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What is the Difference Between a Teacher and a Professor?

At any level, at its core teaching is about sharing and imparting knowledge. But beyond that, teaching looks quite different according to where you teach, and maybe more to the point, whom you teach. Ask any career educator who walks into the classroom or launches a Zoom session every day and brings that same level of zeal when doing finals reviews at the end of the semester as they did when presenting all new material on day one and chances are they’ll tell you there’s no better job in the world. Fulfilling, rewarding, gratifying, fun…yep, they’ll tell you it’s all that – and a whole lot more.

We all know it’s not always sunshine and rainbows – no job ever is – but if you’re looking seriously at a career in education, you’ve probably already come to the same realization that virtually every career educator has: there simply is no other career path that can give you what teaching can… and no other career where you can give so much of yourself.  That’s part of the magic of this line of work. Even at the college level, it’s never purely about the prestige of a professorship or the status of a title or even the stability of the position; it’s a career you can really devote yourself to and become a part of. As long as you love the material you’re teaching, you’ll always love to teach it. It isn’t any more complicated than that.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t still need to find your niche. Believe me, many a successful career educator makes a number of transitions before finally landing in the perfect position. Of course, wrangling kindergartners is an entirely different ballgame than lecturing adults at the college level. And ask any teacher that’s had to compete for the attention of a classroom of high schoolers with iPhones and you’ll get a sense of how that can present an even sharper contrast to teaching at the post-secondary level where students are vested and attentive.

The distinctions between locking into a tenured professorship at a college, university or technical school versus working as a teacher in the K-12 setting are clear and obvious in most cases. But it’s a big enough question to be worth exploring, and when you do, you’ll likely find some of the most important differences are the ones that hadn’t occurred to you.

Within higher education, the title of professor is generally reserved for those who hold a PhD and who are either tenured or on the path to receiving tenure. For clarity, we’ll refer to all K-12 educators as “teachers” and all post-secondary educators as “professors,” even though we might refer more broadly to assistant and associate professors and adjuncts.

One of the Biggest Differences is in What it Takes to Become a K-12 Teacher Vs a Tenure-Track Professor

male professor standing in front of class
Teach in a K-12 environment and you’ll need, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree that includes the teacher prep curriculum and student teaching it takes to be eligible for your state license. Many K-12 educators come in to teaching from other fields by earning a master’s with a teacher prep program built in, and many existing teachers go back to school for a master’s as a path to a higher salary, secondary certification, or an advanced state license. But a graduate-level degree isn’t typically required, with the exception of Maryland, Connecticut, and New York, where earning one is part of the process of maintaining a teaching license.

But teach within a post-secondary setting, whether it’s a technical school, community college, or four-year college or university and a master’s in your field is considered the bare minimum that you’ll need along with teaching or other professional work experience.

Most four-year colleges and universities require a PhD for tenure-track positions, although they may hire temporary adjunct instructors with only a master’s degree. If you choose to pursue a tenure-track professorship, be prepared for a rigorous course of study that includes four to seven years of research and scholarship en route to earning your doctorate. And that time will be packed with rich experiences – you’ll teach classes, write a dissertation, and get post-doctoral experience under your belt.

Post-doctoral experience includes two or three years of work within a college or university where you’ll focus on building your resume by conducting original research, getting published in academic journals, and teaching under the supervision of a professor. Post-doctoral experience is of particular importance in scientific disciplines and is largely seen as a necessary step for landing one of those coveted tenure-track positions.

K-12 teachers, at least those in public school settings, must pass one or more certification exam and earn the appropriate state license and subject-specific endorsement in the case of those working at the high school and middle grades level. They must also maintain their teaching license by completing specific professional development credits.

At the post-secondary level, no mandatory credentialing or licensure exists. However, professors must be able to demonstrate expertise in their field along with teaching experience through teaching assistantships or adjunct teaching positions while they’re completing their doctorate.

Culture and Work Environment: Being Part of a College Vs. K-12 Community

Hands down, one of the starkest differences between teachers and professors is the environment in which they teach. The best way to describe these differences is this: K-12 is a teaching environment, whereas college is a learning environment. The years leading up to high school graduation are spent teaching children skills and proficiencies. Beyond high school, students are engaged in scholarship, which involves a deeper consideration of what they’ve learned and how they will apply it.

Teacher Jobs At Every Level of the K-12 System Come with the Expectation That They Do It All

Let’s first talk about teachers. If you’re a teacher, chances are you’re not just there to teach; you’re there to play the role of disciplinarian, motivator, eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head authoritarian. You may have students that need encouragement, praise, reinforcement, and support to get the work done, and you may spend a good part of your day doling out discipline and reminding students to pay attention. You won’t just say something once; you’ll find yourself repeating it constantly throughout the day: sit down… pay attention… get your book out… sit still… where’s your homework?

You’re not just educating in this environment; you’re constantly contriving new ways to get your students’ attention, keep their attention, and make the learning experience interesting enough to keep their eyes focused on you. It’s challenging, for sure, although many teachers will tell you that finding new ways to capture their students’ interest and hold their attention is part of the appeal of this job.

Teachers aren’t just focused on their students’ academic success; instead, they must often deal with issues that affect their students’ mental, social, and physical well-being. Bullying, neglect/abuse in the home, hormonal changes, physical/mental disorders, behavioral problems…all of that must be on a teacher’s radar. And in school districts where poverty and violence are the norm, teachers must consider the many issues that may affect their students’ ability to learn. For most teachers, it’s not just about teaching – it’s about ensuring their students have what they need to learn and removing/remediating potential roadblocks to the learning process. It’s an emotionally draining undertaking, but for passionate teachers who spend their careers fighting to ensure every student is success story, it’s incredibly rewarding.

Teachers must also meet specific curriculum requirements, ensure their students are meeting standardized test requirements, adapt instruction to reach students of varying abilities, and plan their day around a rigid schedule. In fact, teachers must usually account for nearly every minute of their day. Teaching class is just one aspect of their daily schedule. Taking your turn on lunch duty, participating in parent conferences and IEP meetings, monitoring the detention room—expect every part of your day to be accounted for.

Professors Have a Lot to Handle, but the Freedom to Do It Their Own Way

In the halls of higher education, the culture is dramatically different. Students are willing participants in the learning process. They’re adults who made the decision to pursue higher education, so they’re committed and engaged.

As such, there’s a certain freedom that comes with being a professor. Professors have the luxury of handling their classes and usually the better part of their days as they please. They may engage in freewheeling, exciting discussions with their students, or they may walk into class, lecture, and walk out, all minimal student contact—the choice is theirs. Their time between classes is usually much more relaxed. No standardized tests or curriculum requirements here.

In fact, teaching at the post-secondary level is as much about exploring your field of interest as is it about teaching others. You’ll spend your time as a professor not just teaching your students but investigating and discovering new concepts in your field. As a professor, you may spend just a few hours each week lecturing, but you’ll be engaged in many academic activities throughout the week, such as supervising undergraduate or graduate student research, writing articles in academic journals, running laboratory experiments, and meeting with students.

And while it’s fulfilling work for those who have a passion for advancing their field of study, it’s certainly not free of stressors. There’s often a lot of pressure in the post-secondary environment, particularly among professors on the tenure track. Much of their time is spent establishing credentials, amassing a body of published work, and developing relationships with tenured faculty. There’s a lot to get done and only the most focused self-starters succeed in higher academia.

After earning your PhD, you’ll become a postdoctoral researcher/fellow/scholar, where you’ll continue your training and begin the process of transitioning from student to either researcher or educator. If you’re chosen for tenure track, you’ll begin the path to a permanent professor position within the college/university and earn the title of assistant professor. During this time, you’ll teach courses and serve as an active researcher and scholar in your field. Once you’ve been granted tenure – usually about 5-7 years after serving as an assistant professor – you’ll gain the title of associate professor. After about 5-7 years as an associate professor, during which time you’ll work to establish yourself as a leader in your field, you’ll go through a review to reach the rank of tenured professor, an indefinite academic appointment.

Teacher Vs Professor Salary Outlook

Salaries for both teachers and professors can and do vary widely. You could be a brand-new teacher working in a high needs school district in a socioeconomically challenged area or an adjunct professor with a part-time schedule and struggle to make ends meet, or you could be an experienced, National Board Certified Teacher or tenured professor and enjoy a salary that tops the salary scale.

In general, professors make about $20,000 more, on average, than teachers, although a number of factors influence what both educators earn.

As of May 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the following median salaries for teachers and professors, according to grade level/setting:

  • Elementary school teachers: $59,420
  • Middle school teachers: $59,660
  • High school teachers: $61,660
  • Postsecondary teachers, junior colleges (local): $82,850
  • Postsecondary teachers, junior colleges (state): $61,430
  • Postsecondary teachers, colleges, universities and professional schools (state): $80,960
  • Postsecondary teachers, colleges, universities and professional schools (private): $80,760

But these median salaries don’t tell the whole story of what you’ll earn as a teacher or professor, as a number of factors affect what both teachers and professors can expect to earn:

Factors Affecting K-12 Teacher Salaries

Teacher salaries are heavily influenced by degree level, National Board Certification, and experience. Of course, teacher salaries increase according to their years of experience, with most school districts employing a “step” salary schedule that recognizes higher salaries as teachers gain teaching experience.

And while a bachelor’s degree remains the minumum educational requirement for state licensure as a teacher, teachers with graduate degrees are often rewarded with higher salaries. For example, about one-third of all states recognize advanced licenses and higher salaries for those who earn a master’s degree or higher.

And even among states without advanced licenses for teachers, nearly all offer higher salaries for those who hold graduate degrees over bachelor’s degrees. A 2019 National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) study of 124 large school districts found that 92% of all districts paid their teachers more for holding an advanced degree.

According to the NCTQ, teachers with a master’s degree earn an average of $5,285 more annually than teachers with a bachelor’s degree as their highest degree, which equates to about $160,000 more than a bachelor’s-prepared teacher over the course of a career.

Similarly, National Board Certification equates to a significant pay increase in about half the states. Most states pay National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT) an annual stipend for holding this national credential. It’s also common among those states offering an annual stipend for NBCTs to offer an even higher stipend for NBCTs working in high-poverty/high-needs districts.

For example, NBCTS in Alabama earn a $5,000 annual stipend, while NBCTs working in high-needs areas earn a $10,000 annual stipend.

Factors Affecting College Professor Salaries

Postsecondary setting and title are the major factors affecting professor salaries. In fact, an adjunct instructor’s salary cannot even begin to compete with a tenured professor’s salary in an esteemed college or university.

In a higher academic setting, your rank determines what level courses you teach and how many courses you teach, which plays a big part in your salary.

The lowest paid professors are at the two-year junior college and technical college level, while professors in private four-year colleges and universities earn the highest salaries.

According to the American Association of University Professor’s 2019-20 Faculty Compensation Survey, professors earned the following average salaries according to title:

  • Lecturer: $65,335
  • Instructor: $62,043
  • Assistant professor: $82,508
  • Associate professor: $95,382
  • Professor: $140,373

Professors holding a master’s degree earn the following average salaries:

  • Lecturer: $59,804
  • Instructor: $56,409
  • Assistant professor: $73,120
  • Associate professor: $83,537
  • Professor: $104,555

And those holding a doctorate earn the following average salaries:

  • Lecturer: $67,895
  • Instructor: $65,919
  • Assistant professor: $90,764
  • Associate professor: $104,408
  • Professor: $160,080

Average salaries for doctoral-prepared professors also vary according to the type of institution in which they work:

  • Public: $145,899
  • Private-independent: $202,917
  • Religiously affiliated: $168,837

According to the BLS, median salaries also vary slightly based on the field in which professors work:

  • Law teachers, postsecondary: $113,530
  • Economics teachers, postsecondary: $104,370
  • Engineering teachers, postsecondary: $101,010
  • Health specialties teachers, postsecondary: $97,320
  • Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences teachers, postsecondary: $92,040
  • Physics teachers, postsecondary: $89,590
  • Architecture teachers, postsecondary: $87,900
  • Business teachers, postsecondary: $87,200
  • Anthropology and archeology teachers, postsecondary: $86,220
  • Political science teachers, postsecondary: $85,930
  • Forestry and conservation science teachers, postsecondary: $85,450
  • Computer science teachers, postsecondary: $85,180
  • Biological science teachers, postsecondary: $83,300
  • Agricultural sciences teachers, postsecondary: $83,260
  • Environmental science teachers, postsecondary: $82,430
  • Geography teachers, postsecondary: $80,520
  • Chemistry teachers, postsecondary : $79,550
  • Area, ethnic, and cultural studies teachers, postsecondary: $77,070
  • Psychology teachers, postsecondary: $76,620
  • Sociology teachers, postsecondary: $75,290
  • Philosophy and religion teachers, postsecondary: $75,240
  • History teachers, postsecondary: $75,170
  • Nursing instructors and teachers, postsecondary: $74,600
  • Mathematical science teachers, postsecondary: $73,690
  • Social work teachers, postsecondary: $72,070
  • Social sciences teachers, postsecondary, all other: $71,530
  • Library science teachers, postsecondary: $71,410
  • Communications teachers, postsecondary: $70,630
  • Foreign language and literature teachers, postsecondary: $69,990
  • Art, drama, and music teachers, postsecondary: $69,530
  • English language and literature teachers, postsecondary: $68,490
  • Education teachers, postsecondary: $65,510
  • Criminal justice and law enforcement teachers, postsecondary: $62,860

 

Salary and employment data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2019. Figures represent accumulated data for all areas of employment for high school teachers, kindergarten and elementary school teachers,middle school teachers, and post-secondary teachers. BLS salary data represents national salaries, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Salary data accessed Dec 2020.