Teachers go to graduate school for varied reasons. Some are new to the field and enroll in part-time or full-time master's programs to qualify for state teaching certificates. Others are established teachers who want to transition into specialty teaching roles or earn more money. Still others work in states where all teachers have to earn graduate degrees within a specified number of years if they plan to continue teaching in the public school system.
You might not need a master's degree to become a teacher in most areas of the United States, but if you want to spend your career in the classroom, there are many compelling professional reasons to look into Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) programs. Some teachers enroll in this graduate program for personal reasons, like curiosity, passion for a specific content area, and the desire to develop an area of expertise.
We don't yet have enough data to determine whether earning a master's degree will make you a better teacher. By some accounts, student outcomes depend less on teacher education than on the students' circumstances. What we do know is that when you're a teacher, having a master's in teaching on your resume has a positive impact on your career.
In this article about the top reasons to get a Master of Arts in Teaching, we cover:
MAT degree programs are designed to do one of two things: prepare aspiring teachers for licensure and careers in the classroom, give experienced teachers skills and credentials necessary to step into more specialized roles. Foundational coursework often touches on advanced education concepts like:
Be aware, however, that the curriculum in Master of Arts in Teaching programs can differ widely from one school to the next. That's because core coursework in MAT programs varies significantly by concentration. Examples of common specializations include:
In MAT programs for aspiring teachers, the first 20 or so credit hours are often devoted to topics like classroom management, instructional strategies, evaluation and assessment, planning and instruction, and practical skills related to teaching specific subject areas. These programs often culminate in a supervised practicum placement designed to give students teaching experience. Experienced teachers in Master of Arts in Teaching programs, on the other hand, may complete a capstone research project instead of student teaching fieldwork. Often, this research takes place in their own classrooms.
The list of schools with the top Master of Arts in Teaching programs is similar to the list of schools with the top education graduate programs. These lists differ, however, because some colleges and universities offer graduate-level teaching degrees in the form of Master of Education programs with specializations for teachers. The institutions with the highest-rated MAT degree programs include:
Most Master of Arts in Teaching programs are laser-focused on pedagogical skills and theories. You'll spend your time in your MAT program strengthening your essential teaching skills and learning new strategies for working with kids, teens, or special student populations.
MAT programs allow teachers who have taught in general ed classrooms in K-5 schools or one of the three Rs in high schools to choose a new niche. Your new area of expertise might be literacy education, educational psychology, behavior management, or adolescent development. You'll not only strengthen your skills but also get the credentials you need to qualify for varied career paths.
Some one-year and two-year Master of Arts in Teaching programs accept applicants without bachelor's degrees in education and with no previous teaching experience. As long as you have completed an undergraduate program in any discipline, you can find a master's degree program for teachers that will help you get your teaching certification.
If you're new to teaching, your MAT may help you "leapfrog" over introductory jobs right out of graduate school. Instead of starting in an entry-level position, you'll move right into higher-paying teaching roles. Experienced teachers may be able to step into senior positions faster by earning a graduate degree.
While many districts don't require teachers to earn master's degrees, some of those districts will always hire a teacher with an MAT over one with a bachelor's degree. An MAT can also qualify you for a broader range of opportunities. You'll have to reapply for a teacher certification when you move from state to state, but your graduate degree will be an asset no matter where you are.
Eighty-eight percent of large districts base teacher compensation on education level, and raises in these districts aren't given at the whim of administrators. Most automatically give bonuses, stipends, or higher salaries to teachers who complete graduate programs. In the first year after graduation, a teacher with an MAT, MST, or MEd may earn about $2,800 more. Once they reach the top of the salary schedule, the difference is closer to $10,000.
Earning a Master of Arts in Teaching demonstrates your commitment to your craft and can give you credibility in the field. Your student teaching field experiences will help you become more proficient in the classroom, more confident in your abilities, and more hirable.
Education is an evolving discipline, and going back to school for a master's degree can introduce you to new techniques, new technologies, and new ways to reach a diverse student body. You'll stay up-to-date and be able to adapt to the dynamic standards that teachers are now expected to meet.
There are some challenges only fellow teachers can truly understand. You'll build relationships with a broad network of teachers and educators in a graduate teaching degree program. These connections can provide invaluable support and access to opportunities in the future.
People describe teaching as a recession-proof career, but job security in teaching depends on district needs and local budgets. The competition for teaching jobs in areas without shortages can be fierce. When budget cuts in education are approved, jobs for teachers are often the first things to go. Having an MAT can make it less likely that your position will be the one eliminated.
You can become a teacher without a master's degree in all 50 states. To be eligible for your initial teacher license, all you'll need are:
However, how far you can advance in teaching without a Master of Arts in Teaching degree (or another master's degree in teaching) will depend on where you're located, what grade level you want to teach, the needs of the community in which you plan to teach, and your professional experience.
It's not uncommon for high school teachers to have graduate degrees in their subject areas. In some specialty areas of teaching (e.g., special education and literacy education), teachers are expected to have master's degrees. And in a handful of states, all teachers must earn either a master's degree in teaching or master's in education within a certain time frame to maintain eligibility for licensure or qualify for the highest-level professional teaching licenses.
There's a chance you might need to get a master's degree to teach in the future, though that's not necessarily a good reason to pursue an MAT. First, as common as degree inflation is across industries, it's unlikely that we'll see widespread adoption of master's requirements in teaching any time soon. Elementary school, middle school, and high school teacher shortages in various areas have prompted many states to create alternative certification programs or educator preparation programs designed to get aspiring teachers into classrooms in underserved communities more quickly. It's even possible to get an emergency license in some areas without an undergraduate degree. And some states that have experimented with master's degree requirements—like Kentucky—have rolled those requirements back given that there's very little conclusive evidence that links teacher education with classroom outcomes.
It shouldn't come as a surprise, however, that about 50 percent of teachers have graduate degrees. Master's degrees in teaching are extraordinarily popular—so popular that graduate education degrees represent more than 20 percent of all master's degrees awarded. The ROI of a Master of Arts in Teaching is high, even when you don't factor in salary. An MAT might not correlate with student achievement, but it can help you meet continuing education requirements, make you a more confident teacher, give you the credentials necessary to compete in the best-paying districts, and make your teaching career a more rewarding one.
This article was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the subject.
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