Advice on How to Become a Teacher

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Teachers help their students learn and apply concepts in a wide variety of subjects including math, social studies, art, music, language arts, and science. They work in public and private schools helping people acquire skills that allow them to solve problems and develop critical thought processes.

The path you take to becoming a teacher will depend on several factors, since certification requirements vary by state, subject and grade level. Once you determine those, you'll need to complete your education, and in some cases, get licensed or certified.

Determining Who, What, and Where You'd Like to Teach

Who, what, and where you teach makes a difference in the type of education, training, and licensing you'll need.

Consider the age and grade level of the students you'd like to teach. Would you like to teach preschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle school, high school, or college students? Also consider whether you'd like to focus on teaching students with special needs.

The state in which you want to work will determine your education and certification requirements, as well. So it's wise to figure out where you'll be teaching before choosing a program. Also think about whether you'd like to work in a public or private school, since they can have different requirements.

Finally, consider the subject matter you'd ideally like to teach if you're planning on teaching middle school and above. If you're planning on specializing in any particular subject then you'll need to focus some of your coursework in that area.

Choosing Your Path

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Generally, there two paths to becoming a teacher. The traditional path is graduating from college with an education degree. The nontraditional or alternative path can vary, and it may include taking a teacher preparation program at the same time as or even after earning a college degree that isn't centered on education.

In other words, you can become a teacher without having a degree in education. No one path is considered better than the other, so it's best to choose the one that works for you. However, both paths require taking a teacher preparation program.

When selecting a teacher preparation program, look for one that is accredited by either the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education or the Teacher Education Accreditation Council. Doing this will help ensure that a program will prepare you to meet your state's licensing requirements.

Field education, also known as "student teaching," is part of every teacher training program. During this practical learning experience, you will spend time in classrooms working under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

Understanding Education Requirements

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The education requirements for becoming a public school teacher vary across states, but most require that teachers have a bachelor's degree, complete a teacher preparation program, and also pass certification tests. These requirements may be the same or different for teaching in private schools, depending on the school.

The University of Kentucky College of Education maintains a state-by-state guide to teacher certification that you can use to check your state's requirements.

Some colleges stipulate that students choose a second major. Secondary education majors often dual major in education and the subject they plan to teach, or an area such as early childhood development or special education.

Some states also require a master's degree for those who want to be secondary or postsecondary educators, or for people who are already teaching to maintain their license. For people who have a bachelor's degree in an unrelated subject, getting a Master's in Education can be their way into becoming a teacher. And those wishing to be postsecondary educators will often need to complete a doctorate program.

Getting Licensed

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If you want to teach in a public school anywhere in the United States, you will need a license, sometimes called certification. And just as education requirements vary by state, so do licensing or certification requirements.

Private schools create their own policies and standards separate than those of public schools. Because of this, private schools aren't required by law to hire licensed teachers, but many prefer to hire them.

Individual states determine licensing requirements but often include, in addition to a bachelor's degree, passing a basic skills exam and a subject area competency exam. Some states administer their own exam, but many use the Praxis series exam, which the Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers.

There is often reciprocity among states, so if you meet the licensing requirements in one, you will usually be able to get licensed in another. But that's not always the case. Again, check your state's department of education.

While you don't need a master's degree to become licensed, some states require one to maintain licensure. You may also need to take continuing education courses to keep up with professional development. In addition, you may also choose to obtain National Board Certification, which is considered an advanced credential that surpasses a state license.

Getting Your First Teaching Job

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The National Education Association (NEA) offers several recommendations for landing your first teaching job.

According to the NEA, you should create an online portfolio containing anything that will help demonstrate your qualifications. It can include any certifications and licenses, recommendations, sample lesson plans, your statement of teaching philosophy, classroom management style, as well as work and recommendations from your time student teaching.

If you know you'd like to teach at a public school, then a great place to start looking for your first job is the U.S. Department of Education's job website.

The NEA also recommends looking in areas that have teacher shortages. The U.S. Department of Education posts teacher shortage areas by state and subject matter and updates it annually.