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Understanding teaching qualifications: 4 FAQs about credentials, certificates and more


The journey toward finding a career that fuels your passion and leverages your skills can feel lengthy. Once you pinpoint the field you hope to go into, you’ll face the all-important task of mapping out the path it takes to get there.

By now, you’re probably sure that an education career is in your future. But what’s less clear is which requirements you’ll need to complete before you can stand in front of a classroom full of energetic students. Teaching qualifications can be tricky to navigate for a number of reasons — they often vary from state to state, they differ depending on the age group you hope to teach, they can expire and there are various different types, ranging from credentials and licensure to certificates and authorizations. 

To help demystify the world of teaching requirements for aspiring educators like you, we’ve outlined some of the basic information you’ll need to know, along with four of the most frequently asked questions on the subject.

The basics you should know about teaching requirements

One of the more confusing aspects of figuring out what you’ll need to do to become a teacher is how standards can vary from state to state. Not only do different locations have different teaching qualifications, but the corresponding terminology can also fluctuate.

For example, California and Minnesota both have tiered systems when it comes to their teaching requirements. But what Minnesota calls a teaching license, California refers to as a teaching credential. Meanwhile, states like Washington and Arizona call it teaching certification. When it comes to outlining your path forward, start by looking into the qualifications required in the state(s) where you’ll want to build your career.

Other specifics related to teaching requirements that may vary from state to state include continuing education requirements and license/credential/certification renewal processes. The best place to start your research is the U.S. Department of Education website.

It’s also worth noting that the required qualifications to teach at private schools in your state may be different than the requirements to teach at public schools. Because public schools’ budgets mostly come from local taxes and government aid, the state sets the teaching requirements for those schools. Conversely, the funding for private schools comes from a combination of tuition and fundraising. As their own entities, private school requirements are set by each school’s individual governing board.

4 FAQs about teaching qualifications

After researching your state’s requirements, you may still have some lingering questions about the ins and outs of teaching qualifications. There’s a good chance you may be able to find what you’re looking for in the following four FAQs:

1. What are the various educational pathways for teachers?

In order to obtain your teaching license, credential or certification, you’ll need to complete the necessary education. As you look into teaching programs, you’ll notice a few different options —bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees all exist in the field.

A bachelor’s degree in liberal studies is often a great place to start. At the master’s level, you’ll begin to see degree paths become more specialized, which gives practicing educators opportunities to tailor their post-graduate experiences to fit their specific career goals. Consider, for example, the range of master’s degree specializations offered at University of Massachusetts Global’s School of Education:

With so many degree options, it’s clear that the opportunities to personalize your teaching education greatly expand at the master’s level. It’s also true that many teachers pursue a master’s degree with a pay raise in mind, as salary tiers are often impacted by the number of graduate credits an educator has completed.

In addition to a Master of Arts in Education (MAE), schools in certain states will offer Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree paths that focus on practical skills and subject-specific information relating to the teaching credentials or certification in that state.

Many teachers also use their classroom experience as a stepping stone to becoming an administrator in their school district. For these professionals, graduate-level offerings related to educational leadership and educational administration are common choices. A separate credential is often required for this path, and educators who hope to progress to positions like principal or superintendent should pursue a terminal degree in the field. While some opt for a Ph.D., a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree is a particularly good option.

2. What is alternative teacher certification?

One common misconception is that you need to obtain a bachelor’s degree in education before you can qualify to become a classroom instructor. While it’s true that a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for teaching licensure, it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the field of education. In fact, many single-subject educators who go on to teach in areas like math, science or history have their bachelor’s in the field they eventually teach in.

All 50 states offer alternative routes to teacher certification. The National Education Association (NEA) maintains that it’s important to have multiple pathways for entrance into the teaching profession. Alternative teacher certification programs offer baccalaureate-qualified teaching hopefuls the opportunity to become licensed/certified regardless of whether they have a background in education.

The NEA also notes that alternative pathways must be equal in rigor to traditional programs and that every teacher candidate must meet identical standards to receive a professional teaching license in a given state.

3. Do you need specific credentials to teach certain subjects?

Like many questions surrounding teaching qualifications, this one depends on state-specific requirements. As mentioned above, many states use a tiered teaching credential system. This helps ensure that teaching candidates are properly qualified to teach a specific subject and/or age range.

To better understand how it works, let’s quickly review how things operate in California:

Again, the three credentials listed above are specific to California. But hopefully this information provides you with a clearer picture of what the credentialing landscape can look like. Be sure to research state-specific information for details about teaching in your area. It’s also helpful to explore teaching license reciprocity to find out what would happen to your teaching credentials if you move to a new state.

4. Why pursue additional teaching certificates and authorizations?

The best educators know that a teacher’s learning and development doesn’t stop once they’ve earned the credentials or licensure required for classroom instruction. There will always be ways for new and established teachers to broaden their expertise.

Teaching certificates and authorizations present opportunities for you to build upon what you’ve already learned as you continue your teaching career. Whether you’re looking to meet continuing education requirements, you’re hoping to expand your reach as an educator by specializing in a new area or you’re simply interested in expanding your professional development efforts by learning more about a new facet of the field, added credentials and authorizations provide a way to advance your education career in as little as one year.

Your specific goals will help point you toward a certificate or authorization program that’s right for your education career – but learning the differences between the potential paths can help you figure out where to start. While certificates won’t necessarily qualify a teacher to meet some kind of industry requirement, they exist as opportunities for educators to build upon their expertise by focusing on a specific subject or aspect of teaching.

University of Massachusetts Global’s Teaching the 21st Century Learner graduate certificate, for example, is designed for new or current educators who seek the skills to serve as effective instructors, curriculum designers or instructional leaders for PreK-12 and postsecondary education environments. This application-oriented program allows students to employ real-world tools through the lens of 21st Century learning theories.

Authorizations, on the other hand, are for current teachers who are looking to add to their existing credentials in order to broaden their scope of practice. UMass Global’s Early Childhood Special Education authorization, for example, allows those with special education credentials to add an authorization to teach children with disabilities, from birth through age five.

Whether you opt to pursue a certificate opportunity or a new authorization, think of this additional education as a way to become the best teacher you can possibly be. You’ll complete in-depth training focused on subject matter, student age ranges, developmental needs and the skills to help you meet your career goals.

Identify your ideal teaching credential

Now that you know more about the multifaceted world of teaching qualifications, you’re probably feeling better equipped to take the next few steps in your education career. Exactly what that entails depends on where you are right now.

If you’re looking for some extra motivation as you move forward, it can be helpful to review some of the reasons people like you choose to become teachers. Or perhaps you’re ready to take the next step in the state of California. If so, be sure to check out this roadmap to becoming a teacher.



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