Teaching in America: The Lives of Today's Public School Teachers

May 05, 2010

National Teacher Appreciation Day was May 4, 2010. Teachers play a crucial role in our nation's education system, and understanding their status can help us support them as a community. As we celebrate their contributions, explores the latest survey from the National Education Association (NEA) on the personal and professional lives of the American public school teacher.

Teacher and Students

Who Teaches in American Public Schools

The Research Division of the National Education Association (NEA) first launched their survey The Status of the American Public School Teacher in 1956. They've repeated the survey every five years since, gathering the most recent information on teachers' professional and professional lives. The longitudinal length of the survey has also allowed the organization to establish trends in certain aspects of the teaching profession.

The latest questionnaire was sent out in 2006. In order to paint as accurate a picture of America's teachers as possible, the organization sent out almost 3,000 surveys to teachers selected from a very broad range of nationwide public school systems. After subtracting for surveys not returned and those that were returned incomplete, the final sample size was 1,000, or a response rate of 37.8 percent. The NEA released their final report in March of 2010.

A basic demographic breakdown of the respondents is as follows:

  • Gender: 70% were female, 30% were male
  • Age: 10% were under age 30, 21% were 31-39, 27% were 40-49 and 42% were over age 50
  • Race: 87% were white, 13% were classified as a racial minority
  • Region: 23% came from the Northeast, 21% came from the Southeast, 27% came from the middle of the country and 29% came from the West
  • School Level: 50% teach at the elementary level, 25% teach at middle or junior high schools, 24% teach at senior high schools and 50% teach at combined secondary schools
  • School System Size: Based on student enrollment, 28% teach in large school systems (over 25,000 students), 46% teach in medium school systems (3,000-25,000 students) and 26% teach in small school systems (under 3,000 students)
  • School Community: Based on teachers' descriptions, 28% teach in urban schools, 33% teach in suburban communities and 40% teach in small town or rural areas; minority teachers (58%) are far more likely than white teachers (23%) to report teaching in an urban area

Teacher in Classroom

Professional Preparation and Experience

The report opens by exploring professional experience and how teachers prepare for the preparation. In 2006, they found that almost 100% reported holding at least a bachelor's degree and 62% reported holding one or more advanced degrees. In general, a bachelor's was more likely to be the highest degree held by teachers under 30, as well as those working in elementary schools rather than secondary schools. Older teachers and secondary school teachers were more likely to hold at least a master's degree.

Historically, males have been much more likely to hold an advanced degree - there was a 14 percentage point gap between men and women in 1996. But female teachers have made major strides in the past decade, shrinking the gap to only 2% in 2006.

Unsurprisingly, the percentage of teachers with advanced degrees has grown significantly in the last 40 years. The following is a summary of the shift - you can view the full data in Table 1 of ''The Status of the American Public School Teacher 2005-2006''.

Highest College Degree Held by Teachers, 1961-2006

Degree 1966 1976 1986 1996 2006
Less than Bachelor's 7% 1% 0% 0% 1%
Bachelor's 70% 62% 48% 44% 37%
Master's or Six Years 23% 37% 51% 55% 60%
Doctoral 0% 05 1% 2% 1%

Source: National Education Association.

Many teachers earn degrees outside the field of education before they enter the teaching profession. In 1996, the NEA began asking teachers if their highest degree came from a teacher preparation program. That year 79% said yes and that number grew to 83% in 2001, but in 2006 only 69% indicated that their highest degree was from a teacher preparation program.

The survey has also recently started asking participants if they've achieved National Board Certification (NCB) in addition to regional certification. NCB was first offered in 1994 to teachers with over three years of professional experience. In 2001 only 5% of teachers had achieved NCB, but that number is growing. In 2006, 7% of respondents had achieved NCB and an additional 4% indicated that they were pursuing national certification.

Professional Instructors

Reporting on teacher experience, the study notes a decrease in the number of teachers who began full-time teaching within the last five years. The total percentage is down to 16% from 23% in 2001. Although some regions have experienced some increases in the percentage of new teachers over the past few decades, the overall decline has been evident throughout the United States since 1976.

This pattern supports widespread fears that we may soon be facing a teacher shortage as fewer and fewer people enter the profession. Some education professionals have proposed that K-12 online learning, which allows students to reach educators anywhere in the world, may offer a partial solution to this problem.

The teachers who responded to the 2006 survey were, in general, very experienced. Half reported having 15 or more years of full-time teaching experience. Forty-four percent had taught for between three and 14 years and 6% had two or fewer years of full-time experience.

In order to measure the mobility of the teaching profession, the survey also explored how long respondents had taught in their current school system and whether or not they'd previously taught in another state. They found that 39% had been teaching in their current system for 15 years or more, 53% for three to 14 years and 10% for two or fewer years.

Compared with past data, this indicates a general trend of stability that is also reflected in the number of states in which participants have taught. In 2006, 74% of respondents had not taught in any other state. Nineteen percent had taught in one other state, 6% in two other states and 2% in three or more other states.

Instructional Resources

Work Environment

Part of exploring the teacher experience is looking at their work environment - school staffing patterns, the students they teach, the hours that they work , the resources available to them and their opportunities for professional development.

Regarding teacher distribution, the report found that the average number of classroom teachers per school was 51 in 2006, a slight increase over the average in 2001.

Of course, teachers are most effective when they teach in the areas in which they're most prepared, defined by their college education. When looking at the grades and subjects that respondents were teaching, the study found that most were well assigned. A full 81% reported that they spent no time teaching in subjects or grades outside of their major fields of preparation. The correct assignment of teachers has improved significantly in the decades since the NEA survey began.

Teachers aides are also more prevalent than they were in 1971, when this data was first collected, although the proportion of teachers receiving some assistance from an aide has held steady around one third since 1991. The most common types of assistance from an aide in 2006 were in instruction and controlling the classroom environment. Most aides assisted multiple teachers.

Senior high school teachers are the most likely to work at large, crowded schools. The overall average student population at the schools at which respondents taught was 818, but senior high school teachers averaged 1,391 students at their schools. This represents a significant increase in the number of students reported at senior high schools since 2001, when the average was 1,258. Younger teachers are also more likely to work at large schools, which may be because large schools need a greater teacher population and are thus more likely to hire instructors with less experience.

Of course, a more accurate measure of crowding can be find in classroom size. Among 'nondepartmentalized' elementary teachers (those who lead a class through each subject, rather than specializing), the average class size stayed relatively steady since 2001, up one student from 21 to 22. This represents a small decline since 1961, when the average class size for this group was 29.

The number of students in secondary and departmentalized elementary teachers' classes also shrank from 1961 (27) to 1981 (23), but then increased steadily until 1996 (31). The number fell slightly to 28 in 2001 and has remained steady since.

Putting in Hours

The average required workweek for teachers has remained fairly stable at 36 or 37 hours over the last four decades. However, in the last ten to 15 years, the average number of hours spent after the required workday on instructional activities has increased to 10 hours. Female teachers typically report spending more time on after hours instructional activities, as do teachers at the senior high school level.

Teachers also report spending an average of 5.2 hours per week on compensated non-instructional activities, such as coaching. In this area, male teachers reported spending far more time than female teachers. This represents a significant decline in this sort of activity, although there's been an increase in non-compensated non-instructional activities such as club advising or bus duty.

Another way to measure the time instructors spend teaching is class periods. In 2006, middle and junior high school teachers averaged 22 class periods per week at an average of 57 minutes per period. Senior high school teachers averaged 18 class periods per week at an average of 65 minutes per period. The proportion of teachers who teach an average class length of 65 minutes or more has increased significantly since 1991.

Unsurprisingly, schools are struggling financially to keep up with teachers' instructional needs. In 2006, 97% of participants reported spending their own money to meet the needs of their students, and not small amounts - teachers said they spent an average of $477 during the year.

Schools have, however, been able to offer basic working resources to their instructions. A significant majority of respondents indicated having the following resources at their disposal:

  • Personal computers (97%)
  • Internet access (96%)
  • Email access (94%)
  • Up-to-date student materials (77%)
  • Classroom activity materials (85%)
  • Planning guides and resources for instruction (78%)
  • Administrative support for professional growth (80%)
  • Classroom support from the principal (72%)
  • Classroom support from other teachers (82%)
  • Technical support for instructional technology (72%)
  • Support from other licensed professionals (82%)

Fewer teachers reported having access to new media tools such as multimedia software or distance learning capabilities.

The majority of teachers did report having opportunities for professional development. Seventy-seven percent indicated that they had participated in district-sponsored development programs. Most also reported receiving professional feedback from their principals and collaborating with other teachers on curriculum and instructional issues. Other common professional development activities included curriculum and other educational committees, summer development programs sponsored by the school system, education conferences and growth activities sponsored by professional organizations. Sixty percent of respondents in 2006 reported being members of the National Education Association (NEA) and 15% reported belong to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union.

High School Teacher

Teachers' Attitudes Toward Teaching

The 2006 survey also explored respondents attitudes toward the teaching profession. The desire to work with young people was the most commonly cited reason for becoming a teacher, followed by the value of education in society and interest in a specific subject-matter. These were also the top three reasons that teachers have stayed in the profession, although job security, the fourth most popular reason for remaining, was not at top factor in deciding to teach, suggesting that teaching offers more job security than those outside the profession may realize. Many teachers also indicated that they stayed in their career simply because they had become too invested to leave.

Another positive finding was the fact that two-thirds of respondents indicated that, given the chance to go back, they would still choose to teach. About 16% indicated that the chances were split, and 19% said that they would not become teachers again.

Most teachers also indicated that they planned to continue to teach until retirement. Eighteen percent were undecided about how long they would remain, 10% said that they were waiting for something better to come along and 4% indicated that they planned to leave as soon as possible. The most common reasons teachers cited for considering a career change were low salaries and poor working conditions.

The NEA survey found that, in the 2005-2006 school year, the average teacher salary was $49,482. That's a net increase of about 40% since 1961, after accounting for inflation. According to the U.S. Census, the average American income increased a little over 50% in the same time span, supporting the sense that teaching is an economically devalued profession.

In every year of the NEA survey, male teachers have reported higher salaries than female teachers, although the gap in 2006 was the smallest since 1976. This reflects the fact that male teachers are more likely to have advanced degrees, which typically lead to higher salaries. Secondary teachers tend to report higher salaries than elementary teachers, and salary also appears to increase with seniority.

When asked what most helped and hindered them in their profession, the top three obstacles teachers cited were heavy work load, 'teaching to the test' and disciplining students. The top three helpful factors were competent colleagues and mentors, administrative help and personal interest in teaching and children.

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