Going Back to College for a Teaching Degree

What degree does a teacher need? Keep reading to learn about the education you'll need to enter the teaching profession.
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Updated on January 30, 2024
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Are you passionate about shaping the next generation and positively impacting young people's lives? Or maybe your interest or expertise in a particular subject compels you to share your knowledge? If you answered yes to either of these questions, returning to college for a teaching degree may lead to a rewarding and fulfilling career in teaching.

In the 2021-22 school year, there were about 3.2 million teachers in public schools and 0.5 million in private schools, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). These teachers educated almost 55 million students in pre-K through 12th grade.

The rest of this page looks at what it takes to go back to college to become a teacher. Keep reading to learn what degree a teacher needs.

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Teacher?

Most teaching positions require at least a bachelor's degree. Prospective teachers may earn a degree in education or another subject area, such as math, history, or art. Many teaching programs concentrate on a specific grade level, such as elementary education. Secondary education programs typically offer specializations in content areas.

To ensure high standards in their education curriculum and qualify for licensure, aspiring teachers should check that their education program is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

If you want to teach at a public school, you'll also need to complete a teacher preparation program consisting of a set number of hours as a student teacher. All states require applicants to pass at least one certification exam and a criminal background check to apply for a teaching license.

For those with a bachelor's degree in another field, many states offer alternative teacher certification programs that allow you to teach while fulfilling any missing requirements. Some students choose to earn an advanced degree from a highly ranked school in their area of interest, such as a master's in early childhood education.

If you plan on making teaching a career, consider earning a master's in education online or in person. NCES reports that during the 2020-21 school year, teachers with a master's degree earned almost $15,000 more than those with only a bachelor's degree, on average.

Steps to Pursuing a Teaching Degree

  1. Make sure you want to become a teacher: Teaching is rewarding, but it can also be challenging. Do some research into the field, job outlook, and salary potential to make sure it's worth it to you.
  2. Research teaching programs: Think about what you want to specialize in (special education, elementary education, etc.). Then, find schools that offer high-quality degrees that can prepare you to achieve your goals. Depending on what you want to teach, you may need to earn a graduate degree — an advanced degree can also help you transition into leadership or administration positions.
  3. Apply to your top teaching programs: Once you find some programs that you like, spend time crafting a competitive application. Don't forget to look into financial aid options.
  4. Earn your teaching degree: In many cases, teachers earn a bachelor's degree in a field like education. This usually takes about four years for full-time students to complete and includes student teaching.
  5. Graduate and get your teaching license: After you graduate, you'll need to apply for a state teaching license to apply for public school jobs. Each state has its own licensing requirements for teachers.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Should I Go Back to College for a Teaching Degree?

Before returning to college, consider whether the degree (or degrees) teachers need to secure a job fits your lifestyle and budget. It will take time, effort, and money to finish your schooling, earn your credentials, and prepare to excel in your profession.

In addition to gaining student teaching experience and developing hard skills related to lesson planning and your subject area of expertise, you'll likely need certain soft skills to succeed as a teacher. These include:

  • Patience (with students and their parents)
  • Strong written and oral communication skills
  • A love for lifelong learning
  • Robust organizational and time management skills
  • The ability to serve as a role model

If you're shaky in these areas, you might consider becoming a substitute teacher or volunteering at a local school before enrolling in a degree program to see whether you possess the passion and resilience required for this profession.

Job Outlook for Teachers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the overall employment of educational instruction and library occupations — which includes teaching — to grow about as quickly as the average for all jobs between 2022 and 2032. As you can see below, the job outlook may be stronger or weaker depending on what you teach.

  • Postsecondary teachers: 8% job growth from 2022-2032 (faster than average)
  • Preschool teachers: 3% (as fast as average)
  • High school teachers: 1% (little or no change)
  • Middle school teachers: 1% (little or no change)
  • Kindergarten and elementary teachers: 1% (little or no change)
  • Special education teachers: 0% (little or no change)

Although limited employment growth is projected for several teaching occupations in the coming years, openings will still occur when current teachers retire or transition to other jobs. For example, the BLS projects about 67,100 open jobs for high school teachers each year between 2022 and 2032.

Salary Expectations for Teachers

Teaching salaries vary significantly depending on factors like what level of school you teach, your geographic location, and your experience level.

Generally speaking, the median salary for teachers rises with their teaching level. College and university educators typically earn more than $80,000 a year, while preschool teachers make just over $35,000. Keep in mind that college-level educators need to earn a graduate degree, while preschool teachers often need just an associate degree in early childhood education or a related topic.

However, educators who teach kindergarten through high school make roughly the same median salary, ranging between $61,620 and $62,360. Teachers who concentrate on special education make slightly more than this, with a median salary of $62,950.

Salaries for teachers tend to increase as they gain professional experience. On average, newer teachers with 1-4 years of experience earn about $46,000 annually. However, by the time an educator has more than 20 years of experience, they make $66,000 on average.

Pay by Teaching Level
Teaching Level Median Salary (May 2022) Minimum Degree Required
College/University $80,840 Master's or doctorate
Special Education, Primary and Secondary School $62,950 Bachelor's
High School $62,360 Bachelor's
Middle School $61,810 Bachelor's
Kindergarten and Elementary School $61,620 Bachelor's
Preschool $35,330 Associate
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Is Going Back to College for a Teaching Degree Worth It?

If you're passionate about helping the next generation live up to their full potential and contributing to your community, training to be a teacher can be highly rewarding. You can also specialize in an area of interest — such as art, special education, or a foreign language — and continue to learn about your chosen field long after starting your new teaching career.

That said, if your prospective salary ranks as a top priority, you may want to consider another career. Several degrees can prepare you to pursue higher starting salaries, such as computer science, nursing, and engineering. However, if you feel called to spend your days teaching, planning lessons, and helping students, becoming a teacher may be your best career choice.

Questions About Earning a Degree to Become a Teacher

How long does it take to get a teaching degree?

Generally, it takes a little over four years of postsecondary learning to earn your teaching degree and become a teacher. This includes the four years it usually takes to finish a bachelor's program, complete the state-approved student teaching or teacher preparation program, and pass state-specific teacher certification tests. An accelerated teaching degree can help students fast track to a teaching degree in less time than a traditional four-year college.

Remember that the time to completion varies based on full-time or part-time enrollment and the state where you earn your certification. Additionally, earning an online teaching degree may reduce the completion time. After passing tests and a criminal background check, prospective teachers can apply for certification.

Aspiring teachers with a bachelor's in a different field may fulfill state requirements by attending a teacher preparation program. These programs can take 1-2 years to complete.

While every state sets its own rules for earning teacher certification, they all require that K-12 teachers at public schools hold at least a bachelor's degree. The minimum requirement to become a preschool teacher also varies, with some states and schools requiring an associate degree in early childhood education.

Additionally, some states and school districts offer emergency substitute teaching certificates that do not require substitute teachers to hold a degree. For example, in New Mexico, you must be 18 years or older, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and pass a background check.

The answer to this question depends on factors like where you're applying, what subject and grade level you'd like to teach, and your prior experience and education. If you highlight your strengths, find schools with openings, and are willing to put in the work, you'll likely be able to find a teaching job.

While some teaching positions may not require a four-year degree, you typically need to be at least 18 years old to qualify. However, it's never too late to start a teaching career. As long as you earn a teaching degree and are passionate about education, there's no reason not to begin teaching at any age.

Note: The insights on this page — excluding school descriptions — were reviewed by an independent third party compensated for their time by BestColleges. Page last reviewed January 16, 2024.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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