How to Choose a Teaching Certificate Specialty
Reviewed by Jon Konen, District Superintendent
Starting off on the journey to become an educator is an exciting step, but it’s also one that is a little mysterious to most people. You’ve been sitting in classrooms for most of your life, but as you consider initial teacher preparation (ITP) degree programs, you probably have started to realize you don’t actually know a lot about what happens on the other side of that big desk.
Teacher specializations are one of the most important aspects of your ITP training. Online teacher certification programs want to know right away: what is your teacher specialization?
But they really should start one question ahead of that: what is a teacher specialization, anyway?
What Is Teacher Specialization?
You probably already know that you have to become licensed by your state in order to become a teacher. What you might not realize is that there are different types of teaching certificates that go with that license. The different teaching certificate specialties are what permit you to teach different subject areas.
For example, an English teacher has to demonstrate different kinds of knowledge than a math teacher.
Depending on the state, these categories might be called certificates, specializations, or endorsements. Choosing a teaching certificate specialty will determine the entire course of your career in education.
Can A Teacher Teach Any Subject?
The answer to this depends on the state licensing laws where you teach. In general, most places will allow teachers to teach in any subject area for some period of time based on the needs of the school. States recognize that there can be shortages of specialists in some areas, or that districts might need to fill in for someone taking a leave of absence even when they don’t have another teacher with exactly the same qualifications.
The exact rules about this will vary from state to state, though. In New York, for example, you can be regularly assigned to teach for up to five classroom hours per week outside your certification area, and only when no certified teacher is available. In Georgia, on the other hand, school districts are often allowed to waive certification requirements and in some districts more than 40 percent of courses are taught by educators practicing outside their field.
You’ll need to check the laws and practices in the state you plan to earn your license in to find out how strict the certification requirements are.
What Can Teachers Specialize In?
Are you interested in teaching about Native Americans? South Dakota allows teachers to specialize in Indian Studies at either the elementary or secondary levels.
Or maybe you are a born salesman who would enjoy passing your skills along to high schools students. Connecticut offers a specialization in marketing education that sounds tailor-made for you.
And Florida, home of Cape Canaveral, offers a specialization in Earth-Space Science, a part of the area’s legacy of space exploration that began with sending American astronauts to take the first steps on the moon, to more recent envoys sent to build out the International Space Station.
The short answer is that teachers can specialize in just about any topic that schools will teach.
The types of teaching certificates vary from state to state. If you had to guess, you could probably pick out the most common teaching specializations by just thinking back to the classes you took in school:
These core subjects are the most common kinds of teaching certificate specialties. After all, you went to school yourself. Your teachers were all certified in the subjects that you were taught.
Most of them earned those certifications by taking national standard Praxis tests. Almost all states rely on these for measuring qualifications in their core subject areas. So it’s worth checking out their list of tests for the most common types of endorsements offered.
What Kinds of Teaching and Education Specializations Are There?
One of the first things to understand is that the variety of available endorsements increases as the grade level you are licensed to teach goes up.
When you are teaching at the kindergarten and elementary level, you are teaching the basics. That’s true in every available field, from English to math to science. So general endorsements are the rule at those levels. Of course, you aren’t going to find specializations in calculus or advanced biology designed for teaching grade schoolers.
In most states, however, you can branch out quite a bit at the middle school level. Then you get into the full range of endorsement options at the secondary education level. Whether you are taking a traditional or online teacher certification program, you can find options ranging from physics to agriculture to Latin for high school classrooms.
You will also find some stackable specializations. These are designed to be earned in addition to your subject-matter specialization to give you special skills for certain classroom environments. You can find many online teacher certification options that add special education or TESOL (Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages) endorsements that give you additional classroom qualifications.
How Do I Choose a Teaching Specialization?
Although you will almost certainly end up with several different endorsements by the time you wrap up your long and hopefully happy teaching career, it’s always a good idea to start off with something you think you will genuinely enjoy.
As you prepare to become a teacher, there may be tons of reasons to aim for some of the more in-demand and marketable endorsements we’ve mentioned, but do you really want to show up every day in front of the classroom and try to sell something your heart isn’t into?
That’s a quick path to burnout. You don’t want your introduction to the profession to be a specialization you only chose because you thought it would be easier to get a job. Teach something you are passionate about to start off with. You can always pick something more lucrative or in-demand later on.
For your first endorsement, you’ll also usually study the subject in-depth as your earn your teaching degree. So you definitely want to be spending the four years of study that takes on something that doesn’t bore you to tears.
In some states, it also pays to see exactly what subjects are covered under which certifications. California, for instance, only has 24 single-subject types of teaching certificates, which cover every grade level. So a social science certification would allow you to jump between teaching history, political science, economics, or even sociology, at any level you like.
In South Dakota, on the other hand, you’d need separate secondary endorsements for each of those classrooms at the high school level, plus two more for K-4 and 5-8 social science to have the same range.
The big demand today, of course, is in the STEM fields: Science, Technology, Education, and Math. You’ll never have to worry about jobs if you earn an endorsement in one of these critical areas.
But you can branch out in your specializations throughout the course of your career. With constant continuing education requirements coming at you, you have a chance to expand your knowledge and pick up additional endorsements to take your career in any direction you choose.