The Teaching Certificate and Certification Process

Being a teacher seems like a simple thing. We’ve all spent 12 years or so with teachers, we understand how classrooms work pretty well. But once you think about becoming a teacher, the process and the language can be a little confusing. One of the things that can get a little muddy is the actual credentialing process, and what the various terms mean. “Does my state issue a license? A credential? A certificate? Do I need all three of those things? That’s going to take forever! Understanding the language can help.

In the United States, all states regulate the practice of teaching in the public schools. While the states are given broad latitude in establishing guidelines and practices, federal legislation creates a framework and a set of minimum standards. In order to ensure that the professionals given the responsibility for educating and mentoring the nation’s children are qualified, each state has developed a “permit” process – and the permit goes by different names in different states. While the federal government and most educational organizations talk about teacher “licenses,” your state may call that document something else. In many states the document that is issued as a permit to teach is called a “certificate,” and the process of meeting the requirements is called “certification.”

In all states, becoming a teacher starts with a degree. Some states require that the degree is in teaching or education, some states require a post-baccalaureate program be completed after a bachelor’s degree in your field of choice. But most states make a distinction between the needs of younger children and older children when it comes to education and what teachers are required to do. In many states, the certificate may be specifically for teaching elementary/primary grades or secondary grades. This usually corresponds to differences in education or testing.

Early grade teachers are responsible for all the academic instruction in all subjects, and need to understand early learning principles so that young children develop into good students. Later grade teachers teach subjects in more depth, and need to know the education principles of adolescents and young adults. Some states require that the difference in subject and teaching principles are part of teacher curriculum, some states will certify for your chosen area based on passing certain examinations. There are also a few states that issue teaching certificates that do not include age or subject restrictions. Always research your state’s requirements for certification to ensure that you are getting the right education to teach your preferred age or subject area.

The certification process includes three main parts: completing the state mandated education, passing the necessary examinations, and completing the state’s application process. The certification application varies from state to state, but generally includes providing proof of your degrees and tests, completing a number of application forms, submitting a background check and fingerprints and paying a fee.

While a certificate to teach in one state does not entitle you to teach in another state, having an existing certificate can make the process of changing states easier. Some states have reciprocity agreements with other states that recognize the education and training that the certificate required, and then creates a fast-track for those applicants with somewhat simplified requirements. Make sure you investigate the requirements of teaching in a new state when considering a move.

The final thing to know about the term “certification” or “certificates” is that they can also apply to supplemental education on your part. Many teacher education organizations offer additional specialty certificates designed to prove your expertise in a particular area. You may hold a teaching certificate from your state, and also hold an early education certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. These certifications do not allow you to teach – only the state issued teaching certificates can do that. But they do show that you’ve pursued additional knowledge and expertise in certain subject areas relevant to your teacher experience.