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Different Kinds of Teachers

“If you can read this, thank a teacher” is sometimes seen on car bumper stickers. In just a few words, that phrase describes how valuable teachers are. They help children learn about the countries of the world and the stars in the sky, famous people from the past and predictions for the future. They teach math, science, and history, and they help children learn why this information matters in their lives. Because of teachers, children of all ages gain knowledge and a better understanding of the world around them.

Different Varieties

Teachers work in many different types of schools. Most teach in public schools, which vary in size based on where they are located. For instance, the New York City public school system employs more than 600,000 full-time teachers in its 15,500 elementary, middle, and high schools. In stark contrast to that is Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough school district, which is one of the most rural and remote school districts in the country. It has just 12 schools and employs 27 teachers.

In addition to public schools, some teachers work in private schools, or parochial (religious) schools. Others work in charter schools, which are a specialized kind of public school. Some teachers work in small schools where children of different ages are taught together in the same classroom. One example of this type of school is on Mackinac Island, a small island off the coast of northern Michigan. Only about six hundred people live there year-round, and fewer than one hundred students from kindergarten through twelfth grade attend Mackinac Island School. The classes are very small, with only about six students in each class. Plus, something else is unusual about this school besides its small size. Mackinac Island does not allow any cars, so teachers and students must ride bikes or walk to school when the weather is nice. In the winter months, a horse-drawn carriage serves as a “school bus.”

Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers

Some teachers work with very young children. Those who teach preschool work with children who are three or four years old and may be away from home for the first time. Preschool teachers understand that this can be a frightening experience, so they spend time helping children get over their fears. They help students learn how to get along with others, how to share, and how to participate in classroom activities. Basically, preschool teachers prepare children for what to expect when they go to school like the “big kids.”

Kindergarten teachers are similar to preschool teachers because they work with young children. Some of these children have attended preschool, so they have learned what it is like to spend time in a classroom. For others, kindergarten is their first real experience with school. That means teachers must be prepared to work with children who have different levels of knowledge and social skills. Those who are shy or afraid require more of a teacher’s time, until they become comfortable around other children.

Kindergarten teacher Elaine Kuegler says that her biggest challenge is to help her students excel in tasks they feel they cannot do, as well as the tasks they enjoy. Also, she finds it challenging to keep the advanced students busy and interested while she helps others learn basic math and reading skills. In spite of the challenges, Kuegler enjoys her job, and says she likes the unpredictable nature of teaching young children: “I never quite know ahead of time what will happen when these kindergarten children walk into my classroom. Every day presents new challenges and also wonderful rewards.”1

Elementary School Teachers

Teachers who work in elementary schools teach students in first through fifth or sixth grade. They usually work with one grade at a time, in one classroom, and they have the same students for the whole school year. Elementary teachers educate their students about many different subjects, including English, reading, math, social studies, and science. Some teachers teach in multilevel classrooms, which means they have students who are at different levels in their learning. For instance, some students might be average learners, while others work at a higher level and faster pace than their classmates.

Instead of teaching many different subjects, elementary teachers may specialize in one subject, such as art, reading, or music. These teachers travel between different classrooms in the same school, or they might travel from school to school. Roberta Guaspara-Tzavaras is a violin teacher who works with young children in East Harlem, one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. She believes that all children should have the opportunity to learn music because of the joy and discipline it brings to their lives. One student began studying violin when she was in the first grade. By the time she was twelve years old, she had performed in Switzerland, and she had also played for Oprah Winfrey.

Secondary School Teachers

Teachers who work in middle schools or high schools are often called secondary school teachers. They usually specialize in one or two subjects. In most secondary schools, students travel to different rooms for each of their classes. For example, a middle school science teacher or a high school algebra teacher would usually teach six or seven classes each day to separate groups of students.

Middle school teachers face some unique challenges in their jobs because of the ages of their students. Susan Ray has been teaching middle school for ten years, and she says that many teachers do not want to teach this age group. For her, the key to being successful with middle schoolers is to let them know that she believes they can succeed. She also makes it clear to them that she understands what they are going through, as she explains: “You see, I remember what it was like to be a seventh grader. I remember going to school and realizing that what I thought was going to be the ‘in’ fashion was really the ‘out’ fashion. I remember having a pimple on my nose the size of Cleveland and knowing that everyone noticed it too. I remember coming home and crying because I realized that I wasn’t accepted in the most popular crowd… I tell them that I am going to believe in each one of them until they can begin to believe in themselves.”2

Special Education Teachers

Some teachers work with students who have special needs. These could include physical or emotional disabilities, or cognitive disabilities, such as lower-than-average intelligence. Denver special education teacher Julie Spilsted says that her job can be frustrating at times, but for the most part it is highly rewarding. “A teacher is someone who teaches because it is a passion. I would say I’m part teacher, part psychologist, part social worker, and part cheerleader. I never forget that something I do might make a positive difference in a child’s life. There is no greater reward than that.”3

Whether they teach kindergarten or high school, ABCs or astrophysics, teachers are extremely important. They are people whose careers are devoted to one goal: making a difference in their students’ lives by helping them learn.

1 Elaine Kuegler, “A Day in the Life of an Elementary School Teacher.” www.skyline.net. fn2. Susan Ray, “Teaching Middle Level Kids: Remember Seventh Grade?” In Case You Missed It section of Middleweb. www.middleweb.com. fn3. Julie Spilsted, interview by author, July 19, 2002.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesTeacher Job Description