When you graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, you probably have a career plan in mind. But, if you are like many people, after a few years in the field, you start thinking about making a change. Although statistics vary – and the Bureau of Labor Statistics has never looked at the exact number of career changes that people make in their lives, but the general consensus seems to be that on average, individuals change careers, not just jobs, around four times. One common field for career changers is teaching. However, if you only have a bachelor's degree and want to become a teacher, you can expect to first head back to the classroom as a student.
A Bachelor’s Degree Is Just the Beginning
Earning a bachelor’s degree is a good start toward becoming a teacher. In fact, in every state, a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college of university is the minimum requirement for becoming a classroom teacher. If you want to teach at the secondary level, it’s likely that the teacher requirements will state that you need a major in the subject area that you want to teach. In other words, if you want to teach history, you need a bachelor’s in history, to teach English, you need a degree in English or in a related subject, and so on.
Although those who know at the outset that they want to become teachers often complete their subject-specific degree at the same time as their teacher prep program or their education-specific degree, you're not out of luck if you elect to become a teacher later on. Depending on the rules in your state, you have several options for meeting the requirements. These include:
Completing a Teacher Education Program. When you choose this path, you complete an approved teacher preparation program. For many people who already hold a bachelor’s degree, this means going back to school for a master’s degree. Many schools offer teaching certification programs leading to an initial teacher license. These programs include coursework in teaching theory and teaching methods, as well as practicums in actual classrooms under the supervision of licensed teachers. Another option is to complete a second bachelor’s degree in teaching. Some universities offer programs in which degree-holders can have some of their credits from their first degree applied toward their teaching degree, saving time and money.
Conditional/Preliminary Licensure. In some states, you can become a teacher with only your bachelor’s degree, provided that you have taken certain specific education courses. Under these programs, you are conditionally licensed, with the understanding that you will complete the required teacher training courses for getting a teaching certificate within a specified period. The rules for conditional certification vary by state. In Maine, for example, teachers with conditional licenses can only be hired after the school has attempted to hire a fully licensed teacher but was unable to do so, whereas in Massachusetts, you can apply for a preliminary license that is good for up to five years while you complete teacher training. That preliminary license is issued based on your bachelor’s degree, test scores and coursework. Not all states offer this option, but for those states that do, it’s a good way for aspiring teachers to start putting their skills to work right away.
Alternative Teacher Certification Programs. In some states, you can complete teacher education programs or be cleared to work in a classroom through volunteer organizations. In Connecticut, for example, qualified mid-career professionals who want to teach can enroll in the “Alternative Route to Certification” program run by the state. In this program, the fundamentals of teaching are taught in a 10-week full-time summer course, or during a weekend course September- May. South Carolina offers the similar Program of Alternative Certification for Educators, in which qualified individuals work in classrooms with a mentor teacher as they complete their requirements for certification.
In some states, you can receive credit for your work with the Peace Corps toward your teaching license. Programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America can also get you into a classroom with only a bachelor’s degree. Teach for America, for example, recruits recent college graduates who have at least a 2.5 GPA to teach in underserved regions. While serving in Teach for America, you earn a salary, and you’ll be expected to work toward meeting the requirements for full licensure. The organization offers its own training program, but you might also earn certification through a local university or by getting a master’s degree.
Additional Steps to a Teaching License
Becoming a licensed teacher requires more than simply completing the right coursework and earning a degree. Again, although every state is different, most require prospective teachers to pass at least one licensing exam. In the majority of cases, this is a general skills test such as the Praxis I test, which evaluates your core competencies in mathematics, reading and writing. This test is typically taken before entering a teacher training program.
Depending on the subject you wish to teach, you may also be required to take the Praxis II or another subject-specific exam. Elementary teachers usually take multiple subject assessments, as they teach multiple subjects, while those teaching at the secondary level typically take the series of tests associated with their subject area.
Some states also administer their own teacher licensing exams, or require additional exams for licensure. In Massachusetts, for instance, prospective teachers take the Massachusetts Tests for Educator License (MTEL) upon completing their teaching training courses, rather than the Praxis. In California, the test is the California Basic Skills Educational Skills Test (CBEST). Minimum acceptable scores are determined by the states, so you need to check with the Board of Education licensing division in your state to determine the requirements you must complete.
Before You Take the Leap
The decision to pursue a teaching career is not one to be made lightly. Studies show that it can take a new teacher up to five years to become truly comfortable in a classroom, but many teachers leave the profession before they even reach five years. Before you put the time, energy and money into becoming certified, do your research to be sure that it’s what you want to do. Consider why you want to become a teacher – understanding that being home at 3 p.m. every day and summers off is a myth – and what unique qualities you can bring to a classroom.
It’s also worth getting some experience in the classroom environment before making the switch. Spending time with students and learning about the realities, challenges and triumphs of teaching will help you gain perspective, so that you can make the best decision for your career. Consider signing on to work as a tutor or to volunteer in your local schools. Don’t be afraid to ask teachers about their jobs and what they face every day, and for their advice on how you should proceed. You might also consider signing on to be part of the substitute teaching pool. Many districts offer development programs to help subs build their skills in classroom management, teaching methods and other issues, which enables you to prepare yourself for the day when you have your own classroom. You'll also gain experience working with a variety of age groups in different subject areas, providing a stronger idea of what you should pursue for your own career.