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Pop Quiz: Teaching vs Professing

If, in conversation with someone, I mention that I teach they generally ask “what grade?”  I am quick to say that I teach college, not K-12 and I’m not a teacher.  Some have thought that calling themselves a professor is pretentious.  When I started to think about this topic as a pop quiz, I googled “teacher vs professor” and found this definition, and thought wow, that IS pretentious!

Key Difference: A teacher refers to a person who imparts knowledge to the students whereas a professor is a teacher of higher learning.

That doesn’t really mean anything, either.

I actually want people to understand that I am not a teacher as we define them here in the US as a K-12 teacher, because I have absolutely no formal training in teaching!  I am, in my mind, a professor because I cannot claim the title teacher.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about tenure and how it can protect “bad” teachers at both the K-12 and university levels.  In one of our recent required readings, a judge has gone so far as to say tenure is unconstitutional because it protects bad K-12 teachers to the detriment of the students’ right to an education (presumably a good one).  This article focuses on professors who are bad teachers, and clearly focuses on the schools where research is of paramount importance.  I can say that while there was a “teaching requirement” associated with my doctoral program, I fulfilled it by teaching two lectures in my adviser’s course, which we never discussed.  In the US a K-12 teacher needs a bachelor’s degree in education (at least that’s what I understand) to qualify for the job.  Tenure for K-12 seems to be 2-3 years of probation with frequent observation on the actual teaching, etc.  Tenure for college/university is generally a 6 year process where the professor produces a portfolio of teaching, scholarship, and service to be evaluated by their peers.  As many have noted, the focus of that portfolio will depend on the institution and teaching is often not prioritized as part of the package.

The training I have received in teaching, I have sought out on my own, and consists of workshops and conferences, papers and workgroups, piecemeal attempts to get a grasp on how to teach.  So no, I am not a teacher, at least in my own eyes.  I use the title of professor, not as a way to be “better” than teachers, but to point that out.  That may be a cop-out, as if I protest too much, but I am pretty serious that teacher is a title that we should respect a heck of a lot more than we seem to.

Here’s my question to you: who should call themselves a teacher?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.


  1. June 16, 2014 at 3:59 pm —

    A teacher is anyone who teaches, maybe math, chemistry, grammar, linguistics, guitar, guitar repair, gardening, karate, preschool, swimming, tennis, crochet, aerobics, bible study, HTML, carpentry, whatever. A lot of those teachers may have only minimal training in actual pedagogy. Instead, they just figure out how to communicate what they know to someone else. A professor is someone who works for some kind of post secondary school and might have a contract that makes it hard for them to get fired. Teaching may or may not be one of their work responsibilities. The positions confers greater status than “teacher”.

    • June 16, 2014 at 10:58 pm —

      It is strange my gut reaction to Speecharella’s statement that “A teacher is anyone who teaches”. I see what she is saying, but I feel like it dismisses my profession and my professional qualifications. Yes, most people who teach a class are not trained teachers, but do they deserve the title of teacher? I am person who is trained in pedagogy and hold certifications from my state for specific fields that I need to maintain through continuing education. Should I be in the same category as an untrained hobbyist? Maybe there should be other qualifiers, like with nurses.

      I also disagree with the statement that the title of professor confers a greater status. It is like the misconception that if you teach a higher grade that is a promotion. Its not. It is just a different specialty with a different skill set. I cannot teach kindergarten, like a cardiac nurse cannot work in pediatrics. I’m sure they can both handle the basics, but when it comes down to the skill and craft of it their skill sets do not cross over. Both kinds of nurses are equally skilled and of equal status, one is not better than the other as I am not better than a kindergarten teacher, we just have different specialties in the same field. Now no one would ever mistake a person who was trained in first aide with a trained and certified nurse, and I don’t think people should confuse a person who is just teaching a class with a trained and certified teacher.

      • June 17, 2014 at 8:38 am —

        I guess I’d always distinguished the terms as a teacher provides an education (and I agree that this is a skilled career requiring training) and I as a professor model my profession of scientist to already educated people. While I do provide science content, I am a scientist first and a teacher second, especially as I note above I have virtually no training in teaching.

        I do see Speecharella’s point that anyone can show others how to do things or share knowledge with varying degrees of success, but the point of my piece was is that enough to make them a teacher as we use the term in education?

  2. June 17, 2014 at 10:07 am —

    I kinda do the exact opposite when I am asked what I do for a living I always say I am an instructor. When asked what I teach I say college that usually gets the point across. Technically my community college schools list my job and all other faculty members as a professor. The community colleges are not research facilities but for some reason that is the title they give us. However, the Universities I teach at do not call me professor they call me lecturer because I do not do research at their facilities. So, I suppose if you do not want to qualify my work as teaching I think of it as instructing (no difference just different word.) I am not a scientist first and even though I did not go through formal teaching classes at a University it doesn’t matter, twenty years of experience seems to make that a moot point. Although, I do know there are a lot of “Professors” who couldn’t educate their way out of a paper bag.

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