American children attended homeschool, says the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.[1] This means there will always be jobs available within the teaching industry.

In fact, the teaching profession enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates among all jobs in the nation. This means, as a college graduate entering the teaching field, you may have an abundance of jobs from which to choose. For those with the right qualifications and the appropriate mindset, teaching is a solid career option that should provide a comfortable level of job security for years to come. Possibly, this is why education is one of the most popular graduate-level programs of study in the United States today, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.[2]

In 2020, the average annual salary for kindergarten and elementary school teachers was $60,660.  The average annual salary for high school teachers was slightly higher at $62,870. [3][4]

Should you pursue a career in teaching and education?

Teaching at the preschool, elementary, and secondary levels can be rewarding in more ways than one. Aside from knowing your skills will always be in demand, there is the satisfaction of being a positive influence in the lives of innumerable young people.

As a teacher, what you do matters. You are both a role model and an influencer to the students who pass through your doors, especially to those who have little support and encouragement at home. To these students, your presence in their lives can mean more than you realize.

It was Nelson Mandela who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” As a teacher, you are in a unique position to arm the leaders of tomorrow with knowledge, courage, and fortitude. Are you up to the challenge? If so, visit our career pages to learn more about what it takes to teach America’s children.

Homeschooling by the Numbers. (2021, March 23). Coalition for Responsible Home Education. https://responsiblehomeschooling.org/research/summaries/homeschooling-numbers/

Fast Facts: Most popular majors (37). (2019). National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=37

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers : Occupational Outlook Handbook: : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, June 2). Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm

High School Teachers : Occupational Outlook Handbook: : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, June 2). Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm#tab-1

National Education Association (NEA)

The NEA provides information for teachers regarding salaries and benefits, workplace inclusivity, and provides members with access to a resource library. They advocate for educators, communities, families and children to ensure the availability of quality educational programs and policies.

U.S. Department of Education

This government website provides information on financial aid, student loans, laws, and guidance. They also provide data about education-related research for users to learn current information about policies and procedures related to education.

Association of American Educators

With 3 million members the Association of American Educators is the largest professional organization in the United States that is committed to education. AAE works from preschool to graduate programs at the university level ensuring teachers are prepared to teach in public schools.

The School Superintendents Association (AASA)

The AASA promotes equal access to education for all students, creates a network of educational leaders, and advocates for children to ensure their educational needs are met.