How to Earn Your Teaching Certification (6 Steps)

7 min read

It’s one thing to earn your Bachelor’s or Master of Education degree, which indicates that you possess the knowledge and skills to work in education; it’s another to become certified to actually teach in the classroom. Teacher certification is the licensure process public school educators must complete before they begin teaching students.

Granted by a state’s educational agency, teaching certification confirms that you have:

  • Completed educational courses in teaching methods and classroom management
  • Met standards for content knowledge in general education (or in a certain subject area, if applicable)
  • Completed the required amount of student teaching experience
  • Passed any state-mandated teaching exams
  • Passed any required background checks for the age group you intend to teach

Every certification process varies slightly between states, as each state’s Department of Education (DOE) has their own requirements for licensed teachers.

Why Get Certified as a Teacher?

If you plan to teach grades K–12 in a public school, you will need to become certified or licensed. All 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia require that public teachers hold a credential granted or approved by the state in which they teach. Typically, a DOE-granted license is adequate, though there is a national certification that is accepted by most districts, in case you plan to teach in other states.

Designed to accompany a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education, certification programs ensure that teachers are equipped to:

  • Write and implement effective lesson plans
  • Deliver the required academic content
  • Align their curriculum to state academic standards
  • Manage classroom behavior and dynamics
  • Assess student learning and progress
  • Work in a professional academic setting

Most states require teachers to pass a standard assessment to indicate their readiness for licensure. Once certified, teachers need to renew their license every few years, as determined by their state’s DOE. A teacher’s first license is typically valid for one to five years.

Becoming certified can lead to more job opportunities, a higher starting salary, professional benefits and the potential for career advancement in education.

Types of Teacher Certification

Some teaching certifications, like the national credential, apply to all grade levels and subject areas, which grants educators the flexibility to go where their skills are most needed. Depending on the state, there are other certifications which enable teachers to work with specific age groups, student populations or academic content areas.

Teaching certification programs are typically managed by colleges and universities, making it convenient for graduates to complete their certification as soon as they earn their diploma. Some public school districts and educational nonprofits also offer licensure programs for those who have earned their Bachelor of Education.

It’s important to distinguish between a teaching certification and a teaching certificate: certification indicates state licensure, while a certificate indicates that the holder has completed a certain academic program to enhance their professional skills. Certificate programs are available through many colleges and universities and may focus on specializations such as curriculum design, classroom management, educational technology or a particular subject such as math or English. While not equivalent to a teaching certification or license, certificate programs can help prepare new teachers for their licensure exam.

The type of credential or certificate you pursue is dependent upon your state’s requirements, your professional interests and the options available.

Early childhood teacher credential

Prepares educators to work with students in kindergarten through grade 3. Expertise includes early childhood development, designing age-appropriate lessons and the application of early childhood instructional theory.

Elementary school teaching credential

Prepares educators to work with students in kindergarten through grade 6. Intended for generalists, the holder can teach a variety of subjects at any elementary grade level.

Middle school teaching credential

Prepares educators to work with students in grades 5 through 8. Credentialed middle school teachers can be academic generalists or specialists with particular expertise in adolescent development and effective classroom management strategies.

High school teaching credential

Prepares educators to work with students in grades 7 through 12. Since high school educators are typically not generalists, this certification indicates that the holder is highly qualified to teach a specific subject. Licensure may require secondary school teachers to earn a certificate or other professional endorsement indicating they have the necessary content knowledge to teach their subject. A bachelor’s degree in a relevant field can qualify as an endorsement.

Teacher certification for specific subject areas

Besides specializing in academic subjects, teachers can also pursue certifications for school counseling, speech therapy, reading instruction, educational technology and other specialties. This type of credential doesn’t limit the holder to certain age groups; they are typically able to work with students K–12.

Nationally Recognized Teacher Certification/Board Certification

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) offers a nationally recognized credential for K–12 educators. Many states and schools offer higher salaries or additional benefits to teachers with National Board Certification. To earn this credential, teachers must:

  • Hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution
  • Hold an active teaching license or meet licensure requirements in their state
  • Complete three or more years of teaching at the early childhood, elementary, middle or secondary school level
  • Submit three portfolio entries demonstrating proficiency in specific areas
  • Pass a computer-based assessment of teaching knowledge

How to Get a Teaching License (6 Steps)

Your certification process may be different from another teacher’s, so check your state’s DOE requirements for licensure to make sure you complete all the necessary steps. In general, the process for earning your teaching license looks something like this:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree and complete a teacher preparation program. A bachelor’s degree usually takes four years to complete at an accredited institution and is a minimum requirement for teaching in all 50 states. A Bachelor of Arts in Education is recommended, but it is possible to become a licensed teacher with a bachelor’s degree in any field, particularly if it relates to the subject you want to teach.
  2. Fulfill the student teaching requirement.
    Student teaching is a standard component of most undergraduate education programs, requiring degree candidates to complete at least 15 weeks either teaching or assisting in a real classroom.
  3. Earn your master’s degree.
    Master’s degrees are increasingly preferred (and even required) in education, as they indicate teaching expertise and dedication to the profession. Some academic or instructional specializations require a master’s degree regardless, as do most school leadership tracks. Many teachers choose to earn their master’s degree while actively teaching, typically within the first five years of earning their bachelor’s degree.
  4. Pass your state’s required exam for teachers.
    Just like standardized testing for students, public school teachers need to pass a standard assessment before they can start the certification process. All but four U.S. states — Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Michigan — use the Praxis exam series from the Educational Testing Service, which comprises individual components that vary in cost.
  5. Apply for state teacher certification.
    Once you pass the standard exam, it’s time to apply for certification! You will need to pay the application fee, submit your exam results, pass a background check and provide any other required materials to your state’s DOE.
  6. Renew your certification every five years.
    Teachers must ensure their license remains active in order to legally teach in public schools. Renewal usually requires some amount of continuing education determined by the state or the completion of graduate-level courses.

Alternative Paths to Teacher Certification

The process described in the previous section is the traditional means of achieving your teacher certification, but there are other paths one may take in non-traditional circumstances.

Accelerated certification programs

These programs are meant for individuals who have a bachelor’s degree and want to become a certified teacher on a shorter timeline. As such, they can be quite intensive, and often enable teachers to earn their certification while teaching.

Private and charter schools

Licensure and certification are given requirements for public school teachers, but many private and charter schools do not require licensure for teachers. Since these institutions are not regulated by the state, they can set their own standards for teacher qualifications.

Emergency teaching credentials

In the case of extreme teacher shortages, some states may grant licenses that allow the holder to bypass the standard certification process. While relatively rare, this situation most often occurs in high-need subject areas (like STEM disciplines) or in geographic locales with too few teachers.

Transferring teaching credentials from another country

Teachers who hold credentials from a country outside the U.S. must complete the standard certification process to become fully licensed in this country. However, some teachers may be eligible for a provisional teaching certificate so they can teach while completing the licensure process.

Teaching without certification

This scenario applies to student teachers, substitutes or teacher support roles such as teachers’ assistants, paraeducators and classroom volunteers. A bachelor’s degree is still usually required to work in the classroom, as well as other qualifications that are set by the state or individual school district.

Other Options

  • 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 you from state-specific requirements.
  • Career and technical education certification: Career training instructors may forgo teaching certification in favor of demonstrated expertise in their field.
  • In-district training: This may exempt teachers from completing a state certification program if the training aligns with the state’s requirements.
  • Teaching equivalency and portfolio evaluations: Similarly, if an aspiring teacher can demonstrate that they have completed work equivalent to that required by the state’s DOE, they may be granted a license without completing the state’s program.

How to Transfer Your Teaching Certificate to Another State

As evidenced by the varying requirements across the country, teacher certification is regulated at the state level rather than the federal. However, most states have a reciprocity agreement with at least one other state, meaning that they will recognize another state’s certification if a teacher relocates.

Eight states currently offer full reciprocity for all 50 states:

  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nevada
  • Oklahoma

States that do not have reciprocity agreements require teachers to re-earn their credentials upon transferring. However, many states are in the process of enacting the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact, an agreement that makes it much easier for teachers to transfer their credentials across state lines.

How to Earn a Teaching Certificate Online

It is becoming easier and more common to earn a teaching certification online — as well as your master’s degree. The online Master of Education program at the University of San Diego offers a convenient, flexible way to complete your graduate degree on your own schedule while working full-time or pursuing certification. This unique program also offers specializations such as Teaching STEAM, Inclusive Learning & Universal Design and Technology Innovation in education, so you can enhance your skill set and expand your hiring potential.

For more information about this MEd program and your teaching certification options, please visit the program page or connect with an enrollment advisor today.

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