How to Become a Teacher: Teaching Degrees & Careers
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The education field welcomes teachers who possess a love of learning they can share with pupils. From those who educate kindergarteners about colors and shapes to those who instruct high schoolers about literature and writing, teachers prepare young people to attain their goals. A degree in teaching allows you to specialize in a subject area, age group, or educational setting. Training and licensing requirements vary by state, but most states require teachers to have a minimum of a bachelor's degree and demonstrated experience under the guidance of an experienced teacher.
The Economic Policy Institute finds schools across the country struggle to find quality teachers, an issue exacerbated by declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs and a workforce entering retirement. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for teachers to increase between 2018 and 2028, with jobs for high school teachers projected to grow 4% and kindergarten teachers by 3%. In 2019, teachers earned a median annual salary of about $60,000, but wages and benefits vary depending on location, education, experience, and type of school. This guide explains how to become a teacher.
What Does a Teacher Do?
Teachers work in public or private childcare centers, elementary and high schools, and postsecondary schools. Some teachers also work online from their home office or find employment in corporate training. Many teachers work a portion of the year, enjoying an extended break during summers. Most school systems also provide extended breaks around holidays.
During the school year, teachers typically work Monday-Friday in the classroom. However, many teachers spend nights and weekends grading papers and developing lesson plans for the coming week. Summers may also include continuing education or professional development.
Duties include developing lesson plans that align with established academic standards and delivering instruction to students. Teachers develop hands-on activities and assignments that allow students to practice what they have learned and build mastery of skills. They incorporate a variety of materials into their instruction, such as textbooks, supplemental reading, videos, and online presentations. They also develop assessments to measure how well students have learned the material so they can adjust instructional methods or refer students for tutoring.
Teachers below the college level communicate with parents about a child's progress and share information about how parents can support learning at home. They also share information about disciplinary actions and may refer students to assessment for special education services. Teachers serve as part of a team to help students succeed, so they communicate closely with counselors, administrators, and other teachers. However, teachers must also protect student information and avoid sharing it with unauthorized individuals.
Teachers work with other teachers to develop new learning resources or provide training on new technology. Experienced teachers pair with new teachers to serve as mentors, providing coaching and support during their first years. Other teachers serve in leadership positions in their school, identifying areas for improvement, coordinating faculty groups, or implementing new school initiatives. Some teachers take on extracurricular responsibilities, such as coaching or advising clubs. These activities can enhance the student's academic experience, but the teachers usually find their workday extended.
Teachers may work with young children, kindergarten and elementary students, secondary students, postsecondary students, or adult learners. Many teachers also specialize in subject areas, such as English, math, or art. Special education teachers undergo specialized training to work with students with special needs, such as cognitive delays, physical disabilities, or learning disorders. Some educators find their way to the profession after working in an occupational or vocational career, helping bring new professionals to the field and offering their expertise.
Teacher Salaries and Job Growth
Salary varies depending upon your educational specialization, location, training, and experience. In 2019, kindergarten and elementary school teachers earned a median annual salary of $59,420 while postsecondary teachers earned $79,540, according to the BLS. Other specializations include middle school teachers, who earned a median annual salary of $59,660 in 2019, high school teachers, who earned $61,660, and special education teachers, who earned $61,030 in 2019.
In addition to salary, teachers usually enjoy health insurance and retirement benefits. Teachers in public school systems also enjoy employment protection through tenure laws, which vary by state. Most states set specific standards regarding how many students a teacher may have per class, which can impact how many teachers a school must hire.
Many states set minimum salaries for teachers, with the wage determined by the teacher's education and years of teaching experience. Teachers who earn a master's or advanced degree relevant to their profession can qualify for a pay increase. As public employees, teacher hiring can often face budgetary restrictions. Areas seeing a decline in population may also reduce their teacher rolls as school enrollment declines.
Teachers may qualify for special school loan programs and grants. Teachers in high-need schools teaching specific subjects can find federal student loans forgiven after completing a pre-set term of service in the school district. Other programs offer all teachers the chance to forgive their loan balances after 10 years of teaching service. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) tracks the needs of school districts across the state and compiles an annual inventory of schools with teacher shortages.
Local school systems employ most teachers. More than 600,000 middle school teachers work in elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. Other industries that need the expertise of highly trained educators include educational support services, religious organizations, and individual and family services. Individual and family services offer the highest pay for educators, with an annual mean wage of $75,640 for middle school teachers.
Pay can vary widely by state. New York reports the highest salary for middle school teachers, $87,050, followed by Alaska at $80,730, and Massachusetts at $80,520. South Dakota pays the least with middle school teachers earning a mean salary of $44,990. Arizona follows at $45,120, Oklahoma at $46,360, and West Virginia at $47,570.
Special education teachers can find employment in the educational support service industry, health practitioners' offices, individual and family services, and local schools and government agencies. Educational support services offer the highest mean wage at $85,170.
The pay for postsecondary teachers depends on the subject taught and the level of education. In 2019, these teachers earned a median annual wage of $79,540, according to the BLS, with teachers in the lowest 10th percentile earning less than $40,480. Some salaries reached above $174,960 a year.
Postsecondary teachers typically need at least a master's degree in their subject area, though many schools prefer a Ph.D. Law professors often command the highest salaries, with a median wage of $113,530. Colleges must compete with private industries to attract qualified teachers.
Steps to Becoming a Teacher
Becoming a teacher takes several years. You must earn an appropriate degree, complete a teaching field experience, pass required exams, and obtain a license from the state where you intend to teach. After that initial hurdle, you must continue to show progress in your professional development, advancing to a professional teaching license, and gaining tenure in your school system.
If you already have a degree in a field other than teaching, you may need to return to school for programs focused on instructional methods, professional ethics, and student assessment. The process often requires four or more years to earn initial teacher licensure and up to five years longer for a professional teaching license. Learn more below.
Earn a Bachelor's Degree
Most teachers begin their training by enrolling in a bachelor's degree in education. Schools may offer specializations or concentrations within the curriculum. Make sure your selected school holds authorization for teacher preparation from your state's department of education. If you plan to teach in a different state after graduation, ensure the education department recognizes your degree. Schools should hold regional accreditation and programmatic accreditation from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).
Undertake Relevant Training
Teacher training programs include a combination of classroom work and field experience. Students should follow their school's education degree curriculum, with courses in managing classrooms, identifying student knowledge, creating personalized learning plans, and recognizing cultural and societal influences on the learning process. Many schools offer streamlined programs designed for career-changers that may lead to initial teacher certification through a post-baccalaureate program or a master's in teaching.
Complete Work Experience
Spanning several weeks to an entire year, the student teaching experience pairs prospective teachers with an experienced mentor teacher. After observing the teacher, the student then takes the reins of the classroom (still with supervision), implementing planned lessons, tracking student progress, and managing classroom behavior. Most schools require student teachers to complete a background check before they enter a classroom. Some states require candidates to take and pass the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators exam before the teaching internship.
Apply for State Licensure
All states require teachers to apply for licensure from the state department of education before beginning work as a teacher in a public school. Most states require a processing fee and grant initial licensure following graduation from approved programs. If your state utilizes a tiered licensure system, you must complete professional development before being granted an advanced license. Exam requirements include Praxis subject assessments and content knowledge tests. A criminal background check and sex offender registry search also serve as standard procedures.
Preparing for a Teacher Career: Degrees and Programs
When choosing a teacher preparation program, consider each school's requirements and qualifications. State education departments often authorize teaching programs at colleges and universities within the state. Students considering an out-of-state school should verify the curriculum meets specific state requirements. Choosing a school that holds CAEP accreditation often addresses this hurdle. The voluntary quality assurance program evaluates member schools for curriculum rigor, student outcomes, and ongoing performance improvement.
Many schools ask prospective teachers to demonstrate their academic ability through a foundational curriculum that includes general education courses in math, science, and English. Enrollment in upper-level teaching degree courses requires acceptance by the department. In schools with a high enrollment of education majors, the department selection process could include transcript reviews, interviews, and demonstrated interest in the education profession through volunteer or work experience.
Students can also find quality online teaching preparation programs. In these programs, enrollees take courses online in theory and practice. Classes may offer scheduled meeting times and live lectures, or they may feature asynchronous courses that provide students the flexibility to complete assignments. However, all students seeking a teaching license must complete a hands-on teaching experience. Check with the school about the availability of student-teacher placements in your area.
Most bachelor's degrees in education require four years to complete, with about 120 credits for graduation. Students attending school part time may need additional semesters to graduate. A growing number of schools also offer accelerated class schedules. These programs allow students to focus on 1-2 classes during an accelerated term (often 6-8 weeks) and then move on to the next class. Students can attend school year-round and complete more classes during a year than might be possible in a traditional 15-week semester.
Enrollees who already have a bachelor's degree can earn a teaching degree through post-baccalaureate or master's programs. These programs do not require the completion of subject-area classes or general education credits. Instead, students focus on principles and theories of teaching combined with internships and field experiences.
Teacher Degrees: Courses and Requirements
Each school develops its teaching degree curriculum to match state guidelines for teaching licensing. Choose your degree plan carefully since the process for becoming an early childhood teacher varies from that for high school teachers. All teachers complete a general academic program, with courses in English, math, and history.
Some schools set prerequisites for admission to the school of education, with classes like speech or an introductory education course, as well as a minimum GPA of 2.5. Some schools also require an interview, essay, and letters of recommendation. Additionally, because some classes require enrollees to interact with students, schools may also require a background check and fingerprints. This step ensures colleges and universities protect the students under the care of their mentor teachers and partner school districts.
Typical bachelor's teaching degrees include 120 credits. Approximately half of these credits fall under the education department or your chosen subject specialty. Prospective English teachers, for example, must take multiple courses in literature along with courses in the theories and principles of education, human development, and educational psychology.
Education coursework includes curriculum development, using instructional technology, and classroom management. You also study child development to understand how students learn at each age and how to tailor your instruction to their needs. Schools also serve diverse student populations. Courses in diversity help teachers identify sociopolitical factors that could impact student success, and they provide strategies to provide a rewarding classroom experience for all pupils. Consult your school for specific classes.
Many colleges require students to observe teachers in a classroom setting multiple times. These practicums and field experiences ensure prospective educators understand the demands placed upon teachers and the diverse settings in which they may work. Online learners may schedule these sessions through their college or independently.
Teacher Degree Concentrations
Your teaching degree offers opportunities to pursue a specialization. The curriculum often follows ED requirements for teaching endorsements, which vary by state. These concentrations allow educators to enhance a general degree with a specific content area. Some schools also offer academic minors that prepare new teachers for additional endorsements.
School librarians, also called media specialists, help spark a love of reading in students and support classroom teachers with media and text resources. In addition to general teaching degree requirements, librarians take courses in information technology, information organization, and management of collections. Literature courses focus on reading materials for children and young adults. While many public libraries require a master's degree in library science, many states offer endorsement programs for licensed teachers.
Many schools struggle to hire teachers for students who speak English as a second language. These students need teachers who can help them understand course material and learn how to understand, speak, and write in a new language. College classes in this area help teachers understand the language acquisition process, assess student language needs, and teach such methods.
Special education teachers also enjoy high demand in school systems across the country. These teachers work with students needing individualized instruction due to physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities. The curriculum incorporates psychology and sociology with education-specific courses. Some teachers complement their training by studying a specific disability, such as deafness/hard of hearing or autism. These teachers work to help students overcome their challenges and live independent lives after school.
Art teachers take classes in the foundation of art education, curriculum planning, and teaching. They also take numerous courses in various artistic media, such as painting or sculpture. After completing their student teaching experience, they typically showcase their work in a senior exhibition.
Components of a Successful Teacher Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology
Successful teachers possess a love for their students. They also need the ability to express ideas through verbal and written communication, helping individuals understand new or complex concepts. They must listen carefully to assess student needs and adjust their instructional methods to meet each student's learning needs.
Teachers must keep their classroom organized, keeping up with multiple assignments, due dates, and student work. They need good time management skills since they have only so many hours and days to cover the curriculum. Good teachers use their creativity to develop engaging lessons. They rely on their problem-solving skills to find solutions to student problems or concerns.
Skills in analytical reasoning and data management help teachers develop effective student assessments and measure academic growth. These skills also help teachers evaluate prior student performance and identify specific skill gaps they must address before moving forward.
Building relationships with pupils remains an essential task for teachers. They must develop cooperative relationships with students, students' parents, and other teachers. Teachers use skills like negotiation and persuasion to help find solutions to conflicts or problems. They communicate with parents in writing and verbally, sharing information about grades and behavior.
Teachers also help their students build skills beyond those measured by standardized tests. Their assignments help students develop public speaking abilities and build confidence. Classroom management helps define and enforce standards of good behavior.
Teachers use a variety of tools to accomplish their daily tasks. Technology skills allow them to incorporate multimedia presentations or enhance instruction with online quizzes or surveys. Spreadsheets can track student performance and attendance. Teachers should understand basic word processing and email software.
Related Careers at a Glance
Teacher Degree and Career Resources
- Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation CAEP accredits teacher preparation programs across the country, and most state regulators recognize its rigorous curriculum and instructional standards. CAEP formed through a merger of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council. Though the merger occured in 2013, some schools still hold their former accreditation status, which remains valid. You can search for accredited schools through the site.
- National Council of Teachers of English This national organization supports teachers of English, language arts, and writing. From pre-kindergarten through postsecondary schools, NCTE offers research- and evidence-based strategies to enhance literacy and writing skills. Members enjoy professional development webinars, discounts on conventions and meetings, and a subscription to the organization's magazine. The website also offers a collection of lesson plans teachers can use to enhance their instruction and opportunities to connect with other professional educators.
- National Education Association NEA serves more than three million teachers in 14,000 communities across the country. State affiliate organizations provide legislative advocacy to help guide policy decisions. They also work to protect teacher rights and champion the education profession. The national organization offers NEA Today, a publication focusing on current events and issues surrounding education. The aspiring educators publication helps new teachers conduct job searches. Members receive tips for classroom management and strategies for engaging parents and the community.
- U.S. Department of Education This federal agency oversees educational agencies to ensure compliance with federal law and to promote educational excellence. The ED also administers federal student loan programs, including loan forgiveness programs targeted at teachers in high-need schools. Other offices provide information and research on education innovation, special education services, literacy, and career and technical education.
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