The path to becoming a teacher isn’t always a straight one.

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When Lauren Beebe, now 26, was studying for a bachelor’s degree in international business at Washington State University, she wasn’t picturing a future as a teacher. But after working with kids during a few internships she completed while studying abroad, she decided to take her first job at the YMCA, running after-school programs. From there, she started to consider teaching.

“Of course, I was making a difference with kids doing the after-school and teen programs, but I realized after a while that I wanted to be doing that in a different way,” Beebe says.

So in 2015, Beebe sought out the master’s in teaching program at Northwest University, which she completed last summer. In the fall, she started a new job as a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Lakota Middle School in Federal Way.

“It was a lot of work and an intense year, but it was all worth it,” says Beebe of the master’s program. “This is the most rewarding career I can imagine.”

The path to becoming a teacher isn’t always a straight one, especially for those who, like Beebe, studied something other than education as an undergrad. But there are several ways to make the shift into leading a classroom of your own in Washington state.

The master’s degree option

According to Washington state regulations, you only need a bachelor’s degree (in any subject) and a teaching certification to teach in Washington public schools. But there are many different routes to becoming a teacher, especially if you’ve studied something other than education for that bachelor’s degree.

“For a lot of folks who didn’t study Education in undergrad … you might work in [a different] industry for a while but then decide you really want to be a teacher,” says Ron Jacobson, dean of the school of education at Northwest University in Kirkland. “You could come into a master’s in teaching program like ours, with a degree in English, wanting to teach high school English. You start in August and by the next July, you’ve finished the program, are recommended for certification and can work that fall as a teacher.”

One immediate benefit of getting a master’s degree in addition to your certification? A higher paycheck. Beginning teachers in Washington at public schools automatically make about $7,000 more per year than a teacher starting out with just a bachelor’s degree. Plus, you’ll get more pedagogical education than a certification-only program.

The downside is that master’s degrees usually take a bit longer than certification-only programs, and they cost significantly more.

The certification-only choice

To decide which route is the best for you, there are many considerations.

“If someone already has a master’s degree or higher [in a different field], I would recommend a certification-only program, especially if their expertise is in a high-need area,” says Kim Van Atta, who as a school coach for Seattle Public Schools works with a teacher-certification program and some teacher-recruitment programs.

The current designated high-needs areas in the state (districts are allowed to identify their own, as well) are special education, English language learners (ELL), math and science.

Option for high-need subjects

If your background is in one of the designated high-needs areas, certification can be done through what the state calls the Alternative Route 3 certification. This route provides an intensive course in pedagogy and behavior management, followed by a one-year mentored internship in a classroom and then your certification. “If you already have a Master’s [even if it’s not in education] you’ll start at that higher earning level anyway,” says Van Atta.

A candidate can go through Alternative Route 3 as a career-changer from a high-need subject area with just a bachelor’s degree, as well, says Maria Gross, the director of teacher certification programs at Albright School of Education at City University of Seattle. “In one year we can get you your certificate and help you find a school district you can start working for,” says Gross. City U’s classes are mostly online, with in-person classes on Saturdays and one term of student teaching.

Emergency substitutes

Other alternative routes to certification include those specifically for folks who are already employed by public schools in different capacities, like paraprofessional employees, or people employed in schools on conditional or emergency substitute certificates.

A lot of career changers make a relationship with a school first as a volunteer or an employee, including herself, says Gross, who had a career in engineering and made the switch into education.

“Since I already knew math and was volunteering in a classroom, the school gave me a conditional certificate — or an emergency substitute certificate — hired me, and then [I followed] the same program of going through certification basically while teaching. If you go that route, you actually get paid to teach while you’re being certified,” Gross says.

The decision of which route is best is a very individual one, says Gross. “We [at City University] sit down personally and talk to everyone who wants to enroll to find out what works best for them and what they want.”

If teaching is something you’re thinking about, you can always test the waters first by volunteering at a school or even looking for a job in a school that doesn’t require a teaching certificate. “Getting a job as a paraprofessional [like as an instructional assistant, a family support worker or a safety and security officer] can be a fabulous way to decide if teaching is for you,” says Van Atta, of Seattle Public Schools. “Many people come to education in that route. They find themselves in a paraprofessional role and realize that they actually enjoy working in schools and seeing the impact they can make.”

Jacobson, of Northwest University, advises people who may work in other fields — especially those high-needs areas — to consider teaching even if they don’t have the fondest memories of school themselves.

“One of the things we’re really working hard on is diversifying the teacher force,” he says. “Don’t ask yourself if you loved or were good at school, ask yourself if you want to invest in the next generation and see those kids who struggle do well. We want to bring people into the pool who want to teach kids in a way that sitting at a desk quietly doesn’t necessarily work for.”