Wondering How to Become a Teacher?

Here’s 5 Steps to Take in Undergrad

A grad cap that reads, "And the student became the teacher," in white cursive within a bright red apple, surrounded by teaching equipment like rulers, crayons and a pencil that reads, "Ms. Murillo." The photo was taken at UC Davis' School of Education Commencement graduation ceremony in 2023.
UC Davis graduate Ms. Murillo proudly dons a custom teacher-themed grad cap at the School of Education Commencement graduation ceremony at the Mondavi Center in June 2023. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

As university students, we’ve spent most of our lives up to this point sitting in classrooms. Our classroom experience, though, has been limited to receiving instruction. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be on the other side of the equation?

The Rundown on Teaching

A professor with short gray hair, wearing square-rimmed glasses and a black blazer points to a presentation slide off-camera while teaching an art history class at UC Davis.
Professor of Art History Talinn Grigor teaches the art history class AHI001: "Understanding Visual Culture" in Everson Hall on the first day of classes for the 2023-24 school year. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

How much do teachers make?

According to the California Department of Education, for teachers in California unified school districts of medium size, the average annual salary is $54,190 for beginning teachers and $105,000 for seasoned teachers.

What degree do you need to be a teacher?

The minimum requirement for becoming a teacher in California is a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Then, you’ll need a certificate from a teaching credential program approved by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Some elementary and secondary school teachers also obtain a master’s degree in education.

How long does it take to become a teacher?

It takes five to seven years to become a teacher. You will need to obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree and a one-year credential program certificate at minimum. If you choose to obtain a master’s degree, it can add another one to two years to your education.

How do you become an elementary school teacher?

Elementary school teachers will need a bachelor’s degree and a multiple-subject teaching credential, which prepares you to teach several subjects at the elementary level.

How do you become a high school teacher?

Middle and high school teachers will need a bachelor’s degree and a single-subject teaching credential, which prepares you to teach one subject at the middle or high school level.

By all accounts, teaching at any grade level is a deeply rewarding profession. You can dedicate yourself to educating and mentoring the next generation, with lots of options as to what age of students you’d like to work with. If you love the environment of academia, you can stay and work with a diverse array of people. As Tracy Falk, an advisor at the UC Davis School of Education, joked, “If it were down to me, there would be no more bridges. We need engineers for that, and we need all kinds of people. Education at its core supports all types of learners; I like being a part of that big web.” Education is the beating heart of society, and you have the opportunity to be a part of it.

 But how can you prepare for a career in teaching? It starts right here in undergrad. If you believe that education is right for you, here are five steps you can take during your undergraduate studies to prepare for a future in teaching.

1. Pick the right major to become a teacher

A UC Davis teaching assistant with short blue hair and wearing a blue lab coat points to a chemical equation on a blackboard.
Alexia Davis, graduate student and teaching assistant, teaches a chemistry lab in the UC Davis Sciences Laboratory Building in Feb. 2023. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Trying to figure out what to study in undergrad if you want to become a teacher can be difficult. UC Davis offers an education minor but not an education major, so where should you be focusing your efforts to prepare for a teaching career?

According to School of Education Advisor Tracy Falk, the best bet is to major in whatever subject you plan on teaching. “Look at what you’re interested in,” she said. “In our credential program we offer an agriculture credential and English, math, science and social science. That’s for seventh through twelfth grade. We offer a multiple-subject credential, which is kindergarten through sixth grade, and students from all different types of majors enroll in our program.” Earning an undergraduate degree in the subject you want to teach will prepare you for a credential program.

If you aren’t majoring in one of the credential subjects, don’t sweat it. There is a subject matter competency requirement for admission to any California teaching credential program. This requirement is fulfilled by a bachelor’s degree in the subject, but it can also be fulfilled in other ways. For example, a passing subject score on the CSET exam will fulfill the requirement. If your major doesn’t align exactly, you can take the CSET to qualify for credentialing.

If you’re interested in education but aren’t sure about teaching a specific subject, you can explore other related topics. “A lot of our education minor students come from human development, psychology, communications, political science and history,” Falk said. These majors can prepare you to further explore the education field later. There are many non-teaching roles in education that need to be filled, such as administration, counseling, policy-making and research.

Unsure what major would be best for you? Take a look at all our available majors in the education career field.

2. Consider minoring in education

A student raises their hand and calls out a question from the back of the auditorium, surrounded by other students.
Students take notes and listen to instruction from professor Julia Chamberlain in CHE 002C: "General Chemistry" during the first day of class on Sept. 27, 2023. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Although UC Davis doesn’t have an education major, it does offer a minor in education with a wide array of education course offerings for undergraduate students. The minor is twenty upper-division units. You’ll take three core classes — EDU 100: Introduction to Schools, EDU 110: General Educational Psychology and EDU 120: Philosophical & Social Foundations of Teaching. With this solid foundation, the minor is finished off with eight units of electives in education. The School of Education offers plenty of fascinating elective courses, like “Educating Children with Disabilities,” “Ethnic Studies in K-12 Schools” and “Guidance and Counseling.”

“The education minor provides the framework for students to decide if they want to go to a graduate or credential program or if they want to go into work,” Falk said. By completing the minor, you can build a foundation of knowledge, gain experience working in classrooms and boost your applications to credential and M.A. programs. Taking education courses will also allow you to build relationships with faculty from the UC Davis School of Education.

One such faculty member is Dr. Sophia Mattingly, who teaches core classes like EDU 100: Introduction to Schools, as well as some electives. Her course EDU 122: Children, Learning & Material Culture is a favorite of her students. 

“That class is so much fun,” Mattingly said. “It’s all about everything around us — all the little hidden messaging we get in symbols and signs and words — and how those things can impact how we learn. We talk about Lego and Barbie and violent video games. We discuss how those topics relate to learning and how the educational system impacts them.” The education minor allows you to explore fascinating and fun topics like this while building skills for your future career.

3. Get classroom or internship experience in teaching

A student wearing a light gray long-sleeve UC Davis shirt leans down to assist two junior high school students. In the background is a large whiteboard with equations written on it.
2023 University Medalist Neeraj Senthil, a biomedical engineering major, has been a student teacher at Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High School and taught a class how to calculate the volume of a sphere in May 2023.

A vital step in preparing to become a teacher is making sure you like it! While you’re still in undergrad, make sure to gain some experience. This will allow you to determine how well you click with the field while also building relevant skills.

“The more experience you get working in an educational setting, the better,” Falk said. That includes classrooms, but also tutoring gigs, summer camps and even working here at UC Davis. “There are so many great jobs here on campus where you can just get into the culture and rhythm of an educational setting,” she said.

There are plenty of resources here on campus to help you find internships. The course EDU 100 includes a thirty-hour off-campus internship in a classroom setting. “Sometimes people don’t think they’re interested in teaching until they do an internship in a classroom,” Mattingly said. “When you’re on the other side of that desk, you really get an understanding of how much work there is and how the system operates. Our classes provide that perspective.” 

The Internship and Career Center is also a good place to look for internships in tutoring and other educational settings. You can earn credit for internships through the EDU 192: Internship course which can count toward your minor. Education students can also find opportunities in the School of Education Research and Innovation Centers, which are labs and projects in education run by faculty who often recruit undergraduate researchers. Whatever form it takes, try to get some experience out in the field!

4. Join the Student California Teachers Association

A UC Davis professor in a dark blue button-up shirt teaches a class.
Professor John Eadie was the 2023 winner of the UC Davis Teaching Prize. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

One of the best ways to prepare for a career in education is to surround yourself with people who have similar goals and interests. The Student California Teachers Association provides opportunities for networking, professional development and making connections with other aspiring educators. 

“Our Student California Teachers Association club brings together students who are interested in all different aspects of education — teaching, but also policy work, library studies, museum studies and non-profit work,” Falk said. The list goes on. The SCTA is a campus home for undergraduate students invested in the world of education.

5. Prepare for a teaching credential program

A UC Davis student, wearing hoop earrings and a black denim jacket with floral embroidery, takes notes on a tablet in UC Davis' Center for Educational Effectiveness.
Lizzette Sanchez, a civil engineering major, studies at the UC Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

On the road to becoming a teacher, you’ll first need to complete a credential program. This is an approximately year-long program that gives you the tools and specialized preparation for teaching the subject and grade level of your choice. A credential program will also get you out working as a student teacher. You’ll want to investigate the prerequisites for any programs you might be interested in, as different programs may have different requirements. UC Davis offers a joint M.A. and credential program

Here are some important steps you can take while still in undergrad:

  • Keep your grades up: Many programs have an undergraduate GPA requirement. The requirement is often between a 2.5 and 3.0 minimum GPA.
  • Complete special coursework: Some programs require an educational psychology course and, if you plan on a multiple-subject credential, a fundamental mathematics course. There is also a U.S. Constitution proficiency requirement that can be fulfilled by either coursework or exam scores.
  • Fulfill the basic skills requirement: Applicants must show basic proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics. These categories can be fulfilled with coursework or test scores, including AP, SAT and ACT scores. 
  • Get classroom observation hours: UC Davis and some other credential programs require some experience observing classrooms in the grade level of your choice. UC Davis requires at least 30 hours of observation.
  • Build relationships with professors: Although UC Davis does not, many other programs will require letters of recommendation. You’ll want to build close relationships with faculty members to get meaningful, personalized recommendations from them.

Start looking into credential programs early to determine what you need to prepare. When it comes to choosing a program, Mattingly advises, “You need to be really honest with yourself about what is important to you. For example, some of the programs start when the K-12 students go back to school. Other programs do not start at that same time. Another difference is that some programs will place you, and some programs you have to find your own placement.” Researching what sets apart different programs will help you find the one best suited to your needs as a student teacher.

For more guidance on preparing for a credential program, consider making an appointment with UC Davis Pre-Graduate Advising Services or attending a UC Davis School of Education credential information session. You can also make an advising appointment with School of Education Advisor Tracy Falk.

Helping you become a helper

A student in a dark blue UC Davis sweater and round-rimmed glasses helps an elementary student read a picture book. The elementary student looks up at the UC Davis student with a big smile.
Lizette Luis, a College Corps fellow from UC Davis, instructs a reading group of children at North Davis Elementary in Oct. 2022. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

The road to becoming a teacher can be a long and exacting one. But by taking these steps to prepare while you’re still an undergraduate, you can streamline the process and acquire experience to become the best teacher you can be. 

Choose a related major so you have a background in what you’d like to teach. Consider minoring in education to receive guidance and mentorship from UC Davis’ School of Education faculty. Get volunteer and internship experience working in an educational setting to familiarize yourself with the work you’ll be doing and build the skills you need. Join the SCTA and other on-campus organizations to network with other aspiring educators. Lay the preparational groundwork for an eventual teaching credential program application. 

And, finally, keep your goal in mind. It can be overwhelming to take on a multi-year odyssey to receive your teaching certification. Don’t neglect to remember the passion that drives you.

When asked what her favorite thing about teaching is, Mattingly pointed me toward the famous quote by the beloved children’s television host Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” 

“Teaching is one of those jobs where you’re the helper, and so many kids look to you not just as the person who has information,” Mattingly said. “We are so many kids’ safe spaces. We are hope, and we’re more than just knowledge about English and math. That’s really year after year the thing that keeps me coming back.”

R.J. Praker (she/her) is a third year pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science with minors in professional writing and Russian. She currently works as a writing intern for UC Davis' Office of Strategic Communications and an academic peer advisor for the Department of Political Science. She also serves as chief copy editor at the Davis Political Review. R.J. is from Placerville, California and loves to hike in the Sierra Nevada with her family’s dogs.

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