Pathways to Certification: Which One is Best for You?

There was a time when you could become a teacher on a whim. Requirements were minimal, the curriculum often undemanding. The ranks included farmers who needed something to occupy them in the off-season, and young women not much older than their pupils. A schoolhouse packed with sixty children of all ages and one teacher wasn’t unusual.

Fortunately, times have changed and conditions have improved, and with them, the steps you must take to become a teacher. Teaching is a profession which requires prospective educators to meet certain educational qualifications, which include a bachelor’s degree and passing scores on exams. While requirements and specifics vary widely from state to state, these regulations exist for the same reason: to ensure that all students are receiving instruction from a highly trained teacher.

If your goal is a position in a public school, you need a certificate from your state. However, you may have more than one option for earning your qualifications. You’re the best person to identity your ideal path to certification by looking at your current education, location, and what you wish to teach. Considering this information will help you find your best route to certification. Here’s some information to consider when making your decision:

The Traditional Route: Earning a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree

Most aspiring teachers elect this option. Enrolling in a teacher education program at a college or university will provide structure and a clear set of steps to follow. These programs are generally designed to provide the needed coursework and learning experiences required for certification in your state. While much of the onus is on you, the student, to carefully select courses and register for licensing exams, you’ll likely have support from an advisor. This pathway is the most user-friendly because schools of education take care to design majors which will result in state certification. Their accreditations often rely on their ability to offer quality programs and produce certified, well-prepared teachers. While you’ll still be ultimately responsible for meeting and checking off all the requirements, you can have some peace of mind in knowing you have guidance from your school as you progress towards your degree and teaching license.

Many education majors enter college as undergraduates with a clear sense of their career goals, complete their degrees and certification, and finish college ready to look for their first job. Others might decide later in their undergraduate degree, and find it more expeditious to immediately enter a graduate program for preservice teachers instead of changing majors late in their undergraduate degree. Career changers can also select this option, though many of them are likely to be eligible for alternative pathways too.

The Alternative Route: Enrolling in a Special Program.

Alternative programs exist, in part, to address shortages in certain areas and attract educators to areas of the country which are tougher to staff. Many schools in rural poor areas or inner cities rely on this option to attract teachers. Some licensing alternatives provide students with an opportunity to teach and earn a salary while taking courses towards certification. Though there can be benefits to the alternative route, like loan forgiveness, there are often challenges to being placed in a classroom without traditional training and preparation. If you’re drawn to a specialty which usually has an ample supply of teachers, the traditional path will probably be the only way you can become a licensed teacher. 

However, if you’re interested in a specialty area with chronic shortages, or want to teach in an underserved location, you might find options which will get you into your own classroom quicker than the traditional route. You’ll almost certainly need to have a bachelor’s degree to be accepted into most alternative programs, and many, like the New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America, are highly competitive. According to this article, all states accept at least one alternative path to certification. If you feel this is the pathway for you, the link is a good place to begin looking for opportunities which you might qualify for.

Alternative programs frequently appeal to mid-career professionals who may feel that their prior life and career experience will help them tackle the challenges of teaching, and they may also not have the luxury of forgoing a paycheck for an extended period of time. This account of the experiences of a handful of educators who chose alternative routes to teaching addresses some situations you too could encounter.

Teacher certification is more than a piece of paper; it’s evidence that the holder has successfully completed a rigorous course of study which often includes substantial time as a student teacher. If you aspire to teach, it’s vital to thoroughly examine all the possibilities to find the one that’s right for you. The process will be involved, but it’s easier than chopping wood to heat your one-room schoolhouse.

Tracy Derrell is a Hudson Valley-based freelance writer who specializes in blogging and educational publishing. She taught English in New York City for sixteen years.

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