Welcome to the latest installment of College Transitions’ College-to-Career series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions. This article thoroughly examines the topic of how to become a teacher. We’ll begin with guidance on how to choose from the many teaching colleges you may be considering.

Does Going to a Prestigious Undergraduate School Help?

Breaking into the teaching field is a very different endeavor than entering the highly selective worlds of law or medicine. There are presently 3.2 million people making their living as public school teachers in the United States. Another 500,000 individuals staff private and parochial schools.

If school districts, even top-notch ones, only accepted candidates from elite colleges and universities, the majority of the country’s classrooms would be left unsupervised. A resume that boasts a prestigious undergraduate school may certainly catch the eye of a hiring official, especially from a desirable suburban district where breaking-in is extremely competitive. However, even in these districts, a distinguished alma mater is far from a prerequisite.

Of more importance is the proximity of your college. Public institutions are often the best feeders into the most desirable schools and districts within their respective states. For example, in Pennsylvania, where teacher salaries are relatively high and pensions are relatively generous, many schools draw a high percentage of their employees from Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and other less selective state institutions, such as Millersville and West Chester Universities. Students attending these schools have an inside track to PA jobs because they are more likely to meet requirements for state licensure, secure local student teaching opportunities (which often lead to employment), and benefit from strong alumni representation/networks within PA school districts. In general, if you know where you want to spend your teaching years, it’s best to concentrate your college search on nearby schools, particularly those that are in-state and at least moderately selective.

Teacher Salaries

The widespread belief that teaching is, across the board, a low-income profession is a bit too broad and is ultimately misleading. In reality, teacher salaries vary greatly by type of school (public vs. private), region of the country, and type of community (urban vs. suburban vs. rural).

The overall average salary for a public school teacher in the U.S. comes in at just over $64,000. However, in certain geographic pockets such as the Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and San Diego suburbs, teachers at the top of the pay scale bring in six-figure salaries. Scarsdale School District in New York has the highest median teacher salary in the country at $141,000.

Private school teachers will make significantly less than their public school counterparts. Charter schools, which continue to spring up in urban areas across the U.S., also typically offer lower pay than public schools.

As with salary, benefits bestowed upon teachers have great variability on a state-by-state basis. There are some states who still currently offer some form of a traditional pension to newly-hired public school teachers, but with almost all of these systems in financial crisis, it’s hard to imagine they will sustain, at least in their present form, through the next generation of educators.

Gain Experience in the Field

Amazingly, 40% of individuals graduating with a teaching degree never even enter a classroom, instead electing to pursue other fields. Of those who do take over a classroom, many don’t remain with the profession for very long. In the age of COVID, one survey found that 54% of America’s teachers were considering quitting within the next couple of years. Too often, students studying education do not enter an actual K-12 classroom of any kind on a regular basis until student teaching. This traditionally occurs during one’s final undergraduate semester. Colleges of Education have been trending toward offering more practicum experience throughout the four years of study. This is intended to help give students a more steady diet of actual classroom exposure. Still, there is no reason not to take matters into your own hands.

One of the beautiful things about gaining experience in the education field is that, wherever you live, a school is never more than a stone’s throw away and most will offer ways to get involved. Many K-12 buildings offer chances for community members to tutor or mentor students, supervise after-school activities, or observe a classroom setting upon request. This can be done even when you are still in high school yourself. Ask your teachers, counselor, or principal if you can get involved working with younger students. The insight you gain will help determine whether pursuing a degree in education is right for you.

Think about a Double Major

Given the alarming retention statistics in the field of education, it is a sound idea to seek a double major. Education degrees from most colleges and universities are generally viewed as less rigorous and selective as other areas of study. Coupling your education degree with a second area of interest, especially in the subject area where you want to teach, can improve your marketability and leave many options open should you choose to enter another field or pursue an advanced degree in a different discipline.

Plan the Financial End

First-year teachers nationwide average $41,000 per year. Because teaching pay scales are almost always on a schedule that accounts for years of service and degree status, even higher paying districts very rarely start teachers above $50,000. Further, it is typically a 15+ year climb to reach the max salary. Except for a smattering of districts across the country experimenting with merit pay, longevity is the sole pathway to incremental raises. This reality can be frustrating for young teachers.

Avoiding debt prior to entering the teaching field is strongly recommended if not absolutely necessary. Unless your parents are covering the entire bill, we recommend being cost-conscious during the college selection process. Remember, the selectivity of your college won’t have a sizable impact on your ability to obtain a teaching job.

If you plan to stay in teaching for the long haul, plan on eventually pursuing a master’s degree. Graduate school is not a barrier to entry in the field of education. However, the majority of teachers pursue advanced degrees at some point in their careers. At present, 58% of public school teachers hold at least a master’s degree. If you look only at industry veterans, that number increases substantially. Many school districts will pay a portion of their employees’ grad school tuition. In all states, teachers are required to obtain additional credits as part of continuing education programs. These are tied to maintaining a license, making post-baccalaureate study of some variety mandatory.

How to Become a Teacher – Final Thoughts

For some, teaching is a rewarding experience that is more a calling than a job. In the right geographic region, in a public school setting, the combination of solid salary and unmatched retirement benefits can make teaching a more viable living than many commonly believe. Unfortunately, many leave the profession due to stress, lack of administrative support, and lack of academic freedom in the classroom. Yet for those born to be teachers, those obstacles are minor when weighed against the opportunity to help bring learning to life, inspire young people, and play a genuine role in shaping the future.

Visit the College Transitions Dataverse for a list of the Best Colleges for Education.