We use the term “teacher” all the time to describe someone who helps us learn something. But in reality, terms like teacher and professor are actually very different and indicate a different kind of educator. It’s important to understand the differences between these two types of educators, and the very different path to becoming either a teacher or a professor.
In short, a professor is a postsecondary academic instructor. Sometimes called postsecondary teachers, they teach students who are at the college level, typically in a university classroom setting. Professors are the highest-level of educators and usually specialize in a specific academic subject or field. They are critical faculty at a college. Teachers on the other hand are charged with teaching younger students, focusing on kindergarten through high school. They also are important faculty and critical instructors, focused on teaching students important skills. They focus on earlier, foundational levels of education that prepare students for more education that comes with getting older. Some of these teachers will also specialize in certain teaching fields, while others who are teaching younger students cover a much greater depth of academic fields and subjects.
Both teachers and professors are instrumental in educating students and preparing them for their future. Education is critical to success and teachers and professors both focus their careers and lives on helping enhance education for those around them. It’s important to understand the differences in what professors and teachers do, and the path to become one. Learn more about professors and teachers, and how you can become either one.
There are unique duties for a teacher and a professor, and before you decide which faculty career path is best for you, it’s important to understand the unique responsibilities they have in the classroom.
Teacher: Teachers K-12 are responsible for ensuring that students learn important subjects and fundamentals that they can build on over time. Kindergarten teachers help students learn how to read, basic math, etc. Students and teachers build on that, and in the third grade students are learning more reading comprehension, more advanced math, etc. This goes on as children get older, and in high school they are reading long books, able to write essays on what they have learned and include their own insight. They are doing complex math formulas in calculus and statistics, which can help them in their futures. Teaching responsibilities include:
Creating lesson plans
Creating assignments, tests, and activities
Grading assignments and tests
Teaching lessons to students
Working with students who are struggling and need help
Working with parents to help them stay involved in their child’s education
Connecting with other teachers in the same grade-level or subject on curriculum
Prepare students for standardized testing
Offer an opportunity for connection for students who need advice or help
Professor: Professors are given certain classes to teach based on their specialty. These instructors are in charge of creating the curriculum, assignments, exams, and projects for their students. They have skill goals, often set by the institution, they want their students to meet each year. Many universities utilize online systems to show students what their assignments are, and professors are in charge of running that online software program to help students be prepared for their course. Professors don’t work with parents—they are working directly with their young adult students on their course. Professors have a unique charge to help students prepare for careers and challenge their thinking. College students are preparing for the real world, so professors are responsible for teaching them how to be ready for careers and their future. Professors may also be responsible for publishing independent research and performing projects to further academic study. This is in addition to their teaching responsibilities. Professor responsibilities include:
Creating a curriculum for their courses
Working with their department in curriculum development
Performing academic research and writing papers to enhance their study
Giving lectures to students
Creating assignments, tests, and activities
Running mentorship groups for students
Meeting with students to give them help when needed
The teaching work environment for teachers and professors is fairly different, and it’s important to understand the differences.
Teachers: Teachers often are given a classroom where their students come every day. Teachers may be able to decorate their classroom however they want. They will likely have a desk in the front of the room where they can sit and do work. This is where students will meet with them if they have questions, and where they will meet with parents as well. Teachers may be given some supplies, may have their students bring some supplies, but often are responsible for buying much of their own supplies that their students will need. Teaching can be a high-stress profession as students may need help, may have behavioral issues, and it is a profession where you’re expected to always perform at your best. Teachers enjoy some perks though—they are often able to get many holidays as well as the summers off. Parents who are teachers enjoy having the same schedule as their children. And there is a high level of fulfillment for teachers—sharing knowledge and helping children find a love of learning is a great draw for many teachers.
Professors: Professors have a very different work environment than teachers. Professors often are assigned a room for each of their classes, and may move to different rooms during their day and week. This room is not uniquely theirs, so they don’t have the ability to decorate or change up the room. Professors and their students meet together in the room for the time of their class. Professors often have a separate office in their department’s building where they can meet with students and do grading and other work. Some professors may share office space with other professors as well. Most professors don’t have supplies they need to purchase—students are expected to buy their textbooks, notebooks, computers, etc. But being a professor can still include high stress, as administration is watching professors closely and expecting good teaching and research from them. Professors are also going after tenure, which is the assurance that their teaching career is secure, and they will have a job at the university as long as they want. Professors enjoy unique perks of not having to teach during traditional times, they can choose afternoon classes or classes only on certain days at their university. Professors also usually enjoy the same holiday time off as their university students. Being a professor also comes with a certain level of prestige that is valuable in academia.
The education and training needed for becoming a teacher or a professor is unique, and it’s important to understand how they differ.
Teacher: There are several steps to becoming a teacher. Each state has unique requirements for teacher licensure, so it’s important to research your own state’s requirements. But in general, there is a certain pattern to follow including:
Earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree that prepares students for teaching license. It’s important for aspiring teachers to choose a degree program that will prepare them for the licensure they want, for example if they want to teach middle school science, they need a degree program that prepares them for that licensure. If they want to teach elementary school or special education, there are unique degree programs for those specialities.
Submit transcripts to your state. Your state needs to verify that you attended an accredited institution and obtained the proper degree.
Pass a background check. Because teachers work directly with students every day, it is vital that they take and pass a background check.
Pass required exams and skills tests. Each state has unique exams and skills tests that teachers will have to pass.
If a teacher wants to become licensed in another program, they may need to complete an additional degree or training to prepare for additional licensure. Similarly teachers may find that obtaining a master’s degree helps them get raises and additional opportunities within the education field. If you’re interested in becoming a teacher, WGU has many degree options that will help prepare you for licensure.
Professors: Professors typically will need a doctoral degree in their field in order to become a university professor. However some universities may hire adjunct professors for those who have a master’s degree, or may hire professors for specific degree programs based on their experience in the field instead of their education. In order to become a professor, a student will need to earn a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree, and then a doctoral degree. Some students may skip a master’s degree, but for many doctoral programs a master’s degree will be required. Doctoral students write a doctoral dissertation and spend years completing their program. They typically specialize in a subfield that will propel their teaching career, such as organic chemistry or European history. If you want to become a professor, getting a bachelor’s degree is the first place to start. WGU is a great option for bachelor’s and master’s degrees for students who are ready to go down that path.
It’s valuable to understand the difference between teachers and professors when it comes to salaries.
Teachers: High school teachers earn an average annual salary of $61,000 per year, while middle school and elementary school teachers earn an average annual salary of around $59,000 per year. Teachers with a master’s degree can expect to earn a higher annual salary. Your salary will also greatly depend on where you are teaching, the subject you teach, and the size of your school.
Professors: Professors earn an average annual salary of around $79,000 per year. The size of a college where a professor teachers, and the subject they teach are great influences on their salary. The length of time a professor has been teaching and whether or not they have tenure is also an important factor in salary levels.
Job growth for teachers and professors is also very different.
Teachers: Job growth for high school teachers is expected to rise at a rate of 4% by 2028. This is a bit slower than the national average. It’s important for those who want to become teachers to do all they can to enhance their résumé so they can stand out from the competition. Teachers are a crucial part of our educational system and society, and we need more qualified professionals who are ready to take on the work of educating children.
Professors: Professor career growth is expected to increase at a rate of 11% by 2028. This is much faster than the national average. More students are going to college than ever before, and universities are in need of professors who can help meet demand.
If you’re interested in becoming a teacher or a professor, WGU can be a great way to start on your career path. Education is key if you want to teach others, and WGU can help you earn your degree and get that education in a timely, affordable way.