Summary

Better teachers lead to better economic outcomes, higher attendance at better universities and lower teenage birth rates for the students they teach, and the benefits talented teachers provide to society are considerably greater than what is recouped by their salary. This is the common-sense and widely held view, though there are some dissenting voices on the impact of schooling, at least at the tertiary level.

However, we generally do not recommend teaching as the best career path to maximize your social impact: if you’re working in a rich country, the impact you have as a teacher is by improving the lives of people who are almost all going to end up in the richest 15% of the world’s population. Moreover, teaching is an area that is already extremely popular among the socially-motivated, so it’s unlikely that you’ll make as big a difference on the margin within education as you could elsewhere. Further, even the most talented classroom teacher can only impact around 30 students at a time, less than is possible using other approaches.

As with all careers, if you think you could be truly exceptional within this career, but not at others, you should strongly consider it.

Pros

  • Rewarding to be interacting directly with the beneficiaries of your work
  • You may have the opportunity to advocate for important issues with your students
  • Significant vacations, which allow you to pursue other projects on the side
  • If you want to become a teacher, you are relatively likely to be able to do so, since there are so many teaching positions available
  • If you are an outstanding teacher, you may get the opportunity to teach the next generation of your country’s leaders, a group that it is very important have good values and strong skills

Cons

  • If working in a rich country, your direct impact accrues to people who are among the richest in the world
  • It’s perhaps the most common path for socially motivated people to pursue, so harder to make a big difference
  • Weaker than other paths at building general-purpose skills that are in demand in other fields
  • Salaries are low for the level of skill and commitment required to be a good teacher

Ratings

Career capital: 

Direct impact: 

Earnings: 

Advocacy potential: 

Ease of competition: 

Job satisfaction:

Our reasoning for these ratings is explained below. You might also like to read about our approach to rating careers.

Key facts on fit  

Must be happy with constant social interaction; able to maintain control of the classroom; a positive disposition

Next steps

If you want to enter teaching, we’d recommend applying to TeachFirst in the UK, or Teach for America in the USA. These organizations enable you to get a taste for teaching over two years in a demanding position, while at the same time making you an attractive candidate for other careers in case you decide to move to a different career area. (We would rate these programs as providing 3/5 for ‘career capital’, rather than 1/5.)

Not usually recommended

We don’t recommend this career unless you are an exceptionally good fit for it.

Review status

Exploratory career profile 

Review author

Robert Wiblin

What if I am committed to doing teaching?

For those who are already working in teaching, or are certainly going to pursue teaching as a career path, we encourage them to consider:

  • Working at either a school for highly-disadvantaged students, who will benefit the most from incremental improvements to their skills or income. Common sense and research suggests that this path rewards a high level of grit.
  • Working in a top-tier school, where one has the potential to influence the capabilities and values of your country’s next generation of leaders in politics, business and research, and so on.
  • Keeping up to date with the latest research on evidence-based teaching, and implementing the lessons from that research in the classroom.
  • Moving into education technology – including online education, where you can affect larger numbers of people than you can directly as a teacher – or research into evidence-based education.
  • Aiming to move into educational management (i.e. running a school) or educational policy.

Sources

Digest of Education Statistics 2013 finds 90% of US public school teachers answer yes to “I am generally satisfied with being a teacher at this school.”

Primary and secondary teachers show up at 13 and 34 respectively, out of 274 professions, in terms of life satisfaction in the UK.