How to become a teacher in the USA

Some people seem confused on what exactly we’ll be doing this upcoming year to become licensed teachers. To be fair we were looking at a lot of different options so some folks may have mixed up everything we said.

How to become a licensed teacher generally

It depends on the state but generally you can either get a license by studying in university or you can get a license through an alternative licensing program. Both have the same requirements just in different orders:

A) Go to university and graduate with a teacher’s degree

  1. take classes relating to the subject AND how to teach
  2. pass a background check
  3. do student teaching
  4. often pass a test that shows you know teaching methodology/your subject
  5. graduate university
  6. get a standard/entry license
  7. get a job as a teacher

or B) Get an alternative license (same steps, different order)

  • 5) graduate university
  • 2) pass a background check
  • 4) pass a test that shows you know methodology/your subject
  • 7) get a job as a teacher
  • 1) take classes about how to teach
  • 3) “student teaching” someone monitors our classes from time to time to see how we’re doing/mentor checks up on us frequently
  • 6) get a standard/entry license

The alternative license is more work because you’re balancing full time teaching while learning how to teach. It is not the same as student teaching where you watch another teacher and take over from time to time (eventually to be eased into teaching full time). No, alternative licenses throw you in at the deep end of the pool and it’s up to you to swim to the buoys provided by the alternative licensing program.

With either route you often have to work for 1-3 years after getting your standard/entry license to transform your entry level license into some kind of “professional license” or a more permanent license. This depends on the state, or in the case of Colorado it depends on the school district. Each school district in Colorado creates an “induction program” to turn the standard-just-finished-student-teaching license to a professional one. The program may involve meetings, online work and orientations.

So for a traditional university route a Colorado teacher is looking at 3 years of classes, 1 year student teaching then an additional 1-3 years working full time to get the better license. For the alternative route it is 1 year of class/teaching and the additional 1-3 years working to get the better license.

Why do alternative licenses exist?

Because there is a crippling teacher shortage around the US. There is a pretty incredible map you can navigate on the Colorado Department of Education website to see where there are shortages. Here we’ve screen-capped some examples. Gray are small-rural districts, orange are rural and blue are urban. Nearly every district had at least a few shortages last year.

There were 799 open teaching positions at the beginning of the school year. 799 teachers either quit, left the state, or retired and the school wasn’t able to hire a replacement. The 799 positions that were open were mostly special education (deaf and hard of hearing, visually impaired) but also a significant number of IT, math, science and foreign languages.  The schools have to fill these 799 positions somehow so they:

  • hire long-term substitutes (162 positions filled)
  • bring back retired teachers (190 positions filled)
  • hire people under alternative licenses to become licensed teachers later (474 positions filled)
  • use emergency candidates (135 positions filled). To be clear an emergency candidate is a person who has everything they need for their desired position but need more time to meet the official requirements
  • just don’t fill the position. In this case the school district will usually use the internet to teach the students (enroll them in some kind of online version of the same class).

The alternative license group is the biggest group. Alternative licensure programs are critical to get teachers into classrooms. It’s a win-win for the state and the person. The state gets a much-needed teacher and the person gets a great way to change careers without 4 years and at least $61,720 of in-state tuition (in Colorado). An alternative license in Colorado costs anywhere between $3,00-$6,500. So this is another win, the candidate pays 50,000 less and will actually get paid as an entry level teacher ($33,000-35,000) while studying to be a teacher.

“The number of students graduating from education preparation programs at Colorado’s colleges and universities plunged more than 24 percent … in 2016.” While 30 percent more teachers are getting licensed via the alternative route. (Colorado Sun)

Some people may say that teacher isn’t ready to be leading classes if they are learning how to be teachers at the same time. But it is necessary if you want a teacher in the classroom.  And Colorado isn’t even considered a state with a major shortage. In August 2018 25% of teaching positions in Arizona were unfilled (source). An independent research group estimated the USA as a whole was short 112,000 teachers in 2018 (source).

Who offers alternative licenses?

In Colorado alone there are 28 ways to get alternative licenses and only 19 traditional ways to become a teacher (universities). This is nearly the same across the USA, with states offering more alternative programs than traditional pathways.

There are so many different groups offering alternative licenses: universities, for-profit companies, community colleges, private schools and others are partners with school districts. The universities which offer alternative licenses often have the option to turn it into a graduate degree hybrid. We looked at the University of Texas Permian Basin and Sul Ross in Texas for this. We also looked at Western State University ($19,255), Mesa University ($29,656), and the University of Colorado ($5,750 + masters = $12,350).

We looked at multiple states Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii and Texas). Their department of education websites had helpful lists of officially recognized alternative licensure programs. In the case of Colorado I clicked on all 23 alternative programs to compare prices and often figure out where in Colorado they took place. Turns out Colorado has since made an app that would’ve done this for me but what can you do.

The vast majority or programs in Colorado are offered through BOCES – Board of Cooperative Educational Services. BOCES (an acronym not an initialism pronounced ‘bo-seas’) are usually in place to band together multiple school districts to offer more benefits to students, teachers and parents.

BOCES offer special education, staff development/training, specialization programs, standards/assessment help, technology help, vocational schools, gifted and talented programs, grants, and alternative licensure . Currently 10 out of 24 statewide BOCES programs offer alternative licensure programs:

  • Centennial BOCES
  • Colorado River BOCES
  • East Central BOCES
  • Mountain BOCES
  • Northeast BOCES
  • Northwest BOCES
  • Pikes Peak BOCES
  • San Luis Valley BOCES
  • Southeastern BOCES
  • Uncompahgre BOCES

Is an alternative license legitimate?

It sounds like a means to an end, but it is legitimate.

Both traditional and alternative candidates have to

  • have a bachelor’s degree
  • prove they know their content (either through a test or college courses – or both)
  • pass a background check
  • pass the CDE’s requirements
  • get a job
  • maintain good academic standing (either college classes or alternative classes)

There’s a saying that there’s none more patriotic than an immigrant. Someone who wants to be there, who chose to be there and worked hard to get there is often a more dedicated citizen than a born citizen is. We think this applies to teaching candidates, too. There probably isn’t a more dedicated candidate than an alternative candidate, they’re the ones who have to wear so many different hats and work so hard. They are entering a new career, likely one that pays less and has more hours than their old one. They have to figure out a new building and schedule, learn hundreds of names, make lessons, grade essays, discipline and manage their classes, then go and attend lectures and do assignments for their license.

Will these people mess up their classes? If your child has an alternatively licenced teacher, will they have a bad education? No. People with alternative licenses are watched like hawks. They have mentor teachers that watch them. They attend daily or every other day meetings and checkups from the school. Someone at school is always checking in on them. On top of this the program licensing them sends folks to monitor classes frequently and provide feedback – either scheduled or just pop in to see how things are going. There is a full team watching the licensee and helping them. Given all this, I personally wouldn’t think that a teach with an alternative licensure would make and more mistakes than a traditionally licenced teacher would make.

This is long enough so we’re going to make another post to explain exactly what WE are doing, now that you understand how it works.


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