9 Teacher Certifications (Plus FAQs)

Updated March 30, 2023

Teachers working in public and private schools pursue certification to meet state requirements and develop their capabilities. The certification process varies but involves obtaining a teaching qualification, completing student-teaching hours and passing an exam specified by the state education agency. Learning more about the different pathways to certification and the types of certification specialties available to teachers can help you prepare for your teaching career.

In this article, we explain teacher certification, share the importance of obtaining these credentials and list nine certification specialties aspiring teachers can pursue.

What is teacher certification?

A young Pre-K teacher leads a group project with students gathered around a table.

It's a requirement of most state education agencies that teachers who wish to teach at public schools obtain a teaching certificate or license. While it's typically not a state requirement for private-school teachers to be licensed, some private schools only employ certified teachers. Certification specialties and requirements vary by each state's Department of Education.

There are different pathways an aspiring teacher can pursue to obtain licensure. The traditional path is to earn a degree in education and pass the exam specified by the relevant state.

Candidates with a degree in another field can gain certification by completing a teaching certificate program or a master's degree in education and passing the state exam. The registration process also involves completing application documents and submitting information for background checks.

Related: What Is the Salary for a Teacher? Salaries by State

Why is teaching certification important?

Teacher certification ensures all public teachers adhere to the educational standards stipulated by a state's education agency. Certification courses uphold helpful practices for teaching any age group. The certification process provides standards that govern all aspects of the classroom and school environment.

Teachers also earn certifications for career development and growth. It ensures that students in public school settings can expect the same standard of education throughout a state, regardless of the school.

Related: 50 Teacher Interview Questions (With Sample Answers)

9 types of certifications for teachers

Although available teaching certification specialties differ from state to state, there are common certification specialties you can find across the board. Here are some standard certification specialties and additional specialization areas a teacher can pursue:

Common teaching certifications

Teachers choose an area of focus when earning a degree in education and pursuing teaching certification. These are the options for common teaching certifications:

1. Early childhood education

Certification for early childhood education involves coursework and testing on standards and practices for teaching children ages three to eight. This credential certifies that teachers working in this capacity understand the developmental changes and significant experiences young children undergo in the classroom and outside of school. An early childhood certification also recognizes the importance of play in a child's learning.

Related: How To Become a Pre-K Teacher (Plus Skills and Salary)

2. Elementary education

Elementary school teachers don't specialize in one subject only. They're generalists with broad knowledge of the four main elementary school subjects, English, science, mathematics and social studies. Since they typically teach all subjects, certification assessments for elementary teachers focus on general knowledge, along with effective lesson planning and classroom management methods.

Additionally, certification in elementary education ensures a thorough understanding of the latest developments and practices in early childhood education.

Related: Elementary School Certificate: Definition, Types and How To Get One

3. Secondary education

Secondary teaching certification is for teachers who teach middle- and high-school students. As opposed to early childhood teachers, secondary education teachers are subject-matter experts (SMEs) who receive certification in their major. If they're qualified to teach a second subject, they can add an endorsement to their teaching license.

Apart from core subjects such as math and English, secondary education teachers can specialize in a variety of other subjects, such as:

  • Music

  • Theater

  • Art

  • Languages

  • Health and fitness

  • Technology

  • Journalism

  • Agriculture

Related: 11 Online Master's in Secondary Education Programs

4. Special education

Special education certification gives teachers the credentials to teach students with emotional or behavioral disorders, hearing and speech impairments and different learning disabilities, including autism. Teachers who choose this track can study educational methods that support these exceptional students despite their learning difficulties. This certification requires extensive study and, in some states, a master's degree in the special education discipline.

Related: Special Education Majors: Benefits and Career Options

Supplemental endorsements

Teachers can add areas of specialization to their teaching license. Since an endorsement demonstrates a teacher's added skills and expertise, it may advance their career and provide them with more opportunities. Here's more information about these credentials:

5. Gifted and talented education

Gifted and talented education (GATE) is a supplemental specialization teachers can add to their teaching license. Standards regarding GATE certification vary from state to state. In some states, teachers only complete a GATE program, while other states may require that teachers pass an additional exam. A GATE program typically includes courses in teaching strategies, curriculum differentiation and program development for gifted students.

Related: 15 of the Most Effective Teaching Strategies

6. Reading specialist certification

This certification allows teachers to become reading specialists. These specialists help students improve their reading and writing skills. They work with students in classroom settings and also offer one-on-one lessons for students who require additional literacy support. In addition, reading specialists may provide literacy coaching for teachers who wish to develop in this area.

Certification may comprise several courses focusing on early reading, reading development and reading difficulties. Teachers who wish to work as reading specialists usually obtain a master's degree.

Related: How To Become a Reading Interventionist in 5 Steps

7. American sign language teacher (ASL) certification

ASL teachers teach American sign language to school students. Teachers who wish to teach deaf or hearing-impaired students can complete a Deaf Education program. Requirements for this certification vary depending on the state but usually include completing your bachelor's degree with a minimum amount of ASL credit hours, finishing a teacher preparation program and passing an exam.

Additionally, many states recognize the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) certification.

Related: 3 Sign Language Certifications To Explore (Plus Degrees)

Alternative pathways to obtain licensure

Teachers can also obtain certifications in an alternative way if they can't or prefer not to obtain the credentials in the traditional way. Here are some alternative pathways:

8. National Board certification

Earning a National Board Certification is a voluntary credential for public school teachers to prove their mastery. Education specialists and parents value National Board Certification as a mark of expertise because of the rigorous process involved in obtaining this qualification.

The certification process comprises four components that demonstrate a teacher's classroom management style, knowledge of pedagogical practices and ability to guide and evaluate students effectively. Here are the four main components that make up this certification:

  • Content knowledge

  • Differentiation

  • Teaching practice and learning environment

  • Effective and reflective practitioner

Related: 13 Strategies To Improve Your Classroom Environment

9. Alternative certification

Candidates who hold a degree in another discipline and wish to obtain teacher certification can complete programs at a university or other educational institution. These programs provide instruction on educational theory and methods, best practices, classroom management and teaching standards. They often include a practical component where student teachers can obtain valuable experience in the classroom.

Candidates who follow this pathway to certification take the same certification exams as those with a degree in education. States and test preparation organizations offer materials to help prospective teachers study for these comprehensive assessments.

Related: 6 Interview Questions About Classroom Management (Plus Tips)

Frequently asked questions

What are the steps for teacher certification?

The steps can vary since each state's Department of Education governs the teacher certification process. Typically, teachers start with coursework in a bachelor's degree in education. They undergo student teaching assignments in various classrooms and grade levels related to their chosen track.

As they prepare to graduate, students register with the state to receive a temporary teaching certificate pending the results of certification assessments, comprising general knowledge, subject matter comprehension and expert teaching standards. Those pursuing alternative certification often register with the state, then take state assessments and alternative certification classes.

Is a teacher certification the same as getting a teaching license?

Both certification and license apply to the same process for teachers earning the credentials to practice in public schools and some private institutions. It's beneficial to become familiar with your state's terms that describe the process for teachers to gain the right qualifications.

Related: Q&A: Can I Become a Teacher Without a Bachelor's Degree?

Can you teach without a certification?

You can work as a teacher without earning a state or other certification. Although public school teachers are required to obtain state certification in their subject area or grade level, private and charter schools may not have the same requirements. It's helpful to note most schools require their teachers to have the proper licenses.

Individuals who work in their field for many years often decide to move into teaching to share their expertise with the next generation of learners, earning alternative certifications or working in private or charter schools without certification requirements.


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