How to Get a Teaching Degree and Become a Teacher

If you’re looking for a career that will allow you to leave a positive legacy and contribute to your community, then a job as a K-12 teacher may be a great fit, especially if you enjoy interacting with children and appreciate the intense energy, curiosity and sincerity that are often hallmarks of youth.

“There’s nothing like working with a young person and helping them work toward a productive, fulfilling life,” says Stanton Wortham, dean of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

Teachers serve a noble purpose by ensuring that important ideas are passed down from one generation to the next, Wortham suggests. “In 100 years, I surely hope the scientific method and basic moral values — I hope those things are still with us, and if so, it’s because of somebody who taught some young person something.”

Here is a guide for potential teachers who are wondering whether this profession is right for them and who want to know what type of training and talent are required for this field.

How to Decide Whether to Become a Teacher

It’s unwise to pursue a career as a teacher if you lack an interest in helping people or if you don’t get along well with children, says Claudia Lyles, the CEO of Keystone Academy Charter School in Philadelphia.

Lyles, who has a doctorate in education, says that when she evaluates job candidates for teaching positions, she is particularly intrigued by candidates who have a significant amount of service work experience, such as a stint in the Peace Corps.

[Read: Choose an Online Degree Program to Become a Licensed Teacher.]

“The service component is important because, as a teacher and as an educator, you are in service to a community,” she says. “Teaching is not as cut-and-dry as other professions. We do become very involved with our students and with the surrounding communities and with the families.”

People who are well-suited to the teaching field tend to be humanitarians who have a deep desire to improve society and strong concern for the well-being of people in general, Lyles says. A generous disposition is a must for future teachers, because one of the core missions of teachers is to “help children develop into good citizens,” Lyles says.

“The common trait I have found in most successful teachers is that they genuinely like kids,” she says. “I mean, you really have to like children and young people in order to do the job. You can’t be iffy about it. And what I’ve found over the years is the people who just aren’t all that tuned into kids (don’t) make it in the profession. A lot of them leave.”

Educators caution against becoming a teacher if money is your highest priority, since there are many jobs that require a similar amount of education as the teaching profession does but lead to much higher salaries.

“Teacher compensation varies greatly from state to state and in some cases district to district,” Jennifer Russell, chair of the education department at William Peace University in North Carolina, wrote in an email, where she is also an associate professor of education. “Starting salary in the US can be anywhere from $35,000 a year to $55,000 a year.”

[See the Best Education Schools rankings.]

Russell, who is an associate professor of education and has a doctoral degree in education, added: “Having been in education for over 30 years myself, most people choose this profession because it is a calling. Most teachers teach, because they love what they do. They enjoy making a difference in the world.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary among U.S. kindergarten and elementary school teachers was $60,660 in 2020. That same year, the median compensation among middle school teachers was $60,810, and the median earnings for high school teachers added up to $62,870.

Russell notes that schools sometimes pay teachers with graduate degrees $2,500 to $10,000 more per year than those same teachers would receive if they had only a bachelor’s degree.

According to educators, K-12 public schools generally pay better than K-12 private and parochial schools, though this is not necessarily true at the most prestigious private academic institutions, and parochial K-12 schools tend to pay the least of all.

Karen Aronian, a New York education expert who earned an education doctorate at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, says a career as a teacher is ideal for people who intend to pursue outside interests in their off hours, such as writing or acting, and she says that it is also ideal for parents, since teachers tend to have days off from work around the same time their children have leave from school.

“Teaching is a great foundational profession,” Aronian says, adding that one great way for someone to determine whether a job as a teacher would be enjoyable is to volunteer with children and gauge how the experience feels.

The Key Steps of Teacher Training and How Long It Takes to Become a Teacher

There are many paths into the teaching profession. Some people enter the field immediately after receiving a bachelor’s degree in education, which typically takes four years, while others decide to become teachers after pursuing a career outside the education sector.

Not all teacher training programs are the same. Some are based at universities and others are connected to charter school networks. There are also teacher residencies that allow students to apprentice for a master teacher who serves as a mentor while the student takes education classes.

University-based teacher training programs usually include significant theoretical coursework surrounding child development and the history, psychology and philosophy of education, and the faculty at those programs generally are a mix of educators and researchers, Wortham explains.

However, programs that aren’t affiliated with a university tend to focus less on theoretical discussions and debates, and the majority of the faculty at those programs are educators, he says.

Gwyneth Price, dean of Clarion University of Pennsylvania‘s College of Education, Health and Human Services, notes certain indicators of quality teacher training programs.

“Good programs have courses that give a solid foundation: educational psychology, multicultural education, English as a Second Language, adolescent or developmental psychology, content literacy, teaching with technology, among others,” Price wrote in an email. “Further into the programs, courses become more specialized by content and grade level but should include assessment, instructional techniques, content specific methods courses, and classroom management. Additionally, a focus on special education should be woven into every curriculum.”

Price, who has a doctorate in educational psychology and spent 15 years as a K-12 teacher, notes that undergraduate programs in education tend to be more general than master’s degrees in the field.

A college major in education is not mandatory in order to become a U.S. teacher in a K-12 school. However, future K-12 teachers must complete a state-sanctioned teacher education program of some kind, whether it confers a formal degree or not, in order to qualify for state licensure. Full-time, post-baccalaureate teacher education programs sometimes confer a master’s degree and usually last for at least a year

[Read: What Can You Do With a Psychology Degree?]

Students in teacher education programs can expect to practice teaching under the supervision of an experienced educator and can anticipate learning about various teaching methods, experts say.

“The programs are rigorous and involve a lot of writing, reflection and lesson planning,” Leena Bakshi, a doctorally-trained educator who teaches at Claremont Graduate University in California and the University of California–Berkeley Graduate School of Education, wrote in an email. “Our students walk away with a clear vision for teaching, instructional plans, and even family engagement plans to carry out in their first year of teaching.”

Though requirements for teaching licenses differ from state to state, the following qualifications generally are mandatory for a teaching career:

— A bachelor’s degree.

— Completion of a state-approved teacher education program.

— A successful background check.

— Passage of a general teacher certification or licensure exam.

— A solid score on a subject test that concentrates on the focus area of the aspiring teacher.

The Rewards and Challenges of Teaching

Education school faculty note that teaching well requires tremendous skill.

Presenting a lesson to a classroom filled with rambunctious kids and convincing them all to listen and participate is a feat in and of itself, but the most talented educators have the ability to totally command a room, education professors say. A great teacher is a fabulous performer and engaging storyteller who can captivate and engage his or her audience.

“Education is an agent of change, and education can be transformational for any student, no matter what their socioeconomic background is,” says Tom Ryan, principal of Cristo Rey Boston High School, a Catholic institution in Massachusetts that serves low-income students.

While teachers do have some nice perks, including a significant amount of vacation time, they also face some hassles in the workplace, according to experts. For instance, it can be difficult for a teacher to serve the needs of all the students in a class if those students have differing amounts of knowledge and skill.

Figuring out how to assist students with learning disabilities or language difficulties is not a small task, either, nor is providing emotional support to students coping with adversity in their personal lives, which can cause them to struggle academically, experts say.

“There are ‘cons’ to every profession,” Price says. “For teaching, I’m sure many people would point out the mountain of paperwork, the lack of funding, the school boards with agendas, or the parents who are unsupportive. But with time, patience and perspective, one learns to navigate in the rough waters when focused on the sea of students who need your attention.”

One satisfying aspect of teaching in K-12 schools, according to current and former classroom teachers with experience at those schools, is the opportunity to inspire children to believe in themselves, think for themselves and discover their unique talents.

“I still receive messages from my students that I have taught more than a decade ago,” Bakshi says. “They are now starting companies, leading the tech world, and doing so many awesome things and I get to proudly say that this person was my student! That societal impact is priceless.”

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

More from U.S. News

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