Choosing a School, College, and Degree Program for Teaching

Steps to Choosing a Teaching Program

What you should know:

Playing a significant role in building and developing an individual’s educational foundation which includes teaching students how to read, improve life skills, prepare to enter the workforce and transition into a college learning environment, millions of teachers are employed throughout the United States. Prospective educators may consider a range of degree programs and training options to qualify for positions that provide or maintain various levels of education to youths and adults. In order to pursue a teaching position beyond the preschool level in the U.S., educators must possess at least a bachelor’s degree, and obtain state-issued certification or license.

Although the bulk of teaching positions in the U.S. require an applicant to possess a four-year degree, some teachers pursue a master’s degree to gain a greater understanding of teaching practices, qualify for higher-paying jobs, apply for leadership positions, and gain a deeper respect from peers. In order to qualify for advanced positions in administration or teach on the college/university level, an educator must earn a doctorate degree. Entry-level positions related to teaching, such as becoming a teacher’s assistant, are also available to those who have completed a two-year degree program.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a projected 3.5 million full-time-equivalent teachers provided classroom instruction at elementary and secondary schools in 2013. Projected numbers showed that 3.1 million of those teachers were employed in the public school setting, while the rest taught at private schools.

In addition to public and private school systems, teachers are also hired to work in a wide range of job settings and employers that include night school, summer school, mental health facilities, juvenile justice facilities, prisons, alternative schools, occupational/ vocational centers, literacy centers, the government, the military, and for non-profit groups such as Teach for America.

The median salary of a teacher varies according to their level of education, employer, location, and years of experience. As reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay in 2012 for various teaching positions included: preschool teachers ($27,130), career/technical education teachers ($51,910), middle school teachers ($53,430),  high school teachers ($55,050 ), special education teachers ($55,060), and high school principals ($87,760).

The overall job growth rate for all teaching positions in the U.S. shows promise, and is expected to remain steady or rise, from 2012 to 2022. A variety of factors contribute to the continuous need to hire teachers, such as a growing number of older teachers considering retirement; the increased need to hire special education and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers; increases in student enrollment; and a declining student–teacher ratio where each teacher is responsible for educating a fewer number of students, thus creating a need to hire more teachers.

To learn more about the different educational paths that aspiring teachers may take, browse the following information on potential teaching degree programs – which touches upon entry-level job prospects, as well as the highest level of education that a teacher may attain:

Earning Your Associate’s Degree

The majority of teaching positions on the primary and secondary school level require applicants to possess at least a bachelor’s degree. However, an individual with an interest in teaching may pursue entry-level positions related to education by earning a two-year degree.

The typical two-year teaching degree program touches upon childhood growth and development; classroom management; student observation; how to follow lesson plans; maintaining classroom discipline; how to assess a child’s performance; and the overall fundamentals related to the teaching profession.

Those who have completed an associate’s degree program often encounter limited job opportunities throughout the education field, such as overseeing and ‘teaching’ students on the preschool and prekindergarten level. In regards to education and working with children, an associate’s degree qualifies an individual to become a:

Teacher’s Assistant/Aide: Those who aid licensed educators in classroom lessons may also perform clerical duties (like grading tests); provide one-on-one instruction; and supervise students with their daily activities. Oftentimes, a teacher’s assistant has pursued an associate’s degree in a specific specialty, such as Early Childhood- or Elementary Education. They are often hired to work in private and public elementary, middle, and high schools.

Some states expect employees with an associate’s degree who become instructional aides that work with special needs students to pass a skills-based test before accepting a position. Teaching assistant positions at schools with federal Title 1 programs require applicants to hold at least a two-year degree; complete two years of college; or pass a state or local assessment.

Child Care Worker: Working with pre-kindergarten children, a child care worker with an associate’s degree is typically hired for positions within child care centers and residential homes. State licensure is sometimes required when working with multiple children.

Preschool Teacher: Early childhood teachers generally instruct and care for students ranging between the ages of three and five. Although qualifications vary according to state requirements and the employer, many preschool teachers must possess a two-year teaching degree in Early Childhood Education. A requirement of some states is to have a license, while other preschool teachers are expected to become certified with a CDA (child development associate) credential.

Unlike educators who have completed a four-year degree program, obtaining a license is generally not a requirement in order to apply for the above-mentioned job positions.

A preschool teacher or teacher’s assistant with aspirations to pursue a career that educates students from kindergarten up to the 12th grade must complete a four-year bachelor’s degree program at a college or university to become a licensed teacher.

Earning Your Bachelor’s Degree

A four-year degree is required in order to teach kindergarten through grade 12.

Blending class instruction and hands-on experiences with individual assignments and group projects, the typical coursework associated with a bachelor’s degree program usually centers on equipping students with a liberal arts education that touches upon human and childhood development; educational psychology;  methods of student assessment; education theory; creative teaching strategies; literacy; and diversity in the classroom.

The majority of bachelor’s degree programs for future educators often require completion of practical fieldwork experience, such as an internship, where students work under the direct guidance of a licensed professional at a local school. The student-teaching experience generally lasts 10-15 weeks, and prepares a prospective educator to work in a classroom setting.

Aspiring teachers with a focus on educating a particular grade or age group of students often face a specific set of expectations from potential employers. For instance, public high school teachers are required to have an academic background in the subject they seek to become certified in. Therefore, a student with an interest in teaching English often majors and takes advanced classes in the subject as an undergraduate – in addition to completing education-related coursework.

Prospective elementary school teachers often prepare for their careers in a slightly different manner by enrolling in an education degree program specifically geared towards the elementary or early childhood education field. Here, they learn the basics of education and educational psychology, as well as gain training related to the various subjects touched upon in grades K-8.

In addition to teaching on the kindergarten-, elementary-, middle-, and high school level, a bachelor’s degree in Education prepares a graduate to also become a:

Career and Technical Education Teacher: Specially trained to instruct students in a range of technical and vocational subjects (such as culinary arts, health careers or auto repair), these teachers equip their students with the knowledge and skills needed to enter the workforce upon graduation. In addition to obtaining a bachelor’s degree, this type of educator possesses years of work-related experience. For example, a teacher who provides instruction in auto mechanics must have worked as a mechanic in order to qualify for a position.

Special Education Teacher: Hired to work in private schools, childcare services, preschools and on the elementary and secondary school level, a special education teacher studies to address a range of learning, mental and physical disabilities. A state-issued certification or license is a requirement to work in public schools. Graduates may also complete on-the-job training, such as an internship or residency.

To qualify for a position as a public school teacher in the U.S., graduates must satisfy varying requirements and become licensed or certified in their state, such as completing an accredited four-year teacher education program and passing an exam administered by the state. Completing a minimum number of supervised practice hours (usually fulfilled through teaching internships) is another requirement. Some states require training in technology for the classroom, while others have their own set of skills and competency tests for educators to take.

Upon obtaining licensure as a teacher, an educator must renew their teaching credentials, such as completing continuing education course requirements (which vary by state) in order to maintain their license. Those with an interest to advance their careers may pursue a master’s degree to qualify for positions related to administration, counseling, policy-making, advocacy, and educational research.

Earning Your Master’s Degree

Teachers who pursue a postgraduate academic degree apply to a master’s degree program, which touches upon scholarship, public service aspects, and classroom teaching approaches related to various areas of education. Depending on the degree program, a graduate student may conduct research; receive specialized training; or simply expand his or her knowledge of a specific field of teaching, such as mathematics, science or history.

There are two primary options for obtaining a master’s degree in teaching:

  • Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT): Individuals seeking a hands-on teaching experience and direct student contact often choose a MAT degree program, which allows an educator to complete advanced coursework in a specific subject.
  • Master’s in Education (M.Ed): Certified teachers and aspiring educators with an interest in pursuing a job within the education system (instead of inside a classroom) may pursue this advanced degree. Offering a broader range of job possibilities, a student can major in Curriculum and Instruction; Counselor Education; or Educational Administration.

A teacher with a master’s degree qualifies for administrative positions with a greater range of responsibilities, such as becoming a high school principal, vice-principal, dean, or school district consultant. They may also teach adult education to individuals 18 years or older who are in adult literacy classes, English as a second language (ESL) programs, high school diploma programs, and various government-sponsored job training opportunities.

With teaching and/or school administration experience, an individual may become a state-licensed instructional coordinator who oversees the teaching standards and school curriculums – primarily in elementary and secondary schools on the state, local, and private level. Teachers with a master’s degree looking to supplement their public school incomes may qualify to teach night courses at a community college.

The advanced degree also allows teachers to pursue teaching prospects in additional school tiers, such as shifting from teaching elementary school to becoming a high school Earth Science teacher. Educators with a master’s degree can also take advantage of more marketable and in-demand teaching positions when they arise.

A master’s degree not only allows teachers to apply for higher-paying professional opportunities and qualify for positions in administration, but also serves as preparation for entering a doctoral program to earn an Ed.D. or Ph.D. It is not uncommon to see graduate students concentrate their studies on specific educational issues, or start conducting research to prepare for future doctoral work.

Earning Your Doctorate Degree

The highest degree that a teacher can earn within his or her field is to obtain a Doctor of Education or Ph.D. in Education, which qualifies a holder to pursue employment in academia, research, and high-level administrative jobs. In order to become a professor teaching on the college and university level, educators must obtain this advanced degree, which can take a few years to complete.

Teaching professionals may also apply to a Ph.D. program pertaining to a specific field, such as Special Education, which allows educators to assume roles in government to help develop state-wide programs and school district policies that benefit special needs students. Additional career possibilities may include becoming a head of a special education program or the director of a disability service.

Becoming Licensed and Certified as a Teacher

Before a graduate can accept a position as a teacher in a public school system in the United States, he or she must become licensed in the state in which they plan to gain employment. Unlike public schools, most private schools do not require a teacher to become licensed or certified. Licensure requirements vary on a state-by-state basis, which generally include passing a state-administered certification test and/or basic skills test.  Find Licensing Requirements in your state.

Becoming licensed and certified as a teaching professional also varies according to the type of education and training received. For example, instructional coordinators often possess teaching licenses (and in some cases, an education administrator license) when working at a public school.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2014-2015 Edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook, educators are also required to complete annual professional development classes and renew their licenses in order to maintain their state teaching credentials. For example, in the state of Michigan, teachers renew their licenses every three years, and must complete 6 semester hours in a planned course of study, or 150 State Continuing Education Contact Hours (SCECHs) that are in line with the grade level taught.

In conclusion, the teaching field offers wide-ranging opportunities for graduates of an accredited degree program to make a difference, from shaping young minds to improving policies within the education system. Teachers enter an in-demand profession that not only offers an increasing number of open positions across the U.S., but also a decent salary, attractive benefit packages, and the ability to find employment that involves a variety of work settings, levels of learning, and age groups. Entry-level job positions start at the preschool level, and with the proper education, graduates may opt to teach high school students, adult education courses, career training, and become an educator on the community college level.

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