Educator Tips

How to become a high school teacher: A step by step guide

By Brian Soika Published on

If you’re wondering how to become a high school teacher, you may be curious where to start. The answer depends in part on your state’s requirements and educational background. However, most aspiring secondary teachers typically follow the same path.

(Curious how USC Rossier can help you become a teacher? Contact us.)

Here’s an outline of ten essential steps you should take to becoming a high school teacher.

1. Decide what you want to teach

High school teachers dedicate their time to one subject. While you may teach different classes or levels on that subject, it will all be related. (Contrast this to elementary school teachers who cover multiple subjects.)

Pick a subject that you love. Not only will you maintain your own interest year over year, you’ll be more likely to have a positive impact in the classroom. Think back to your favorite high school teachers. They probably stand out because of their infectious enthusiasm for the material. Indeed, one of the major perks of teaching is the ability to inspire your students.

According to the Learning Policy Institute, subject areas with the highest demand for teachers across the country are:

  • Special education
  • Math
  • Science
  • Bilingual education / teachers of English learners

2. Earn your bachelor’s degree

As a high school teacher, you’re required to have a bachelor’s degree, ideally in the subject that you want to teach. Keep in mind that most post-baccalaureate teacher education programs (e.g., a Master of Arts in Teaching) require a minimum of 12 credits of subject matter courses for secondary subjects. Your in-depth knowledge will be one of your best tools as a leader in the classroom.

Also, your college may let you earn your teaching credential along with your bachelor’s degree, saving you some time and money. Talk to your academic advisor about special teacher preparation programs aimed at future educators.


Pro tip: While in college, gain some experience in education by tutoring, volunteering in a classroom, or working as a teaching assistant. Research possibilities on campus or in the community.


3. Take the required tests

Educators have to pass state-mandated skills tests before they can start teaching in public schools (some private schools, however, do not require a credential). While the tests vary depending on where you live, they all seek to confirm that you possess a required level of general knowledge, as well as knowledge specific to your preferred subject.

Check out the tables to view the most common exams for teachers in the US, as well as tests required in California (where USC Rossier is located).

However, make sure to view your state’s required tests and plan accordingly.

National Evaluation Series (NES)
  • Essential Academic Skills
  • Professional Knowledge
  • Elementary, Middle Secondary Assessments
  • K-12 Assessments
  • $95 / test
  • Essential Academic Skills tests vary
  • Core Academic Skills
  • Subject Assessments
  • Content Knowledge for Teaching Assessments
  • $90 / test
  • $150 for single subjects when taken together
California Basic Educator Skills Test (CBEST)1
  • Reading
  • Math
  • Writing
  • $102 (computer)
  • $41 (paper)
California Subject Examinations for Teachers (CSET)
  • Basic Skills
  • Subject Matter Competence
  • Educational Technology2 Competence for Bilingual Authorization3

1In CA, SAT and ACT minimum scores can supplant CBEST scores – don’t take the test until you’ve reviewed the qualifying criteria.

2For out-of-state credential candidates in California

3For candidates pursuing bilingual authorization

4. Consider a master’s degree

If you’re wondering how to become a high school teacher, a master’s degree is a smart move. A Master of Arts in Teaching program introduces you to relevant pedagogical theory about teaching and learning, helping you shape lesson plans for maximum impact.

Additionally, graduate programs provide an established path to earning your teacher credential. You’ll have the chance to work in a classroom and apply what you’re learning in a real-world setting. You can discover how to become a high school teacher on your feet, while receiving feedback from other teachers.

Plus, master’s degrees potentially make you eligible for higher pay.

Become a Teacher

5. Enroll in a teacher education program (if needed)

If you don’t earn a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and didn’t meet requirements as an undergrad, you need to enroll in a teacher education program.

Again, every state has different requirements but you’ll likely have to complete coursework and a set amount of hours teaching in a classroom under supervision.

As an alternative, you can join an organization like Teach for America which allows aspiring educators with minimal experience to teach in a community in need. If you complete the program, you can earn a teaching credential in your assigned region’s state.

6. Research financial aid

If you pursue a graduate degree or teacher education program to become a high school teacher, you may need to make a significant financial investment. The good news is that grad schools typically offer scholarships and financial aid to help mitigate your costs.

Additionally, there’s a high demand for teachers who want to teach a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering or math). The demand directly correlates with available scholarship dollars and recruitment bonuses by various school districts.

7. Apply for your teaching credential

Public high school teachers are required to have a teaching credential. A credential certifies that you have completed the necessary tests and experience to lead your own classroom.

As a single-subject teacher in California, you’re required to first earn a Preliminary Credential as you work towards your Clear Credential.

You are allowed to teach with a Preliminary Certification as long as you satisfy other credential requirements, and are actively pursuing your Clear Credential.

View the table below to see the differences between the two credentials.

Preliminary Credential vs. Clear Credential (California only)
Credential Purpose Expiration Requirements
Preliminary Credential Prerequisite certification 5 years (non renewable)
  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Basic Skills Requirement
  • Verify subject competence
  • US Constitution test
  • Teacher preparation program
  • Formal recommendation
Clear Credential Career certification 5 years (renewable)
  • Teacher induction program
  • Application


  • Certification by the NBTS

For more details, check out the Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s page on the Single Subject Teaching Credential.

8. Review differences in schools

As you search for your first high school teaching job, make sure you review your options.

One thing you might consider is individual school characteristics. While some schools have more resources, others may have a higher demand for teachers.

You might also have the option to apply to private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, or subject-specific schools (e.g., a school for the arts) as well. Each of these has its own requirements for credentials, and they differ in pay, benefits and class size among other factors; do your research before submitting your application.

9. Update your teacher resume

After you find an open high school teaching position that suits you, make sure your resume is in good shape. Here are the necessary items to include on your teacher resume:

  • Education - List degrees, institutions or programs
  • Teaching experience - Briefly describe your duties and accomplishments
  • Certifications - Include credentials and any relevant licenses
  • Skills - Tailor this section to the job description
  • Contact information

10. Submit your application

Once you’re ready to apply, make sure to include a cover letter along with your resume. The cover letter should express your enthusiasm for the role, and concisely address how your experience aligns with the duties outlined in the job description. Follow the instructions for submitting your application. 

USC Rossier Resources

Start a fulfilling career as a teacher with USC Rossier’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program.

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