What Is a Teacher Certification?

Male teacher in classroom with students

For those who are thinking about becoming a teacher, sorting through the potential career pathways and regulatory requirements can be a challenge, and questions may arise. What is a teacher certification? What is a non-licensure education degree? And what’s the difference between licensure and non-licensure programs?

These are important questions to consider for any aspiring teacher candidate, and the answers aren’t always cut-and-dry. This is because, although some regulations apply to all states, plenty of other profession-related regulations are established at the state level. Before beginning your career pathway, it’s important to research and consider the teaching regulations that apply to the state in which you plan to work.

In This Article:

Teacher Certification Definition

A teacher certification or teaching certification is a professional credential that verifies the holder has the necessary skills and other qualifications to be able to teach students in a classroom. Earning a teaching certification is a legal requirement for many teachers.1 For others, it’s an employer-established requirement.

Although every state establishes their own requirements for teachers, all 50 states do require a teaching license or certification if the teacher plans to work for a public school. Some private schools do not necessarily require a license or certification.1 However, the requirements to teach in a private school can vary from one employer to the next, and some employers may indeed require job applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certification.

Teaching Certificate vs. License

If you’ve already begun the process of researching the legal requirements to obtain a teaching certification, you may have noticed that some state licensing boards refer to it as a certification or certificate, while others refer to it as a license. This can be a little confusing for aspiring teachers, and it begs the question: What’s the difference between a teaching certificate vs. license?

The simple answer is that there is no concrete, universal difference between a teaching certificate vs. license. It’s simply a matter of linguistic preference for state licensure boards. Some states refer to it as a teaching certification, while others prefer the licensure term.

Some states offer multiple credentials for aspiring teachers. For example, in New York, new teachers must first obtain the Initial Certificate. This teaching certificate is valid for five years. Afterward, they must obtain the Professional Certificate, which is renewable every five years.2

How Can I Earn a Teaching License or Certificate?

Although every state establishes their own eligibility requirements for teaching licensure, all states require aspiring teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some states require future teachers to major in a specific content area.1 

Although the requirements in your state may vary, here’s a look at a common pathway to become a licensed teacher:3

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree and complete a teacher preparation program.
  • Complete a student teaching experience in accordance with your state’s requirements.
  • Pass your state’s licensure or certification exam(s).
  • Apply for the appropriate certification or license in your state.
  • Earn a master’s degree, if required or desired.

Do note that some states may require periodic renewal of teaching licenses or certificates.2

What Is a Non-Licensure Education Degree?

If you’re exploring teaching programs at various schools, you’ll notice that you have a vast range of options regarding the type of degree you could earn, depending on which age range and subject area you wish to teach. You may also notice that some degree programs lead to initial teacher licensure, while others do not. So, what’s the difference between licensure and non-licensure degree programs for aspiring teachers?

A teacher preparation program that leads to initial teacher licensure can generally fulfill all the eligibility requirements to pursue licensure in that particular state. It may also fulfill eligibility requirements in other states, but you’ll need to do your due diligence to determine this.

In contrast, a non-licensure education degree does not meet the eligibility requirements to become a licensed or certified teacher. With a non-licensure education degree, you may not be required to complete student teaching and you could potentially find employment as a teacher in alternative settings, such as private schools that are exempt from state licensing requirements.  

However, you should keep in mind that even if a private school is not required to hire only licensed teachers, they may still prefer to. Plus, not completing a degree program that leads to licensure can limit your options if you later decide to transition from teaching in private to public schools.

There are other options for graduates who have completed an education-related degree that did not lead to licensure. For example, you might pursue a career in education consulting or school administration. (Do note that principals in public schools typically need to have teaching experience.4) Alternatively, you might explore your employment options in social service agencies or nonprofit organizations.

What Is an Alternative Teacher Certification?

If you earned a bachelor’s degree that did not lead to teacher licensure, but you later decide that you’d like to transition to a teaching career, you may be able to do so through alternative means. Some states have established alternative routes to gaining teacher certification.5

You may qualify to pursue alternative certification if you earned a bachelor’s degree in the content area you hope to teach, even if you did not complete a teacher preparation program that included student teaching experience. The alternative route requirements can vary from state to state, but in general, you may expect to complete coursework in education at the graduate level. You may also be issued a temporary teaching license while you gain hands-on classroom experience.5 Certification and licensure requirements are unique by state, so it’s important that you thoroughly review your state’s requirements and program approvals before deciding on the best program for you.

Will My Teaching Certification Transfer to Another State?

Not everyone will work in the same state for the duration of their professional careers. Since the teaching licensure requirements can vary considerably from one state to the next, what happens if you decide to move to another state and wish to continue teaching? Will you need to go back to school and take the licensure exam again?

Fortunately, you may not need to jump through a bunch of hoops to transfer your teaching certificate or license to a different state. This depends, of course, on where you currently live and where you’re planning to move.

More than 40 states currently have teaching licensure reciprocity agreements that are intended to facilitate the process of moving from one state to another to teach. In some cases, you may only need to apply for a different state license.2

In other cases, your new license in your new state is considered to be a provisional credential. This means you’ll likely be able to start working right away, but you may be required to earn a new license within a few years — and this may entail meeting new requirements.2 Be sure to research whether the state you intend on moving to has entered into a reciprocity agreement with your current state, and whether you’ll need to meet new requirements.

Earn Your Degree in Education From GCU

If you feel called to inspire future generations to embrace lifelong learning, consider applying for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. GCU’s College of Education offers an array of non-licensure and licensure degree programs for future educators, including the Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education, which leads to initial teacher licensure. Complete the form on this page to begin your journey at GCU.

If seeking licensure or certification, applicants to the program are responsible for contacting their state department of education for licensure requirements and program approval. In addition, fingerprint/background clearance is required.

1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, January 10). How to become a high school teacher. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved August 11, 2023. 

2 Teach.com. (2020, May). Become a teacher in New York. Teach.com. Retrieved August 11, 2023.

3 AllEducationSchools.com. (n.d.). How to earn your teacher certification. AllEducationSchools.com. Retrieved August 24, 2023.

4 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, October 4). How to become an elementary, middle, or high school principal. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved August 24, 2023.

5 Learn.org. (n.d.). What is a teaching certificate? Learn.org. Retrieved August 24, 2023.

Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Education on Sept. 18, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.