There were more than 3 million K-12 teachers working in the United States in 2018, making this one of the largest occupations in the country. The importance of the teaching profession goes far beyond mere numbers, however. Becoming a professional teacher requires skills that come from both a college education and practical experience. It is not just a matter of presenting factual knowledge to students.
A professional teacher must have patience and imagination as well as a desire to communicate with and engage students in the learning process. Professional teaching is challenging, but it is a rewarding career that offers excellent employment opportunities.
Professional Teacher Job Description
Professional teachers are responsible for the instruction of children from kindergarten through 12th grade. The teaching profession is divided into three levels: kindergarten and elementary school teachers, middle school teachers and high school teachers. This arrangement allows teachers to focus on the needs and abilities of the students based on their ages and level of development. At each stage, teachers help their students prepare for the next stage of their education and personal growth.
Many of the duties of the professional teacher are the same regardless of the grade level of the students. All teachers prepare lesson plans that are geared to the needs of their students. Lesson plans also help to ensure that students are presented with the knowledge they need to pass standardized tests required by government and accrediting bodies. In class, a teacher presents the information students must learn and leads a variety of learning activities.
For example, the teacher may divide students into groups to work on projects. Teachers also work with students on an individual basis so they can evaluate each one's progress and address any difficulties that arise. All teachers also spend time grading assignments. They communicate with parents to keep them informed of student progress and address concerns.
Differences Focus for Different Ages of Students
Kindergarten and elementary school teachers focus on basic educational skills such as reading, writing and mathematics. They help young children practice studying methods and learning skills. Middle school teachers concentrate on preparing students to handle the challenging work they will encounter in high school.
Middle school generally includes grades six to eight. These students can be very challenging for teachers because this is the period when young people are coping with the transition to adolescence. High school teachers are concerned with preparing students for the challenges of college, vocational training and transitioning into the working world.
Work Environment of Professional Teachers
Although helping young people develop their potential is rewarding, it can be stressful. Some students are more difficult to teach, especially when a school lacks funding for up-to-date textbooks and other resources. Teachers must supervise their pupils during lunchtime and other activities outside the classroom. Most teachers work traditional school hours.
However, they also meet with students and parents after school and often must work evenings grading papers. Some teach summer sessions. When a school has a year-round schedule, teachers work nine-week sessions with short breaks. In high school, a teacher may also have coaching duties.
Teacher Employment Statistics
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that there were about 1.4 million kindergarten and elementary teachers in 2018. Typically, elementary school goes through fifth grade, although some schools include students up to eighth grade. Public schools employed 85 percent of these teachers, while another 12 percent taught at private schools. About 630,300 teachers worked in middle schools teaching grades six through eight.
Public schools employed 80 percent of middle school teachers in 2018. Approximately 1 million teachers were employed by high schools teaching grades nine through 12. Private schools hired 13 percent, and 84 percent taught in public schools.
Professional Qualifications of a Teacher
The requirements for becoming a teacher include academic work and practical experience. In all states, this means the professional qualifications of a teacher include a college degree and completion of a teacher preparation program and student teaching experience. Some states also require a master's degree in education, but teachers can wait until after they begin working to earn this advanced degree.
Private schools are not bound by state education and training rules, but generally require a college degree. Professional teachers need to develop certain personal qualities as well, including patience, creativity and resourcefulness.
Educational Requirements of a Professional Teacher
In college, prospective kindergarten and elementary school teachers need to major in elementary education. State rules may also require major courses on a specific content area such as English, mathematics or science. Typically, high school teachers specialize in a subject area such as languages, English, mathematics, science or history. They may also specialize in other areas such as art, physical education or music.
Middle school teachers often specialize as well. All prospective teachers participate in a teacher preparation program where they study educational psychology, child psychology and how to present information to students who may come from any ethnic group or socioeconomic background. Teacher preparation programs include a student teaching component in which the student gains experience by teaching in a classroom under the supervision of a certified teacher.
State Certification of Teachers
Teachers must be certified by the state to teach in public schools. In order to become certified, a teacher must fulfill the educational requirements, pass a background check and pass a test of their knowledge of teaching. They may have to pass a subject or content test as well, particularly for teaching in high school. Many states provide an alternative path to certification for people who originally trained in another field.
In some cases, a person with a college degree can start teaching under supervision while participating in a teacher education program. Other states require completion of this program before a person can work as a teacher.
Professional Teaching Salaries
A salary survey conducted by the BLS found that kindergarten and elementary school teachers received a median salary of $58,230 as of May 2018. Median means 50 percent were paid more than this amount and 50 percent were paid less. The highest-paid 10 percent earned over $93,270. The 10 percent paid least received less than $37,780. Kindergarten and elementary teachers in public schools were paid a median salary of $59,420, while those teaching in private schools got $46,410.
Middle school teachers had a median salary of $58,600. The best paid 10 percent received over $93,180 and the lowest earning tenth earned under $37,090. The median salary for public middle school teachers was $59,570.
The median salary for high school teachers was $60,320. The top-earning tenth were paid over $97,500. The lowest earning 10 percent earned under $39,740. Public high school teachers received a median salary of $61,040. The median salary for those teaching in private schools was $54,150.
Job Outlook for Professional Teachers
The BLS projects a 7 percent rise in jobs for kindergarten and elementary school teachers from 2016 to 2026. An 8 percent increase is forecast for middle school teachers and the same for high school teachers. These growth estimates are about average compared to all occupations.
Ongoing population growth means there will be more students in the next decade. In addition, many teachers will retire or leave for other occupations. Opportunities will be best in urban and rural schools, rather than those located in the suburbs. Demand is particularly high for specialties such as mathematics and science since many areas have a shortage of qualified teachers.
- Teacher Certification: 9 Useful Skills for Teachers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Middle School Teachers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: High School Teachers
- Education Data. "Average Cost of College & Tuition." Accessed March 27, 2020.
- Economic Policy Institute. "Low relative pay and high incidence of moonlighting play a role in the teacher shortage, particularly in high-poverty schools." Accessed March 27, 2020.
Based in Atlanta, Georgia, William Adkins has been writing professionally since 2008. He writes about small business, finance and economics issues for publishers like Chron Small Business and Bizfluent.com. Adkins holds master's degrees in history of business and labor and in sociology from Georgia State University. He became a member of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2009.