5-Step Guide to Alternative Teacher Certification

8 min read
female teacher smiles at female student and high fives with overlay text reading 5-step guide to alternative teacher certification process

Becoming a certified K–12 teacher typically involves completing a series of standard educational requirements and passing a licensing exam. While the traditional route remains the most common way to become a teacher, alternative teacher certification programs have become an increasingly viable option for those seeking more flexible (and expedited) routes into the classroom.

Bottom line — there is no one way to become a teacher, especially in an age of such diverse professional aspirations. If you’re considering teaching grade school without a master’s degree, it’s important to understand the various types of alternative certifications, their requirements, challenges and limitations.

What Is Required to Become a Teacher?

In most states, aspiring teachers must pass a state-administered licensure exam to teach in a public school. Most teachers gain the content knowledge needed to pass these exams by following a standard educational and preparatory path:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree
    A Bachelor of Arts in Education is the most common undergraduate degree K–12 teachers hold. Some may choose to focus on a specific area, such as Early Childhood Education or Special Education. It is also possible to become a teacher without a B.A. in Education, especially if you have a degree in the content area you want to teach. You can become a certified teacher with only a bachelor’s degree, but additional requirements vary by state.
  2. Complete state-approved teacher training
    Following completion of their undergraduate studies, aspiring educators must take state-approved teacher training programs, which include coursework in pedagogy, classroom management and subject-specific methodologies.
  3. Complete student teaching requirements
    Practical experience is a requirement in most, if not all, undergraduate education programs. This is where aspiring teachers can apply everything they’ve learned in a real-life classroom setting.
  4. Pass a background check
    Background checks are used to verify someone’s educational and professional history, certifications, degrees and criminal record. They are typically required for anyone who works with children.
  5. Earn a master’s degree
    Many states require public elementary school teachers to hold a Master of Education degree (M.Ed.), either as a prerequisite for initial certification or as a professional development requirement while actively teaching. This is because elementary school teachers must have in-depth knowledge of various teaching methods and children’s cognitive learning abilities so they can deliver course information in age-appropriate formats.
  6. Pass a state licensure exam
    This is the final step to becoming a fully certified teacher. Depending on your education and prior professional experience, you can become certified without a master’s degree. Teachers must be certified in every U.S. state in which they plan to teach, although all 50 states maintain an interstate reciprocity agreement.

What Is an Alternative Teacher Certification program?

Alternative teacher certification applies to any scenario that does not follow the typical route outlined in the previous section.

Alternative certification programs were primarily designed to address critical teacher shortages, but have since expanded to include anyone who cannot or does not wish to follow the traditional path. For example, individuals who are unable to complete all the required coursework for an undergraduate or graduate degree may opt to complete their preparation via an alternative route.

Alternative teacher certification programs provide a faster and more flexible route into the classroom, and are accessible to people from diverse educational backgrounds who possess a passion for teaching. Unlike traditional teaching programs, not all alternative certification programs are affiliated with a college or university, though they can be nationally accredited.

There are alternative certification options available in most U.S. states, though the additional requirements for becoming a fully licensed teacher vary. Some certification programs are conducted in person, but many are offered online or through hybrid models, including those furnished by colleges or universities.

Aspiring teachers who already have a bachelor’s degree typically take one to two years to complete an alternative teacher certification program. If you want to teach a specific age group or demographic, such as elementary-age students or those with special needs, you may need to take additional specialized courses, which can increase the certification timeline.

Requirements for Alternative Routes to Certification

Candidates pursuing alternative routes to certification typically need to meet certain prerequisites. They must hold at least a bachelor’s degree; if not in education, then preferably in the subject they intend to teach. Holding an undergraduate degree can expedite the transition into the classroom.

Most states require prospective teachers to attend a program that has been approved by A) that state’s teacher licensing or certification board; or B) by the licensing or certification board in the state in which the program is located. Alternative certification programs may also require candidates to maintain a minimum GPA and provide official transcripts.

Challenges and Considerations of Alternative Certifications

There’s a reason most aspiring teachers follow the traditional route to certification, including earning their masters degree. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the alternative path poses some challenges.

The most significant consideration is that alternative teaching preparation is not accepted by all U.S. states or public schools (more on this later). Some states and schools impose additional requirements on teachers who forgo the traditional route, while others may not recognize certain types of alternative preparation at all. This can render the benefit of a shorter timeline moot.

A master’s degree is becoming a more frequent requirement for public school teachers, even for those who teach at the middle or high school levels. The lack of a master’s degree may also limit salary or advancement opportunities, particularly in states where graduate degrees are required for certain teaching positions or professional development.

Common Routes to Alternative Teaching Certification

The typical process for becoming certified through an alternative program is as follows:

  1. Apply to and enroll in a state-approved alternative certification program.
  2. Complete the required coursework.
  3. Apply for a provisional teaching certificate to complete the student teaching requirement.
  4. Pass state-specific teaching exam. (Note: some alternative certification programs require at least a passing score on these exams before admission to the program, which would require prior educational preparation.)
  5. Apply for a professional teaching license.

Regarding Step 3, some states grant provisional or transitional certificates to candidates who are not yet finished with their certification so they can work while completing the program. This is a common option in online certification programs.

Note that each state has its own requirements for those who have a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than education. The Department of Education (DOE) in each state will have information about the most current requirements.

There are several options for alternative routes to teaching:

  • Accelerated certification programs: Intensive programs for individuals who have a bachelor’s degree and want to become a certified teacher on a shorter timeline
  • Emergency teaching credentials: Temporary licenses that allow the holder to bypass the standard certification process in high-need situations
  • Transferring teaching credentials from another country: May allow teachers trained in another country to bypass the educational component and jump to the standard U.S. certification process
  • Private and charter schools: These institutions are not regulated by the state, so they can set their own standards for teacher qualifications, including not requiring licensure.
  • Transition to Teaching: For veterans transitioning into the workforce following active service
  • National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) certification: A nationally recognized credential that may exempt teachers from state-specific requirements
  • Career and technical education certification: Certain types of instructors may forgo teaching certification in favor of demonstrated expertise in their field.
  • In-district training: May exempt teachers from completing a state certification program if the training aligns with the state’s requirements
  • Teaching equivalency and portfolio evaluations: If an aspiring teacher can demonstrate that they have completed work equivalent to the experience required by the state’s DOE, they may be granted a license without completing the state’s program.

It is possible to work in a teaching capacity without certification, but this is limited to opportunities such as student teaching, substitute teaching or teacher support roles including teachers’ assistants, paraeducators and classroom volunteers. A bachelor’s degree is typically still required to work in the classroom, as well as state- or district-specific requirements.

Average Costs for Alternative Teacher Certification

One of the most appealing aspects of alternative teacher certification programs is their relatively lower cost compared to traditional degree programs. While costs can vary significantly depending on the program format, location and duration, alternative certification programs can range from several thousand to $30,000. The comparatively lower price tag makes alternative routes to certification accessible to a broader range of individuals, including career changers and working professionals seeking to transition into teaching.

Alternative Teacher Certification vs. Traditional Teacher Certification

There are many, many variables that affect the choice to pursue a traditional or alternative route to certification, and there is no “right” way. It’s important to understand the similarities and differences between the two paths so you can make the best decision for your circumstances. In the following comparison, the path described in the traditional teacher certification column assumes someone who only has a bachelor’s degree (not a master’s).

Traditional Teacher CertificationAlternative Teacher Certification
  • 4-year bachelor’s degree required, preferably in education or a relevant subject

  • May specialize in a certain subject or type of teaching within an undergrad program

  • Complete student teaching while earning a bachelor’s degree

  • Complete a state-approved teacher preparation program

  • Pass state licensing exam

  • 4–5 years to complete

  • More opportunities for professional advancement

  • Accepted in every U.S. state
  • 4-year bachelor’s degree preferred (not necessarily in a relevant subject)

  • Must complete a state-approved teacher preparation program

  • Complete student teaching independent of earning a degree

  • Pass state licensing exam

  • Specializations require additional training/licensure

  • 1–2 years to complete

  • Potentially limited opportunities for professional advancement

  • Not accepted in every state

  • Frequently offered in online and hybrid formats

Alternative Certification vs. Masters Degree

It’s also important to understand what you gain by completing a master’s degree versus an alternative path to certification. Keep in mind that many graduate schools offer educational degree specializations, such as curriculum design, school administration, special education and teaching STEAM subjects.

Master of EducationAlternative Teacher Certification
  • 4-year bachelor’s degree required, preferably in education or a relevant subject

  • Provides in-depth instruction in pedagogy and teaching methods

  • May specialize in a certain subject or type of teaching within a graduate program

  • Must have already completed a teacher preparation program

  • Candidates have typically already passed a state licensing exam

  • Can be completed while teaching full-time

  • 2 years to complete

  • More opportunities for professional advancement

  • Becoming a requirement in more secondary public schools

  • Increasingly offered in online or hybrid formats

  • 4-year bachelor’s degree preferred (not necessarily in a relevant subject)

  • Provides high-level instruction

  • Must complete a teacher preparation program

  • Complete student teaching independent of earning a degree

  • Pass state licensing exam

  • Specializations require additional training/licensure

  • 1–2 years to complete

  • Potentially limited opportunities for professional advancement

  • Not accepted in every state

  • Frequently offered in online and hybrid formats

  • Can be ideal preparation for a master’s program

Alternative Certification Requirements by State

Navigating the requirements for alternative teacher certification can be an arduous process, as they vary significantly from state to state. After completing any kind of alternative certification program, candidates must pass the exam for the state in which they intend to teach. These are the same exams that traditional candidates take; either Praxis tests or state-specific assessments.

Some states have limitations or exclusions for alternative route teachers, such as restrictions on teaching certain subjects or grade levels (e.g. special education or early childhood education). Prospective educators should consult their state’s board of education for up-to-date information on certification requirements and limitations.

The following links detail the state-by-state requirements for alternative teaching certifications:

New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Washington DC
West Virginia

Source: Teacher Certification Degrees

What Kind of School Can I Teach at with an Alternative Teacher Certification?

As a rule, private schools and charter schools are much more likely to accept alternative routes to teaching certification, since these schools are not state-regulated. However, they may require candidates to have a very specific educational background, such as an advanced degree in the subject they wish to teach or multiple years of relevant experience.

Public schools are required by the state to hire licensed teachers, especially at the elementary school level. Exceptions are sometimes made for secondary school teachers, such as during acute teacher shortages or in high-need subject areas.

Alternative Teacher Certification Jobs

The most common roles that teachers who take an alternative path to certification hold include substitute teacher, teachers’ assistant and subject specialists in areas such as technology, music and foreign languages. K–12 classroom teachers can take alternate routes to certification, but it’s more common that a classroom teacher will have a traditional preparatory background.

Whatever your career aspirations, be sure to research all the educational and licensure requirements involved so you can plan your path accordingly. Master’s degrees are increasingly preferred among candidates for teaching jobs, and since they can lead to salary increases or promotions, it’s well worth considering earning your M.Ed. if you plan to dedicate your career to K–12 education.

The Master of Education at the University of San Diego is a 100% online program designed for working educators who wish to deepen their expertise and learn from highly qualified faculty with decades of experience. This degree is an excellent option for educators from a wide variety of classroom settings, including public district, charter, independent and non-traditional schools. Whether you are already a licensed teacher or wish to enhance your knowledge before taking your licensure exam, the online M.Ed. at USD provides a robust foundation for a long and impactful teaching career.

Top 11 Reasons to get Your Master of Education Degree

Free 22-page Book

Top 11 Reasons to Get Your Master of Education Degree