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Requirements for a K-12 Teacher versus a College Professor

In an earlier post, I mentioned the many different options for teaching children: public schools, private schools, Montessori schools, magnet schools, overseas ESL, and so much more. But there’s a whole other realm of teaching beyond the world of teaching K-12: college and university instruction!

I’ve spent roughly half of my career as a K-12 teacher and half of it in higher education. While these fields can seem very different at a glance, there’s a surprising amount of crossover between K-12 teachers and university instructors. But in most cases, the transition between teaching children and teaching at the university level is not simple. There are very different requirements for these two teacher career paths.

 

Training requirements

K-12 and higher education teaching jobs have very different degree and training requirements. Teaching at the elementary school, middle school, or high school level nearly always requires a teaching certificate. Whether the certificate is obtained through a traditional university program or through alternative certification, fieldwork is a must-have. You simply can’t have a career in K-12 instruction without including some full-time teaching in your training.

The actual degree requirements for K-12 are pretty basic. K-12 teachers must have a bachelor’s degree. Their four-year degree can be in any subject, although they will need a certain amount of relevant university course credits to teach specialized subject areas such as math, science, history, etc….

To land a job teaching at a college or university, one does not need prior student teaching or fieldwork as an instructor. In fact, many college and university teachers received no teacher-training whatsoever prior to their first professorship. This is because colleges and universities look for subject area expertise above all else—they want to see just how much training and scholarship a professor has devoted to the subject they’ll teach.

Because of this, advanced highly specialized degrees are essential to landing professorial work. In nearly all cases, professors are expected to have at least a master’s degree in the subject they’ll teach. Very often, a subject-specific PhD is required, although professors who are nearing completion of their PhD are also sometimes eligible for hire.

Expectations after hire

Of course, the need to meet certain expectations doesn’t end once you get a job. K-12 teachers and college professors also need to meet different requirements after they’re hired.

K-12 teachers have longer teaching hours than university professors. Teachers in public, parochial, and private schools can generally expect to teach at least 25 classroom hours per week, and they often teach more—as many as 35 or even 40. In addition to the classroom hours, K-12 teachers need to spend extra time meeting with students individually, communicating with parents, and filling out paperwork related to lesson plans and student performance.

In comparison, a college professor’s duties may appear easier. Professors are usually assigned somewhere between 10 and 20 classroom teaching hours per week. Sometimes professors also must keep around five office hours per week, times when they’re available in their office to meet with students.

But this relatively light workload is offset by heavy research and professional development requirements. Full-time professors are often required to do extensive research and successfully get that research published in academic journals in order to keep their jobs. This sort of research can be labor-intensive and time-consuming. Professors are usually also expected to attend and actively participate in academic conferences, giving presentations in their subject areas. Getting to these conferences requires national and sometimes international travel. Moreover, colleges and universities don’t always reimburse instructors for their travel expenses. Not only that but professors are also required to participate much more actively in school administration, attending steering committees and other campus management meetings on a weekly basis.

 

The takeaway

A career in education is a rewarding one, but it takes hard work to get and maintain a teaching job at the primary, secondary, college, or university level. If you are not sure whether you want to teach in K-12 or higher education, weigh your decision carefully based on the very different requirements for each job. And if you want to transition from one of those fields to the other, be prepared to go back to school for extra training or an additional degree.

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