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Alternative Routes to Teaching

If you want to pass down knowledge to students but going back to school to earn a teaching degree isn’t possible, it doesn’t mean you have to throw your aspirations away. Continue reading to learn about alternative routes to teaching that can lead to classroom success.

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Meet the Expert
Meredith Essalat
Meredith Essalat

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Meredith Essalat has been an educator for over 17 years, supporting secondary and elementary school students as a teacher and now Principal in San Francisco, California. While her journey to become an academic leader may be considered unconventional, it continues to be filled with passion and purpose. Meredith is the author of The Overly Honest Teacher and an active teaching blogger. She uses her love of writing to advocate for students and empower teachers everywhere.

A teacher standing in a classroom in front of seven students.

A teacher shortage threatens educational quality across much of America, leading some states to develop alternative routes to certification for talented professionals who lack a teaching background. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that approximately 18% of teachers working during the 2015-2016 school year entered the field via an alternative certification program. Understanding the process for becoming a teacher when you possess an unrelated bachelor’s degree can be confusing, especially since each state sets its own requirements. If you’re interested in this path but aren’t sure where to start, keep reading to discover the top options available.

Why Take an Alternative Route to Teaching?

Maybe you wanted to explore another career field in college. Or the teaching program where you went to school just didn’t appeal to you. Whatever the reason, you’re not the only one who’s gone through it. Here’s a closer look at why people make the move to teaching later in their careers.

  • Current career untenable. Whether you’re getting burned out or phased out, your current line of work may not be going well. Teachers will always be in demand, making this a steady career option.
  • Desire for meaningful contributions. Teachers work as selfless and compassionate professionals to educate the next generation – a worthwhile endeavor. You can give back to your community in numerous ways as a teacher.
  • Teacher shortages. The need for qualified teachers is greater than ever, providing excellent opportunities for those who want to get involved. Feeling needed can provide a great sense of achievement.
  • Work with children. After working with adults for a while, you may realize they actually prefer working with a different population. Working with young children and adolescents allows teachers to see the world through their eyes.
  • Shifting priorities. Some professionals set out to make as much money as possible, but these goals can change over time. Teachers typically desire to make a difference in the lives of their students.

How Requirements for Teaching Vary

Requirements for traditional and alternative route teaching programs can vary significantly. Differences usually depend on grade level, subject, and demand for teachers at the time. For example, teachers brought in to fill an emergency posting usually meet less stringent requirements than those who join a school via a teacher residency program.

By Grade Level – Elementary vs. Middle vs High School

Credentialing requirements typically vary by grade level, with people seeking certification in primary education requiring less time than those seeking certification in secondary education.

By Subject

Teachers of STEM subjects are often in the greatest demand, making it possible for candidates with relevant undergraduate education to progress through training more quickly. Conversely, someone looking to work in special education will likely participate in a longer alternative route.

Options for Teaching if You Don’t Have a Teaching Degree

To pursue an alternative teaching program, you typically need to possess a bachelor’s degree at minimum. Many states give preference to candidates whose undergraduate education matches the topic they hope to teach in a K-12 setting, such as math or English. Because you already possess knowledge of their academic area, they can focus on building skills around classroom management, lesson planning, and educating diverse student populations.

Alternative teaching programs assess candidates’ existing knowledge through extensive screening in basic skills (e.g., reading, writing, arithmetic) as well as their selected content area. Candidates must also pass a background check. Many programs set minimum GPA requirements for their undergraduate degree.

Once admitted to an alternative teaching certification program, you are expected to maintain a high GPA and show promise for a future teaching career. Several alternative routes to becoming a licensed teacher exist; we review your options in the following sections.

AR Teacher Education Through a University Program

University-based AR programs work in tandem with the state department of education to make sure you gain all required skills and competencies needed to lead a classroom. These programs usually take between 18-24 months to complete, depending on whether you enroll on a part-time or full-time basis. Upon completing all requirements, you earn a master’s degree and clearance to apply for a teaching certificate. Some of the components to keep in mind when applying to a university-based program include:


Minimum GPA requirements vary by institution. Many colleges and universities offering alternative teacher education require applicants to possess a minimum 2.5 undergraduate GPA. Those who cannot meet this requirement may need to submit GRE scores.


Coursework typically takes one year to complete and depends on the type of license/certification a student intends to seek. Anyone who wants to teach PreK-5 will study different topics than those looking to lead high school classrooms. Most programs require completion of their coursework before starting the internship portion.


You must receive a provisional teaching certificate/license from their state board of education prior to beginning the internship. This experience mirrors student teaching and requires candidates to build their classroom skills under the mentorship of a fully licensed educator. The majority of states require the internship to last at least one year.

Who is this good for?

This program caters to learners looking for a more structured, traditional approach to gaining a degree and teacher licensure.

What grades can you teach?

University-based programs offer many different types of certifications based on the candidate’s undergraduate qualifications and their intended teaching level. Students select their certification area when applying and qualify for certification/licensure in that area after meeting all programmatic requirements.

What subjects can you teach?

As with grade levels, you must select your subject area when applying to the program. This is typically dictated by your undergraduate major and/or existing professional experience.

Program Spotlight: Mountain View College

This Texas-based program takes 1.5-2 years to complete and partners with public, charter, and private schools in North Texas to both meet training requirements and provide a career pipeline for graduates. Applicants must possess a bachelor’s degree and 2.5 or higher GPA. They must also pass a background check. Admitted students can choose from 23 different academic certifications at all K-12 levels. To graduate, they must complete 300 clock hours, pass examinations, and undertake a one-year internship.

Additional Resources

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. The Center for Effective School Practices at Rutgers provides in-depth information about their program, which meets all state requirements.

University of Houston.The Alternative Certification Program at UH provides a clear overview of requirements from admission through graduation to help interested students learn what will be expected of them.

Utah State University.This alternative teacher preparation licensure program offers a unique take by providing paths for those looking to work with special education students.

Residency Program: Transition to Teaching

Alternative licensure residency programs follow in the footsteps of residencies used in other fields (e.g., medicine, law). They immerse learners in real-time practical skills building alongside academic learning. Students begin their teaching residency upon enrollment and focus on building competencies in both areas for the duration of the program. A few things to keep in mind when considering this program:


Admission requirementsmirror university programs and typically include an accredited bachelor’s degree and minimum 2.5 or higher GPA.


Residency requirements range from 1-2 years, depending on state regulations. Some offer paid opportunities and make you the teacher of record for their classroom while others are unpaid and function more as a student teaching experience. Candidates typically take on more responsibility as the residency continues.


Required classes focus on responding to the experiences you have while leading K-12 classrooms but generally touch on topics of pedagogy, behavior management, and current trends in education. Some programs now offer online learning options.


Most states require candidates to pass several Praxis exams focused on both teaching and content areas. Some state-specific exams may also exist.

Who is this good for?

If you’re looking for a more hands-on learning method, opt for this program. Same goes for anyone who wants to work in high need fields/schools.

What grades can you teach?

Residency participants must make a decision about the grade level they want to teach prior to beginning the program, as this will determine where they are placed.

What subjects can you teach?

The subjects you can teach depend on your undergraduate training and existing professional experience. Most residency programs call on students to focus efforts on their bachelor’s training.

Program Spotlight: Jefferson County Public Schools

JCPS in Louisville, Kentucky recently started the Louisville Teacher Residency program in concert with the University of Louisville. This one-year program focuses on preparing teachers in urban educational environments who possess little to no classroom experience. Participants benefit from mentorship by a master teacher, coaching and feedback, a peer cohort, competitive salary, benefits, and access to a pension. When they finish the program, they receive a master’s degree and a Kentucky Professional Education certificate.

Additional Resources

Teach for America.This program lasts two years and places recent graduates in in-need classrooms across the nation. The process for applying is extremely competitive; this program offers a salary while participating.

Teachers of Tomorrow.This program began in 2005 and has licensed more than 60,000 teachers since then. Participants complete online training while meeting their classroom teaching requirements.

Teacher Residency Programs: A Clinical Way to Prepare Educators.New York University provides an in-depth look at the pros and cons of residency programs while also offering insightful findings and research.

In-District Training

Some school districts provide locally approved training programs overseen by individual and/or group districts. In-district training programs may not hold approval from the state board of education and not all states provide this type of path. To receive consideration for in-district training, you must meet the following requirements:


Submit an application


Demonstrate completion of a bachelor’s degree in the subject area you wish to teach and receive a passing score on a content area assessment


Begin teaching under a provisional/limited license and work with administrators/mentors to build necessary classroom skills


After teaching for 1-2 years, apply for and pass required state examinations


Receive teaching license/certification

Anyone considering this path should note that not every state offers in-district training, nor does every program lead to state-wide licensure. In Texas, for instance, you can only teach in the school where they completed training and their teaching permit does not transfer to other districts.

Who is this good for?

This option caters to those living in an area where in-district training exists who want to earn a salary while completing requirements.

What grades can you teach?

As with other routes, you select your grade area upon enrollment. Availability may be dictated by the school.

What subjects can you teach?

You teach content areas based on your undergraduate training.

Program Spotlight: Mississippi Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence

The Mississippi Department of Education allows teaching hopefuls with a bachelor’s degree who enroll in a qualified program to receive licensure in biology, chemistry, English, math, or physics after receiving an ABCTE certificate and a letter from a school district offering employment. Participants must complete a one-year teaching internship, summer training, and content area assessments. They must also find a board-certified teacher to provide mentorship.

Additional Resources

Kentucky Department of Education.Kentucky provides a glimpse of requirements for in-district training but notes no programs currently receive approval via the Education Professional Standards Board.

Delaware Department of Education.Delaware offers an option for those who already possess at least one year of substitute teaching to receive district/charter positions, but these do not lead to licensure in certain subjects.

Texas Education Agency.The TEA provides a program allowing districts to employ educated professionals without a teaching license, provided they understand this does not lead to certification.

Emergency and Provisional Teaching

Emergency and provisional teaching licenses are used by states experiencing critical shortages. This allows the state or school district to hire someone with a bachelor’s degree unrelated to education to fill either substitute or classroom teacher positions. Not every state offers emergency and provisional pathways, but this could be a viable option if you live in a state that does. Some requirements to qualify include:


Possess an accredited bachelor’s degree in an in-demand content area.


Receive an offer of employment as an emergency teacher from a qualified school district that can request an emergency certification through the state’s board of education.

Many emergency licenses expire after one year, and few offer a direct path to licensure once the shortage has been met. People living in states that offer alternative routes to licensure via portfolio evaluation or teacher equivalency may be able to receive a full license after meeting additional requirements.

Who is this good for?

This option serves people who want to meet an immediate need in the classroom as a way of ensuring this path fits their career goals.

What grades can you teach?

Grade area is dictated by educator needs at schools facing teacher shortages.

What subjects can you teach?

You can teach any subject in which they receive postsecondary training, so long as it is deemed an in-need topic.

Program Spotlight: California Commission on Teacher Credentialing

The California Department of Education provides four different types of emergency teacher permits based on specific educator needs. Three of these focus on substitute teaching, with one offering a path for those with a bachelor’s or higher degree to move towards becoming a prospective licensed teacher. The Emergency Designated Subjects Career Technical Education Permit supports candidates with a degree and/or trade experience who want to teach Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes.

Additional Resources

Arizona Department of Education.The AZED offers several different types of emergency certificates to meet the needs of schools and districts lacking qualified teaching staff.

What is An Emergency Teaching Certificate, and When Do You Need One?ESS provides an in-depth look at why these certificates exist and whether you should consider pursuing one.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.Wisconsin offers a glimpse of how emergency licensure programs are run with its one-year license with stipulations.

Teacher Equivalency and Portfolio Evaluations

A few states offer the teacher equivalency path for people who hold a bachelor’s degree and have gained teaching experience in a setting that does not require licensure (e.g., private and charter schools, vocational schools, and colleges and universities). Portfolio evaluations allow candidates to highlight their experience in a classroom by providing evidence of both subject mastery and teaching qualifications. A few requirements include:


Possession of an accredited bachelor’s degree


Documentation showing experience working in a classroom setting that does not require licensure


Evidence of subject matter knowledge


If applying via portfolio evaluation, candidates must provide a portfolio of work that demonstrates their ability to teach


Passage of educator examinations for licensure

While these paths are quite rare in terms of states that provide them, they do lead to full teaching certification once all requirements are met.

Who is this good for?

This path works for people with proper educational qualifications who began their teaching career in a field that does not require an educator license/certification.

What grades can you teach?

This is usually dictated by the grade level you taught previously, but college-level educators may have some flexibility.

What subjects can you teach?

You can teach the subject in which you gained a degree and possess classroom experience.

Program Spotlight: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Wisconsin provides a Licensed Based on Equivalency Pathway for educators who possess at least three years of teaching experience that corresponds to the topic and grade level they hope to teach. Candidates must pass assessments in basic skills, content knowledge, and pedagogy. They must also demonstrate competence in 10 teaching standards set forth by the department and receive passing scores on content-based rubrics to qualify.

Additional Resources

Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.Minnesota offers licensure via portfolio for educators who possess at least three years of experience, can provide a portfolio, and pass all required testing.

Using Teacher Portfolios in Educator Evaluation.The American Institutes for Research offers insight into how portfolios can be used to determine a candidate’s preparedness for receiving licensure.

Vermont Licensure Portfolio Requirements.This guide provides great information on the type of information a state board of education expects to see in a portfolio when deciding whether or not to grant licensure.

AR Teaching Programs Cater to Working Adults

Most of these programs recognize that more people will decide to work in education if they can continue earning a living while ramping up their teaching careers. They also have responsibilities that preclude them from being able to attend college as a regular student to change careers.

Online Training

Coursework. Required classes can be done without visiting the brick-and-mortar university campus. For other programs, hybrid classes are the new norm adding an extra level of engagement.

Cohort model. Some programs use the cohort model. This allows for students to enter the program simultaneously and complete all requirements together.

Asynchronous learning. Asynchronous programs allow students to watch prerecorded lectures, turn in assignments, and contribute to group assignments at times that work with their schedules.

Mentorship. Teachers-in-training can take advantage of mentorship from veteran educators who help them navigate this process.

Career advising. Many programs provide career services to help soon-to-be graduates leverage their new credentials into a teaching job.

Fast-Track Licensure

Conditional teaching licensure. You can gain a conditional license while still in school to begin taking advantage of teaching opportunities in the classroom.

Paid opportunities. Some programs, such as Teach for America, allow learners to earn a salary while working toward licensure.

Education-focused. Classes focus on building the skills needed to lead classrooms rather than on content areas.

Testing out of classes. Students who demonstrate mastery of their chosen subject do not need to retake any of these classes.

Dual purpose credits. Some programs offer credits that count towards both a master’s degree and teaching license requirements simultaneously.

Using What You Already Know

States that offer alternative routes to teacher licensure recognize that these professionals often possess knowledge and skills that complement the practice of teaching. Rather than asking them to go through a full educational program, they rely on testing existing competencies. Some schools may offer emergency licenses that allow you to prove yourself in the classroom during times of shortage. Others value teaching experience gained in positions that historically do not require licensure. In assessing the best alternative route to take, you should first check to see which types of paths exist in their state.

Additional Resources

Alternative Routes to Education. The U.S. Department of Education offers a selection of resources to help people make an informed decision.

Alternative Teacher Certification: Does it Work? The American Institutes for Research provides helpful, research-backed information about this path.

How to Become a Teacher When Your Bachelor’s Degree is Not in Education. Veteran educator Dr. Joseph Lathan highlights the benefits of alternative routes in this article shared by the University of San Diego.

Research Spotlight on Alternative Routes to Teacher Certification. The National Education Association highlights promising research into alternative teacher certification programs.

Teach for America: Day in the Life. Take a look at what a typical day looks like in this insightful piece.

Interview with an AR Teacher & Administrator

Meredith Essalat

Meredith Essalat

Meredith Essalat has been an educator for over 17 years, supporting secondary and elementary school students as a teacher and now Principal in San Francisco, California. While her journey to become an academic leader may be considered unconventional, it continues to be filled with passion and purpose. Meredith is the author of The Overly Honest Teacher and an active teaching blogger. She uses her love of writing to advocate for students and empower teachers everywhere.

Which path did you follow and what was this process like for you?

I got into teaching by accident, really. After graduating with a BA in Mass Communication, I dabbled with event coordination, leadership, and academic fundraising and development. I went back to school to get my teaching credential in an effort to support donor cultivation. But from the moment I began the credential program, I knew that leading a classroom was where I needed to be. So, I jumped into the lion’s den of middle school, teaching Language Arts for ten years before moving into administration.

To be perfectly candid, the credentialing process is a winding road. Never have I ever studied as much as I did when I was working towards becoming a teacher. Most academic communities are looking for teachers who possess more than a credential, so onto an M.Ed. program I went. I earned two master’s degrees— one in Curriculum and Instruction followed by a second in Educational Leadership. After years of teaching, I now serve as the Principal of a K-8 independent school in San Francisco.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a teacher through an alternative route?

Being a teacher is an immersive decision— one which requires full buy-in. When done properly, it is all-consuming. It is never too early or too late in one’s career to jump into this profession as so many students are seeking the guidance and mentorship that comes from educators. If you seek to make an impact, teaching is worth pursuing.

What surprised you the most about the process/was there anything you felt unprepared for?

Classroom management and discipline techniques are two of the hardest hurdles for any teacher. No amount of educational theory can quell the overwhelming task of getting kids in their seats and ready to learn. That comes with on-the-job, in-the-trenches, trial-and-error.

Is there anything you would do differently with the knowledge you now have?

I would have definitely started teaching sooner!