Learn How to Become a Teacher
Almost everyone remembers an educator who made a difference in their life. The teachers you remember fondly probably had the patience, energy, and flexibility to interact with students of all ages and backgrounds, excellent communication skills, and a passion for passing their learning on to their students. Most importantly, though: they cared.
If you often think about following in that teacher’s footsteps, you might have what it takes to embark upon a career as a teacher. On this page, we'll walk you through the steps of how to become a teacher, including what questions to ask yourself, what skills and teaching degrees you may need, and more.
Step 1: Determine If You Should Become a Teacher
If you're asking yourself, "is becoming a teacher easy?" know that the path to becoming an educator is as rigorous as it is rewarding. It requires a deep love for and commitment to the profession, often consuming your nights and weekends in addition to regular school hours.
Before beginning a teaching career, it’s essential to make sure that the role is a good fit for your personal and professional needs. Here are 5 questions to ask yourself when deciding if teaching is right for you:
- Do I love the company of children and/or young adults? Most of your day will be spent in the service of young minds with differing needs and maturity levels. Make sure you not only love their curiosity but that you can also handle the more frustrating aspects of interacting with children.
- Am I a lifelong learner? A career in education means you're consistently required to stay on top of the latest teaching techniques and information, including certifications, conferences, and more.
- What degree do you need to be a teacher? Be prepared to commit to a four-year degree, as well as complete additional teacher education requirements or certifications for your specific state.
- Do the hours and activities fit my lifestyle? You'll likely find yourself prepping in the classroom well before the bell rings and grading papers into the evenings. Expect to attend extracurricular events like parent meetings, sports games, and other school activities. Teachers also often spend their summers completing professional development and planning for the upcoming year—though most find time to relax, as well!
- Am I okay with the salary? For new teachers, starting salaries are typically quite modest, so make sure the economics make sense for you and your family.
If your answers make it clear that teaching could be a good fit, the next best step is to speak directly to a few educators to learn about their average day, week, and year. Every teacher’s experience is different, so it's important to get a full picture from a variety of sources. If you’re a high school student, arrange to shadow one of your teachers for a day. If you don't currently know any educators, there are a variety of websites written by teachers for teachers that offer a clear picture of what to expect.
You can also dip your toes into the water by becoming a paraprofessional or aide, working one-on-one or with small groups of students with particular needs like special education (SPED) students or those in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. This lets you experience working in a school every day to help make an informed decision about your career path. You generally only need a high school diploma or GED for these positions, though some may require an associate degree or certification. You'll usually work a maximum of 40 hours per week with benefits but without the outside work of grading or lesson planning.
Step 2: Determine What Level of Education You Want to Teach
The next step in figuring out how to become a teacher is thinking about what students you want to teach and what subjects interest you the most. But how do you figure out what subject is best for teaching before you've even stepped foot in a classroom?
You might love being an elementary teacher if you have a solid grasp on a variety of subjects, enjoy being hands-on with students, and are excited by the idea of shaping young minds at the beginning of their educational lives. With young kids, you'll also be teaching fundamental developmental skills, like sharing, socializing with peers, and more. Just consider the additional necessary skills that fall outside of typical teacher education requirements: you'll also need physical stamina to engage with little ones both in the classroom and on the playground, as well as immense creativity and resourcefulness to consistently keep their attention.
On the other hand, if you prefer to teach a particular area like business or science, or you want to communicate with your students on a more mature level, middle or high school might be a better fit. Older students have developed the communication skills and independence to be classroom collaborators, and you can dive into subjects you're passionate about, from theatre to agriculture.
This is another situation where you should speak to, or even shadow, a teacher of the age group you’re considering. You might love 7-year-olds but find a day with 25 of them exhausting. On the other hand, you might find a day with 150 high school students exhilarating, even if they weren’t the age group you thought you would most enjoy.
How Much Do Teachers Make Annually?
Once you’ve figured out what and whom you’d like to teach, it’s time to consider how much teachers make and the expected workload. Teachers are generally on 39-week contracts (or 180 days), but they average 275 working days per year—compared to an average of 261 in other careers. Summers are technically “unpaid,” but paychecks are typically spread throughout the year.
Below are the average national salaries for teachers by grade level. This information is for standard classroom teachers. Data may be different for specialty fields such as SPED and career and technical education (CTE).
|Job Title||2020 Median Salary||Expected Growth|
|Elementary School Teacher||$60,660||4%|
|Middle School Teacher||$60,810||4%|
|Secondary School Teacher||$62,870||4%|
(Salary and job growth data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2020 for Elementary, Middle and High School Teachers. Figures represent national data, not school-specific information. Job growth projections are for 2019-2029. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed April 2021.)
Of course, pay will vary by location, as well as whether you've earned an advanced teaching degree. Teachers can also often earn additional money directly through their schools, by running an after-school activity (like directing plays or coaching a sport), chaperoning school events, or teaching summer school.
Learn about the salaries and growth in your area. If you have mobility, check out the highest paying cities when compared to the cost of living.
Step 3: Get the Education You Need
Often when thinking about how to become a teacher, the first question potential educators ask is, "What degree do you need to be a teacher?"
You generally need at least a bachelor’s degree to earn your teaching license and get into the classroom directly after graduation. Depending on what you teach, you'll also likely need to fulfill additional requirements to earn your appropriate teaching credentials. If you've already earned a degree in a different field, there are still plenty of options on the table for getting the teaching degree you need.
Let's go through each teaching degree option to see which one fits your circumstances.
Associate Degrees Related to Education
Because teacher education requirements almost universally require a bachelor's degree, associate degrees in education generally don’t lead to kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) licensure. Still, they can lead to careers as paraprofessionals or in early childhood education. Some states allow you to work in career and technical education (CTE) if you have a few years of on-the-job experience through your 2-year degree.
If you're committed to getting a full teaching license, an associate degree can be an excellent stepping stone to getting a bachelor’s. You’ll often be able to transfer credits to a four-year university. Just make sure that your chosen college or university will accept all of your credits to ensure you’re taking classes that are likely to be recognized elsewhere.
If a bachelor's degree is cost-prohibitive, an associate degree is an economical way to get your foot in the door on your journey of how to become a teacher. Forbes pegs the average student debt for associate degree holders at less than $10,000 total. Public school programs are more affordable than private ones; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in-state public tuition clocked in around $3,313 for the 2018-2019 school year, while private schools can cost five times that amount.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Education
Four-year bachelor’s degrees in education are generally the minimum teaching degree requirement to earn your state's teaching credential. In addition to general education curriculum, they also include a focus that prepares you for your content area endorsement in the subject you plan to teach.
Teacher education requirements usually consist of both classroom/lab work and practical experience in a local classroom. Your coursework can be taken in person or online depending on your school, and you’ll also participate in on-site student teaching rotations at local schools. Hybrid options offer courses online while still meeting semi-regularly for group projects and labs.
As of the 2018-19 school year, bachelor’s degrees at public institutions averaged $9,212 per year for in-state students, while private schools averaged more than three times as much ($31,875 per year). As high as private school rates appear to be, for international or out-of-state students who don’t qualify for the steeply discounted in-state tuition rates, private college tuition can be very competitive and sometimes even lower.
Find out more about what it costs to earn a bachelor’s in education and other important details that will help you make an informed decision.
Master's Degrees in Education
A master's teaching degree is generally aimed toward current teachers looking to advance their career in education, though you may also consider a master's if you're looking to change careers. In fact, if you hope to work in school administration, a master’s degree is standard for principals and other administrators, although teaching for a few years first is advisable, if not required. Some two-year institutions only require teachers to have master’s degrees, while most four-year colleges require a doctoral degree.
Master’s degrees typically take 2 to 3 years to complete and focus even more heavily on subject-area content (like English or biology) with general education courses added in that meet the requirements for a teaching license and endorsement in that area. Preparatory bachelor’s programs are typically structured the other way around, offering broad instruction in pedagogy with supplementary content area courses added. Many master’s programs are almost entirely online to accommodate both working teachers, as well as career changers. Those just starting out on learning how to become a teacher will need to complete student teaching requirements, even in an online program. Obviously, current teachers have already fulfilled this requirement.
The downside of earning a master's degree: the cost. Master’s candidates reportedly spent an annual average of $11,926 at public institutions and $25,442 at private universities as of the last NCES report in 2019. To cover those costs, master’s graduates borrowed a total of $59,100 on average by the time they completed their program. Applying for federal and state grants and scholarships, as well as those available from non-profits and private organizations, can help lower these costs. Current teachers may get additional help from their district, especially if you’re focusing on an area of high need and agree to teach in the district for a certain number of years.
Considering the high cost of earning a master's teaching degree, you may be curious how much teachers make after completing this additional education. According to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), high school teachers in the top 10%—those most likely to hold a master’s degree with several years of classroom experience—earned more than $102,130. You might be surprised to learn that a teaching career can pull down a six-figure salary.
Find out more about how a master’s in education can position you to earn a higher salary.
Doctoral Degrees in Education
Doctorates are ideal for those who plan to teach at the college level or work in administration, particularly as superintendents or in educational policy. Many doctoral programs require a master’s teaching degree before you enroll, though some will allow entrance with a bachelor’s degree.
These degrees can sometimes be completed online, but you should still expect to participate in practicum or other hands-on work as part of the capstone project. Hybrid online/in-person programs that meet periodically are more common at the doctoral level.
For K–12 teachers, the pay bump from a master’s to a doctoral degree is often smaller than the difference between a bachelor’s and master’s, so don’t expect a big return on investment if you plan to continue teaching K–12. Check your district’s salary schedule before making this leap.
Most education doctoral programs cost similar to master’s programs and can run even higher. Doctoral candidates borrow an average of $49,950 to fund their studies. However, it's common for colleges to fully fund doctoral students in exchange for working as a teaching or research assistant.
Learn more about how you can earn your doctorate in education.
What skills do you need to be a teacher?
Remember that effective teaching goes beyond just figuring out what degree do you need to be a teacher. There are various "soft skills" you'll need, depending on what level of education you go into. Patience, creativity, attention to detail, and top-notch organizational skills are all incredibly important when guiding and shaping young lives. Depending on the age group you're interested in, you may need higher aptitude in some skills than others.
Step 4: Get Hands-On Experience
In addition to the coursework that is part of learning how to become a teacher, you'll also need to get practical experience in a classroom to begin your teaching career. After all, lessons and lectures are helpful in theory, but the only way to truly know what teaching is like is to do it yourself. This part of your education is very often built into your teaching degree program, where you'll complete student teaching rotations at local schools in tandem with your own lessons.
Your hands-on shadowing can often be the most critical part in determining whether teaching is a good fit for you. That's why it’s important to make sure you enjoy where you'll be doing your student teaching, as far as you can control your experience. Once you're accepted into your teacher education program, start doing research on the schools in your area. You'll want to note things like classroom size, curriculum, administration makeup and attitudes, and support options for yourself as you navigate this new world.
During this time, you'll be able to put your learnings into practice and develop the critical skills that go along with the age level and subjects you want to teach. You may even find that the experience shifts you into a completely different teaching field than what you thought you'd enjoy. Building relationships with the students and teachers at your chosen school can also blossom into a potential job offer down the road.
Step 5: Fulfill the Testing Requirements for Your State
As the culmination of your journey of how to become a teacher, you'll need to put your education to the test with your state's teacher certification exam. Passing this test is how you'll earn your license to teach in your state—and if you move, you'll need to test again in your new location.
Requirements for your teaching exam vary based on where you live, but you should generally be prepared to pass a basic skills test, as well as one or more subject knowledge exams based on what you plan to teach. Your state may also require a pedagogy exam, where you'll demonstrate your grasp of the practical skills of teaching. Make sure to fully research your state's requirements well before you're eligible to test so that you're fully prepared.
Step 6: Apply to Jobs
Congratulations! You've completed your teaching degree, passed your exams, and are now a licensed teacher! Now it's time to find a role at a school that will not only help you grow professionally, but also where you feel inspired to give your best to your students each day.
As mentioned, if you built strong relationships at the school where you did your student teaching, you may be lucky enough to have a job offer immediately upon graduation. If not, though, you'll likely still find open positions in several districts near you—and teacher shortages are a perennial problem for schools nationwide. Speak to your network of fellow students and professors and ask other teachers you know about any openings. Check the websites of your local school districts or school boards and explore educator job sites and non-profits in your state.
I Already Have a Different Degree. How Do I Become a Teacher?
You have a few options if you currently have a degree that isn’t in education, but you will still want to learn how to become a teacher.
- Alternative certification: Often the quickest and least costly path, alternative certifications focus strictly on teaching methods rather than educational subjects. Though requirements vary by state, you can generally gain all necessary knowledge and your licensure through this path alone. Online programs help you maintain your employment while studying, though you may need to participate in student teaching. Earning this certification instead of a bachelor’s in education will usually not hurt your chances of getting a job, but it depends on the individual employer. You’ll likely start at a first-year teacher salary, and any previous work will usually not count toward your years of experience.
- Post-baccalaureate: A post-baccalaureate gets you an additional bachelor’s degree without having to start from scratch, as you only need to complete the education program’s requirements. These are often more expensive than alternative certifications and may be harder to find in a largely online format.
- Master’s degree: As stated above, this degree is an option if you have a bachelor’s in a different field—and will often net you higher pay than an undergraduate degree alone. While some master’s programs require a bachelor’s in education, not all do. Master’s programs are generally more expensive than alternative certifications or post-baccalaureate teaching degrees, but they can often be taken online (except student teaching), and you can keep your current job.
I Have Years of Work Experience and Want to Teach My Skills. How Can I Do That?
If you're wondering, "can I become a teacher without a degree?" you may be interested in exploring a career in CTE. This type of education is right for those who have been working for several years and want to share their knowledge with middle school or high school students. Rather than a teaching degree, you typically only need a minimum number of years of fieldwork and to pass relevant exams (though this varies by state). Dozens of subjects fall under this umbrella, from agriculture and construction to business, depending on your state.
I’m Already a Teacher but I Want to Teach Something New. How Can I Do That?
If you're looking to change direction—either to teach a new subject or work with a different population—you'll generally need to get additional endorsements or certifications in new areas.
- Additional endorsements: For some fields and in some states, you can earn an additional endorsement simply by passing a subject-matter test—like the Praxis exam—if you’re a certified teacher or working toward becoming one. Other states will require additional coursework before taking the exam. Your district may offer incentives for endorsements in high-need areas (like covering your exam costs) in exchange for you agreeing to continue teaching in the district for a certain number of years. “High-need areas” can be subjects with teacher shortages in the district (often science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects) or specific populations, such as English language learners. Unlike master’s degrees, additional endorsements generally don't produce a jump in pay, though any coursework may count toward professional development requirements.
- Graduate certificates: Much like an additional endorsement, this path allows you to teach a new subject—but it always involves coursework. You can keep teaching as you earn your certificate, however, since certificate programs can almost always be completed strictly online.
- Educational specialist degree: This teaching degree falls between a master’s and a doctorate. It focuses intensively on a particular area, like leadership or curriculum development, and prepares you for work as an administrator, department head, or instructional designer. You may also be able to work at the college level as a dean or instructor. Most programs are hybrids of both online and in-person learning, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to quit your job, as they usually understand their students are full-time educators and plan their requirements accordingly.
Finding the Right School
If teaching is your calling, your first step is finding the right school to support you down your path to becoming a teacher. Our state-specific list of accepted programs helps you understand your unique requirements and gives you insights into which schools best meet your needs to earn your teaching degree. Whether you're looking for online or in-person courses, whether you're a recent grad or looking for a new career, finding the right teaching program is integral to your success later in the classroom.
Need a little extra guidance? Our Expert Advice section also offers tips for new teachers, interview advice, suggestions for using technology in the classroom, financial aid information, and more.
Find Your Degree or Certification
I'm In! Where Do I Start?
If you're ready to begin or advance your teaching career, we have a wealth of resources for you! Our overarching state page provides a list of accepted programs in each location, and you can visit your individual state's page to learn about their unique requirements. You could also head over to our Expert Advice section to find tips for new teachers, interview advice, suggestions for using technology in the classroom, financial aid information, and many other useful articles.
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