Everything you ever wanted to know about getting teacher certification—and more.
Teacher certification is the process by which prospective teachers get licensed to teach within a given area after completing required coursework, degrees, tests and other specified criteria. You can become certified by the state in which you wish to teach, and then earn national certification accepted in all 50 of the United States.
To qualify for teacher certification, all certifying bodies require a college degree, completion of certain education courses, student teaching experience and the passage of an approved exam. The most commonly used teaching exam is called the Praxis (read more on our teaching exams pages).
State Teacher Certification
A teaching credential is the license conferred by a state agency to teachers who have completed certain state-mandated requirements, such as education courses and student teaching experience, and passed additional state-mandated teaching examinations. Each state sets its own requirements for teacher certification. All states require certified teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree, and more and more states now require candidates to hold a master’s degree or receive one within the first five years of teaching.
Teachers may earn a credential that allows them to teach either a specific grade level or a certain subject matter. The type of teaching credential you pursue will depend on your interests as well as the options and requirements set by your state Department of Education.
Teacher Certification by Grade Level
Elementary school teaching credentials are for generalists, which means the teacher can teach a wide variety of subjects. Middle school teachers can be generalist, or they can specialize in the specific subject they plan to teach. The following list shows typical grade levels covered by different certifications:
- Early childhood teacher certification (usually includes kindergarten through grade 3)
- Elementary teacher certification (usually includes kindergarten through grade 6)
- Middle grades teacher certification (usually includes grades 5 through 9)
Teaching Certificates and Endorsements in Secondary Education
Since the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted, teachers who are interested in teaching older students (typically grades 7 through 12) must prove they are “highly qualified” to teach the subjects they do. They do this by getting teacher certification for secondary school and adding one or more subject area endorsements. Endorsements qualify middle school and high school teachers to teach subjects that are not covered in their teaching credential. Generally an undergraduate major meets the requirement of a teaching endorsement. However, you can also qualify for an endorsement by taking specific courses and exams. Secondary teacher certification may look like the following:
- Secondary teacher certification with a math endorsement
- Secondary teacher certification with a science endorsement
- Secondary teacher certification with a history endorsement
Teacher Certification for Specific Subject Areas
Some teaching careers are more subject-focused than age-focused. For instance, reading specialists, speech therapists and school counselors can easily work with students from kindergarten to twelfth grade in a single week, depending on the structure of the school district. To meet the needs of these teachers, certification is also often available by subject area, without focus on a certain age group. Some of these teacher certifications are as follows:
- Special education certification (K-12)
- Reading specialist certification (K-12)
- School nurse certification (K-12)
Nationally Recognized Teacher Certification
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) offers voluntary national certification for those who wish to teach kindergarten through grade twelve. The NBPTS currently offers 25 certificate options that cover multiple subject areas and grade levels. All states recognize national certification and many states and school districts provide special benefits to teachers holding national certification such as higher salaries.
Not everyone can apply to become nationally certified. Prior to applying, candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree and a valid state teaching credential, and they must have completed three full years of teaching. To become “national board certified teachers,” you must compile a portfolio showing your work in the classroom and pass a written assessment and evaluation of your teaching knowledge.
Emergency Teaching Credentials
Because of critical teacher shortages, some states extend temporary and emergency licenses that bypass state licensing requirements. These are often granted to individuals to teach in high-need subject areas, such as mathematics, science, special education or bilingual education, or for high-need geographic areas such as urban schools. To discover if your state currently offers emergency teaching certificates, contact your state Department of Education.
Transferring Teacher Certification from another State
If you are already a teacher but are moving to another state, transferring teaching certificates between states is often possible. Many states have reciprocity agreements that make it easier for teachers licensed in one state to become certified in another. Currently, over 40 states have reciprocity agreements with at least one other state; however, many consider this transfer only provisional. Therefore, you will be required to earn the new state’s license within the first couple of years of teaching there.
Transferring Teaching Credentials from Another Country
Most states do not accept licensure from foreign countries, but you may qualify for a provisional teaching certificate which allows you to teach while completing the education courses and examinations you lack. After you complete all regular teacher certification requirements, you’ll become fully licensed, which may take only one or two semesters of full-time study.
Private and Charter Schools
Charter schools are independent public schools, each governed by a public board of trustees that has the authority to hire teachers according to their own established standards. In some states, charter schools can hire teachers regardless of state certification requirements. In other states, charter schools are like other public schools and are held to the same state requirements to hire only certified teachers. Contact your state Department of Education to find out a particular charter school’s teacher certification requirements.
On the other hand, private schools are not regulated by state government and can set their own standards. While some private schools require teachers to be certified, many do not. Contact individual schools to learn whether they require teacher certification.