Teacher Career Pathways: K-12 vs. Higher Education

Dr. Benjamin Washington
Dr. Benjamin Washington
High school assistant principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership
Women pondering with three light bulbs above her.

Pursuing a career in education creates opportunities to make an impact with students and invest in the lives of others. Teachers are prepared to be leaders in the classroom, schools, and in the community. The preparation of educators allows them to research best practices, implement current curriculum, and pursue leadership opportunities in education administration. Together, teachers, school counselors, and administrators work together for the success of students. This is seen in both K-12 schools and higher education institutions. Teacher careers pathways have multiple positions and avenues, whether it’s in a school, district office, or college. In order to further understand the different pathways, it is important to know the similarities and differences of K-12 education and higher education.

What Can a Career Path in K-12 Education Entail?

For K-12 educators there are multiple positions including general education and special education teachers, school counselors, department heads, curriculum specialist, and instructional coaches. Elementary and secondary education are the two main areas for teachers and their colleagues. Teachers must obtain a license to teach in a particular subject area in either elementary or secondary grade levels. Depending on the subject area and grade level, teachers work in an elementary, middle, or high school. Elementary teachers are trained to teach students from kindergarten to fifth grade and foster emotional growth and responsibility during the foundational years of a child’s life. Middle school teachers teach and provide structure, and uphold academic expectations for students in grades sixth through eighth and high school teachers instruct, coach, and guide students in grades nine through twelve.

Teachers who want to move beyond the classroom and into administration can choose from becoming an assistant principal or principal, director, or superintendent.

Furthermore, for those who want to focus specifically on students’ socioemotional needs and character development, becoming a school counselor is another career pathway in K-12 education. Although some school counselors may have a degree to teach this is not required to become a school counselor. Generally, teachers who have mastered teaching and learning and want to make a broader impact with students, there is mobility within a school and in a district. This mobility can come in the form of leading a school building or directing initiatives and programs within the school district. In order to become a building-level and district administrator there must be an additional degree or add-on credential to go into administration. Principals are the instructional leaders of their school and provide the vision of the school through the support of the community and education programs in the school building. Directors supervise and implement programs that are a reflection of the school district’s goals for student learning. These various positions contribute to the growth and development of K-12 students. While these pathways are directed teaching and leading students ages five through eighteen, higher education focuses on adult students eighteen and above.

What Can a Career in Higher Education Entail?

Postsecondary teachers serve students in the field of higher education. In higher education, the career pathways are professor, finance or admissions counselors, deans, vice presidents, and presidents of a college. It is important to note that higher education entails community colleges and four year universities. One key difference between K-12 teaching and higher education are the various job titles. Job titles for teaching in higher education include adjunct professor, associate professor, assistant professor, full professor, and tenured professor. Just as there are teachers and administrators who support students K-12, there are teachers and administrators in higher education.

The trajectory for someone in higher education typically goes from instructor, to dean, and to a vice president in a specific area such as finance, academic affairs, or enrollment management. Deans supervise and lead programs at colleges that impact students and the teacher that are providing instruction. For individuals who want to go further, the position of provost or president of the college/university is the final step. Careers in Higher Education Administration allow for the support of students on multiple levels. Helping students understand the completion of a degree program is vital. Students need guidance on how to complete a two-year program and four year degree. Leaders at community colleges and four year universities have pathways that began with teaching and continue to influence students and the communities they serve.

Are there Different Qualifications for Each?

Whether the career pathway is K-12 or in higher education, both fields have various qualifications for each. Teachers in K-12 education must hold a bachelor’s degree in a particular area such as elementary or secondary education with a concentration in science, English, social studies, or math. For career advancement, a teacher may obtain a masters in curriculum and instruction or educational leadership. The masters in educational leadership or educational administration allows the individual to lead schools in the capacity as an assistant principal or principal. District or central office personnel such as assistant superintendents and superintendents typically hold an educational specialist degree. However, in many cases superintendents hold a Ph.D. or Ed.D.in Educational Leadership.

In higher education, instructors and adjuncts are required to hold at least a masters degree in the field they teach. For example, an adjunct instructor at a community college who teaches economics will have a masters in economics. For those who aspire to be a professor, a Ph.D. is required. There are various Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs that give students the credentials to teach as a professor and be an administrator in higher education. Obtaining a Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning or a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration will foster career advancement in colleges and universities. There are various qualifications for both K-12 and higher education for career advancement and increased professional development. These qualifications benefit the degree holder and the students they support on a daily basis.

What are Your Career Goals?

Working with students can be a fulfilling endeavor. Determining your teacher career pathway will allow for learning experiences and finding roles that contribute to your career success. For individuals who want to work in the K-12 field, there is a direct influence on students and interaction with parents. Higher education does focus on the student, however, there is an individual approach and a focus on preparing the student for their adult career and work path. While both of these educational fields make an impact on students it is important to establish which career path is best for you. Having a focus on individual career goals is important to deciding which teacher career pathway while being influential in your life and impactful on the students who are growing into future leaders.

Engaging students for academic success and support provides an opportunity for self growth and the growth of others. Whether it is K-12 education or higher education, the return on investment by teaching, leading, and guiding students is one that impacts everyone involved. Teaching and learning is an ongoing process that involves multiple people with specific goals and pathways. Your career path may come in the form of a teacher, counselor, or school administrator. All of these pathways provide opportunities for students to grow and for a successful and impactful career in the field of education.

graduate program favicon

Looking for a graduate program?

We can help you find a graduate program.

Our accessible staff is dedicated to providing a smooth and supportive admissions process for busy teachers.

By subscribing you agree to receive marketing emails, and newsletters from us. See privacy policy.