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"What is a teaching certificate?" This distinction is often interchangeably referred to as a certificate, certification, license, or credential. Getting a teaching certificate depends on where you complete your teacher training and professional certification. 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 teacher preparation career plan based on the state requirements of the school district where you intend to teach. Every public school educator must earn a teaching credential which begs the question, "How to get a teachers certificate?". Not every private school requires their educators to hold a teaching credential so it is important to look into which teacher education 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 of a teacher education or the standard teaching certificate program may work best for you. Or if you're currently working full time in a different career, you may prefer the flexibility of an approved educator preparation program that offers online courses. If you're looking for a fast track to teaching, many states offer alternative paths to educator certification or teacher licensure. Whatever you choose, make a plan and stay organized.

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1. 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) like the elementary teacher certification. 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 teacher certification 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.

2. Complete a teaching certificate program.

You're qualified to teach in a particular subject area or grade level once you complete a teacher certification program. Whether you pursue getting a teaching certificate 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 educator preparation program, courses may be offered in traditional classroom settings or through an online teacher certification. Your teacher preparation training also includes a practicum where you are placed in a local classroom. Some educator certification 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. This applies to secondary education, elementary education, or early childhood. During that period as a teacher candidate, 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. This helps in their educator effectiveness over time.

Other options allow you to complete your teacher certification 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.

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3. 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. Make sure to review the specific testing requirements set by the state board.  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.

4. 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 teaching license 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 professional development and 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

Several states have permitted alternative paths to obtaining certification with the goal of increasing the number of competent teachers in classrooms. These alternative certification routes commonly include:

  • Certification through a structured alternative teacher preparation program
  • Transition to teaching
  • National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) certification
  • Emergency and provisional teaching certification
  • In-district training
  • Teaching experience evaluation and portfolio assessments

Although each alternative certification may vary by state, these steps are commonly observed in the process. One is choosing the alternative teacher preparation program, applying for the provisional teaching certificate, taking your state's required exam, and finally applying for the final certification. 

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. 

join our CTEL program today

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 the difference between a certified teacher and a licensed teacher?

In general, there is no distinction between a certified and licensed teacher. The term "certification" is commonly used to describe the required credential to teach in public schools, while some states use "certificate" and others use "license." However, the terms may be used interchangeably. Teachers who hold a state license may opt to earn additional certifications, such as National Board Certification, which is a voluntary certification and not referred to as a license since it is provided by the state.

What is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification?

National Board Certification (NBPTS certification) is a sought-after and demanding credential for already state-certified teachers to demonstrate their mastery in the profession. The certification process is stringent, and board-certified teachers often receive higher salaries compared to their non-board certified peers. Obtaining National Board Certification is voluntary.


  1. “What Is a Teaching Certificate?,”, accessed December 14, 2021, 
  2. “The Teacher Certification Reciprocity Guide,” Teacher Certification Degrees, accessed December 14, 2021,
  3. “Alternative Teacher Certification Guide,” Teacher Certification Degrees, accessed December 14, 2021,
  4. “Elementary School Teacher Career Guide,” Teacher Certification Degrees, accessed December 14, 2021,….
  5.  “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,…-(CL-560C).
  6. “Student Teaching Program,” California Student Teaching Track | Alliant Intl University, accessed December 14, 2021,….
  7.  District intern credential (CL-707B), accessed December 14, 2021,
  8.  Catherine Gewertz, “Which States Require an Exam to Graduate?,” Education Week, accessed December 14, 2021,….

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