How to Go Back to School as an Adult Teaching Student
July 18, 2021
Written and reported by:
Going back to school as an adult can be daunting, but it’s an essential step to achieve your goal of becoming a teacher. Breaking the journey down into steps can make the process more manageable and help you get started.
Decide What Degree You’ll Need to Achieve Your Goals
You might want to advance your current career in the education field, or you might be returning to school to make your goal of being a teacher a reality. Your end goals will help you to decide which degree is right for you.
Depending on where you want to end up, one level of degree might make more sense than another. The following levels of education will prepare you for certain kinds of teaching careers:
• Teacher assistant
• Preschool teacher
• Elementary school teacher
• Special education teacher
• Early childhood educator
• Reading specialist
• Middle school teacher with a specialty
• High school teacher with a specialty
• College or university adjunct professor
Choose a Program That’s Right for You
Once you’ve determined which level of degree is right for you, you’ll need to choose the type program that helps you meet your career goals.
Many adult students manage family responsibilities and work, so it’s natural to worry that you won’t be able to take on an additional commitment like school. There are multiple programs ideal for adult learners, offering the flexibility needed to ensure you’re able to finish your degree.
Self-paced programs allow you to study at your own pace. These programs don’t start and end with the traditional school year, instead giving you the flexibility to pace your studies appropriately to fit with your other commitments.
Evening or Weekend Courses
Evening and weekend courses are designed for adult learners who work during normal business hours. These courses typically meet once per week, giving you the rest of the week to complete your reading and assignments as time allows.
Online and Hybrid Programs
Online and hybrid programs are increasingly popular because of their flexibility. You have 24/7 access to your learning materials, and can teleconference with other students or for meetings with instructors. Online courses sometimes meet at scheduled times, while some courses allow you to log on during times that work best for you.
These courses are a good option for adult learners who have scheduling conflicts, transportation obstacles, or don’t live near the school. Keep in mind that you will need to attend any hands-on training, like student teaching, in person
An alternative to a master’s degree, a certificate program typically consists of four courses that focus in a single area. These programs can be more affordable and are generally shorter than full master’s degree programs, and can serve as an effective way to get an idea of what a master’s degree would involve.
If you decide to pursue a full master’s degree program at the same school, you can often apply the credits earned from the certificate program toward the degree saving time and money.
Prior Learning Assessments
Prior learning assessments, or PLAs, are a method of evaluating previous training or experience that you can apply toward your program. To qualify for a PLA through your school, you might need to submit a portfolio of your past work. You may be able to apply to substitute a past course you’ve completed for a similar course the program requires.
You can also earn PLA credits by completing a test like the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) or DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DDST). Successfully passing a subject matter test can demonstrate knowledge in the area and may mean you don’t have to take courses in that subject while completing your degree.
As you explore different programs, look for a program that is accredited. When a program has earned an accreditation, it has proven that the curriculum meets specific standards to prepare you for a career in education. Many graduate schools require you to have an undergraduate degree from an accredited school or program. Many employers will also require you to have a degree from an accredited program and/or institution. Federal financial aid is also contingent upon a program’s accreditation.
An education degree program will include a student teaching component. If you’re attending a school in another state, it’s important to verify that the program’s teacher training meets the requirements in the state where you want to become certified and teach. Make sure that you will also have a mentor who will guide you through the student teaching phase, and who you can approach with questions.
Look Into Admissions Requirements
Admissions requirements vary both by school and program. Certificate programs often have fewer requirements than degree programs.
Expect to see some or all of the following prerequisites:
• High school diploma/GED
• Application essay
• GPA of 2.0 or higher
• Academic and/or professional recommendations
• ACT or SAT scores (associate or bachelor’s only)
As you explore potential programs, spend time reviewing their admissions requirements to verify that you qualify. If you have questions, check with the school’s admissions office for clarification.
Research Financial Aid and Scholarships
There is a lot of money available for adult learners, but you need to know how to find it. Your school’s financial aid office can be a valuable resource, but you can also get started by pursuing the following types of financial aid and scholarships:
Federal Loans and Grants
If you want to apply for federal loans or grants, you will need to start the process by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA can help you to get need-based federal grants, loans, and work-study options to help you pay for school. You only qualify for federal aid if you’re enrolled in a program and school that are accredited.
There are hundreds of scholarships available, and some are specifically for students who want to become teachers. You may find scholarships available in your community and through your school, but there are also plenty offered to students nationwide. Scholarships range from a few hundred dollars to full-ride scholarships that cover all of your education expenses.
Nadia Ibrahim-Taney, a professor, university career coach, and founder of Beyond Discovery Coaching, explains that many universities have scholarship opportunities specifically for adult learners.
“Many universities are currently receiving Department of Labor grants or state-based funding to offer ‘upskilling’ or ‘reskilling’ to adult learners displaced during the pandemic and seeking different career placements,” she says. “These unique opportunities give adult learners a chance to revisit their education, reorient their abilities, and pivot into new and exciting opportunities otherwise inaccessible to them based on education or background experience.”
Employer Reimbursement Programs
If you have a bachelor’s degree and are already working as a teacher, your school may offer a reimbursement program, or otherwise help you to pay to get your master’s degree.
“Many employers offer tuition remission, usually in alignment with the federal tax allotment,” Ibrahim-Taney says, “There are few employers that would pay for an entire degree, but many would subsidize these opportunities as a retention effort or current employee benefit. Higher education institutions themselves typically offer this benefit to their staff as a way for folks to increasingly grow in their career and a way to retain top talent.”
Build a Support Network
As you return to school, you may need help from your friends and family. Have a discussion with your partner to make sure that they’re on board with your goal. Consider whether friends and family will be able to help with childcare if you need it. Line up that childcare in advance and create a calendar to make sure that you will be able to attend classes and meet your education obligations.
Your school can also be a source of support during your education. Ask ahead about tutoring availability if you need extra help. Some schools also offer childcare services. You may find that you connect with other adult students during your courses, and those students also become an important support in terms of social connections and study groups.
Founder of Beyond Discovery Coaching, Professor