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How to Become a Teacher

Almost every person can remember an educator who made a difference in their life. The teachers you remember fondly probably had patience, the ability to explain things clearly, the energy and flexibility to interact with large groups of students of all ages and backgrounds, and a passion for passing their learning on to their students. Most importantly, though: they cared.

Whether you’re a high school student deciding what to study in college, an experienced professional considering a career change, or anywhere in between—do you think about following in that teacher’s footsteps? Then you might have what it takes to embark on a career as a teacher.

On this page, we answer all your questions about how to become a teacher, including what types of degrees there are, what degree programs entail, alternate routes to becoming a teacher, and how to become licensed.

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Should I Become a Teacher?

Before deciding to go to school to become a teacher (or to switch careers to teaching), it’s essential to educate yourself about the profession. Teaching looks very different from the “inside” than from the students’ points of view.

Learn About Being a Teacher

Learn about the average day, week, and year for a teacher. The best way to do this is by talking directly to teachers. Remember, every teacher’s experience is different, so make sure to get information from a variety of sources. If you have any teachers in your life, talk to them about what they do. No-holds-barred: allow them to give you the full picture. There are also a variety of websites written by teachers for teachers where you can see a clear picture of what to expect. If you’re a high school student, see if you can arrange to shadow one of your teachers for a day.

A great way to dip your toe into the water without taking four years to earn a degree is by becoming a paraprofessional or aide. These fields are generally paid hourly and allow you to work one-on-one or with small groups of students with needs, like special education (SPED) students, gifted and talented youths, or those in English as a second language (ESL) programs. You generally need a minimum of a high school diploma or GED and possibly an associate degree or certification. These jobs typically max out at 40 hours per week and include benefits but don’t require the outside work of grading or lesson planning. Taking such a position could allow you to see what it is like working in a school every day and help you make an informed decision about your career path.

Think About What You Want to Teach

If teaching still sounds like the right path for you, then think about what and why you want to teach. If you feel you have a solid grasp on a variety of subjects and enjoy working with young people, elementary education might be right for you. If you have an interest in a particular area, like business or science, middle or high school might be better. No matter what you love, from theatre to agriculture, there is likely a teaching career for you.

Don’t discount an age group if you have bad memories about being that age—remembering what it was like to be 13 might make you the perfect middle school teacher. This is another situation where you should speak to, or even shadow, a teacher of the age group you’re considering. You might love seven-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.

Consider Teacher Salary, Workload, and Job Growth

Once you’ve figured out what you’d like to teach, it’s time to consider pay, workload, and job opportunities. Teachers are generally on contracts averaging 39 weeks, or 180 days, but they actually average 275 working days per year—compared to an average of 261 in other careers. Summers are usually “unpaid,” but paychecks from the months in the classroom are spread throughout the year. Teachers often spend their summers partaking in additional professional development and planning for the upcoming year—though most find time to relax as well!

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. 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.

Teachers can often earn additional money directly through their schools as well. You could run an after-school activity like directing the plays or coaching a sport, chaperone events, or teach summer school.

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Teacher?

To become a full-fledged teacher, you generally need a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degrees in education can qualify you for the license you need, and get you into the classroom directly after graduation. But if you realize after earning a degree in a different field that teaching is the life for you, there’s still plenty of options on the table for getting the education you need.

Associate Degrees Related to Education

Associate degrees in education fields 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. In some states, if you have a few years of on-the-job experience in another field, you’ll be able to work in CTE.

Getting an associate degree is also an excellent stepping-stone to getting a bachelor’s. In many cases, you’ll be able to transfer credits to a four-year university, saving you some money on your bachelor’s degree. Remember that not all four-year colleges will accept all of your credits, so talk to your two-year institution’s advisor to ensure you’re taking classes that are likely to be recognized elsewhere. If you have a four-year institution picked out, talk to them about the same thing.

The most recent National Center for Education Statistics data available for the 2018–2019 school year shows two-year degree programs cost approximately $3,313 at public institutions for state residents eligible for residential rates. Private institutions cost a whole lot more, ranging between $15,360 per year at for-profit schools and $16,626 on average for private non-profits. Still, with programs taking only around two years to complete, Forbes pegs the the average student debt for associate’s degree holders at less than $10,000 total.

If you don’t want to earn an associate degree but still want to take some classes at a two-year institution, this could also help lower your costs. You could do this before enrolling in a four-year college or over school breaks during a bachelor’s program.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Education

Bachelor’s degrees take an average of four years to complete and prepare you for licensure exams. While the degrees are usually in education in general, if you’re preparing to teach middle grades or high school, they will also include a focus that prepares you for your content area endorsement in the subject you plan to teach. If you hope to work in administration, you’ll likely need to earn a master’s degree—though teaching for a few years first is advisable, if not required.

Bachelor’s programs in education can be taken largely online, but of course you’ll also participate in on-site student teaching rotations in actual classrooms at local schools even if all your coursework is delivered online. There are also hybrid options where you’ll take many courses online, while still meeting on-campus 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, coming in at $31,875 per year. As high as private school rates appear to be, for international students and those coming in from out of state who don’t qualify for the steeply discounted residential rates available at state schools, private college tuition rates can be very competitive and sometimes even lower.

With the average student loan amount for four-year programs coming in at $7,200 a year (nearly $29,000 total) according to the National Center for Education Statistics, it’s a good idea to explore all your options.

Master’s Degrees in Education

If you’re a current teacher hoping to advance your career or a career-changer with your eyes on teaching, a master’s degree program could be right for you. Master’s degrees allow you to focus your training even more heavily on subject-area content than a bachelor’s program designed for teacher preparation. That’s because at the master’s level, the degree can be in the content area you’ll be teaching, with education courses added in that meet the requirements for a teaching license and an endorsement in that area. Bachelor’s programs for teacher preparation are usually structured the other way around, offering broad instruction in pedagogy with content area courses added. You’ll also find master’s programs structured specifically around teaching in your content area – everything from SPED to music education.

High school teachers in the top ten percent – those most likely to hold a master’s degree and have several years of classroom experience  – earned more than $102,130 as of 2020 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You might not think of teaching as a career that lets you pull down a six-figure salary, but in the right position it’s certainly attainable.

A master’s degree is standard for principals and other administrators. Although you generally need a doctorate to teach at the postsecondary level, some two-year institutions only require teachers to have master’s degrees.

Many master’s programs can be taken almost entirely online, designed to accommodate working teachers interested in advanced credentials, as well as career changers who aren’t in a position to go to school full-time. If you’re entering your teaching career for the first time, there will always be student teaching requirements, even in a program that is otherwise fully online.

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, with the degrees taking an average of two to three years to complete. To cover those costs, master’s graduates borrowed a total of $59,100 on average by the time they completed their program.

While these numbers might seem intimidating, there are several ways to lower your costs. Of course, you should apply for federal and state grants and scholarships, as well as scholarships that might be available from non-profits, and even private sector organizations, or anywhere else you can think of. Additionally, many students borrow enough to cover cost of living expenses. If you’re not relocating or planning to live on-campus, and you plan to continue working, you can really keep your student debt in check.

And if you’re a current teacher, your district may be willing to help cover some of your costs as well, especially if you’re focusing on an area of high need and are agree to teach in the district for a certain number of years.

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. 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. Many doctoral programs require a master’s 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.

The annual cost of most education doctoral programs is similar to that of master’s and can run even higher. Doctoral candidates borrow an average of $49,950 to fund their studies. However, it’s worth remembering it isn’t uncommon for doctoral students to be fully funded by colleges in exchange for working as a teaching or research assistant.

I Already Have a Different Degree. How Do I Become a Teacher?

If you have a degree that isn’t in education, but you want to make the switch to teaching, there are many options for you.

  • Alternative certification: This path is often the quickest and least costly. Alternative certifications focus strictly on teaching, and though requirements vary by state, you can generally gain all necessary knowledge and your licensure through this path alone. It isn’t uncommon for programs to be offered entirely online, except for any student teaching, so you can maintain your employment while studying. Earning this certification instead of a bachelor’s in education will usually not hurt your chances of getting a job—depending on the individual employer, of course. You probably won’t earn more money than a teacher with a bachelor’s in education, and your previous work will usually not count toward your years of experience, so you’ll likely start at a first-year teacher salary.
  • Post-baccalaureate: A post-baccalaureate gets you an additional bachelor’s degree without having to start from scratch—you only need to take the education program’s requirements. These are often more expensive than alternative certification and may be harder to find in a largely-online format.
  • Master’s degree: As stated above, this degree is an option for those who have a bachelor’s in a different field—and having a master’s will often net you a higher level of starting pay than an undergraduate degree alone. While some master’s programs may require you to have a bachelor’s degree in education, not all do. Master’s programs are generally more expensive than alternative certifications or post-baccalaureate 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?

Career and technical education (CTE) is right for those who have been working for several years and want to share their knowledge with middle school or high school students. A bachelor’s degree is often not required, though this varies by state; typically, you only need a minimum number of years of fieldwork and to pass relevant exams. Dozens of subjects fall under this umbrella, from agriculture to construction to business. However, permitted topics also vary by state.

I’m Already a Teacher, but I Want to Teach Something New. How Can I Do That?

It isn’t uncommon for teachers to want to change direction—either to teach a new subject or to work with a different population. This can generally be achieved by getting endorsements or certifications in new areas. There are a few ways to go about this.

  • 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, as long as you’re a certified teacher or working toward becoming one. Other states will require you to take coursework in the area before taking the exam. Your district may offer incentives for high-need areas, including test prep or covering the cost of the exam, in exchange for you agreeing to continue teaching in the district for a certain number of years. “High-need area” can refer to a subject with a shortage of teachers in the district—frequently science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects—or to work with specific populations, such as English language learners. Unlike master’s degrees, additional endorsements will not generally earn you a jump in the pay scale, 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 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 with this degree. Most programs are hybrids, meaning they involve both online and in-person learning, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to quit your job—they usually understand their students are full-time educators and plan their requirements accordingly.

Other Careers in Education

If you’re interested in a career in education, but you find that teaching isn’t right for you, you have a variety of options. Many of these can begin with a degree in education, though some require different or additional training. They can include but aren’t limited to school counseling, instructional technology, and careers outside of schools like those in nonprofits or policymaking.

Which Type of Degree or Certification is Best for Me?

Find Your Degree or Certification

Associate’s Degree

  • You want to work in early childhood education.
  • You want to become a paraprofessional or aide.
  • You aren’t sure you want to be a teacher and need to learn more before paying for a bachelor’s.
  • You want to transfer credits to a four-year school, saving some money.

Bachelor’s Degree

  • You want to teach at the K–12 level.
  • You want to begin a career path toward working in administration.

Master’s Degree

  • You want to raise your pay and expertise as a teacher at the K–12 level.
  • You want to work in administration.
  • You want to teach at the college level (particularly community colleges).
  • You have a bachelor’s in a different subject and wish to return to school for a master’s in teaching instead of going through an alternative program.

Doctoral Degree

Alternative Certification

  • You have a bachelor’s degree in a different subject, but you want to switch careers and become a K–12 teacher.

Educational Specialist

  • You want to specialize and perhaps become a department head.
  • You want to work in curriculum development.
  • You want to work in leadership and policy.
  • You want to work in a non-teaching area of education.

Graduate Certificate

  • You’re already a teacher and want to be able to teach a new subject or population.

Additional Endorsement

  • You’re already a teacher and want to be able to teach a new subject or population.

Career and Technical Education Certification

  • You have years of experience in a highly-specialized field, from trades to business, and want to share your knowledge with young learners.

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.