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Published: July 12, 2011

Licensing of teachers

The official certification by state or other authorities of a teacher’s qualifications to serve as an instructor. Teacher licensing in the Anglo-Saxon world dates back to the early 12th century, when schools emerged as adjuncts of local churches and monasteries and clerics were forced to appoint lay teachers to instruct the young. In 1553, the Catholic Queen Mary of England ordered the examination of all schoolmasters, preachers and teachers of children to determine their orthodoxy; they were removed if found suspect. Under Mary’s Protestant sister Elizabeth I, the licensing principle became law in 1571 and traveled to America with the colonists in the 17th century.
Because of a shortage of qualified teachers, it was a difficult principle to enforce, but in 1654 the Massachusetts general court ordered town officials in the province not to allow anyone to teach who was of “unsound faith, or scandalous in their lives, and not giving due satisfaction according to the rules of Christ.” In 1686, in an effort to spread Anglican influence, the governor assumed the right to approve masters. In addition, King James II ordered that “no schoolmaster be henceforth permitted to come from England and to keep school within our province of New York, without the license of the . . . archbishop of Canterbury.” Charles II had introduced licensing of teachers in Virginia in 1683, ordering that every schoolmaster have a license from either the bishop of London, if he came from England, or from the governor.
Licensing did not necessarily reflect any qualifications beyond loyalty to the Crown and the Church of England. As the number of dissenters and Protestant sects multiplied and the clerics in each village church took control of education in their communities, licensing all but disappeared. With independence, clerical control of parish schools all but ended state authority over education and teacher qualifications. Anyone could—and often did—teach, although most teachers tended to be clergymen and college students who needed to earn money between semesters by teaching younger children. Approval and hiring of lay teachers were usually left to local clerics or church vestrymen.
Today’s licensing procedures date back to the establishment of the first teacher training school, founded by HORACE MANN in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1839 to serve the new, state system of public schools—the first such system in the United States. As other states established similar systems, they also built teacher training schools. Gradually, certificates from such schools became a requirement for teaching in public schools. Although all states continue to require a teaching certificate for a job as a public schoolteacher, no such requirements apply to teaching in private schools, which determine teacher qualifications independently.