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How to Become a Teacher

The necessary steps to become a teacher vary by state, education level and the subject matter you wish to teach, but it generally takes a combination of education, training and licensure.
An instructor showing students how to become a teacher

Understanding the Numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

Nicole Clark ’19 ’22MEd knew she wanted to become a teacher when she did a special-education internship as a high school student. Now, she teaches third graders at a Massachusetts elementary school about equations, parts of speech, state history, elapsed time, animals and a whole lot more.

But how did she go from goal to reality — and how can you?

There’s a general formula you can follow.

What is the Process for Becoming a Teacher?

Becoming a teacher takes a combination of education, training and licensure. While these steps can serve as a guide, be sure to review the licensing requirements in your state as they relate to who and what you want to teach.

▸ Bachelor’s Degree

Earning a bachelor's degree in education is a good place to start. If you hope to teach in a public kindergarten or elementary school, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said bachelor’s degrees in elementary education are typically required. You may also need a bachelor's degree if you want to teach in a public middle school or high school, BLS reported.

Private schools at all levels also typically share the bachelor’s degree requirement, according to BLS.

Some education programs are designed with licensure in mind. For instance, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) offers a campus-based Bachelor of Education for Licensure with 10 concentration options students can pick from — all of which can prepare graduates for certification in New Hampshire. The program is also accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) at the initial licensure level.

An icon of an open book.Within a bachelor’s in education program, you may study topics such as:

  • Inclusive learning environments
  • Learner development and differences
  • Lesson planning and assessment methods
  • Professional standards and code of ethics

Many education programs also include a student teaching component that will allow you to bring your learnings and skills into a classroom, where you’ll teach under the supervision of a licensed teacher.

▸ Student Teaching

Completing a student teaching program is a typical requirement to become licensed.

Nicole Clark, an 2019 and 2022 SNHU graduateClark, who earned a bachelor’s in elementary education with a concentration in general special education at SNHU, said student teaching was the best way to understand the day-to-day experience of an educator.

“I was going to school every single day,” Clark said. "I was creating lessons. I was working with the two teachers that I was connected with, and I really think that gave me great insight on what was to come in my first year of teaching.” 

She also had a chance to attend meetings involving student support and learned how to set up a classroom and group desks.  

“I think student teaching really gave me that opportunity to see all the different ends of being in the classroom,” Clark said. “Seeing the meetings, the planning, the paperwork — it was very helpful.” 

If you’re not enjoying your time in the classroom but still think you want to be a teacher, Clark recommends looking for a different setting or age group. “Keep exploring,” she said. “If you're not feeling it with a kindergarten class, try a fifth-grade class. If you're not feeling fifth grade, try eighth grade.”

Find out how some education students gained experience in an unexpected setting.

▸ Licensing Exams 

All U.S. states require you to become licensed to teach in a public school, according to BLS. If you're wondering how to get a teaching certificate, you may need to pass a background check and some exams, according to BLS, in addition to completing a bachelor's degree and student teaching. Requirements can vary and may depend on the state, district and school you're interested in joining as a teacher.

An icon of a certificate with a medal on it.

The exact exams you’ll need to take to become a certified teacher vary based on your state as well as the education level and subject matter you wish to teach. 

“So, if you want to be an elementary school teacher, there's a certain group of (exams) that you would take,” Clark said. “If you want to be a middle school teacher, there are different ones.” And the same goes for high school. 

To teach in Massachusetts, for instance, Clark had to take and pass the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) — a series of exams that fulfilled the requirements to teach elementary education. 

▸ Master’s Degree

While a master’s degree is not always necessary to teach at the K-12 level, BLS said some states require it after you get a job. A master's degree in education can also support teaching endorsement, or the area in which you can teach, as well as professional development and the potential for promotion.

Clark decided to earn an online Master of Education (MEd) in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Educational Leadership before she began teaching.

“Whether I did it right out of school or years down the road, I figured I would ... get my master's degree,” Clark said. “And then I felt like it was another great thing to add to my resume come time to apply for jobs.” She also said having a master’s degree has the potential to boost your salary.*

It's important to note that the MEd at SNHU is a non-licensure degree, meaning it might not satisfy graduate-level teaching requirements.

Should you decide to earn a master’s after you start working in the field, you can ask your employer if they offer any tuition reimbursement programs to help you pay for your degree.

If you think online learning might benefit you as you balance your teaching career, explore how online classes work

Continuing Education as a Teacher

An icon of a pencil.

Your education doesn’t stop when you become a teacher. As an educator, you’re also always a student — someone learning every day in both formal and informal ways.

For instance, you may need to meet certain professional development requirements to maintain licensure. Clark, for example, must renew her license every five years. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, license renewal requires a certain number of Professional Development Points (PDPs). 

Some professional development may be provided by the school you teach at, such as training on new curriculum programs and how to interact with parents, while others you might need to seek out yourself.  

“There's all different ways to do professional development,” Clark said. "If you become a teacher, you have to like education.”

Find Your Program

How Long Does It Take to Become a Teacher?

An icon of a stopwatch in use with a yellow outline.How long it takes to become a teacher depends on how long it takes you to meet the criteria for licensure in your state. If you don’t already have a bachelor’s degree, meeting the minimum education criteria and taking the certification exams might take about four years.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree, even if it’s not education-focused, obtaining licensure could take you much less time.

BLS projects the following average of annual job openings between 2022 and 2032:

What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Teacher

As a teacher, you can go on to impact the lives of many children, adolescents and teens. As you consider whether this career path is right for you, keep in mind:

▸ Teachers are a Lot of Things

While your job title might be “teacher,” you’ll likely wear many other hats. “You're not just their teacher,” Clark said. "You're their parents away from home. You're the nurse; you're the counselor; you're the snack provider; you're the band-aid giver. You know, you're a little bit of everything.” 

It takes certain qualities to be a good teacher, such as listening skills. According to Clark, being kind is one of the most important qualities. If you model kindness, hopefully, it’ll teach your students to be kind as well.

“It's a life skill that you want them to leave your classroom with,” Clark said. “... Kindness is the biggest lesson of the year because I want my students to go out into the world and be good people.” 

▸ There are Good Days and Hard Days

Like any job, some days are better than others. On days when nothing seems to be going right, Clark said it’s important to think back to the good days and remember you’re making an impact.

To motivate herself through challenges, Clark created a binder filled with notes and artwork her students have given her, as well as their class picture.

“It makes those hard days better,” she said.

▸ Work/Life Balance is Important

An icon outline of a person walking outdoors, toward two trees.In a profession where you have to be “on” all day, it’s important to take care of yourself to avoid burnout.

“You don't need to be the last car in the parking lot,” Clark said. She recommends taking full advantage of prep periods to make copies and get ahead in planning so you don’t have to work late into the evening.

“If you're burning out as a teacher, that's not helping your kids,” she said. “If you're tired, they're going to see that, and they're going to feel that, so it's important to make sure to take time for you.”

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU education program that can best help you meet your goals. 

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill. 

Rebecca LeBoeuf Blanchette '18 '22G is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University, where she fulfills her love of learning daily through conversations with professionals across a range of fields. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Communication with a minor in Professional Writing from SNHU’s campus in Manchester, New Hampshire, and followed her love of storytelling into the online Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing at SNHU. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.