Careers in Education
One sector that almost everyone has experienced first-hand is the education sector. This tends to make us all think that we understand and know about all the jobs that are available in the sector—but this is unlikely to be the case. There are many jobs behind the scenes that you will probably never have encountered, as well as specialist jobs catering to particular groups of students.
This page starts by considering the four main sectors of education: early years, primary school, secondary school and further and higher education. It then discusses jobs that may cut across all those sector, or fall outside them, such as tutoring, special needs teaching, education administration, and teaching English as a foreign language.
The Four Sectors of Education
There are four broad sectors of mainstream education: early years, primary, secondary, and higher and further education (also known as tertiary education).
All four sectors employ a very similar range of professionals, including teachers, teaching assistants, and administrators. This section mainly covers the teaching and classroom support roles, because administrative jobs tend to be similar across the four levels of education. However, the approach to teaching is quite different across the sectors, and the skills required therefore differ slightly.
1. Early years and childcare
The early years and childcare sector includes a wide range of providers, from schools through nurseries to childminders. These providers are generally regulated by law. They are therefore required to adhere to guidelines on issues such as the ratio of children to each member of staff, and the activities that they provide. The sector (broadly) covers children from birth up to about 5 years old, although the precise cut-offs may vary between countries.
Schools and early years provision
In the UK, the first year of schooling, known as Reception, is actually considered part of early years provision, and follows guidelines for early years, not primary school.
Schools may also have nurseries attached. In this case, the nursery will also be following the early years guidelines and curriculum, not those for schools.
Early years staff are not usually teachers (except in nursery schools and Reception). They may have a formal qualification as childcare workers, but this is not a strict requirement in the sector.
The main qualification required is a wish to work with children, including spending a lot of time playing with them, looking after them, and simply observing what they do and responding. In nurseries, staff may spend a lot of time simply cuddling small children and babies who want their attention, so a high tolerance of doing very little may be required.
You need to be able to respond to children appropriately, and also provide discipline. At this age, that usually means praising and encouraging good behaviour, setting and enforcing limits on poor behaviour, and teaching children the difference.
There is more about the skills required in early education in our post on 6 Skills You Need as an Early Educator.
2. Primary education
Primary education is the stage from age 5 up to age 11 in the UK. The two main types of education professional involved in this sector are teachers and teaching assistants, also known as classroom assistants.
Teachers are the lead in the classroom. They are responsible for planning and delivering lessons, supervising and managing the class, and overseeing support staff. They almost always have a degree, either in a specialist subject, or in education.
Teaching assistants are, as the name suggests, there to help teachers. They may work with small groups of children to develop particular skills such as reading or numeracy, or provide general classroom support under the teacher’s supervision. They need a qualification, but it does not have to be a degree, and many qualify while working.
At primary level, teachers are generally ‘jacks-of-all-trades’ and teach all subjects, with a strong focus on reading, writing and numeracy. Some schools may employ specialist teachers to cover some subjects (for example, sport, music, art, foreign languages and science).
Primary school teachers and teaching assistants therefore need a good understanding of maths and basic literacy, such as the grammar and usage of language. They also need to understand and be able to use strategies for classroom management.
There is more about why teachers need to understand maths at this level in our post Why All Primary School Teachers Need Good Basic Maths.
Perhaps most importantly, they need to be interested in children, and approach them as individuals.
Especially at primary school, children are developing at very different paces. The children in the same academic year are likely to have reached a wide range of different milestones at different times. For example, the basic reading scheme in the UK divides books into nine separate levels—and a Year 1 or 2 class (children aged 5–6 and 6–7) may have children at every stage of that, and beyond into fluent reading.
A one-size-fits-all approach to a class is therefore not going to work.
Another non-negotiable skill for teachers and teaching assistants is good communication skills, especially effective verbal communication (speaking). They need to be able to explain things to children: not just lessons, but also behavioural issues and other concepts that come up in the course of a day.
3. Secondary education
At secondary level (11–18 years old in the UK), the approach is different. Teachers specialise in particular subjects, for example, maths, a science, a language, or a humanity, and tend to teach only that. Some may teach more than one subject (for example, maths and physics, or chemistry and biology) either through choice, or if required. However, the general principle is that teachers teach their own degree subject. There are therefore two routes into secondary school teaching:
- A degree in a specialist subject, and then a post-graduate teaching qualification; or
- A degree in education, with a specialist subject associated.
You may also be interested in our posts on Soft Skills Needed for Teachers in the UK, Soft Skills Needed to Work in Education, and more specifically, on the approach taken by teachers, on Should Teachers be Friendly or Strict?
You can find out more about the possible impact of good teaching in our article The Impact and Inspiration of Being an Educator.
4. Further and higher education
The further and higher education sector covers universities, colleges and training provision of all kinds.
Attendees in this sector are generally 18 or over, although some 16 year olds may attend colleges.
Because this sector is about teaching adults, who have chosen to be there, there are some differences. Teachers tend to be described as lecturers or tutors, rather than teachers—because their job is not so much to teach as to support learning. They are also much more likely to see themselves as specialists in a particular subject who provide some teaching, rather than teachers per se.
However, many of the same principles apply. For example, teachers in this sector need to have a desire to impart their knowledge to others, and good speaking skills. They may also benefit from developing stronger coaching skills, rather than focusing on teaching skills (our page What is Coaching? explains the differences between the two).
There may also be some specific tools and skills that can helpfully be used in higher education. For example, our post on how to use audio tools with students provides some tips for this, and the guest post on enhancing teaching practices in higher education provides useful advice for any teacher in this sector.
There are many more jobs that can be done in education, or by people with a degree in education (and our post on Jobs You Can Do With an Education Degree provides some other ideas).
All four education sectors employ people in generic jobs, such as administration.
The precise work may vary slightly, but administrative jobs are broadly the same in any sector. They require good organisational and time management skills, sometimes project management skills depending on the level of seniority, strong communication skills, and almost always team-working skills.
Many teachers, education administrators and people with an education degree also move into education policy, for example, working in local government. Some become inspectors of schools, colleges, or childcare settings, where a good understanding of the setting is needed for effective work.
Another key cross-cutting area is teaching children with special educational needs (SEN). SEN teachers need strong teaching skills, and good communication skills, but also specialist skills in communicating with and supporting children with special needs. It is treating the child as an individual again—but with a wider range of behaviours.
Jobs Beyond Schools
Finally, there are jobs in education that are not necessarily based in schools, but may include providing support to learners. These include:
Teaching English (or your native language) as a foreign language, usually abroad. This may be either in dedicated language schools, or in schools in another country. You can find out more about this in our post What You Need to Become An English Teacher Abroad.
Tutoring children to provide additional support not available in schools. This may be online or in person. Tutors are generally qualified teachers who may have some additional qualifications such as SEN support, or simply do not wish to work in schools. They are hired by individuals, usually parents, to support children with a particular subject, or for a specific purpose such as secondary school entrance exams.
- Online tutoring in particular has expanded dramatically in the last few years. Our posts on tutoring maths online and tutoring English online provide more information about the skills needed.
Training adults in organisations. Many organisations use external trainers to provide training on particular issues, such as health and safety, first aid, or other skills. These trainers may be self-employed, or work for training providers. They need a good knowledge of their subject, and any relevant qualifications, as well as the skills required by any teacher or lecturer.
A Final Thought
Many teachers and other education workers cite making a difference as their main reason to go into teaching.
It is certainly true that this sector offers huge opportunities to influence and engage with people, and encourage them to develop a love of learning. However, it also means engaging with people who do not want to be there, and changing their minds. It is therefore both challenging and rewarding in almost equal measure.