Frequently Asked Questions About Teacher Certification

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Do all teachers need to be certified?

Teachers don't always need a teacher certification. In some states, substitute teachers and teacher aides do not need to earn a teaching license. Also, most private school teachers are not required to hold a teaching license. However, if you want to work as a full-time teacher in a public school system, you will need to earn a teaching license from the state where you will be teaching.

teacher certification

What are the main requirements for teacher certification?

Each state has its own set of rules and requirements when it comes to teacher licensure. Most states require the following 3 things, at minimum:

A bachelor degree from a regionally accredited college or university

A passing score on a state teacher exam or a Praxis Series™ exam

Completion of an “approved teacher training program.”

What is an approved teacher training program?

An approved teacher training program is an educational program that has been approved by the state in which it is based. It might also be called an approved educator preparation program, or ATTP.

ATTPs include a supervised period of teaching experience, usually known as a “practicum” or “student teaching.” Student teaching must always be completed as part of an ATTP. (In other words, you can’t independently volunteer at a preschool, or work as a substitute teacher, and expect to have those hours counted towards your student teaching experience.)

How can I complete an approved teacher training program?

ATTPs are often built into education degrees. That means, if you don’t already have a college degree, the easiest way to complete your ATTP is to enroll in a bachelor degree program that is recognized by your state’s department of education. Some online education degrees are recognized as being ATTPs.

If, however, you already have a bachelor degree, and your original bachelor degree did not include any education coursework, you can complete the ATTP requirement in one of 2 ways.

You can enroll in something known as a post-baccalaureate program, which provides the ATTP credit you need – usually in less than a year.

You can complete your ATTP as part of a master’s degree in education, which usually takes 2 or 3 years. This is a smart idea if you live in a state where all teachers are eventually required to earn master degrees.

Why do I have to complete an approved teacher training program?

ATTPs are important because they teach educators how to teach. Besides subject knowledge, certified teachers need to know teaching technique and teaching theory. For example, Bill Gates might know a lot about computers, but he might not know anything about how to manage a classroom, plan a lesson, or help students to understand his course material.

How can I complete my student teaching experience online?

You can’t. In order to become a certified teacher, you must complete a student teaching component, as part of an approved teacher training program. Student teaching is an in-person experience. Student teachers work in real classrooms, alongside veteran teachers, who monitor and advise.

That said, if you are attending an online school your school can arrange for you to complete your student teaching at a school in your area. Even if your online school is based in Arizona, your student teaching experience can be completed in your neighborhood.

If you’re concerned about the in-person aspect of your degree program, speak with a school admissions advisor before you enroll. He can give you a clearer picture of the student teaching commitment. You can also investigate which local schools might sponsor your student teaching.

What is initial or provisional teacher certification?

In many states, new teachers receive a temporary license, which acts as a stepping stone to a more permanent license. The temporary license is sometimes known as an “initial certification,” or a “provisional certification.” This type of license entitles a teacher to work in a state school system, for a limited amount of time, even if she hasn’t completed an ATTP, or passed the state’s standardized exams. She can become professionally certified later, once the necessary criteria have been met. Temporary licenses are usually not renewable – except in special circumstances.

What is professional or standard teacher certification?

Professional teacher certification (also known as a standard teaching license or a full teaching license) is earned after a teacher accumulates several years of successful employment under an initial or provisional license. Before earning professional certification, teachers must complete any outstanding requirements (e.g. passing scores on standardized tests). Full teaching licenses can often be transferred for employment in other states; initial or temporary licenses usually cannot be transferred.

Most states require teachers to periodically renew their professional certifications. For long-term licensure, teachers might be required to obtain a master degree, or participate in continuing education programs.

What kind of teaching license do I need?

As you probably know, there’s more than one kind of teaching license. That’s because there’s more than one kind of teacher. You can study early childhood education or secondary education, technical education or fine arts education. You may be interested in working with students who have special needs. You may wish to achieve school principal status or earn a professional title, like school psychologist. All these different types of degrees involve different sets of certification requirements. Make sure you’ve checked your school’s educator program against your state’s requirements before you enroll.

What is reciprocity?

Reciprocity is an agreement some states observe in regards to teacher licensure. If a state has reciprocity with other states, it will generally accept teaching certificates that have been earned outside its borders. This allows out-of-state, professionally certified teachers to transfer their credentials - usually without having to take a new set of state exams and/or complete more academic programs. However, reciprocity is not always guaranteed. Certain types of teaching certificates (e.g. emergency certificates, substitute certificates, or temporary certificates) may not be reciprocal from one state to another. Oftentimes, new tests and other quality checks are still required.

Does my state honor out-of-state (or online) teaching degrees?

Many states will recognize out-of-state, teacher education programs that have been “approved” by the states in which they are located. This is another form of reciprocity. For example, Walden University is based in Minnesota. The state of Minnesota includes Walden University’s Early Childhood Education program among its list of approved school programs, which means that this Walden program can lead to a Minnesota teacher certification.

Colorado is a state that recognizes other states’ approved programs. Consequently, a Colorado resident could earn his Early Childhood Education degree online, through Walden University, and be recommended for initial certification in Colorado. Other state-specific requirements would apply (including standardized tests, background checks, etc), but the degree itself should be a permissible credential, which can be used towards initial licensure in a state like Colorado.

Overall, this is a complicated question. More specific answers are available in the State-by-State Teacher Certification Guide.

How many classes or credit hours do I need to take?

Some states are very specific about the type of credit hours a teacher preparation program needs to include. (Credit hours are academic units that are awarded after the completion of a college class. Most college classes are worth 3 credit hours – as in, 3 hours of class meeting time per week.) Some states put a specific number on the credit hours that need to be completed within certain subjects. For example, elementary school teacher candidates in New Mexico need to complete 6 credit hours of reading methodology. Depending on the state, credit hour requirements can be very detailed or fairly relaxed.

Will my online college meet all of the requirements listed by my state’s department of education?

This is a tricky point that often complicates the certification process for online students. Most states don’t disapprove of online programs categorically. But, they sometimes take issue with programs that are based (online) out-of-state because these programs don’t encompass all of their specific, in-state designs – including credit hour requirements.

That doesn’t mean that an online degree or online teacher preparation program can’t lead to licensure in your state. It does mean, however, that you’ll first want to investigate online programs that are based in your own state. More and more public and private schools are offering degree programs with online components. If your state does not house an online teaching degree program, you can usually enroll in an out-of-state option, and take care to address any state-mandated credit hour requirements with your program advisor. Or, in some cases, you can complete missed credits at a local institution while teaching under a temporary or provisional license.

What if I already have a bachelor degree, but I’ve never done any student teaching?

Teacher candidates who already hold bachelor degrees can usually find special programs that allow them to move into teaching, without starting from scratch. Each state lists its own guidelines and program titles for alternate certification routes. Because these programs are specially designed to adhere to state policies, alternative programs (sometimes called post-bac programs) are usually best completed in your own home state. In other words, if you want to pursue an alternate certification route, you should view the options available in the state where you plan to teach.

Further, alternative routes to teacher licensure may only be viable at the middle school and high school levels. In many states, alternative routes are not designed to lead to elementary or early childhood education certificates. In part, this is due to the subject-specific nature of secondary teaching. High school math teachers only teach math, whereas first grade teachers need to teach math, reading, handwriting, etc. If you are certain you want to teach at the elementary level (preschool 5th grade), and you have a bachelor degree in an unrelated field, call your state’s department of education to learn more about alternative route possibilities.

What are alternative certification routes?

In an effort to attract more teachers who are qualified to teach math, science, technology and other in-demand subjects, some states are creating easy transition routes for professionals who have STEM-related, professional experience. If you have a degree in science, technology, or even a foreign language, you may find a school district that’s willing to file an emergency license on your behalf. In such cases, you can usually get paid to teach, while you work towards earning the school credits and exam scores you need for professional licensure.

Some states are also encouraging military members to make a career change into teaching. This effort is helping to boost male teacher applications, particularly in rural or urban school districts, where positive male role models are a huge asset to public education systems. If you’re a member of the Armed Forces, and you’re interested in a teaching career, check out the Troops to Teachers program in your state.

If my education degree doesn’t lead to teacher certification, is it still worth anything?

If you earn a degree from an accredited institution, and you put forth your best effort, you will learn concepts and develop a background that will enhance your career. This is true even if your degree program is not one that leads directly to state teacher certification.

Private schools, private tutoring agencies, day care centers, nonprofit organizations, and home-based child care agencies all welcome education-related degrees and certificates, even if a job candidate is not state-certified. Moreover, if you do well with your bachelor degree, you’ll improve your chances of admittance into a master degree program or an alternative teacher certification program, whereupon you can work towards your teaching license if you eventually choose to do so.

What can I do with an associate degree in education?

A.A. or A.S. graduates can work in daycare centers, after-school programs, and in public schools, as teacher aides. In some states, you can work as a substitute teacher with an associate degree in education.

An associate degree is a smart choice if you’re interested in teaching, but you’re not ready to begin a full bachelor degree program. For example, if your high school grades weren’t very high, you might be concerned that college work will prove too intense. An A.A. or A.S. in education is perfect for you. If you choose to stop after 2 years, you’ll have an actual degree in education, instead of just an incomplete attempt at a bachelor degree.

On the other hand, many associate degree students discover that college coursework is not overwhelming – especially since they’re working towards a degree that they enjoy. They continue working towards a B.A. or B.S. in education, which leads to even more job opportunities.

What can I do with a bachelor degree in education?

Bachelor degrees in education are a good option for students who intend to become licensed educators. (Generally speaking, licensed educators are full-time teachers, employed by a public school system.) A bachelor degree is usually the first step towards initial teacher licensure, a.k.a. initial teacher certification.

Because bachelor degrees in education are designed to prepare future teachers, they are very helpful in assisting students with the teacher certification process. For example, licensed teachers are required to complete a monitored, teaching training experience. A bachelor degree in education is usually prearranged to include this monitored experience, sometimes known as a teaching practicum. Most programs will also help to prepare you for the standardized certification exams that your state requires. That means, when you graduate from a B.A. or B.S. program, you are much closer to earning initial teacher licensure.

For more information on teacher certification, refer to our State by State Teacher Certification Guide, and contact your state’s department of education.

How can I become a substitute teacher?

That depends. Substitute teaching requirements vary by state – or sometimes, by local school district. Some states require that you first obtain a substitute teacher license or a substitute teacher permit. There’s also a license called an emergency substitute teacher permit. Check with your state’s department of education website.

In states where permits are required, there is usually a minimum education requirement. Highly selective states require candidates to hold at least a bachelor degree. Less selective states require 60 hours of college coursework or less. (60 hours of college coursework is equal to the amount of credits earned in most associate degree programs.) The substitute permit application process involves submitting copies of your college transcripts, a criminal background check, and a small fee.

If you live in a state where substitute teacher permits are not required, you should contact the local superintendent’s office for more information on substitute teacher employment. Even if a degree is not required by the local district, college coursework will make you a more attractive substitute teacher candidate. (School principals are more likely to call you for substitute assignments if you have some relevant training and/or experience.)

How much can I expect to earn as a teacher?

Teacher salaries vary depending on where you teach and what you teach. As a rule, high school teachers earn more than elementary school teachers. And geographically speaking, teacher salaries are higher in California and the Northeast states than anywhere else in the country.

Of course, very few teachers set their sights on education with the idea of getting rich. Educators pursue teaching for the opportunity to enrich student lives, and to share their passion for learning. Teaching is also an attractive career because of the family-friendly work schedule and the long-term job security it often provides.