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Overview

Nearly one in four Americans is an enrolled student at any given time. This enormous segment of the U.S. population encompasses people of all ages and from all walks of life. American students have a wide range of educational goals—from learning their ABCs to obtaining an M.D.—but each of these students needs the support of dedicated educators in order to obtain the knowledge and skills they need. As a result of this great demand for talented educators there are job opportunities for teachers in every geographical region of the country. Education is America’s second largest industry, and the different career tracks within education are as varied as the national population of its students.

Despite the wide variety of jobs within education, professionals are attracted to the field for similar reasons. The people who become educators usually have a sincere desire to make a difference in the lives of others—they remember the teachers who helped them to reach their own goals and are thrilled by the possibility that they might be able to inspire others in the same way. The classroom can be a challenging place to work, but for the passionate teacher there is no greater joy than watching students grasp a challenging concept or finding a way to capture students’ imagination and spark their curiosity. Successful teachers are dedicated to achieving this goal and often have a tenacious belief in the power of education to transform students’ lives.

A teacher's goal is to advance their students' learning and cognitive abilities during the school year. Teachers have students that range in age from two or three years old up to adult learners of all ages. Some teachers focus on a single subject or even a single aspect of that subject, while others spend their day teaching several subjects. Teachers may have the same group of students every day, or they may see hundreds of students in a large lecture hall. But the goal of teachers and administrators alike is to ensure the success of their students and help them achieve all educational goals.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 8 million teachers and related training, support, and library workers were employed in the United States as of 2013. Kindergarten and elementary school teachers represented the largest segment of employment, with more than 1.5 million teaching positions. Secondary school teachers accounted for 946,730 workers, and teacher assistants numbered about 1.2 million. More than 1.5 million postsecondary teachers were also employed.

The industry has its beginnings in the early 17th century, when American colonists first began establishing elementary schools. Today the modern education industry can be divided into four main areas: preschool, elementary education, secondary education, and postsecondary education. Preschool teachers work with children of the youngest age, usually age three to five. Elementary school teachers are those at the kindergarten through sixth grade level, while secondary teachers instruct students at the middle and high school levels. College and university instructors and professors teach at the postsecondary level.

In addition to teachers, other employees in education are teacher assistants, librarians, administrators, and those who teach special populations of children, such as those with disabilities. Educators may work at public schools, private schools, in the home as tutors or online classroom instructors, or at charter schools. There are also school counselors, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, social workers, and others who contribute to the day-to-day operations of academic institutions.

Education is different from other industries in that the number of job openings is largely determined by fluctuations of the American population, with a greater number of enrolled students resulting in a greater number of job opportunities for educators. (Trends within the education industry may have some impact on the number of jobs available for educators, but in comparison to other industries the effect of industry trends is minimal.) Laws in the United States dictate that all children must attend school until the age of 16. Because of this, the bulk of education positions are in kindergarten through 12th grade (K–12) environments, with fewer openings at the preschool and post-secondary levels.

There are many different kinds of public schools and many different types of private schools. Both types of schools encompass a wide range of educational philosophies, student demographics and operating budgets. And a public school in one area might offer the type and style of education that is more typical of private schools in another area. In the United States, most K–12 students attend public schools, meaning that there are more professional opportunities in public education than in private education.

Uppers
  • Being able to share knowledge of and passion for certain topics is energizing and rewarding. It feels great when students finally understand a challenging concept or idea, or solve a problem they may have been struggling with.
  • Teachers usually receive decent benefits, including a steady paycheck, health insurance, and retirement accounts.
  • Weekends, holidays, and summers off help teachers balance work with other aspects of life. For instance, teachers who have school-aged children are home at the same time as their kids, making it easier to schedule activities and vacations together.
  • Teachers are the managers of their classroom. While they must follow the dictates of the curriculum, they can still be creative in how they educate and set the tone for their students.
  • The teaching field is a social one; many teachers form strong friendships with their fellow educators. They share similar educational backgrounds and interests, and face the same issues and learn from each other.
  • Education is ongoing. Teachers continue to take classes and workshops to enhance their skills, and they also learn something new every day from their students.
Downers
  • School budgets are often limited and classrooms can be overcrowded. Dealing with students' needs on a daily basis is exhausting. The ability to remain calm and controlled in every instance is essential.
  • Limited budgets mean limited resources. Teachers often spend their own money to buy supplies for the classroom, including paper.
  • Teaching is not a 9-to-5 job; most teachers work beyond school hours. They work at night and weekends from home, creating lesson plans, writing classroom notes, and grading papers. They also attend parent-teacher meetings and school functions, as well as professional development classes, educator meetings, and conferences.
  • The administration is often a major source of aggravation. Conflicting directions from school boards and school administrators, coupled with red tape and bureaucracy and ever-changing curriculum rules and regulations, create confusion and headaches for teachers.
  • There is growing pressure on teachers to make sure that all of their students perform according to standards and improve their test scores. Some students will continue to struggle in the classroom, despite the teachers' best efforts. Regardless, teachers must persist in trying to reach them.
  • Parents can also be challenging to teachers, whether they are overly involved and critical or unsupportive and not involved at all in their child's education. Parent-teacher meetings are important for clarifying the teacher's approach in the classroom and addressing the concerns and educational goals that are specific to each student.