The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 5

Teachers and the Teaching Profession
in the United States

By: Sally Lubeck

Ms. Williams, an eighth-grade math teacher, arrives at school at approximately 7:30 a.m., 30 minutes or so before school officially begins. The school building, which includes grades 6-9, serves approximately 650 students. It is a two-story brick structure, which includes classrooms, offices, a cafeteria, library, gymnasium, and auditorium. Ms. Williams has her own classroom and personalizes it by decorating her bulletin boards and displaying students' work.

The school day is divided into 55-minute "periods." Ms. Williams teaches during five of these periods each day and has lunch and a planning period. Bells signal the beginning and end of each period, and students have 5 minutes between periods to move from one classroom to another. Most of the time, Ms. Williams remains in her assigned room, although occasionally she teaches in another room. She has a brief advisory or "homeroom" period, but students typically talk softly or study during this time.

At lunchtime, Ms. Williams eats in the school cafeteria. Teachers are allowed to go to the front of the cafeteria line — or they bring a packed lunch from home. Many eat with other teachers, but some prefer the solitude of their own classrooms and use this time to read or to prepare for the next class. Once or twice a week Ms. Williams meets with her "team" during the lunch period. During her "prep time," she stays in her room and grades papers or goes to the teachers' lounge to talk informally with other teachers. On occasion, she also has supervisory duty, making sure that students behave in the lunchroom or get on or off the buses in a timely fashion. One afternoon a week she tutors her students who are having difficulty, and occasionally she attends faculty meetings or a parent conference. More often than not, she leaves the building at 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon, approximately 1 hour after her last class. Most students have vacated the building by this time. The exceptions are students who play on athletic teams or who participate in after-school clubs or work on the school newspaper or yearbook.

Ms. Williams takes schoolwork home with her and spends an hour or so in the evening grading papers or preparing for class the next day. She also does some work on weekends. At the end of each grading period (four times per year), she will spend considerably more time on schoolwork outside of school time. She teaches during the "school year," which is 180 days long, typically running from early September until some time in June. Her salary is for the 9-month school year, although it is paid over a period of 12 months. She has time off without pay for the Christmas holidays and other school holidays and for the time during the summer months when school is not in session



This chapter is based on interviews and observations of 32 teachers during the 1994-95 school year as well as on conversations with other relevant persons: student teachers (two), resource teachers (two), principals (six), and teacher educators (four). I conducted all interviews and observations but two, which were conducted by Bill Foraker in West City. Of the classroom teachers I personally interviewed, 8 taught at the elementary level, 7 at the middle school level, and 15 at the secondary level. In most cases, I spent several hours or days with the same teacher, talking informally as well as formally and visiting his or her classroom for extended periods. Most of the teachers seemed accustomed to visitors, and many seemed to enjoy the opportunity to talk about their lives and work.

Research Goals

The first section of what follows describes two aspects of teachers' lives that were of special interest: (1) the personal characteristics of teachers, including a discussion of their educational background, teaching experience, motivation to become a teacher, uses of time, and methods of teaching; and (2) teacher training and professional development, including student teaching, past and current efforts at professional development, salaries, benefits, and union involvement. The second section also discusses working conditions in terms of physical environment, expectations, sources of instructional support, and locus of instructional decisionmaking and planning.

Characteristics of Case Study Teachers

Demographics. There were approximately 2.5 million teachers instructing more than 43 million students in U.S. public schools during the 1993-94 school year (U.S. Department of Education 1995a). Table 1 describes characteristics of all U.S. public school teachers compared to Case Study teachers (U.S. Department of Education 1995c). In 1991, the median age of public school teachers was 42 (U.S. Department of Education 1995b). Projections indicate that the cadre of U.S. teachers, already largely white and female, will become even more so in the 20th century.

Table 1 – Characteristics of teachers in U.S. public schools compared to case study teachers

All Teachers
Case Study
     Male 27.1 30.0
     Female 72.9 70.0
     White non-Hispanic 86.5 66.7
     Black non-Hispanic 7.4 26.7
     Hispanic 4.2 3.3
     Other 1.9 3.3

     SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, 1995c.

Educational background. Of the teachers interviewed for this project, half had bachelor's degrees and half had earned advanced (masters) degrees. One teacher explained that he was "ABD," that is, he had completed all the coursework necessary to receive a doctoral degree, but had not completed the dissertation. Most had attended a 4-year college or university and graduated with a degree and a teaching certificate. A few (10 percent) had become certified after graduation. The majority (71 percent) received their undergraduate degrees (BA. or BS.) at state universities, and more than four-fifths of those earning advanced degrees had done so at state universities.

Mirroring national trends, the lower grades in the Case Study schools were staffed largely by women. All of the elementary and middle school teachers interviewed were female, and two-thirds were European American. On the other hand, math and science teaching has traditionally been the domain of men at the secondary level, and the Case Study also captures this prevalence. Fully three-fourths of the secondary teachers interviewed were male. As for racial and ethnic composition 59 percent of the secondary teachers were European American, 25 percent African-American, and 8 percent each Latino and Asian American. All of the secondary teachers had taught for at least 3 years, and the majority (67 percent) had advanced degrees.

Teaching experience. Table 2 shows that most U.S. teachers have been teaching 10 or more years. The teachers interviewed for the Case Study included both new and very experienced teachers, although as table 2 also illustrates, over half had more than 10 years of teaching experience.

Table 2 – Percentages of teachers teaching various lengths of time

Years of Experience U.S. Teachers Case Study Teachers
Less than 3 years 9.7 13
3-9 years 25.5 20
10-20 years 35 37
More than 20 years 29.8 30

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, 1995c., p. 78.

All of the Case Study teachers reported having taught more than one grade level and all but five had taught in more than one school. Case Study data illustrate a pattern in which young teachers, particularly at the elementary level, were moved from year to year, while more experienced teachers were able to continue with the age groups they preferred.

Since the focus of the Case Study was on math and science instruction, all of the teachers interviewed and observed at these levels were math or science teachers. Among the elementary school teachers, all but one teacher taught all the major subjects, including both math and science. At the middle and secondary levels, teachers generally specialized in one subject area. Since mathematics is often tracked in middle schools and science is not, middle school math teachers reported teaching different levels of math (e.g., "geometry, algebra, eighth-grade math" or "transition math, prealgebra, algebra"), while science teachers taught general classes (i.e., "physical science" or "seventh- and eighth-grade science") which included students at all levels of ability.

Most of the secondary school teachers in the Case Study taught two or three subjects (e.g., physical science and biology). The extremes were a suburban science teacher who taught three double periods of the Advanced Placement (AP) biology, and an urban math teacher who taught six different courses: technical math 1 and 2, geometry, advanced algebra, AP calculus 1, and AP calculus 2. Only one of the secondary teachers taught outside his main assignment areas — he did so by teaching one computer — science class.

Information gathered from interviews with these teachers during the course of the Case Study helps to provide a broader picture of teachers' lives. The following sections address the findings from several questions that were salient in the interviews with teachers. These were:

Teachers' Personal Characteristics

Motivation to Become a Teacher

For some of the Case Study teachers the desire to teach was longstanding or determined early during their college years. One such teacher simply stated: "I always knew I wanted to become a teacher." Others explained that they "never intended to teach" and only came to it gradually, generally because of dissatisfaction with another line of work. For example, a young single mother who had been teaching for 3 years explained her emerging desire to teach in this way:

I didn't want to go to college. I had computer training while in high school, and I got a job in a corporation, and I was a secretary to the corporate lawyer. And everybody was wearing the same stuff. I wanted something different. I decided it wasn't the way to go. I thought teaching was a way I could use my creativity and work with children at the same time. So I went into education, and I really enjoy it.

Many women teachers commented that being a teacher made it easier to both work and have a family. When I asked one elementary teacher why she thought most became teachers, she laughed and commented, "June, July, and August," but then quickly added, "It's a really big advantage to have the time off in the summer to spend with your children. I love summers off; I love the time I get off." Others also mentioned that they appreciated having time with their children in the summers. Indeed, since most teachers are women — and mothers — this explanation captured what might be considered a major incentive to enter and remain in the field. Many teachers also reported that they liked children, wanted to "make a difference," or wanted to do something they considered creative or meaningful.

What Makes a Good Teacher?

Teachers at different levels of schooling tended to define a "good" teacher in slightly different ways. Those working in elementary schools seemed more child-focused in their discussions and believed that a good teacher was a kind person, one who was "understanding," and "sensitive to the needs of children." Elementary teachers who expressed sympathy for children were more likely to imply that some parents were not doing their job. Teachers also thought that a good teacher needed to know what she was doing. Some elementary school teachers complained about other teachers whom they perceived to not work very hard or not understand the material they were supposed to be teaching. Often, however, it was the social aspects of teaching — the work with children — that were accentuated.

The secondary school teachers generally considered themselves subject-matter specialists. Good teachers had to know how to teach their subject. It was a plus if students liked a teacher, and, indeed, some felt that having a sense of humor and an ability to handle a class increased the likelihood that students would learn, but the teacher's primary responsibility was to teach.

Middle school teachers pointed out that many schools were changing from a "junior high" to a "middle school" model, because young adolescents still need the support and "family-like" concern more characteristic of elementary schools even though, in the middle school, they would be taught by a number of teachers. The middle school concept utilizes a team approach in which a group of teachers works with the same students and thereby is able to give them more personal attention.

Becoming a Teacher

This section introduces the United States system of teacher training. It describes some of the student teaching experiences reported by Case Study teachers and reports on three innovative approaches to professional development.

The United States teacher education system is tiered. Generally, a high school diploma is needed to teach young children (ages 2-5); a bachelor's degree is required to teach children from kindergarten to 12th grade, and a doctorate has become mandatory for teaching at the college or university level. The K-12 grades are usually divided into 3 levels: elementary (K to grades 5 or 6), middle (grades 6 to 8 or 9), and secondary (grades 9 to 12 or 10 to 12). Students who are preparing to teach at one of these levels must attend a college or university for 4 years, major or minor in education, and earn a teaching certificate. Some states require students to take a test for entry or to have attained a minimal grade point average. Typically students will enter a department of education in a college or a school of education in a university after 2 years of general study. It is also possible to acquire a teaching degree after graduation by taking additional courses post-baccalaureate or by entering a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program.

Because the United States education system is decentralized, each state education agency (SEA) has its own guidelines and requirements for earning and maintaining a teaching certificate. All teacher education programs must earn approval from the state in which they are located and, in about half the states, approval from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NACATE) as well.

A teaching certificate earned in one state may or may not be recognized in another. Increasingly, states are also requiring that prospective teachers demonstrate some minimal level of competency by passing a competency test before they are allowed to enter the profession. Many now require that teachers also renew their certification by continuing to take "renewal credits," i.e., a certain number of college courses or inservice workshops within a given time period while teaching. In some states, a master's degree confers permanent certification. In general, renewals are premised on the belief that teachers must extend their knowledge base rather than demonstrate performance. However, teacher induction programs were instituted in many states during the 1980s (Darling-Hammond 1990). In these programs, a new teacher typically receives provisional certification and is observed over the period of a year. Permanent certification is granted if the teacher performs adequately according to the standards established by the state.

Some states also sponsor additional "endorsements" that may be added to a certificate. The state of Michigan, for example, offers four endorsements: the ZA (early childhood), the ZE (general elementary, K to grade 6), the ZD (middle school, grades 5 to 9), and the ZF (secondary, grades 10 to 12). Teacher training institutions must meet state guidelines in order to offer an endorsement. In addition to earning a teaching credential, prospective teachers typically must take 18 or more hours of college-level credits, including 1 or more practica that are targeted at teaching a particular age group. When the job market is extremely competitive—as is the case in some communities and regions—an endorsement provides an additional qualification for employment. The endorsement may also be a requirement.

Teacher shortages exist in some areas, especially in large urban school districts and in the rapidly expanding cities of the south and west, and in some subject areas. Since the 1980s, shortages have been especially notable in math and science (general science, biology, chemistry, and physics) (Darling-Hammond 1990). In order to meet the need for math and science teachers, some school districts have allowed qualified individuals to teach with provisional certification and established special mentoring programs that encourage people to leave business and industry to enter the teaching profession. "Teach for America" is another innovative program that recruits highly qualified college students who have completed their undergraduate studies and places them in urban and rural schools after one summer of training.

States delegate authority to local educational agencies, more commonly referred to as school districts. Districts run schools and directly hire the personnel who work in them. Most U.S. teachers belong to teacher unions, and it is the unions who undertake "collective bargaining" with the district, in some states, however, such bargaining is illegal, and the union's function only as professional organizations. College and university programs vary in the amount and kind of practical experience and theoretical knowledge that are deemed important in teacher training programs. Although students complain that they do not have enough "hands-on" learning, many college educators are now stressing the importance of developing "reflective practitioners" (Schon 1983); that is, teachers who are capable of thinking deeply about what they are doing and tailoring their practices to the diverse learning styles and needs of children.

Student Teaching

Students may be required to have one or more "practica" during which they observe an experienced teacher or tutor students. During student teaching, a student works with one teacher and shares teaching responsibilities with this teacher. Case Study teachers did not describe a uniform student teaching experience. The most protracted experience was reported by a fourth-grade teacher who explained that her college required students to "do observations and assist in a kindergarten on the campus and at a local elementary school" during the junior year; in her senior year, she did her student teaching over two semesters at two different grade levels, three and six. A female middle school math teacher, who had a double major in elementary education and secondary math, described the shortest student teaching experience. She reported doing half of her student teaching in a fourth grade and half in a high school—four and a half weeks in each.

The conventional route through student teaching seemed to consist of 8 to 12 weeks in 1 school with 1 teacher. For example, an eighth-grade mathematics teacher described her student teaching experience as "8 weeks at the end of the year." A number of teachers recommended that student teaching be extended over a longer period of time and with two different teachers.

Teachers were asked about their student teaching experience. Some stories were memorable, if undramatic:

One of the teachers I worked with was particularly good. I knew how to plan a lesson but not a year. She showed me how to teach seven or eight subjects at once and how I could arrange topics in the books to integrate with other subjects. She showed me how to make long-range plans. You won't believe it, but I had a course in scouting, camping, and recreational leadership that was really useful. We learned how to keep kids busy for 5 minutes, how to lead songs, tell stories, and entertain. At the end, we spent a week as camp counselors with the students we had done our student teaching with. (A female fourth-grade teacher at East Elementary in her 19th year)

Others described events that required them to rise to the challenge of difficult circumstances.

My main supervising teacher had to go to the hospital . . . . so she was out for the entire month of May. So I picked up more of her class time and was teaching five classes as a student teacher. At the time you were only supposed to have three. I had five preparations, which, as I look back on it, was kind of predicting the future, because right now I teach six classes, with six preparations. They're all special sections. So I think, you know, it started way back then, but it was a very good experience. I was always very quiet, shy, afraid to raise my hand, because I was afraid to be wrong. I was a perfectionist; that was the main thing. I was afraid to make a mistake. And I was real nervous, but—I remember the day I had to teach my first class. It was the second period in the morning—I still remember—but as soon as I opened my mouth, all of it went away. It was just like—I was born to be there. (A female high school mathematics teacher at Uptown High who has taught for 26 years)

It was a small school [in a rural county]. I taught students in biology. The bad part about it was they had me student teaching under two teachers, which I didn't particularly like. One of the teachers was very attentive, was very hands-on, and was there to observe a lot. She taught anatomy, and I taught some anatomy under her. The other teacher was a male, probably in his mid-50s . . . . and he was the one you always heard you didn't want to get. You know, `Here's the class. Enjoy it. Bye!' And that was the last I saw of him. So I relied on the lady. Her name was Ms. XXXXX. She really helped me a lot. So it wasn't as bad as it could have been. (A male high school physics teacher at East High who has taught for eight years)

Some teachers reported being left alone with a class from the first day of student teaching, while others were allowed to slowly ease into the routine. Teachers varied in their opinions about this. Some, like the teacher above, preferred to have the regular teacher observe and comment about their teaching. Others felt that they learned by doing and benefited most from simply being left in charge.

Professional Development

Many changes are occurring in staff development practices throughout the country. Where teachers traditionally were expected to listen to experts or be trained in new techniques during "sit and get" workshops, today the focus is on enabling teachers to study and improve their own practice through such strategies as site-based management, strategic planning (e.g., school improvement plans), on-the-job learning, action research, study group, and joint planning (Sparks 1995).

Although these ideas feature prominently in the recent literature on school reform (Darling-Hammond 1994; Little 1993; McLaughline & Talbert 1993a) and seem to animate much of what is transpiring in professional development schools affiliated with schools of education, most teachers interviewed for this project seemed to be only peripherally aware of them. In their experience, opportunities to interact with other teachers occurred during monthly faculty meetings, a regularly scheduled department meeting, or infrequent staff development workshops.

Some school districts were able to offer much more extensive opportunities to teachers for their development. For example, Rockefeller Elementary, a wealthy suburban school district, had an extensive budget for staff development and an array of resources for teachers to acquire new knowledge and to learn new approaches and techniques. Courses dealing with computers, writing, learning, and approaches to teaching were offered at the request of teachers themselves. At East Middle School, most staff development workshops were "for teachers, who aren't computer literate," but courses were also offered countywide in "the use of manipulatives, graphing calculators, and geometry." These courses were typically offered one day a week for 2-3 hours after school for a period of eight weeks.

As mentioned earlier, some states have also initiated statewide efforts to foster professional development and improve teaching by mandating that teachers earn renewal credits in order to maintain their certification. For example, in 1 state where Case Study interviews were conducted, teachers were required to earn 15 renewal credits every 5 years. They receive 5 credits for teaching full-time and additional 10 credits could be earned through such traditional channels as university coursework, summer school, and school and district workshops.


Responses on a 1990-91 survey of "Recent College Graduates" (RCG) indicate that individuals who majored in education earned on average $19,100 in the year after graduation, a figure less than graduates in all other fields except humanities (U.S. Department of Education 1995c). In 1991, the average salary for all full-time teachers was $25,983 while the average salary for all recipients of bachelor's degrees was $38,530. Once again, individuals in the teaching profession earned less than those in all other fields. (U.S. Department of Education 1995d).

The salary range for teachers is determined by education and experience as well as by locale. Teachers who have earned "masters plus 30 credits" earn more than those with masters' degrees; teachers with master's degrees, in turn, earn more than those with bachelor's degrees. Salary increases are typically and predictably gained with increased experience, although "merit pay" has been adopted in some school districts. Finally, teachers in the northeast earn more than teachers in other parts of the country, largely because of the higher cost of living; teachers in the south earn the least. Teachers who work in suburban school districts or in large towns typically earn more than teachers in either urban or rural districts. One-third of all teachers report receiving additional compensation for sponsoring school-related activities, while one-quarter earn additional money by working at another job during the school year or in the summer.


Nine out of 10 U.S. teachers are members of 1 of the 2 principal teachers' unions in the United States.


[The Role of School in United States Adolescents' Lives (Part 4 of 4)] [Table of Contents] [Teachers and the Teaching Profession in the United States (Part 2 of 3)]