Teachers play an outsized role in the social and economic well-being of our society, although they’re generally underappreciated for all they do—even by their students. Still, most of us can recall a favorite teacher or two whose expertise, enthusiasm, or empathy made them stand out. Usually, we can also rememberl a teacher or two who were less than inspiring.
Why some teachers have such a profound impact on their students while others don’t is a question with no fixed answer. Still, it’s something you should consider if you’re thinking of becoming a teacher.
Anyone can acquire and share their knowledge. Conveying math facts, science equations, or grammar rules is technically no more difficult than writing them on a whiteboard or repeating them in a lecture. Teachers do more than just convey information, however. The best teachers possess crucial qualities that can’t be measured by standardized test scores or student GPAs.
Figuring out whether you have those qualities can be challenging, but step one is relatively simple. It involves nothing more than learning more about what it takes to become a teacher, what teaching is really like, and what great educators have in common. Once you know more about this profession, you can make an informed decision about whether it’s the right one for you.
In this article about what makes a great teacher, we cover:
The educational requirements for teachers vary from state to state.
The most time-consuming part of becoming a teacher is earning a bachelor’s degree. Nearly all teachers have undergraduate degrees, though not necessarily degrees in education. Some teachers earn their bachelor’s degrees in the subject area they want to teach (like math or English) or in disciplines entirely unrelated to teaching in K-12 classrooms before completing a one- or two-year teacher preparation program. You might also major in your area of interest and minor in education, do the opposite, or pursue double degrees in education and another discipline.
Once you’ve earned a degree in education or completed a state-approved teacher preparation program, you’ll be eligible to take the exams aspiring teachers must pass in your state to get a teaching license.
You can become a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in every state, but in some (e.g., Connecticut, Ohio, Maryland, and New York), you won’t be able to renew your teaching license without a master’s degree in teaching. There are lots of good reasons beyond licensure, however, to pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or Master of Education (MEd)—even in states where teachers aren’t required to have master’s degrees. For example, you won’t be able to maximize your earning potential in most states without a graduate degree (more on this below). And earning credits toward a master’s degree in teaching or education is often one of the easiest ways to meet continuing education or professional development requirements, which is why so many teachers have them.
Most importantly, going to grad school for teaching is about more than just getting a diploma. One report compiled by The Sutton Trust titled “What Makes Great Teaching” reviewed over 200 studies about teaching and found that the most effective teachers know their subjects. It’s pretty obvious, given that you can’t teach what you don’t know. To be a successful teacher, you have to have the breadth and depth of knowledge to pinpoint precisely why your students can’t wrap their heads around a particular concept. Only then can you help them understand. It’s possible to teach classes in subjects you’re only somewhat familiar with, but you will be tied to each lesson plan and more likely to subject your students to rote lectures than engaging class periods. Great educators know so much about what they’re teaching that they can adjust their lessons on the fly to meet the needs of classes and even individual students.
Graduate degrees for teachers fall into two categories: the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and the Master of Education (MEd). Many resources indicate that the MAT is the best master’s degree for teachers, while MEd programs are primarily for aspiring educational administrators, policymakers, and other current education professionals who aspire to work outside the classroom. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.
Both MAT and MEd programs tend to be concentration-based, and while there are more part-time and full-time Master of Arts in Teaching programs focused on advanced pedagogic theories and skills, there are also plenty of Master of Education programs with grade-level, subject-area, and student-population concentrations.
In some areas of the US, a teacher with a master’s degree at the top of the salary schedule can earn close to $40,000 more than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that going to graduate school will lead to a substantially bigger paycheck. The only way to know how much you’ll earn after graduating with a master’s in teaching or master’s in education is to look at the salary schedule in your district. You should be able to see at a glance how your education and experience will translate into dollars. ( )
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Teachers in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools all get up early because they need to be at work ahead of students to prepare for the day. Beyond that, their days may have nothing in common.
Take a first-grade teacher. During those early morning prep hours, they may be tidying the classroom, getting out supplies like markers and glue, taking out the day’s books, and replying to emails from parents and colleagues. When students arrive, the teacher may have to help some with coats while also wrangling 18 or more kids as they put away backpacks and take homework out of folders. After circle time, the class may complete one or two short lessons before it’s time for snack and then a short recess. If recess is outside, that may mean getting everyone zipped and buttoned back into coats. Another lesson, and then it’s lunchtime, which means lining everyone up and getting them to the lunchroom. On some days, the teacher may have a spare hour after lunch when the class has a “special” like art or gym. During that hour, they’ll mark work, plan lessons, tidy yet again, and answer more emails. Once the students are back, the teacher will help everyone pack up for dismissal.
Now, let’s look at a 10th-grade teacher. They don’t have to help anyone unzip coats or find missing water bottles, but their students can be just as chatty and rambunctious in the morning. As students arrive, they’re getting the attendance website set up, making sure students’ papers are ready to pass back, and getting together whatever materials they’ll need for the day—not just for one class, but for multiple classes. Between each of those classes, they read essays and grade exams, go to meetings with their department heads, and hold office hours. Most high school teachers have only one prep period, which is why so many teachers take work home in the evenings. Many teachers also sponsor student clubs or activities, which means they spend their lunch hours (and sometimes their after school hours) supervising club meetings, hosting independent study sessions, or running rehearsals.
The school day ends in the early afternoon, but neither teacher is done with their day. After students go home, elementary education teachers and high school teachers have to prep for upcoming lessons and grade papers. They have meetings with parents, students, or administrators. Teachers pursuing degrees or taking courses to meet continuing education requirements may have to work on their own homework or rush to make it to a class. At all grade levels, teachers put in a lot more work than most people realize.
Teacher salaries vary by grade level and specialization, but not by much, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kindergarten teachers and elementary school teachers earn about $59,000. Middle school teachers earn about $60,000. High school teachers earn about $62,000. Teachers who choose careers in special education classrooms earn about $61,000.
These figures are averages calculated using salaries submitted by educators across subjects and from all academic backgrounds. It’s worth pointing out that teachers with master’s degrees earn more. About 88 percent of large districts base teacher salaries on education level and offer additional pay to teachers who hold master’s degrees. An experienced teacher with a Master of Arts in Teaching or a Master of Education may earn $10,000 more than their colleagues without advanced degrees.
That may sound pretty good, but consider the following two facts about teacher compensation collected by the National Education Association:
Something you need to consider carefully before becoming a teacher is whether you’ll be comfortable supporting yourself on a teacher salary during the school year and over the summers. Chances are that you won’t get rich teaching in the public school system, so you really have to love teaching and love your students, or you will burn out. Many teachers have second jobs. The paycheck can’t be your only motivation.
Every teacher has to find their own reasons for choosing an education career. Many teachers are drawn to this profession because they want to make a difference in students’ lives. In this job, you see the effect of your work every day and know that what you do will positively impact the world for years to come.
Other people find their way into teaching because they are passionate about their area of interest and want to share that passion with as many people as possible. According to one Association of Teachers and Lecturers union survey, more than a quarter of teachers teach because it’s fun.
There are many things to like about teaching. Every day is different. You can be creative. And spending time around kids can keep you feeling young. Just make sure you’re choosing this profession for the right reasons, because as fun as it can be, it isn’t easy. “The single most important reason to become a teacher is because you have a deep love of learning and want to pass that along to others,” Tiffany Whitehead told Teachers of Tomorrow. “If nothing makes you happier and more fulfilled than seeing a student discover their passion, experience success in learning, or come to understand the importance of perseverance, then teaching is for you! “
Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to predict whether you’ll be a great teacher. Studies have tried to identify common traits of good teachers with limited success. One Los Angeles Times study found that great teachers don’t fit into neat personality categories. Some are extroverts, some are introverts. And the traits commonly associated with great teachers are the kinds of traits associated with success in a lot of fields:
Some studies have even found that the biggest predictor of student achievement is actually what students bring to the table.
The fact that you’re even thinking about whether you’ll be a good teacher is a sign that you care enough to do what it takes to become one. Part of that will involve deciding what kind of teacher you want to become. It’s essential to consider this question carefully because every grade and subject area has its challenges. Kindergarteners are sweet and curious, but teaching five- and six-year-olds involves a lot of classroom management. Teachers who specialize in early childhood education have to be exceptionally patient. High school students are independent and driven, but their lives are full of distractions that can get in the way of academic achievement. Middle school teachers need to have thick skins and a sense of humor because many 6th, 7th, and 8th graders have no filters.
Ask yourself the following questions:
The bottom line is that teaching is hard work, and teachers have to meet or exceed high expectations every day. In the end, only you can decide whether teaching is the right career for you. What might be more helpful is to look back on your own school experience and the teachers who inspired you the most. Maybe they were the teachers who made you feel like you were capable of achieving anything. Perhaps they were the teachers whose enthusiasm for their subject matter made even the driest topics exciting. Sometimes the teachers who have the greatest effect on us are the ones who care about us as people and help us tackle personal problems in addition to academic ones. Just remember that there’s more than one way to be a great teacher.
This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the subject.
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