Career Overview: Education

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Do you dream of shaping young minds and preparing children for their future? Perhaps you envision classrooms full of eager students, sitting at rapt attention, putting your vast knowledge to practical use. While you may realize these dreams if you choose a career in teaching, you will also typically deal with tremendous amounts of paperwork and cope with misbehaving-or even violent-students. Other teachers have to deal with adults who have no study skills and no time to learn them.

And summer vacations, which used to be the biggest perquisite for educators, are becoming increasingly rare in many settings. As continuing education requirements for teachers get more stringent, you may be forced to spend your summers at professional training workshops. Not to mention the fact that you may be compelled to get a summer job, in order to make ends meet on your salary.

Whether you're a schoolteacher, a special education teacher, an adult vocational-education trainer, or a college professor, your career as an educator may comprise all these things and more. So, before embarking on a career in education, you should weigh the pros and cons and decide if the many rewards are worth the trouble.

(Note: This career profile focuses on careers for teachers, professors, and instructors. In addition to those folks, though, there are all kinds of support and administrative personnel-elementary and high school principals, guidance counselors, college deans, and so on. As you read this career profile, be aware that there are other opportunities in education beyond those on the front lines. And be aware that today, there are opportunities for teachers and administrative types alike in an ever-wider variety of organizations. These days, you might want to expand your study of education careers beyond traditional in-school opportunities to include organizations like nonprofit educational outreach community groups, educational publishing and software companies, corporate training departments and companies, and online educational institutions like the University of Phoenix.)

What You'll Do
Educators can work with people of all ages, from toddlers in nursery school to senior citizens in continuing education programs. They work with people from all economic backgrounds, from the inner city and rural children who don't get enough nutritious food to eat, to wealthy CEOs trying to cope with laying off employees.

They can work in many different settings, from well-appointed private boarding schools to dilapidated community centers. And, of course, they teach many different subjects, from English as a second language to quantum physics.

Educators include teachers, instructors, and trainers. Teachers may teach children or adults in public schools, private schools, vocational or technical schools, colleges or universities, or special-education programs. Trainers may work with a company's human resources department to orient new employees and keep all employees' skills up to date. They may also lead vocational training programs sponsored by the government, by private nonprofits, or by for-profit businesses.

Who Does Well
To be effective, educators must be able to forge a connection with their students. In other words, they must be able to gain rapport with others easily. They must be patient in order to teach students who have difficulty understanding. They need to be sensitive and empathetic. They need to be able to understand individual students' needs, and make decisions about them. They need to possess expertise in the subject they're teaching, and the drive to stay on top of new developments in that subject throughout their career. And, if they don't want to burn out, they must have a love of learning and the desire and ability to convey their enthusiasm to students.

People who have these qualities and are able to deal with the challenges of a career in education will reap many rewards. Education can be an immensely fulfilling vocation. Educators teach children the skills and knowledge they'll need to continue their education or succeed in the post-school world. They teach adults the skills necessary to succeed, often helping them turn their lives around.


Educators must have either a college degree or significant experience and certification in their fields of expertise. Schoolteachers, including special education teachers, must hold a bachelor's degree. To teach in a public school, you'll also need a teaching license, which requires the completion of a teacher-training program and usually a student-teaching internship. To teach in a specific state, you'll need a teaching license issued by that state. Schoolteachers usually major in the subject they wish to teach, and take education courses to obtain teaching credentials, or else they major in education and take extra courses in their area of specialization.

Special education teachers are usually trained in a related field, such as hearing impairment or learning disabilities, and must have a bachelor's degree and a teaching credential. States that have trouble attracting new teachers may offer alternative or emergency credentials that don't have as many stringent requirements as traditional licenses. Private schoolteachers are not necessarily required to hold licenses.

Adult education teachers must have experience in their field and some may need a license or certification. Those who teach basic education may be required to hold a bachelor's degree in education. Corporate trainers often have a degree in training or in human resources and enter the training field through a company's human resources department.

At universities and colleges, most tenure-track positions require a professor to hold a PhD, or to be a PhD candidate. In some fields, such as the arts, a master's degree may be sufficient. Two-year institutions often find a master's degree adequate, but may give preference to an instructor with a PhD.

In addition to these requirements and those discussed previously, all teachers and professors must be experts in their field and possess exceptional communication skills. They should be able to form a rapport with their students and be supportive and understanding.

Many teachers change careers. Their skills usually qualify them for positions where communication skills are important. Marketing, writing, and research careers are all options. Many corporations hire teachers to train employees within their HR departments. Science and math teachers can also find careers in science at a variety of companies. Other teachers can apply their specialties to industry or in the public sector as well; political science professors, for instance, can often find employment in government, working on policy issues.

Job Outlook

The good news is that the number of available jobs will continue to rise over the next decade, even though school enrollment will slow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that opportunities for preschool and K-12 teachers will be good to excellent in coming years. With the Baby Boomer teachers reaching retirement age, and a large number of teaching positions with higher-than-average turnover rates, there should be many openings for already existing education positions.

Available jobs abound in inner cities and rural areas, where school districts have traditionally had trouble attracting and retaining teachers (due to lower pay and more difficult work conditions). Opportunities will continue to grow in states experiencing rapid population growth, such as Texas, California, Idaho, Alaska, Utah, New Mexico, and Hawaii. If you are geographically flexible, you will have a significant advantage when searching for a position.

Many schools today are looking for teachers with specific subject expertise, especially in math, science, and foreign languages. Special education teachers, ESL teachers, and vocational-education teachers should also enjoy especially strong growth in job opportunities. On the other hand, there are significantly fewer jobs available at the elementary level, and for social studies or physical education teachers.

More and more adults are taking courses paid for by their employers, and the number of adults enrolling in personal-enrichment courses is also increasing, meaning an increase in opportunities for adult- and continuing-ed teachers. In affluent areas especially, tutors and test-prep instructors should also enjoy increasing opportunities.

There should be an increase in college and university faculty opportunities as well, but competition for those jobs will be intense, particularly for tenure-track positions. And as colleges and universities face increasing budget constraints, more and more teaching positions will go to contract workers.

And on to the bad news: In the near term, governments-from the federal level on down to the cities and towns-are facing massive budget shortages. This has meant larger class sizes and layoffs or hiring freezes in many school districts and at many public educational institutions.

Career Tracks

Elementaryand Secondary Schoolteachers
Schoolteachers introduce children to the basics of what they need to know to enter the world of work or to pursue a higher education. Whether they work in public or private schools, they also try to instill in their students a lifelong love of learning for learning's sake.

In the United States, elementary school generally includes kindergarten through sixth grade. Usually, at the elementary level, the teacher is responsible for delivering instruction on multiple subjects to one class of children who are the same age, but some instructors teach only one subject, such as music, to several classes of children in different grades. Elementary-school students are educated in language arts, social studies, math, science, physical education, art, and music.

Secondary school includes middle school through high school. Secondary schoolteachers give students more specialized education in many of the same subjects as elementary schoolteachers. A secondary-school educator usually teaches one subject to several classes of students who may or may not be the same age. For example, a language arts teacher may teach classes in English literature, composition, and Shakespeare. Secondary schools usually offer vocational classes in such subjects as auto mechanics, typing, or marketing.

In addition to classroom teaching, elementary and secondary schoolteachers prepare lesson plans and report cards, maintain discipline in the classroom, grade assignments and tests, monitor students' progress and adjust plans accordingly, meet with administrators and parents, serve on committees or as mentors, and perform many other tasks.

Schoolteachers must get along well with children. They must be vigilant, keeping an eye out for potential problems in a student's personal life. They must keep up with educational advancements and new teaching ideas and technologies. When students act up in class, the teacher must be able to take control and restore order. Schoolteachers must also be able to interact with parents and administrators.

Special Education Teachers
Special education teachers teach in elementary and secondary schools. They may work in public or private schools. Special ed teachers teach children who may have learning disabilities, speech impairments, mental retardation, emotional development disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, brain injury, or other disabilities.

Special ed teachers may teach in tandem with a general-education teacher. They may work in a resource room where children go for part of the school day. They help students learn social behaviors and life skills to prepare for life after graduation. Special ed teachers work closely with a student's parents and counselors to develop an appropriate curriculum for each child. They also help to identify children in general-education classes who would be better off in special education.

Special education teachers must be especially patient and tolerant. They must be sensitive to their students' special needs in order to give them the education they deserve. Special education is challenging and may take its toll emotionally, but it can also be extremely rewarding, because instructors can have such a big influence on a child's life.

Adult Education Teachers
Adult education includes continuing education courses that adults take for personal enrichment, career-development courses they take to learn new skills or update old ones, training programs for business, and vocational courses for high school graduates who wish to pursue careers that don't require college degrees.

Adult education teachers may work in a college's continuing education department, in an institution devoted to vocational or career training, or at a business office. They usually have life and career experience in the subject they teach. For instance, an experienced hairstylist could teach at a cosmetology school, or someone with specialized computer skills could teach other adults how to use a certain computer program.

Those who teach in a corporate setting are often human resources professionals, but sometimes they are outside consultants with experience in a particular field. They plan training programs and curricula, teach relevant skills to new employees, keep all employees up to date on new technologies, and lead workshops on subjects such as the prevention of sexual harassment, safety in the workplace, and meeting facilitation.

Educators who teach adults usually find that their students are eager to learn. Most often they enroll voluntarily, while schoolchildren are often forced to learn against their will. Adult education teachers have the satisfaction of imparting skills to others that will help them bolster their careers, earn them more money, or allow them to gain personal pleasure through learning new things.

On the other hand, adult students may lack necessary study skills. They may be too busy with their jobs to devote sufficient time to coursework. Adults who need basic education, such as literacy education or training for the GED, may be too embarrassed to seek help, or lack confidence in their abilities.

College Professors
College and university faculty members usually work as lecturers, instructors, assistant professors, and full professors. All of these job titles involve "tenure track" positions, jobs that lead to professorships and tenure. Tenure means a professor may not be fired without good reason or due process. It exists in order to preserve academic freedom for professors, ensuring that they will not be fired for espousing controversial opinions. There are also part-time instructors, known as adjunct faculty members, who are usually not eligible for tenure.

College and university faculty teach at two-year and four-year institutions of higher learning. They teach students who have high school degrees or degree equivalents. They have at least a master's degree, and most hold a PhD.

They teach undergraduate and graduate students, and most teach more than one course. They also supervise assistant instructors, grade papers, prepare lessons, and advise students. Some hold administrative jobs, in which case their teaching workload is lighter.

In addition to duties related to teaching, college and university faculty members are under great pressure to conduct original research and publish their findings. The phrase "publish or perish" originated in academia. Many schools require professors to publish significant original research in order to be granted tenure. Professors are often conflicted over the demands of teaching and the obligation to research and publish. However, most college and university faculty members have a great love of learning and genuinely enjoy doing research.

Professors and instructors in colleges and universities get to express their theories and demonstrate their expertise to others. They help young people discover their callings in life. Teaching often helps them focus their own knowledge. They have fairly flexible schedules and quite a bit of free time. They are free to devote as much or as little time as they please to course preparation outside of their classes.

Downsides to this career include an increasing reliance on part-time faculty, which means fewer tenure-track positions, and the ever-present struggles with administrative officials over policies and financial matters.

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