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Skills to Become a Professional Teacher

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Teaching is a profession that, most practitioners agree, has plenty of rewards as well as challenges. Updated technology, new research on the brain and human development, changes in educational policies, and the standards and demands of an increasingly complex society make teaching a dynamic occupation. Opportunities exist for teachers in a variety of educational settings, with different age groups, subject areas and specialties.

A Day in the Life of a Teacher

"One of the things I love about teaching is that there really is no such thing as a typical day," says Carol Potter, a 30-year elementary school veteran who has taught first grade and physical education. "A lesson I taught last year isn't going to be the same this year, because my students are different." Teachers plan for a structured school day, but they must be flexible enough to accommodate students' needs and unexpected changes in the school's schedule. Students may struggle with a concept in a way that the teacher doesn't anticipate, or they may breeze through a lesson and be ready to move on to the next. Having a fire drill, an early release day, an assembly or a school cancellation because of weather - any of these disruptions can change the way students respond in the classroom. When you consider which skills are needed to become a teacher, patience and flexibility are high on the list.

What Do You Need to Become a Professional Teacher?

Qualifications and training have common elements, although they vary according to the areas of interest and the age group you'd like to teach.

Teaching Elementary School

In elementary school, typically, kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade, one teacher is usually responsible for all academic content. This means that the classroom teacher provides instruction in English language skills (reading, writing and speaking), mathematics, science and social studies. Classroom teachers also spend time teaching certain life skills and social skills that do not fit into a specific academic category. For example, in kindergarten, the teacher instructs students on the importance of sharing and on the proper way to use a pair of scissors. Students in upper elementary school, which includes fourth, fifth and sixth grades, may learn strategies for note-taking and organizing their homework. Teachers may facilitate classroom problem-solving for an issue such as bullying or the best ways to welcome a new student into the classroom.

In addition to classroom teachers, elementary schools generally have a number of specialists on staff to provide additional instruction and support. Art, music and physical education are typically taught by teachers certified in these disciplines. Students often participate in a rotating schedule so that they have a class period each day devoted to one of these subjects. Special education teachers work with students who have been formally identified with a physical or cognitive issue that necessitates extra support in the form of modified lessons or individual or small group instruction. Title I teachers provide small-group instruction to students who have been not identified as requiring special education but who nevertheless need some extra help in one or more subject areas. Speech language pathologists help students whose abilities to speak or hear affect their ability to learn. Behavioral specialists, school psychologists and counselors help students deal with a variety of emotional, psychological and behavioral issues. Librarians support research and reading education and often serve as school media and technology specialists. Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) may be available in schools to assist immigrant children or those who come from families in which English is not spoken at home.

Middle School, Junior High School and Senior High School

As students progress through school, they study their subjects in greater depth. Middle school, sometimes called junior high, generally enrolls students in sixth through eighth grade, although depending on the district, middle school might include fifth and ninth grades. Teachers often stay in the same classroom for the day, and they may conduct the same lesson multiple times with different groups of students. There may also be variation within the subject area, depending on the school. A math teacher, for example, might teach classes in basic algebra and calculus. An English teacher might teach creative writing as well as Introduction to American Literature. Middle school, junior high and senior high schools have specialists just as elementary schools do, and generally, they have larger numbers and a broader spectrum of specialty areas. Music instruction, for example, might be shared by a vocal music teacher and an instrumental music teacher. There may be teachers for business, technology, health, and consumer and industrial arts. Many middle and junior high schools offer foreign language instruction and, depending on the size of the high school, several different foreign languages might be offered.

Middle and junior high school students, especially those just entering, are experiencing a great deal of change. They're often adjusting to a new, larger building and there may be some anxiety in the beginning about finding their way around. The student body is larger. Because of the way school district lines are drawn, students may have to take a different bus to school, or take a bus for the first time. Best friends, because of where they live, may find themselves going to different schools. High school students can experience some of these changes too. Middle and high school teachers help their students deal with some of these anxieties.

What Are the Qualities of a Professional Teacher?

Having an affinity for a particular subject, whether it is music or math, can help you decide to pursue teaching as a profession. Choosing an age group to teach is just as important as choosing a subject area to teach. Each group has its charms as well as its challenges. Young children usually love their teachers and are enthusiastic about school, but have short attention spans and a need to be physically active. Middle school teachers work with students who are experiencing a lot of physical and emotional changes. Teachers often find they must help students process their feelings as these changes take place. High school teachers work in an environment that, in some ways, is less structured. At the same time, stakes are higher, as students worry about grades, college acceptance and career options. High school teachers must be prepared to help students navigate their path to adulthood. Good teaching skills include mastery of the content and a deep understanding of how children learn and behave.

In addition to subject area and age group, another aspect to consider in a teaching career are requirements and options for extracurricular activities. At the elementary level, you may mentor students in an after-school club such as chess, crafts or homework help. At the middle and high school levels, there may be opportunities to coach a sport, lead students in drama productions or mentor students in any of a variety of academic or special interest clubs. Teachers involved in activities including sports, music, drama and speech/debate may be required to put in extra hours, including early mornings, evenings and weekends.

What Experience Do You Need to be a Teacher?

What are the needs to become a professional teacher? Teaching in public schools, and most private schools, requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree. Coursework requirements are set by each state and may vary slightly among colleges and universities within the state. For example, some programs require a major in education, while other programs allow students to major in a subject area and complete a minor in education. Because there are so many specific requirements in any teacher education program, it is important to plan your schedule of classes early in your college career or risk not graduating on time. An academic advisor can help you choose the classes you need to take. Make sure the courses are part of an accredited teacher education program.

Colleges and universities typically have requirements for general education courses that must be completed by all students, regardless of major. These usually include at least one course in each of the following: English, math, psychology, philosophy, history and science. Students in teacher training programs, no matter what age or subject they plan to teach, complete courses in the history and philosophy of education, child psychology and development and teaching pedagogy. From there, they complete coursework specific to subject area and age group. Examples of such courses include the teaching of reading, teaching science in elementary school and teaching English in high school. These specialized courses delve deeper into age-appropriate academic content and further prepare future teachers for working with specific age groups.

Teaching training programs require students to complete a minimum number of hours of classroom observation. For this, education students go into select classrooms away from the college campus to observe teachers and their students in real world environments. Prospective teachers typically have a checklist of items to note, including the ways teachers ask questions, scaffold learning and manage any behavior issues. Education students may or may not take an active role in the classroom during the observation periods, but if it is acceptable to the classroom teacher, it's smart to join in and get some experience working with students. Most teacher training programs require that a student plan and present one lesson during the observation period.

The most important component of the teacher training program is student teaching. You'll hone your teaching skills by spending 16 to 32 weeks in a classroom, assuming increasingly greater responsibility for instruction and classroom management. Most student teachers find that their supervising teachers spend less and less time involved with students and may even leave the classroom. "Solo week" is usually the next-to-last week of student teaching, in which the student teacher has full responsibility for the classroom. During student teaching, the student will be observed periodically by the supervising teacher as well as an experienced teacher affiliated with the college or university. The role of the observers is to evaluate the student teacher's performance and provide guidance as necessary.

Teacher Certification

All teachers in the public schools must be certified. Education students generally undergo a background check before even entering a classroom to observe or student teach. Each state is different and it may even be possible to get a teaching certificate if you have a criminal record, depending on the charges and the age at the time the crime was committed. Most states require that, in addition to a degree from an accredited teacher training program, you pass a general knowledge exam, similar to the SAT.

Teachers must renew their certification periodically. They must fulfill a prescribed number of professional development hours, earned by attending school-sponsored or outside seminars and workshops. They may also meet requirements by taking college courses or completing special projects. Professional development skills may involve in-depth study of a particular subject area, or they may involve classroom management strategies or behavioral issues. In many states, teachers are required to earn a master's degree after a certain number of years in the field.

Salary and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks information separately for elementary, middle and high school teachers. Median pay for kindergarten and elementary school teachers if $56,900 annually, meaning half in the profession earn more and half earn less. Job growth through 2026 is expected to be 7 percent, about as fast as average compared to all jobs. Middle school teachers earn a little more, with a median salary of $57,720. Anticipated job growth is 8 percent. High school teachers typically earn the most, with a median salary of $59,170 per year. Job growth is anticipated at 8 percent. With many teachers scheduled for retirement over the next decade, the number of job openings could even be a little higher.

Do you love learning? If so, a career as a teacher can help you share your quest for knowledge with future generations.


Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.

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