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What is the Difference Between a Teacher and a Professor?

Drexel University School of Education

Teachers and professors are two types of educators who provide their students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed, not just in academics, but also in life beyond school. Both teachers and professors can make a lifelong impact on their students, and their work forms a critical foundation for their students becoming independent, thriving, and productive citizens. However, there are significant differences between the roles of teacher and professor, from the level of required education and job responsibilities to the student populations they serve and average salaries. When it comes to choosing between a career as a professor vs. teacher, understanding the differences between the professions will help you choose the educational pathway that’s right for you.

Who Is a Teacher?

A teacher is an educator who works in a K-12 school system and who is trained to teach students of a particular age group or grade level, or in a specific academic subject area. Generally, teachers working with young students provide foundational instruction in several subject areas and also assist students in developing self-discipline and interpersonal skills. As students get older, teachers typically specialize in one specific academic subject and provide more focused instruction. Teachers at the high school level impart more advanced academic knowledge, along with skills and tools that help students prepare for life after graduation and for success at the college level.

Who Is a Professor?

A professor is a postsecondary educator at the college or university level, who may hold a PhD (or EdD in schools and colleges of education) in a specialized academic field and whose teaching and research are focused on that subject area. Professors teach undergraduate and/or graduate students, and the education they provide often forms the foundation for the students’ future careers and for lives as independent adults. Professors might also teach students enrolled in college- or university-based professional certification programs. There are various types of professors, including tenure-track professors, who hold permanent positions at the institution where they are employed, and adjunct professors, who are part-time professors that teach on a contractual basis. There are also other types of professors, including visiting professors, who hold a temporary teaching and research position at host institution, and clinical professors, who teach students (e.g. medical students) in a clinical setting.

Teacher vs Professor: What is the Difference?

The primary difference between teachers and professors relates to work setting and student population. Teachers work with young children and teenagers in K-12 school systems, while professors work with older teens and adults in college and university settings. There are also distinct differences in the educational and licensing requirements for teachers and professors, along with specific job responsibilities, research expectations, and average salaries.

Job Responsibilities

Teacher Job Responsibilities

The responsibilities of teachers vary as students age from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Teachers of young children provide general instruction for foundational skills like reading, writing, and basic math, along with guidance for safe and responsible behavior in classroom and school settings. Teachers of older students build on earlier skills, providing more in-depth instruction in each academic area. Teachers in K-12 settings also communicate closely with students’ parents or guardians about academic and behavioral successes and challenges. Responsibilities of teachers include:

  • Lesson planning, including creating assignments and classroom activities
  • Teaching lessons based on grade level, subject area, and district curriculum requirements
  • Grading homework, quizzes, and tests
  • Preparing students for standardized testing
  • Helping students who are struggling with lessons
  • Hosting conferences with students’ parents and guardians
  • Advising students on class selection, especially at the high school level.
  • Collaborating with other teachers on grade-level or subject-area activities
  • Designing field tripes and leading extracurricular activities and clubs.

Professor Job Responsibilities

At the college and university level, professors teach courses based on their specialized area of expertise and research. They are responsible for creating their own curriculum, assignments, and exams, along with acting as administrator of any virtual platforms help students access course materials and assignments. Unlike teachers, who may only conduct research while enrolled in a degree program, professors are also responsible for being active researchers in their fields, making ongoing contributions to the intellectual reputation of the institution where they teach. Responsibilities of professors include:

  • Creating curriculum for each course in their course load
  • Selecting textbooks and other reading materials for each course
  • Lecturing on specific topics within the curriculum
  • Assigning homework, papers, and projects
  • Grading assignments, papers, and exams
  • Conducting original research in their field of study
  • Submitting articles and book manuscripts for publication
  • Supervising graduate assistants and student internships
  • Holding office hours for students
  • Advising undergraduate and graduate students on course selection
  • Serving the college or university community by participating in committees, working groups, and other campus initiatives

Education Level

Teachers at the K-12 level are required to have earned a bachelor’s degree in education – either an elementary education degree, middle level, or secondary education degree. They must also complete a certain number of supervised student teaching hours, which are typically built into accredited education degree programs. Teachers must complete a teacher certification program in order to work in schools, and because certification requirements vary from state to state, individuals should consult with their state’s board of education for specific details. In Pennsylvania, a Level I teaching certificate is valid for six years of service, and before its expiration, teachers must apply for a Level II certificate. Level II certifications in Pennsylvania are permanently valid, but teachers must complete continuing professional education requirements every five years. Teachers may also choose to pursue a master’s degreeEdD, or PhD in education to expand their professional opportunities in the field of K-12 education and to obtain pay raises.

Professors are required to have completed higher levels of graduate education, because advanced expertise in their field of study is necessary for the education of college and university students. At two-year colleges and for adjunct positions, professors generally need to have earned at least a master’s degree. But for tenure-track positions at four-year institutions, professors must have earned a PhD, written a doctoral dissertation, and gone through a rigorous process of demonstrating their level of knowledge and scholarship. Post-doctoral positions, where those who have earned a PhD spend two to three years at an institution conducting research, publishing articles, and teaching, are important steps in the career pathway for those seeking tenure-track positions. Professors do not have to complete student teaching or state certification requirements, but often must hold an assistant or associate professor position before being promoted to a tenured position. To earn a tenured position, professors must demonstrate accomplishments in research and publication, service to the university or college community, obtain recommendations from other scholars, and complete a review process.

Work Environment

Teachers in a K-12 setting typically have their own classroom that they personalize for their students. In elementary schools, students usually spend their entire school day in one classroom with their lead teacher. However, in middle school and high school, teachers tend to specialize in specific subject areas and provide instruction to different groups of students that rotate into their classroom throughout the day. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers (and professors, too) had to adopt online learning tools and become proficient users of virtual classrooms, a work environment that will continue to be part of the educational landscape. Teachers at the K-12 level typically get summers off, along with many holidays during the school year.

Professors at colleges and universities usually have their own offices within their department’s building, spaces where they can grade assignments, meet with students and faculty, and complete other work. Their teaching, however, takes place in assigned rooms that may be located in various buildings across campus. Professors may also have lab or research spaces in other buildings. Professors usually have some flexibility in the hours that they teach, especially as they rise in the ranks among the faculty. They can often choose the days and times they wish to hold classes, and usually enjoy the same holidays and breaks as students throughout the academic year. After a certain number of years of service, professors may also request a sabbatical leave, which is a leave of absence, usually devoted to research or other academic activities.

Teacher vs. Professor Salaries

On average, teachers earn about $61,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries may vary based on location, grade level, level of education, and years of experience. Teachers who hold a master’s degree and have a number of years of experience will likely earn more than teachers who hold a bachelor’s degree and have less seniority. On a regional basis, teacher salaries are highest in New York, California, Massachusetts, Washington, and Connecticut.

Professors usually earn more than teachers, with an average salary of $79,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries vary based on field of study, rank and title within a professor’s department, private vs. public institution, and prestige of the institution. For example, tenured faculty will earn considerably more than adjunct faculty, and faculty at an esteemed, private four-year university will likely earn more than a professor at a public two-year college. In terms of fields of study, professors of law, engineering, and economics earn the highest average salaries.

Job Title Average Salary
Kindergarten & Elementary Teachers
Middle School Teachers
High School Teachers
Special Education Teachers
ESL Teachers

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Outlook

The job outlook for teachers is around the national average for all occupations, with the number of jobs expected to increase by 4% by 2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With an increasing turnover rate and post-COVID-19 teacher shortage, there is a demand for qualified and committed educators. Aspiring teachers can stand out in a competitive job market by enhancing their résumés with additional work and volunteer experience and professional development credits.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of professor positions will increase by 12% by 2031, which is faster than the national average. The need for professors is growing faster in some fields than in others. For example, because of the nation’s aging population, there is a higher need for educated healthcare professionals, and so the job outlook is strongest among professors of nursing and health specialties. Job growth is also expected to be higher among professors of engineering, biological sciences, and psychology.

Pursue a Career as a Teacher or Professor with Drexel University

Becoming a teacher or professor and dedicating one’s career to helping develop an educated and engaged citizenry is a noble pursuit. There are many reasons and ways to become a teacher, and Drexel’s School of Education provides options at all levels – through its bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs – to launch a career in K-12 education. For those interesting in learning how to become a professor, Drexel offers programs for every stage of the process, from starting an undergraduate degree to finishing a PhD program.

Get your journey started by requesting information from Drexel University's School of Education today.