There is a wealth of career opportunities for students of mathematics, many in the engineering, science, financial, and technology sectors, but one of the most rewarding is in teaching.
Becoming a math teacher means flexing your creativity daily — something financiers and engineers don’t get to do often. Students come to math with vastly different learning styles and levels of mastery; finding a way to teach them mathematical concepts and processes requires constant adaptation and experimentation. Many math teachers are surprised to discover that they grow as mathematicians in the classroom and are more innovative in their own work as a result.
The answer to the question ‘Why become a math teacher?’ is obvious to those who devote their careers to passing their own love of math on to the next generation. Becoming a math teacher means making a difference; it may not result in either fame or fortune, but the rewards those in the profession do receive are manifold. We all need math, and yet so many students have come to believe that they can’t do it. Seeing the light of comprehension in a learner’s eyes or helping a student realize she is capable of more than she thought possible is so gratifying.
Do you want to experience that feeling for yourself? Then read on to discover what you need to know to become a math teacher and to advance in that career.
You may be surprised to learn that the United States does not have a nationwide set of education requirements for math teachers. Individual states set their own standards, which means the process and prerequisites for becoming a math teacher vary from one state to another. What all 50 states have in common, however, is that math teachers in public middle schools and high schools must have at least a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certificate.
Let’s take a look at just a few states as examples. In Georgia, a math teacher does not have to have a master’s degree; license renewal does depend on meeting strict professional development and continuing education requirements. In Pennsylvania, a bachelor’s degree in education will get you into the classroom, but math teachers must then earn at least 24 more undergraduate or graduate credits within six years. In New York, math teachers who haven’t earned a master’s degree after five years of teaching simply cannot renew their teaching certificates.
Chances are good that once you become a math teacher, you will eventually have to, or want to, earn a master’s degree. That’s because having a master’s degree not only exposes you to the newest trends in teaching and in mathematics but also because having that graduate degree will help you score better positions in better schools and should also result in a salary increase; according to a report from the Center for American Progress, a master’s degree results in a pay increase for teachers between $1,423 (Texas) and $10,777 (Washington), with a median pay raise of $5,192.
Some math lovers choose to start out by pursuing a degree in mathematics, but the educational commitment to become a math teacher involves more than just math. If you know for sure that your ultimate goal is to become a math teacher, look into programs where you’ll earn a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics Education or a Bachelor of Science in Education with a concentration in mathematics. Math programs with a teacher education concentration and education programs with a concentration in math will both prepare you for the first stage of your teaching journey; think about which track you’ll enjoy more and follow it.
Coursework in both types of programs usually includes classes in algebra, advanced calculus, logic and set theory, geometry, and elementary statistics, along with classes focused on education concepts, classroom management, and student assessment. As part of your bachelor’s degree, you will also need to complete a student teaching practicum. The time you spend student teaching will help you feel a lot more comfortable when you eventually have a classroom of your own.
Most bachelor’s degree programs take four years for full-time students, though it’s worth noting that there are dual-degree teacher preparation programs (like the one at New York University – Steinhardt) that can make earning your bachelor’s degree faster if you’re also planning on pursuing a master’s degree.
Licensing requirements differ by state, so it’s important that you understand what is required in the state where you’d like to teach. Many states — but not all of them — require that teachers pass PRAXIS exams, which are teacher certification tests administered by the Educational Testing Service. These exams include reading, writing, and mathematics. There are prep courses for many teacher exams, so it’s relatively easy to study before sitting for the exam. You’ll probably also need to complete an application and provide the state board of education with proof that you have completed a degree program and all required examinations. Lastly, you’ll need to pass a rigorous background check.
In most states, the teacher certification you ultimately earn will allow you to become a middle school math teacher or a high school math teacher (i.e. you’ll have a secondary-education teacher certification). Elementary school teachers, though they do teach math, typically earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and have a different type of teaching certificate.
As noted above, in some states you could stop at this point and spend the rest of your career in the classroom, completing occasional teacher training in order to maintain your licensure. Many math teachers, however, decide to earn a Master of Education (MEd) or Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Mathematics because having that graduate degree can mean higher salaries, more opportunities, and better results. Of course, an education-related master’s may simply be a requirement for teachers in your state, in which case you’ll have to complete a master’s degree program in order to continue teaching math.
Most MEd and MAT programs take two years to complete if you’re studying full time, though accelerated programs like the University of Southern California – Rossier’s online MAT can be completed in just 18 months.
MEd or MAT?
MEd degrees are best for mathematics teachers who want to dive deeper into the pedagogy or instructional strategies specifically related to mathematics and more broadly related to teaching. In general, this degree is the better choice for math teachers who think they might want to work outside the classroom one day, perhaps in leadership roles (i.e. administration) or curriculum design. Additionally, this is probably the best choice for teachers planning to pursue doctoral programs.
MAT degree programs, on the other hand, are more focused on practical discipline-specific teaching strategies and are designed to prepare educators for any and all challenges they’ll face in the classroom. Most people who earn a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and want to make the leap into teaching will opt for this type of program. Some MAT programs, like the one at Saint Francis University, even have a transition-to-teaching element designed to help get novice teachers into classrooms faster.
Be sure you read education master’s degree program descriptions carefully, as each university will structure its programs a little differently. Also remember that in some states, teachers have to complete a master’s degree program within a certain amount of time of being hired or risk losing their teacher certification. If your state is one of them, make sure that the deadline is built into your long-term plans.
After earning a master’s degree in teaching mathematics, you’ll still need to renew your teacher certification on a regular basis. Again, every state has different requirements when it comes to renewing a teaching certificate, but in most cases, completing continuing education courses and/or participating in state board-approved activities are among the requirements. Some states, like Massachusetts, require educators to submit a professional development plan. In Colorado, teachers must provide proof that they’ve completed 90+ hours of professional development. Tennessee, on the other hand, lets math teachers who have master’s degrees and some number of years of positive evaluations renew without doing any additional work.
Teaching math at the middle school or high school level can be an amazing experience, but once you’ve earned a master’s degree in mathematics education you may want to explore the advancement opportunities for math teachers. They’re out there! Experienced educators with the right degrees can become principals, administrators, and curriculum designers, or work toward teaching at the post-secondary level.
If you are interested in teaching math at the post-secondary (college) level, don’t assume you must have a doctoral degree. Most community colleges are happy to accept instructors with master’s degrees, and there are even some that are open to hiring teachers with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree. That said, if you feel driven to teach math at a four-year university, a doctoral degree will be a must as most universities prefer candidates who are involved in independent research.
As detailed above, how long it takes you to get from school into the classroom depends a lot on whether your state requires a master’s degree. Some states offer alternative certificate-only programs that allow those with a bachelor’s in math to earn the credentials necessary for a teaching certificate by completing only the education courses mandated for state licensure. These alternatives or non-traditional teacher certification programs usually grant teachers a temporary teaching license that lasts for one to two years and typically place limitations on the conditions under which they can teach (e.g. requiring the guidance of a qualified instructor), which are lifted once they earn conventional licensure.
The world runs on math, so there will always be a need for math teachers. Chances are good, too, that the demand for math teachers will keep increasing as the technology sector grows. Teaching math is a great way to turn your love of the subject into a career. If you’re still on the fence about becoming a math teacher because of the commitment involved, look into alternative and accelerated programs; they may offer the biggest and most immediate return on your investment. In the end, it’ll all add up.
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