Completing the education requirements to become a teacher is an indication of hard work and dedication, but getting started on the path to becoming a teacher can be confusing to some individuals. With so many degree options available, some potential teachers might wonder about the actual degree needed to become a teacher. Requirements can vary by state, but there are some general guidelines regarding degrees applicable to a teaching career.

what degree do you need to be a teacher

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Depends on What Kind of Teacher You Want to Be

Those considering a public school teaching career will join a workforce exceeding 3.6 million in the United States for the 2017-18 school year (most recent data), according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). There were approximately 500,000 private school teachers, with the profession being predominantly female. Combining private and public schools, women comprised 76% of the teaching staff, with the highest concentration of females in public elementary schools at 89%! The percentage drops to 60% in high schools.

Close to 60% of public school teachers have a baccalaureate degree, and this group is more likely to have a master’s degree than their counterparts in charter schools. Surprisingly, private schools have a smaller percentage of teachers with graduate degrees at 48%. And, private schools pay an average of $12,800 less per year despite the revenue from students’ tuition. According to Statista, the average public school teacher salary is $63,645 (2019-20 school year).

Completing the education requirements to become a teacher indicates hard work and dedication, but getting started on the path to becoming a teacher can be confusing to some individuals. With so many degree options available, some potential teachers might wonder about the actual degree needed to become a teacher. Requirements can vary by state, but some general guidelines exist regarding the qualifications necessary to begin your teaching career.

It Depends on What Kind of Teacher You Want to Be

Preschool

Disregard the notion that preschool teachers are strictly volunteers or young mothers trying to supplement the family income. Teachers at this level provide nurturing and education to children between the ages of two to five who are very impressionable. The young students are becoming more friendly, curious, and creative, which requires a patient and compassionate person to foster these skills. A preschool teacher might spend more hours in a week with the child than a parent – therefore, they have a strong influence on the child’s development.

For these reasons, each state takes preschool teachers’ qualifications seriously by requiring that they have the appropriate education and credentials. A complete list is available at Preschoolteacher.org; however, here are a few examples:

Colorado:  A bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, Elementary Education, Special Education, Child Development, or Child Psychology. An associate’s degree with at least two classes in childhood education and six months experience working with children under six. (Many other ways are on the site.)

Maryland: Bachelor’s degree and teacher preparation program.

Montana: There are no educational requirements; however, state-regulated childcare centers may require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

Washington and Utah:  An associate’s degree or higher

Texas:  Preschool teachers need to complete an approved teacher preparation program in early childhood education. The state has specific qualifications depending on the child’s age.

Early Childhood Teachers

For this category, a Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education provides the instruction and knowledge to teach preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary school pupils. The program at Grand Canyon University focuses on curriculum to teach through grade three. Samples of the core classes include:

  • Child Development: Prenatal to adolescence
  • Instructional Planning for Young Children
  • Early Literacy Development
  • Student Teaching
  • Several Instruction Methodology courses in various subjects, like Social Studies, Science, Language, and Creative Arts.

Individuals who prefer an online learning format could check out The University of Alabama’s College of Continuing Studies with a B.S. in Early Childhood Education. The 120-credit curriculum teaches children’s social, physical, cognitive, and emotional development. It also has a one-semester internship that, upon completion, qualifies graduates for the Pre-Kindergarten- Birth to Age Four Child Development Teaching Certificate for the state of Alabama. The National Association for the Education of Young Children accredited this degree.

Elementary School

In the United States, students attending elementary schools are between the ages of five and eleven, populating about 87,500 public and private institutions. The vast majority enrolled in public schools, with roughly 29.75 million and only 2.87 in private schools, per Statista. There are just under two million elementary school teachers in the United States (NCES), therefore many employment opportunities.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has a lower number of 1,492,400 kindergarten and elementary school teachers as of 2020. It states that this occupation requires at least a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued license or certification.

A Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education is a start; for example, Grand Canyon University has an online degree accredited by the Arizona State Board of Education. The coursework explores research, theories, and lesson development along with a 15-week teaching experience.

Colorado Christian University (CCU) in Lakewood has two Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education options: Licensure and Theory. Graduates of the former qualify to apply to the Colorado Department of Education for licensure to teach kindergarten through grade six in private, public, and charter schools.

CCU includes mathematics, natural sciences, social science, and communications in the General Requirements. Examples of the core classes (50 hours) are:

  • Literacy Methods
  • Classroom Management
  • Special Needs Methods
  • Math and Science Teaching Methods
  • Psychological Foundations of Education

The Theory track has identical classes except for the licensure qualification upon graduation. Upon the necessary licensure, you will be able to educate children from kindergarten through grade six.

Some teachers also graduate with a degree specializing in the area they wish to teach, and some states may require a double major in education and a specialty area. Whether a dual degree is mandated or not, a teacher with a specialized or advanced degree will be a more attractive candidate. Once employed, the school board or district may encourage the teacher to pursue a Master’s degree.

Specialized areas, such as speech-language pathology, are more restrictive, as 36 states, plus the District of Columbia, require teachers to have a master’s degree before applying for a license.

Ambitious individuals may consider a Master of Science in Elementary Education to boost their knowledge of curriculum development and theoretical and practical concepts. The College of Education and Human Development at the University of Nevada-Reno offers this degree concentrating on STEM subjects.

St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida, has a 36 credit Master of Science in Elementary Education that covers teaching methods in science, language, social studies, arts, health, physical education, and math. Graduates will be qualified to sit for the Professional Educator Exam of the Florida Teacher Certification Exam.

Some states make accommodations for job candidates with degrees in areas unrelated to education, particularly if they teach science or math at the middle or high school level. In these instances, you will still need the state teaching certificate or license, plus an undergraduate degree in the major you plan to teach. For example, a high school chemistry teacher should have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, along with courses related to education. Job candidates still need to complete some college coursework in education. While this alternative path is available in some states, completing an education degree is recommended to become a teacher. The coursework for an education degree better prepares graduates for licensure requirements and working directly with students.

For example, in Ohio, aspiring science teachers must pass two exams – a content and a professional skills exam administered by the state. A future physics teacher would take a test covering the history of physics, scientific principles, and physics theory. The test can last three to four hours.

Prospective teachers who don’t want to specialize in a specific science may earn an online science education degree to work with middle school students. For middle school students, you can be the science teacher, versed in general science, which a Bachelor of Science in Science Education will provide the qualifications.

Western Governors University’s (WGU) curriculum has the National Science Teachers Association‘s (NSTA) accreditation. New teachers and students pay a membership fee of $40/year, and professionals pay $60/year for digital versions.

The WGU courses explore all the sciences, namely chemistry, biology, earth science, physics, genetics, ecology, and technology. You also take pedagogy whose content includes strategies to help teachers assess reading comprehension and wiring proficiency. The purpose of the pedagogy instruction is to understand the methods conducive to learning at the middle school level. The institution attests that 69% of graduates finish the 40 courses within six months. An associate degree or prior college may accelerate the process by transferring up to 34 credit hours.

Community College

The educational qualification to teach at a community college offering two years associate degrees varies by institution. Typically, a master’s degree is the minimum, with department heads needing a doctorate. Furthermore, the degree should be in the subject you plan to teach. Individuals who have earned their degree in a STEM major and have secondary school teaching experience may transition to community college. They already have a specialty degree; if only a baccalaureate, a master’s could be added by online study. Therefore, the work schedule remains intact.

What about the salary implications? According to Indeed, community college teachers earn an average of $59,539 per year, and the BLS reports that high school teachers have a median income of $62,870 per year. Less money for an advanced degree; however, there might be other motivating factors for one’s preference to teach at the community college level. Becoming a full-time faculty teacher at community college has benefits of tenure, medical plan, and high salary than part-time or adjunct teachers.

Approximately 77,000 high school teachers’ jobs come open each year due to retirements, job transfers, or personal reasons.

A master’s or doctoral level is preferred for most positions at the college and university level, and a doctoral degree is required to become a professor. However, some entry-level positions may allow bachelor’s degree holders to become instructors, and experience within the field of instruction is a significant bonus. In these instances, the person is usually enrolled in a graduate program.

As outlined above, a state license is not always necessary to teach at a community college – it varies by state. For example, The Colorado Community College System has a lengthy and detailed application form for prospective teachers. Some states accept years of experience in place of a Professional Licensure. This requirement can also apply to adjunct faculty; for example, a job posting at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, requires the adjunct to have licensure or five years experience in the discipline of instruction.

To recap, teaching from preschool to high school requires a bachelor’s degree and a state license and credentials. At four-year institutions, you will need a master’s or preferably a doctorate to become a professor. Community colleges, technical colleges, and junior colleges require a master’s degree.

Some may use their teaching experience to be a stepping stone into a leadership role, such as a school principal. In this competitive environment, a graduate program would be advantageous, in addition to at least five years of teaching. For this management position, there are degree choices, for example, educational leadership or educational administration.

Two sources of information are:

National Association of Elementary School Principals:  Celebrating 100 years (as of 2021) of service and leadership for elementary and middle school principals.

National Association of Secondary School Principals:  Advocates for middle and high school assistants and principals with membership available for all school administrators.

Texas A&M International University has an online accelerated Master of Science in Educational Administration at the cost of $10,991 that you could finish in as few as ten months. The 30-credit program prepares graduates for leadership positions after studying educational research, supervision, and data-driven decision-making.

Another online option is the Master of Arts in Education at The University of Arizona Global Campus with seven specializations: School Leadership in the 21st Century is one of them. The school allows students to attend risk-free for three weeks before deciding if the program is suitable. Each class lasts six weeks, and students may transfer up to nine approved credits.

Again, Western Governors University offers an online Master of Science in Educational Leadership. The coursework includes instruction in implementing curriculum standards, supervising teachers, understanding leadership ethics, managing the educational system, overseeing budgets, ensuring school security, and creating academic goals. Tuition per six-month term is $3,490, and three-quarters of students complete the degree in 24 months.

Becoming a principal can be a substantial increase to your pay, as the BLS reports the median wage at $98,490 with a master’s degree. That’s over $30,000 more than the average teacher salary! Here are the numbers again for employed teachers versus working principals:

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers: About 1.5 million

Middle School Teachers: About 600,000

High School Teachers: About one million

Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals: Approximately 270,000

Additional Resources:

The 20 Best Online Bachelor’s in Education Degrees

What Is a Master of Arts in Teaching Degree?

What Can I Do With a Degree in School Counseling?  

How Do I Prepare for a School Counseling Degree While in High School?

What Is the Difference Between a School Counseling Degree and a School Psychology Degree?