Teacher Certification: What to Know About Teaching License Exams

Most of us have gone through obtaining a driver’s license to operate a vehicle on the open road, but what about a teaching license? Is a teaching license like a driver’s license, where you need so many hours of practice plus passing a written exam and in-person test?

In some states, getting a teaching license is a lot like earning a driver’s license but with more schooling and practice hours. In other states, the process can look very different. Regardless of the state you live in, you must have a bachelor’s degree if you want to become a licensed teacher.

Most states require some sort of certification to start or continue teaching. And in many cases, the final hurdle of earning that certification is to take a teaching exam, which could be state-based or nationally based, such as the Praxis.

Each state’s board of education determines the requirements for teacher certification and examination. That’s why the process can differ from state to state and why some states have certification reciprocity and some don’t.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the teaching license process and see what it takes to become a teacher in the United States.

Do I Have to Become Certified to Teach?

As is true of most teacher certification questions, whether you need to become certified boils down to which state you plan to teach in.

Some states, such as Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and Washington, require you to have a certificate to teach. The certificate is often grade-level and subject-specific, although qualifications for early childhood, primary, and secondary certificates can look quite different.

Other states, such as Arizona, California, Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas, and Wisconsin, do not require you to have a teaching certificate before you begin teaching. However, most of these states require that you get a teaching license soon after you begin teaching, though you can potentially earn a teaching certificate online.

Requirements for Licensed Educators

Once you’ve obtained your teacher license, it is usually valid for either five or ten years, after which point you must renew it. Sometimes, this process can be as simple as paying the renewal fee. Other times, it requires

  • Taking professional development courses or credit hours
  • Earning a master’s degree
  • Completing other requirements laid out by the state board of education

While you may not need a teaching license initially in certain states, one requirement in all school districts is a bachelor’s degree. This degree can be in any subject from an accredited university, but you would not be eligible to teach at public schools in any state without that level of education.

For prospective substitute teachers, many states only require a certain number of college credits and sometimes allow you to count your substitute teaching hours toward a teacher certification once you’ve obtained a bachelor’s degree in your field of choice.

How Do You Become a Licensed or Certified Teacher?

Earning your educator license or teaching certification is generally the same in every state. The process involves:

  • Completing an education program to earn a degree
  • Spending some time in classrooms getting to know the ins-and-outs of the profession through an educator preparation program
  • Passing any necessary exams, such as the PRAXIS

It may even be possible to earn a teaching certificate online.

Earn an Accredited Education Degree

Some people know they want to be teachers from an early age and go to a college or university specializing in education. Other individuals decide later on in life that teaching is their passion. Either way, there are certain education courses a student must take to become (or continue as) a teacher.

For most universities that offer education degrees, the coursework entails between 30-60 credit hours of education-specific topics, such as:

  • Technology in education
  • Child psychology
  • Learning strategies
  • Classroom management
  • Special education

In some states, or for some teaching positions, a bachelor’s degree in education is not enough to be certified to teach. You may need to pursue a master’s degree in a certain field such as psychology or sociology, or your specific subject matter, like history, mathematics, or biology.

It’s important to do your own research based on where and what subjects and grade levels you plan to teach. In most cases, elementary and middle-school teachers can teach with a bachelor’s degree and continuing education.

Courses taught at the high school level sometimes require teachers to have a master’s degree or enough continuing education that makes earning a master’s degree an obvious choice. Many teachers complete their continuing education and master’s degrees while teaching.

No matter which higher education degree you choose, make sure that the school and program have received accreditation. Studying at an unaccredited school could disqualify you from becoming a licensed teacher.

Gain Teaching Experience

You may remember a time when you were in school and had a class with a student-teacher. This person was on their way to earning their educator license, which required them to spend a set number of hours in a classroom gaining hands-on experience.

Many education degrees reserve the final semester—or sometimes the final year—of a student’s schedule to complete the state’s student teaching requirements. Usually, these practicum hours are accompanied by theoretical courses or capstones during which students complete research and write a thesis based on their experiences.

Some states may require a set number of practice-teaching hours in approved education programs while others may leave that decision up to individual universities. In certain scenarios student-teaching may not be required, or it may be supplemented with substitute teaching hours or actual teaching hours. 

Pass All Required Exams

Each state determines which exams are needed for teacher certification. Over 40 states currently require prospective teachers to take some form of the Praxis exam, such as the Praxis Core, Praxis Subject Assessments, and Praxis Principles of Learning and Teaching, to prove their competency in the field. Other states have designed their own competency exams for individuals to demonstrate their knowledge.

Depending on your state and the exams it requires, you may need to take and pass the exams before starting your student-teaching practicum. In other states, you can take the exam during your practice-teaching time or afterward.

Exam dates are set well in advance, and your college/university or school employer can usually help you gather more details. You can expect to pay somewhere between $150 and $300 to take the exams.

What is on the Exam for Teachers?

Regardless of which exam you need to take for your state, there are some topics you can expect to see on the exam. For starters, there will be a basic skills section that assesses your reading, writing, and mathematical abilities. This test usually includes a variety of multiple-choice and written response questions as well as an essay section.

In addition to the basic skills assessment, you can also expect to be tested on your subject area, such as history, chemistry, psychology, economics, languages, etc. Depending on the subject area, the exam may be only multiple-choice or a combination of short answers and written responses.

It’s also worth noting that you may also need to pass a background check. While this exam isn’t one you can study for, it is usually a requirement for the issuance of teaching certifications. Many states also require you provide fingerprints to be kept on file for the duration of your teaching certification.

How Do I Get Ready for My Teaching License Exam?

Once you know which exam you need to take—whether it be the Praxis or some other state-issued exam—there are a few things you can do to get yourself ready for the big day:

Prepare

Check for any online resources from your state, such as videos, practice tests, study guides, etc.

Prioritize

Determine which topics you need the most time with and focus on those.

Practice Time Management

Create a schedule that allows you time to study in the weeks or months leading up to the exam(s).

Know the Test

Understand formatting, timing, and scoring of the test you’ll take so there aren’t any surprises.

Spread It Out

If you can, take different tests on different dates so you aren’t overwhelmed all at once.

There are many resources available online and from education departments to help ensure you are ready for your exams and can pass them the first time around. Take advantage of all the resources you can!

Alternative Pathways to Teaching Certification and Licensure

If you already have a bachelor’s degree but no coursework on education and want to become a teacher, there are different ways to earn an alternative teaching certificate. For example, states like Texas and California allow you to earn your credentials while teaching rather than before through an accelerated (and therefore intense) program.

In other cases, you can earn a teaching certificate online while gaining practical experience in the classroom. Some states also offer emergency teaching licenses because they desperately need teachers in specific subject areas. This option allows you to bypass or revise some state licensing requirements.

If you have teaching experience in another country, it may be possible to transfer your credentials to earn a provisional teaching license. Once you have this license, you are eligible to teach but need to fulfill certain requirements within a prescribed time frame to keep your teaching license.