“What is a teaching certificate?” This distinction is often interchangeably referred to as a certificate, certification, license, or credential. The answer to the question depends on where you complete your teacher training. Some states and institutions consider your teaching “certificate” as a printed or electronic verification that proves you have completed a professional teaching program. This type of teaching certificate adds training or specialization to your degree, but is just one of several pieces of documentation you must submit when applying for a teaching credential.1
In other places, a teaching certificate is the same thing as a credential or teaching license, and shows that you have met all of the state's requirements - including your degree, teacher training, student teaching, and basic skills and subject matter proficiency. States like Alaska, Kentucky, New York, and Washington favor the term "certificate" on their government websites. They equate getting your teaching certificate with getting your teaching credential - the final step in becoming a teacher.2
Although this article uses “teaching certificate” in this latter sense – meaning “teaching credential” – it also suggests other types of certificate programs that can supplement your degree.
How to Get a Teaching Certificate
Once you know the type of position you want to pursue as an educator, make a career plan based on the state requirements where you intend to teach. Every public school educator must earn a teaching credential. Not every private school requires their educators to hold a teaching credential so it is important to look into which programs best fit your needs. Look at your degree and teaching certificate program options, and choose the ones that work best for your teaching job given your location and situation.3
For example, if you have the opportunity to attend school full time, then a traditional route may work best for you. Or if you're currently working full time in a different career, you may prefer the flexibility that online courses offer. If you're looking for a fast track to teaching, many states offer alternative paths to certification or teacher licensure. Whatever you choose, make a plan and stay organized.
Earn your teaching degree
At minimum, a bachelor’s degree is required before any prospective teacher can teach, though what degree you need depends on the subject and grade level you intend to teach, and whether you want a teacher training program embedded in your teaching degree.
- Elementary teachers commonly pursue degrees in Early Childhood Education (for preschool and kindergarten) or Elementary Education (K-5). Typically these degrees emphasize general classroom teaching, and elementary teachers usually become certified in multiple subjects. However, some states may recommend or require that elementary teachers – especially upper elementary – specialize in a subject like math, science, or social studies. Teachers in special areas – like music, physical education, library, and computer – will pursue single-subject certification. Most Education degrees are embedded with teacher training.4
- Middle and high school teachers almost always specialize in a particular content area, and therefore earn a single-subject degree and certification. Single-subject degrees emphasize deep content knowledge and skills5. Many colleges offer degrees in Secondary Education, and in those programs you study a content area of focus and also get an embedded teacher training program. There are also a few single-subject Education degrees, like Music Education, that include teacher training. But if you pursue a non-Education degree, you will need to complete a separate teaching certificate program.
- Special education teachers pursue a specialized Education degree that equips them to work with students with various disabilities. The degree allows them to work with all K-12 grades, though special education teachers often focus on elementary, middle, or high school ages, and move from general to more specific content knowledge as they work with older students. Individuals with special education degrees pursue certification such as the Credential in Education Specialist Instruction, Mild/Moderate Disabilities. Research the requirements in your own state to know which degree program is right for you.
Complete a teaching certificate program.
Whether you pursue certification in a single subject, multiple subjects, or special education, your teacher training program curriculum will include coursework in technology, differentiated learning, curriculum, and instructional practice. Depending on the institution hosting the program, courses may be offered in traditional classroom settings or online. Your teacher training also includes a practicum where you are placed in a local classroom. Some programs give you options for completing your practicum.
The student teaching option typically includes 16 weeks of classroom observation and 16 weeks of classroom teaching under a "master teacher," where you gradually take over a portion of the teaching duties. During that period, a program supervisor observes and evaluates your lessons and helps you refine your instructional practices.6 This option may be best for an aspiring teacher who has little-to-no teaching experience, because the classroom responsibilities are handed to them gradually.
Other options allow you to complete your teacher certificate program while getting paid as a working teacher-of-record. The standard intern option also typically amounts to 32 weeks, except during that time you’ll be fully responsible for a classroom as a salaried teacher-of-record; the early completion option is an accelerated version of the standard intern option. Because these intern options require a higher degree of responsibility and classroom competence, they are especially suited to those certificate candidates with prior teaching experience.7
If your degree does not include teacher training, the credits you earn from the training program may be applicable toward a master’s degree. Naturally, post-baccalaureate education is one of several factors that boost a teacher's salary. Keep this in mind as you research options for your degree and teaching certificate program.
Other state requirements.
In addition to your degree and teacher training, states also require you to demonstrate competency in basic skills (reading, English, and mathematics) as well as your subject matter of focus. Some of these requirements can be satisfied through your state-approved degree program, but some of them you may have to satisfy through testing. Some states also require you to complete a course or pass an exam on the U.S. Constitution8. The application process also includes background checks and fingerprinting. Teacher certification requirements will vary, so it’s important that you check those listed on your state’s Department of Education website.
Apply for your teaching certificate.
After you've checked off all the requirements, your final step is to fill out your state's application for teaching certification. You'll need to include an official transcript and your state exam results, as well as the application fee in the certification process.
How Long Does a Certification Program Take?
Submitted teaching certificate applications may take several weeks to process. This wait time is one of multiple factors that affect how long it takes to become a teacher. If you follow a traditional college route with a major in Education, you may be able to earn your teaching certificate or licensure in four or five years. On an accelerated track, you should be able to earn your certificate sooner than that, or at least work as a salaried teacher while completing your coursework.
As you plan your career to be a certified teacher, think about these questions and how your choices will affect your own timeline:
- Will you pursue an Education degree with embedded teacher training, or will you pursue a non-Education degree and take a separate teacher certificate program? Taking a separate, post-baccalaureate teaching program lengthens your timeline.
- Will you be a full-time or part-time college student? Will you work while you’re enrolled? Obviously, the more classes you’re able to take per semester, the faster you’ll graduate. But taking a full class load may not be possible if you also have a job.
- Will you enroll in a traditional or accelerated degree program? If you do need separate teacher training, accelerated programs are naturally faster but also more intense.
- Will you take courses in a classroom or online? Some people prefer the structure of traveling to a physical space at a particular time. But many people – especially self-disciplined ones – enjoy the flexibility of online courses and can potentially take more units at a time.
- Will you be a student teacher or a paid intern? Remember that previous teaching experience is necessary if you take the paid intern route.
Other Certificates for Teachers
Certificates give you additional professional qualifications without you having to commit to a lengthy degree program. You can find certificate programs that supplement your degree and provide training in a particular topic. For example, Alliant International University offers a Certificate in California Teachers of English Learners (CTEL), Leading to CLAD Certificate that equips you to effectively teach students of all language backgrounds.
Alliant’s teaching credential programs are approved by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. CTC-approved California Teaching Credential programs combine the flexibility of on-line courses with the classroom experience you need to become a credentialed or licensed teacher. For more information, you may speak with an Alliant Admission Counselor today at (866) 825-5426.
- “What Is a Teaching Certificate?,” Learn.org, accessed December 14, 2021, https://learn.org/articles/What_is_a_Teaching_Certificate.html.
- “The Teacher Certification Reciprocity Guide,” Teacher Certification Degrees, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.teachercertificationdegrees.com/reciprocity/.
- “Alternative Teacher Certification Guide,” Teacher Certification Degrees, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.teachercertificationdegrees.com/.
- “Elementary School Teacher Career Guide,” Teacher Certification Degrees, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.teachercertificationdegrees.com/careers/elementary-school-t….
- “Single Subject Teaching Credential Requirements for Teachers Prepared in California,” Single subject teaching credential requirements for teachers prepared in California (CL-560C), accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.ctc.ca.gov/credentials/leaflets/Single-Multiple-Subject-Cre…-(CL-560C).
- “Student Teaching Program,” California Student Teaching Track | Alliant Intl University, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.alliant.edu/education/california-teaching-credentials/stude….
- District intern credential (CL-707B), accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.ctc.ca.gov/credentials/leaflets/district-intern-credential-(cl-707b).
- Catherine Gewertz, “Which States Require an Exam to Graduate?,” Education Week, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-require-an-exam-t….