Sometimes the question isn’t “To teach or not to teach?” or even “What should I teach?” Some people are born to teach English. For them, the question is, “How do I become an English teacher?”
The path to becoming a teacher isn’t always straight and narrow—especially when you want to become a middle school teacher or a high school teacher and specialize in a particular subject.
You might wonder whether you’ll need a degree in the subject you teach or specialty certifications to become an English teacher. Unfortunately, the answer varies from state to state, so you’ll still have some digging to do after reading this article about how to become an English teacher. What we share here are the basics so you can get started on your journey.
Some people regard teaching as the backup option waiting for English majors who couldn’t finish their novels or hack it in the ultra-competitive publishing world. That’s unfair and untrue. Plenty of people major in English because they aspire to teaching jobs after graduation.
It’s actually a pretty great job. Like all teachers, public school and private school English teachers have to do quite a bit of paperwork, plan lessons, grade papers, attend meetings with administrators, handle classroom management, and deal with parents. They also experience the pleasure of introducing their students to the magic of poetry, American literature, and foreign authors whose work students might otherwise never read. Along the way, they help students build reading comprehension skills, teach them how to write more effectively, and guide them in how to analyze literature.
You may have had an English teacher whose name you still remember because they were so passionate about books or the power of the written word. Chances are that they didn’t become an English teacher because they failed at writing the next best-selling novel. They likely planned to teach English from day one.
You can take several paths to become an English teacher—majoring in English is just one of them. You might enroll in a secondary education bachelor’s degree program that lets you choose a concentration in English. You might major in English and minor in education or major in education and minor in English. Some aspiring English teachers double major in secondary education and English. If you already have an English degree, there are also one-year, non-degree teacher preparation programs that can help you transition into a teacher career.
The bottom line is that a bachelor’s degree plus a certificate granted by a teacher preparation program is often all it takes to qualify for licensure. You don’t even need an English degree to teach English in some states, provided you can pass the required licensure exams.
Most states allow English teachers to continue renewing their licenses indefinitely with just a bachelor’s degree. Even so, about 50 percent of teachers have advanced degrees like the MAT in English Education and the MEd in English Education. That’s because there are many good reasons to get a teaching master’s. You’ll get a salary boost (more on this below). You’ll be able to transition into niche roles like literacy specialist. You’ll learn a lot about your favorite subject and how to teach it more effectively. And taking master’s-level courses is often the simplest way to meet continuing professional development education requirements.
English teachers may specialize in one subject, but they still need to meet the same general teaching certification requirements as other middle school and high school teachers. Each state has specific licensure or certification requirements, which can include passing a state-specific proficiency exam, a general Praxis exam, or both. Many states have a single-subject teaching credential for secondary school teachers. To be eligible for this type of license, you may have to pass a language arts subject area exam to show that you have a strong grasp of the material you want to teach.
If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree in English or any teaching experience, becoming an English teacher will take four to five years. That timeline assumes you major in education, go to school full-time, and minor in English. Your undergraduate education degree program will include all the student teaching hours necessary to qualify for initial licensure in most states, though aspiring teachers in some states must complete a specialized teacher education program to be eligible for licensure, even if they major in education.
If you major in English and don’t minor in education, becoming an English teacher (regardless of grade level) will take five to six years—four to earn your bachelor’s degree, another to complete a teacher training program, and possibly one additional year of the supervised classroom time (if necessary) to earn a teaching certificate in your state.
You may be able to become a teacher faster if you already have an English degree by relocating to a state with a teacher shortage. These states often create alternative teacher certificate programs to attract prospective teachers so districts with critical teacher shortages can meet their staffing needs. Alternative certification programs take many forms but often involve putting unlicensed teachers in classrooms and then paying for the master’s program and continuing education courses they’ll need to get a teaching license.
Teaching English is very different from teaching math or science. IT requires a different toolkit. The very best English teachers do a lot more than hand out copies of A Tale of Two Cities and collect book reports. They teach students to appreciate creative writing and apply their critical thinking skills to literature (instead of just regurgitating expert analysis).
Great English teachers are active listeners and let students lead discussions as much as possible. They also make the subject matter come alive. In a Quora thread about the skills English teachers need, Fong Hsiung wrote that English teachers should “Be dramatic especially when reading a story to the class. Act the story if necessary. And modulate the voice to fit the discussion.”
One of the most important skills you can nurture in yourself as you put in the work to become an English teacher is the ability to read the room. Teacher Anne Agard believes “the most important thing you need to do to become a good teacher is (to) pay attention to what is going on with the students—whether they are learning, whether they are comfortable, whether they are interested or bored. If you notice these things, you can work to remedy any problems. If you aren’t paying attention to them, you go on boring the students, or making them uncomfortable, or wasting their time.”
This skill is especially useful in English class because standards often aren’t fact-based. There’s not much physics teachers can do if students are bored by, say, stoichiometry. A mole is a mole. English teachers can get creative and go off script when they sense students aren’t engaged. And despite your best intentions, your students will get bored sometimes.
“Don’t think that a high school class is going to be anything like your LIT 451 class, where all 15 of you sit down with the professor and discuss Frankenstein through a Freudian lens,” explains AP English literature teacher, Jasara Hines. “Don’t think that all your kids are going to like reading Jane Eyre because you like it.”
In schools that don’t use preset curricula, teachers can pivot from Shakespeare to Stephen King. In districts that dictate which books students must read, English teachers still have the option of going full-on Dead Poets Society in their classrooms, standing on desks, and otherwise stirring things up.
Teacher salaries are typically set by individual school districts. We can look at averages—middle school teachers earn about $60,000 and high school teachers earn about $62,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—but those figures can only tell us so much about how much teaching positions pay. Why? First, English teacher salaries are highest in New York, California, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, but living in those states is expensive, so you may be able to live more comfortably in areas with lower average teacher salaries if the cost of living is also lower. Second, most districts use a “step and lane” system when calculating teacher pay. Each year of experience is a step up, earning an advanced degree puts you in a different lane, and each step up and lane change results in a pay increase.
How much a lane change will boost your salary when you become an English teacher varies by district, but it can take more than two decades plus a master’s degree to reach the maximum salary level. A master’s in teaching or master’s in education typically leads to a $2,800 salary increase in the first year after graduation. At the top of the pay scale, English teachers with master’s degrees usually out-earn their colleagues with bachelor’s degrees by about $7,000 annually.
Many people are inspired to become English teachers by their love of books or poetry, but it takes more than just a passion for literature to reach students. Great English teachers, according to Seth Czarnecki, empower their students to find their own voices and treat the English language as something that can be wielded creatively—grammar rules be (sometimes) damned. “When educators allow students to experiment and take chances, the results can be inspiring,” he writes.
Doing that isn’t always easy, though. English teachers can run up against many roadblocks, from district-mandated book lists to state-mandated English exams to students whose reading skills aren’t on par with the assigned texts. This last challenge might be the hardest to overcome. According to a study conducted by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, about 14 percent of the US population, aged 16 and older, have a “below basic” literacy level. That means you have to be prepared to spend time working with students on skills like reading vocabulary, spelling, and reading comprehension.
Some teachers get frustrated because they chose English as a specialization to share their favorite stories but ended up spending more time teaching students how to read them. You’ll be the kind of English teacher your students remember forever if you can accept that doing the latter is just as important and rewarding as doing the former. As good as it feels to introduce students to great literature, it feels even better to introduce them to how wonderful reading and writing can be.
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