Earning a Teacher Credential

In order to teach at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels in the public school system, an aspiring teacher must earn a teaching credential. People who wish to teach in independent schools, may, or may not be required to complete some form of teacher training or certification. College and university level teachers require neither formal teacher training nor certification.

Earning a teaching credential to work as a teacher at the elementary, middle school, or high school level in the public education system will typically involve three steps:

  1. An individual must earn a bachelor’s degree, and with few exceptions, this means earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject area he or she intends to teach (e.g., if the goal is teach mathematics, earn a bachelor’s degree in mathematics).
  2. In most cases, a person must complete a teacher preparation program (e.g., a bachelor of education or master of arts in teaching). A small percentage of candidates may skip step 2, and apply to Teach for America, or a similar state-based program. In these rare cases, candidates complete a short summer program before gaining initial licensure and starting their teaching careers.
  3. A candidate must gain state, and/or national certification to teach, and to teach in specific subject areas. Certification is generally determined by passing one or more standardized exams. The most popular general teaching exam is the Praxis exam. It is important to bear in mind, however, that each state has unique requirements for licensure. For this reason, while a teaching credential and/or license earned in one state may be accepted elsewhere, it is not always the case. For this reason, it is essential to think about teaching location prior to pursuing a teaching credential.

What type of bachelor’s degree should an aspiring teacher complete?

While elementary school teachers may hold a bachelor’s degree in any discipline, anyone who intends to teach at the middle school or high school level is well advised to earn a bachelor’s degree in a “teachable subject.”

A “teachable subject” is understood to be a subject that is a core subject at the middle school or high school levels (e.g., mathematics, history or English). Earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, gender studies, or classical studies does not preclude the possibility of pursuing a teaching career, but candidates may need to complete additional undergraduate courses in order to qualify to teach core subjects, such as history or English. Since a teacher’s goal is to get hired, qualifying to teach core subjects is important.

With few exceptions, aspiring teachers complete either a bachelor of education or master of arts in teaching. While both degrees lead to licensure, completing a master of arts in teaching has two advantages. First, teachers, especially at the high school level, are expected to hold a master’s degree (if not at the time of hire, within the first five years of their teaching career). By entering the profession with a master’s degree, candidates already have a competitive advantage and will start their careers higher up the salary scale. Second and most importantly, completing a master of arts in teaching enables candidates to gain a teaching credential, while simultaneously engaging in graduate-level coursework in their discipline.

What is the Praxis exam?

More than 40 states currently use one or more types of Praxis series tests to determine who is qualified to earn a teaching credential. There are two types of Praxis tests.

Including reading, writing, and mathematical skills sections, the Praxis Series I test evaluates would-be teachers’ general academic competencies. The Praxis Series II test evaluates a candidate’s knowledge and ability to teach specific subjects.

How does a person find out about state certification standards?

Aspiring teachers must determine which state or states they intend to teach in (or anticipate teaching in at some point in the future), and consult each state’s specific requirements. For example, while Praxis is accepted in most states, some states rely on their own exams to determine licensure. In California, teachers must complete the California Basic Educational Skills Tests, or an equivalent, as well as the California Subject Examinations for Teachers.

In New York State, teachers must complete the New York State Teacher Certification Examinations. It is also important to bear in mind that different states require candidates to complete different numbers of credits to declare a subject specialization. For example, in New Mexico, teachers must pass the New Mexico Content Knowledge Assessment in order to teach a specific subject, unless they have 24 semester hours of coursework in the content area, in which case they are often exempt from the test. In other states, candidates must complete 30 to 32 hours of coursework in their declared subject area and complete a subject-based test.

Planning ahead and knowing a state’s regulations is essential. For full details, aspiring teachers are encouraged to visit their state’s department of education home page.

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