Advice on How to Become a Teacher

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 children develop skills that allow them to solve problems and develop critical thought processes.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Teacher?

A science teacher with two students
A science teacher explains an experiment to his students. Cavan Images / Digital Vision / Getty Images

If you go to college and major in education, you will learn how to teach children math and English and all the other subjects they are supposed to learn in school. The job of a teacher, however, is complex, and it requires skills you won't learn in college. These are known as soft skills. Either you are born with them or you have to develop them somewhere along the way.

To be an effective teacher, you must be sensitive to children's needs, organized and creative. You have to be a good communicator and motivator. Children and parents must find you trustworthy and patient.

Required Education

Which path you take to a teaching career will depend on a number of factors, including whether you want to teach in a public or private school, where you want to work, what grade level you want to teach, whether you want to teach special education students and the subject area in which you want to specialize, if any. Your prior education, namely whether you already have a bachelor's degree, will also make a difference.

  • Public or Private School?: Public school teachers working anywhere in the United States must have at least a bachelor's degree. Private school teachers often need one as well. It usually takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree.
  • Where Do You Want to Work?: The state in which you want to work could determine your educational requirements, particularly if you don't want to go through a teacher training program and instead major in another subject. Traditionally, one had to get a bachelor's degree from a teacher training program in order to get licensed in any state. Most states, now, are a bit more flexible, and have changed their licensing requirements to allow bachelor's degrees in other majors. Those who go this route may still need to complete teacher training coursework.
  • What Grade Level Do You Want to Teach?: You will enroll in a training program specific to the grade level you want to teach: Early Childhood Education (usually preschool to Grade 3), Elementary Education (Kindergarten through Grade 6) or Secondary Education (Grades 7 through 12). Elementary school teachers cover a wide range of subject matter in the classroom and their training reflects this. While in college, they learn how to teach many subjects including language arts, mathematics, science, art and music. Those who are training for a career in secondary education focus on a single subject.
  • Do You Want to Teach Regular or Special Education Students? If you want to work with students who have disabilities, you must receive special training. This training sometimes lasts longer than training does for regular education teachers.

In addition to enrolling in classes that cover the methods of teaching a subject or, in the case of aspiring elementary school teachers, several subjects, students in teacher training programs also take professional education courses. This may include classes with titles like Educational Psychology, the American Education System, Educational Technology and Philosophy of Education.

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

When selecting a teacher training program, look for one that is accredited by either the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) or Teacher Education Accreditation Council. This will help insure that a program will prepare you to meet states' licensing requirements.

Although you don't need a master's degree to get a teaching license, you may need one to maintain your license. Some states require that you earn one within a specified time frame. There are two types of master-level education programs. One is designed for certified teachers who want or need an advanced degree. The other type of program is geared toward students who are not certified teachers but who have bachelor's degrees in other majors.

Getting Into a Teacher Training Program

You will usually enter a bachelor-level teacher training program after attending college for two years. Most schools of education require students to apply to these programs during their sophomore year, after completing other college coursework. Some also stipulate that students choose a co-major in addition to education. Secondary education majors often major in the subject they plan to teach.

Admission requirements for graduate programs vary depending on whether they are geared toward certified teachers or not. They may include a certain grade point average, undergraduate liberal arts coursework, reference letters, a personal statement and an interview.

How to Get Licensed

You must have a license, sometimes called certification, to teach in any public school throughout the United States. Having one is not a stipulation of employment at most private schools. Licensing requirements are determined by individual states, but often include, in addition to a bachelor's degree, passing a basic skills exam. Some states administer their own exam, but many use the PRAXIS, which the Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers. Some states require a master's degree to maintain licensure and some ask for continued professional development. Licensing requirements vary by state so it is important to look into state requirements. 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. Again, check with the department of education for the state in which you want to work.

Getting Your First Teaching Job

Before you know it you will be ready to look for your first teaching job. Are you wondering what qualities employers want in a teacher? To give you an idea, here are specifications found in job announcements from various sources:

  • "Demonstrates knowledge of age appropriate approaches to learning, skills, knowledge, interests and cultural heritage."
  • "In-depth knowledge of the concepts in skills related to specific content area."
  • "Ability to effectively use technology as an instructional tool."
  • "Demonstrated ability to maintain a safe learning environment through well-managed classrooms."