The Long and Short of Becoming a Teacher In The U.S.

Equipped with the ability to foster mental and educational growth, from the kindergartener learning phonetics to adults enrolled in a literacy program, teachers are trained to make a difference in the lives of the students they educate. With performance incentives, decent benefits, and the ability to easily advance, the teaching profession provides a stable career option within the education field. In order to obtain a job within a school system, individuals must earn a bachelor’s degree, and become licensed or certified to become employed at a public school.

What is a Teacher?

A teacher is a professional responsible for the education and instruction of others, who often concentrates on teaching a specific grade level or subject. During their education, prospective teachers may gravitate towards earning a specific degree, such as a Bachelor’s in Early Childhood Development (to teach on the preschool and elementary school level) or combining years of experience with education to pursue employment at a trade- or technical school. Specialized training or skills also prepare teachers to address the specific needs of students, such as English as a Second Language (ESL) learners or those in a special education program.

Overall, teachers are generally trained to:

  • Create a classroom environment to meet the needs of students
  • Address students as a group and as individuals
  • Organize and execute lesson plans
  • Create, administer and grade tests/quizzes, homework and assignments
  • Evaluate student performance, assess a student’s potential, and prepare report cards
  • Maintain classroom safety and address discipline issuesƒ
  • Provide additional assistance and guidance when students need help

The primary responsibilities and duties of a teacher also depends on the grade level and subject being taught, as seen in the 3rd grade English teacher in charge of evaluating a student’s ability to read and then addressing any underlying literacy issues.

Teachers of students on the pre-K through 12th grade level must maintain communication with administration and parents regarding the expectations and growth of their students, such as scheduling parent-teacher conferences. Teachers are also expected to respond and encourage open communication with their student’s parents/guardians. In addition to phoning parents and sending emails, technology also provides online resources (like teacher-maintained webpages) that provide information regarding individual progress, homework, and classroom behavior.

Educators are also observers of their classroom and the students they teach, and are expected to report suspicions of drug and alcohol issues, parental abuse, childhood bullying, and depression.

Getting Education

A bachelor’s degree is the entry-level educational requirement for educators responsible for teaching students in kindergarten to the 12th grade. Preschool (or pre-kindergarten) teachers require the least amount of education, with applicants qualifying for a position after obtaining a two-year degree in Early Childhood Education. The various levels of teaching credentials that an educator may obtain depends on a range of factors, such as state mandates, years of experience, the grade level of students, and school subject.

Step by Step Educational Path of a Teacher

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. An undergraduate degree is the minimum education that a K-12 teacher must possess with many states implementing various stipulations according to the grade and subject being taught. For example, many elementary school teachers must minor or major in education, while aspiring secondary school teachers also pursue a bachelor’s degree in a specific subject and complete an education program, as seen in the history teacher who majored in American History.
  1. Complete a teacher education program. The majority of school teachers must complete an education program while attending undergraduate school, and take classes specifically geared towards education. Depending on their school’s curriculum, teacher education could be incorporated within the bachelor’s degree program. Others must complete a teacher education program upon completion of their undergraduate degree. The added training touches upon the psychology of learning, the philosophy of education, and classroom technology.
  1. Fulfill student teaching requirements. Upon completion of core teaching courses, future educators are expected to gain experience in the field by participating in a student teaching/practicum program (also referred to as an internship). Student teaching is comprised of instructional classroom time at a local school, which provides a way for students to practice and fine-tune their skills as a teacher. The classroom experience is a full-time endeavor, and typically lasts between eight and twelve weeks.

To get a varied experience in the field, student teachers usually spend the first four to six weeks at one school, and then shift to a different location and grade for their remaining weeks. During this time, interns get a chance to prepare and present daily lesson plans; observe classroom mentors; network and communicate with other members of school staff; as well as attend and participate in faculty meetings, district gatherings, and parent-teacher conferences.

  1. Satisfy state requirements to get teaching credentials. Before a teacher can accept a position at a public school, he or she must have a license and state certification, whereas educators hired to work in most private school facilities are not always required to obtain certification because private institutions are free to hire whomever they wish.

The specific requirements for obtaining certification vary from state to state, but all involve earning a bachelor’s degree and completing a teacher education program. Some states require their teachers to pass a standardized test (such as the Praxis Exam) while others expect their educators to possess a degree related to the subject they wish to teach. It is also not uncommon to see teachers receive state-based certification pertaining to a specific subject or grade level.

Specific licenses for teachers include:

  • early childhood education (for teaching preschool through third grade students)
  • elementary education (first grade up to sixth or eighth grade)
  • middle school (geared towards teaching grades five through eight)
  • secondary education (accommodates specific subject areas for the 7th to 12th grade level)
  • specialized teaching (related to specific fields, such as special education or English as a second language)

To earn teaching credentials within a specific area, many states require teachers to gain additional hands-on experience as a student teacher under the supervision of a licensed teacher.

  1.  Earn a master’s degree in Education. Teachers with aspirations to further their education and qualify for higher-paying jobs with more responsibility often complete a master’s degree program in either a specific field of education (such as educational technology or curriculum development) or in an individual discipline, such as mathematics, English, or social studies.
  1. Pursue a doctorate degree, if desired. Teachers obtain either a Doctorate in Education (EdD) or a PhD in Education when they wish to become college professors; or if they have an interest in educational administration, making organizational changes, reshaping district policies and school curriculums, and/or assuming a position of leadership, such as becoming a dean of students at a college. Applicants to a doctorate program for teachers must possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university; and have a background in classroom teaching and/or related leadership experience relevant to the education field. Some EdD programs require candidates to complete master’s level coursework, and earn a specified number of credit hours.


Getting Hired

Teachers are hired to work in a range of employment settings, from traditional learning institutions (such as private and public school systems) to providing education to individuals residing in juvenile detention centers or prison. A variety of school environments await a teacher seeking employment – each with their own unique set of benefits and obstacles to overcome.

Upon completion of an education degree program, teachers entering the workforce apply to job openings based upon their subject background, specialty training, and/or grade-level expertise. The majority of teachers are employed in a traditional school system – private or public:

Working in Public Schools

Public schools (often referred to as ‘city schools’), receive funding from the state and government, and follow a set of rules developed by administrative powers, such as the city’s school district and state board of education. Under this umbrella, there are several different types of public schools that provide varied employment opportunities for teachers:

  • Charter Schools: Teachers who work at a charter school join the staff of an independent public school that does not have to abide by all of the same regulations as traditional learning institutions. Class sizes are smaller, and the school generally upholds high academic standards. Teachers who apply for a position at a charter school are expected to follow the educational philosophy of the institution, which varies from school to school.
  • Magnet Schools: Magnet schools follow the guidelines and regulations like public schools do, but represent highly specializing learning environments that concentrate on a specific method of teaching or particular area of study, such as the performing arts, or math and science.
  • Urban or Rural Schools: Schools located in urban and rural communities in the U.S. often demonstrate the greatest need for hiring teachers. In an effort to encourage new graduates to accept a position in underserved areas, there are incentives and organizations, such as Teach for America, which give teachers an ‘education voucher’ in addition to their salary and benefits, which helps pay down student loan debt, fund advanced education, or cover credentialing course fees.

Working in Private Schools

One of the glaring differences seen in teaching at a public school versus a private school is that the latter does not require an educator to become licensed or certified to teach. Instead, each private school develops their own criteria for hiring new staff and teachers. Private schools do not receive funding from federal, state or local governments, which means they are not required to follow the same regulations since public tax dollars do not play a role in financing the schools, which include the following types:

  • Boarding Schools: Oftentimes, teachers live in the same school community with their students, who reside away from home during their studies.
  • Religious Schools: Teachers with a specific religious belief may apply for a position at a school where religious teachings are at the center of learning.
  • Military Schools: With over 30 private military schools in the U.S., teachers at this type of educational institution are preparing their students for service in the army, and have a background in serving the military themselves.
  • Special Needs Schools: Dedicated to addressing the educational needs of children with learning disabilities (such as dyslexia or ADD/ADHD), teachers are required to have special training and certification to qualify for a position at this type of school.

There are also some private schools that follow a specific set of philosophies, curriculum, and methods of teaching, such as the Montessori schools (Dr. Maria Montessori) and Waldorf schools (Rudolf Steiner). Teachers may also take positions to educate students abroad, and find employment overseas through organizations, such as, which places job candidates at international schools, business schools, and military bases located in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa. While some teaching abroad agencies do not require formal teaching qualifications, the best job offers are given to those with a teaching degree or certification.

Upon completion of an education program, new graduates increase their chances of finding employment by attending local job fairs and registering with online teaching job sites. Keeping in touch with college professors, as well as with teachers encountered while student teaching in local classrooms, is also a good way to build a professional network that comes in handy when letters of recommendation and references are needed for job applications.

Additional ways to increase the chances of being hired as a teacher include the following:

  • Pursue Experiences Related to the Teaching Field: While still a student, take the time to increase volunteer and paid experiences related to education or dealing with children – all of which help build a more well-rounded resume in the future. Examples include tutoring high school students; gaining employment at an after-school program; and leading a church youth group.
  • Increase Job-Seeking Efforts in the Summertime: According to Get a Teaching Job Now: A Step-by-Step Guide by Mary C. Clement, many school districts have made a shift from offering contracts to teachers in February and March for fall positions to now waiting to hire new teachers over the summer.
  • Join a Professional Organization: Becoming an active member of a teacher’s association, especially one that concentrates on a specific subject matter or location (such as the National Council of Teachers of English; Association for the Advancement of Computers in Education; or the Science Council of New York City), means gaining access to valuable networking opportunities, career insight, and job leads for teachers.
  • Further Education: Pursuing an advanced degree not only expands a teacher’s knowledge and understanding of today’s students and education system, but also increases the chances of being hired by a wider scope of employers seeking highly qualified teaching professionals. Job candidates possessing a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or a Master of Education (ME) are generally viewed as being more of an ‘expert’ in their field. The advanced degree is also a basic requirement for those with an interest in teaching at the college or university level.
  • Additional Teaching Credentials: Job candidates with credentials and certification regarding in-demand skills and specialties can significantly enhance their chances of qualifying for a greater range of job vacancies. Examples include a Special-Education Credential or Bilingual Education Certificate.

The median salary for teachers (and job security, benefits, and job competition) are all affected by a range of factors, including school environment (private versus public institutions), educational background, overall credentials that a job candidate possesses, and the grade level being taught.

In the U.S., the median salaries for specific teaching positions include [1]:

  • Preschool teachers ($27,130)
  • Career and technical education teachers ($51,910)
  • Elementary school and kindergarten teachers ($53,090)
  • Middle school teachers ($53,430)
  • High school teachers ($55,050)
  • Special education teachers ($55,060)

Geographic location also plays an important role. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites the top five states paying the highest median salaries to their elementary school teachers as Massachusetts ($69,890), California ($69,990), Connecticut ($70,820), Alaska ($71,460), and New York ($74,830).

Depending on the location, grade level and subject taught, job opportunities for teachers are considered good to excellent. There continues to be a great need to hire educators who can accommodate a growing U.S. population, as well as address the widespread trend to lower the teacher-to-student ratio in classrooms. As class size becomes smaller in many schools, the demand for more teachers will rise, especially in schools in need of new teachers to replace educators nearing retirement.

Teachers with specialized credentials in education (such as English as a Second Language (ESL) certification or a teaching background in Special Education) qualify to fill in-demand positions.

On a localized level, every state also experiences shortages in educators qualified to teach certain subjects, or able to meet the overall population’s educational needs. For example, the state of Nebraska demonstrates a widespread need to hire teachers specializing in ESL/ELL, Foreign Languages, Speech Language Pathology, Business Education, Mathematics, Natural Science, Art, Industrial Technology Education, and Special Education.

Additional hiring trends in the U.S. include the increased need to hire bilingual educators (especially in the West) and STEM teachers to educate students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. As seen in the Educate to Innovate program and the 2011 State of the Union Address, government initiatives have been put into place to actively prepare new teachers in the fields of math, engineering, science and technology.

Options for Career Advancement

A career in teaching comes with many different ways to advance within the field, as well as earn a higher income. School districts are becoming increasingly receptive to encouraging more teachers to embrace advancement opportunities, in an effort to retain outstanding educators. One of the most popular approaches involves obtaining an advanced degree, which amongst other things, opens the doors to job opportunities on an administrative level (such as vice-principal, principal, or department head).

Teachers may also use additional education and experience to educate students in higher grades, or teach a different subject matter. A master’s degree allows educators to teach courses at a community college, or work in an office striving to make changes in district-wide curriculum and policies. Some teachers conduct research, publish scholarly papers, and write books that assist parents, peers and students. Additional ways teachers may advance their career, increase their level of responsibility and influence, and/or earn a higher salary can be found in 20 Ways to Increase your Income as a Teacher [INSERT LINK to OTHER POST].

In conclusion, the teaching profession involves completing a degree program that prepares an individual to address the educational needs of a wide range of students. With the option to focus on a particular subject, teach a specific grade level or concentrate on educating a particular age group, teachers encounter a wealth of opportunities to pursue their interests, and then find employment upon graduation. Teachers enjoy a relatively stable career field with decent pay, benefits, and plenty of opportunities to advance. Additionally, the overall job growth for teachers is anticipated to continue increasing or staying in line with national averages, for 2012 to 2022.

[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook; 2014-2015 Edition


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