Alternative Routes to Certification for US Public Schools

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Many people who are considering graduate courses in Foreign Language Teaching or a related field are curious about getting certified to teach and the qualifications that might be required for various settings. The shortage of qualified language teachers has become extreme in many states, with very few students enrolling in traditional teacher education programs to become world language educators and schools struggling to hire qualified teachers for their programs.

The U.S. public school system requires all teachers to become fully certified in their subject area and for the appropriate age group, usually primary or secondary. Certification is specific to each state, which means that requirements vary and the procedure for getting certified will vary. This post discusses some common misconception about that certification and offers some suggestions if you need to pursue that path.

Our Master of Arts and Graduate Certificate programs serve teachers who work all over the U.S. and in many other countries, as well as in a wide range of instructional contexts. We are based in the College of Arts & Letters, alongside the modern languages programs and the programs for second language studies and linguistics.

The majority of our students and alumni do teach in public schools in the U.S., but they are already certified to teach or on their way to certification. Our Certificate is not the same thing as state certification, though it can be a part of the plan that gets you to that point. Learn more about our Graduate Certificate here:

When do you NOT need to pursue state certification?

Language teachers can be successful in many different instructional contexts. You do not need to be certified by a given state if you are teaching in any context other than the public K-12 (primary and secondary) system, such as:

  • Private primary and secondary schools,
  • Community-based schools, including various heritage language schools, “Saturday school” offered by faith-based organizations, etc.,
  • Pre-schools not associated with public education systems,
  • Community colleges,
  • Universities and 4-year colleges,
  • Programs for service members, including the Defense Language Institute,
  • Business settings such as courses for international executives or relocation support,
  • Free-lance language teaching or tutoring, or
  • Curriculum and materials design work that may or may not include teaching.

These settings all have varying requirements, though their administrators are delighted when a candidate shows up with a strong background in language acquisition and pedagogy, not to mention familiarity with a wide range of educational technology and the ability to plan lessons and curriculum, all of which are included in the objectives of our FLT courses. They might hire someone who has a bachelor’s degree or use volunteers with no training at all (which can be a good way to develop teaching experience), but graduate courses and a web-based portfolio that demonstrates what you can do will make you a much stronger candidate for those positions. A doctorate is very rarely the minimum requirement for a language teaching position. All of the contexts above may hire instructors with a master’s degree, if they articulate their qualifications well.

When DO you need to pursue state certification?

If you want to teach in a U.S. public school long-term, you will need to go through a program that is recognized by the state where you want to teach. A couple of important misconceptions hold aspiring teachers back, though. Here are some common questions that you might not think to ask:

Do I have to be certified before I can start teaching in a U.S. public school? The answer is no. Substitute teachers, including long-term substitutes who teach for a semester or longer, do not have to be fully certified. Also, you can be hired on a provisional basis in a full-time position and begin working on certification at the same time. A good school administrator will know how to guide you through that process and can make it easier and more affordable for you to complete that certification. In fact, it is standard practice for new teachers to start out with provisional licenses that then become permanent when they meet certain requirements. These pages explain how teachers move toward full certification in Michigan, for example:

Will the certification process give me the skills I need to become an effective language teacher? The answer to that question might be yes if the program is associated with a full four-year program in an accredited university. The national organization that oversees these programs, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), regularly reviews programs according to their own standards ( For specific subject areas, other standards may apply. TESOL has their own standards for English language teachers: Nevertheless, not all programs have their acts together in terms of connecting language proficiency, pedagogical skills for language teachers, and the broader requirements for bachelor’s degrees in education. Both traditional and alternative route programs may focus on training to teach in public school without providing content and assignments that relate to the specific challenges of teaching an additional language.

If you do need state certification, how can you get it?

There are traditional programs and non-traditional programs associated with many universities in each state. One good strategy might be to search for an advisor in the College of Education at a university located close to where you want to work and ask what options would be available to you. Undergraduates who want to become language teachers in U.S. public schools often double major in a language and in education.

Traditional Routes to K-12 Certification

Non-Traditional Routes to Certification

Non-Traditional Certification Overview

Post-Baccalaureate Teacher Certification

Another example of an alternative route at a traditional university is this program at well-respected regional university in Michigan:

Saginaw Valley State University – Accelerated Route to Teacher Certification

Which route to certification should you choose?

Fortunately, there are a number of major national databases that will help you identify a program that will meet your needs. You will need to look at the location, in-person and remote learning options, overall cost, flexibility, the content of required courses and modules, and more. Consider how you will go about completing the program while working in your current day job.


Alternative Certification Program

Teacher Certification Degrees

Nation-wide database of programs for alternative routes to certification, searchable by subject area and location.


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Also explained on the Certificate page:

Note that our Graduate Certificate in Foreign Language Teaching is not the same as earning certification to teach in a public school in a given state. If you need graduate course credits in order to earn your K-12 certification, you may count these courses toward teacher certification. For example, this page explains the process for certification through Michigan State’s College of Education: Certification Requirements for Candidates with Bachelor’s Degrees. Also see our FAQ page for prospective students.