Should You Go Back to College for a Teaching Degree?

Should You Go Back to College for a Teaching Degree?
portrait of Stephen Gaffney
By Stephen Gaffney

Published on April 28, 2021

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There are approximately 3.7 million public and private elementary and secondary school teachers in the U.S. teaching more than 56 million students. That's a lot of teachers molding a lot of young lives.

Going back to school to be a teacher is a worthwhile pursuit for many. In this highly rewarding career, you'll serve as a role model and mentor, shaping the lives of young people while also leaving your mark on future generations.

As a teacher, you’ll serve as a role model and mentor, shaping the lives of young people while also leaving your mark on future generations.

One of the best parts about being a teacher is the variety of levels you can teach, from preschool to high school. You can also work in administration or earn a graduate degree to teach at the college level.

Before you earn your teaching degree, though, you'll need to decide what type of educator you want to be. Would you rather work in the classroom or in an administrative capacity? Do you prefer teaching younger or older children? Do you want to focus on a particular subject? These are key questions you should be able to answer before deciding whether to go back to college to become a teacher.

Are Teachers Happy With Their Jobs?

The truth is that no one decides to become a teacher for the salary alone, and it can sometimes be a thankless job. But for the most part, overall teacher job satisfaction runs high. A 2019 poll of teachers by Philadelphia Magazine found that 86% of the teachers surveyed reported feeling satisfied or fulfilled by their job.

Similarly, a research study from Colorado School of Mines revealed that teachers are happier in their jobs and have more public respect than workers in almost any other sector. This data backs up an earlier Gallup poll based on over 170,000 interviews. In that survey, teachers rated their lives better than those in all other job groups, trailing behind only physicians.

One of the most often reported sources of satisfaction for teachers is the "light bulb moment," or when something finally clicks with a student and they understand the concept being taught to them.

Will There Be Enough Teaching Jobs?

The simple answer is yes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of elementary, middle, and high school teachers is projected to grow 4% between 2019 and 2029, which is in line with the average for all jobs. But this number doesn't tell the whole story.

The BLS projects that 270,000 teachers will leave the occupation each year through 2026.

Teachers regularly switch professions, and many are expected to retire this decade. The BLS projects that 270,000 teachers will leave the occupation each year through 2026, including more than 100,000 elementary school teachers.

The coronavirus pandemic, combined with frustrations with distance learning, are persuading more teachers to retire early — a trend that will likely continue into the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, enrollment in college and university teaching programs has decreased significantly in recent years: Over one-fourth fewer students were enrolled in 2018 than in 2010. Some areas of the country are already experiencing a teacher shortage.

Due to the high demand for teachers in underserved areas, more than 20 states now offer a program or incentives to recruit high school students into the teaching profession. High-need areas include STEM subjects, special education, and foreign languages.

How Much Money Do Teachers Make?

Teacher salaries can vary dramatically by location and experience level. According to the BLS, median salaries for K-12 teachers run around $60,000; however, some experienced K-12 teachers make more than $90,000 a year, on par with the incomes of many college professors.

Teaching Level Median Salary (2020) Minimum Degree Required
College/University $80,790 Master's or doctorate
High School $62,870 Bachelor's
Special Education $61,420 Bachelor's
Middle School $60,810 Bachelor's
Kindergarten and Elementary School $60,660 Bachelor's
Preschool $31,930 Associate

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Some public school districts give teachers the option to spread out their salary over 12 months or get paid only during the months school is in session (usually late August or early September through late May or early June).

Average teacher salaries are highest on the West Coast and in the Northeast, with states such as New York, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Washington offering some of the most enticing incomes to instructors.

The Biggest Pros and Cons of Becoming a Teacher


You'll serve as a role model and mentor, helping shape students' lives You can teach subjects you enjoy You'll have summers off, along with extended holidays and break periods You'll get day-to-day variety You'll have good job security


Hours are often long, creating stress Workplace politics and students' parents can pose problems You'll need lots of preparation time Teachers are generally paid less than similarly educated workers You may have to pay for class supplies out of pocket

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Teacher?

Those who want to become K-12 teachers have two options: pursue a degree in education at an accredited school, or major in the particular subject area they wish to teach.

There are many types of education degrees relating to different levels and specializations. These programs vary by school but generally let you focus your studies on specializations like early childhood education, special education, education policy, educational leadership, elementary education, or secondary education. Many bachelor's in education programs are also available entirely online.

The other road you can take to become a K-12 teacher is to earn a degree in the subject area you plan to teach, such as mathematics, biology, or English. A minor in education can complement your subject-focused major.

There are many types of education degrees relating to different levels and specializations.

Once you've earned your undergraduate degree, you must meet your state's teaching certification requirements to be able to teach at public schools. This normally means taking an exam, passing a background check, and completing a student-teaching program.

Some schools or states may also require you to earn a master's degree in education or teaching. Many of these programs are available online. If you're interested in furthering your studies, you could even earn a doctorate in education. (Note that you'll always need at least a master's degree — more commonly a doctorate — if you wish to teach at the college level.)

Many funding sources can help you pay for your teaching degree. Here are two resources you can look into while researching potential programs:

Federal TEACH Grant

The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant provides up to $4,000 a year that you don't have to repay, so long as the following qualifications are met:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen with demonstrated financial need
  • Have submitted the FAFSA
  • Be enrolled in a participating institution as an undergraduate or graduate student
  • Meet minimum academic requirements (usually at least a 3.25 GPA)
  • Agree to work in a high-need field at a school that serves low-income students
Federal Pell Grant

Pell Grants are generally only available to undergraduates who demonstrate financial need; however, the Higher Education Act now allows certain students with bachelor's degrees to receive a Pell Grant when enrolled in a postbaccalaureate teacher certification program.

Should You Go Back to College for a Teaching Degree?

If you're planning to change careers to become a teacher, you're not alone. Many adults who already have degrees return to college. And many adults who never attended college are going for the first time. Recent data shows that around 1 in 5 college students (including graduate students) is over the age of 24.

When it comes to teachers' ages specifically, you're unlikely to feel out of place. Department of Education data shows that U.S. teachers are an average of 42 years old. What's more, over half of teachers are between the ages of 30 and 49.

As you can see, age shouldn't be a factor if you're considering a career in teaching. Before you go back to college, though, make sure teaching is the right decision for you. Take time to weigh the pros and cons and get a sense of the skills you'll need to work on.

Becoming a teacher isn't a walk in the park, but as long as you are committed to the profession, have a deep love of learning, and are passionate about helping students realize their potential, it could be the most rewarding choice you've ever made.

Feature Image: SDI productions / E+ / Getty Images

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