Adult and Vocational Education Teacher

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Adult and vocational education teachers teach basic academic subjects to adults who did not finish high school or who are learning to speak English, help prepare post-high school students and other adults for specific occupations, and provide personal enrichment. Adult education teachers offer basic education courses, such as reading and writing, or continuing education courses, such as literature and music. Vocational education teachers offer courses designed to prepare adults for specific occupations, such as data processor or automobile mechanic. Approximately 98,000 teachers of adult literacy, remedial, and self-enrichment education are employed in the United States.


In American colonial times, organized adult education was started to help people make up for schooling missed as children or to help people prepare for jobs. Apprenticeships were an early form of vocational education in the American colonies as individuals were taught a craft by working with a skilled person in a particular field. For example, a young boy might agree to work for a printer for five to 10 years and at the end of that time be able to open up his own printing business. Training programs continued to develop as carpenters, bricklayers, and other craftspeople learned their skills through vocational training courses.

Peak periods in adult education typically occurred during times of large-scale immigration. Evening schools were filled with foreign-born persons eager to learn the language and culture of their new home and to prepare for the tests necessary for citizenship. In 1911, Wisconsin established the first State Board of Vocational and Adult Education in the country, and in 1917 the federal government supported the continuing education movement by funding vocational training in public schools for individuals over the age of 14. Immediately after World War II, the federal government took another large stride in financial support of adult and vocational education by creating the G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided money for veterans to pursue further job training.

Today’s colleges and universities, vocational high schools, private trade schools, private businesses, and other organizations offer adults the opportunity to prepare for a specific occupation or pursue personal enrichment. More than 20 million people in the United States take advantage of this opportunity each year, creating many jobs for teachers in this field.

The Job

Adult and vocational education courses take place in a variety of settings, such as high schools, universities, religious institutions, and businesses. The responsibilities of an adult or vocational education teacher are similar to those of a school teacher and include planning and conducting lectures, supervising the use of equipment, grading homework, evaluating students, writing and preparing reports, and counseling students.

Adult education is divided into two main areas: basic education and continuing education. Basic education includes reading, writing, and mathematics courses and is designed for adult students who have not finished high school. Many of these students are taking basic education courses to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma (the general equivalency diploma, or GED). Some high school graduates who received poor grades in high school also enroll in basic education classes before attending a four-year college. Recent immigrants may take basic education classes to learn to read, write, and do arithmetic in the language of their new country.

Unlike basic education, continuing education for adults is aimed at students who have finished high school or college and are taking courses for personal enrichment. Class topics might include creative writing, art appreciation, photography, history, and a host of other subjects. Often businesses will enroll employees in continuing education courses as part of job training to help them develop computer skills, learn to write grant proposals, or become convincing public speakers. Sometimes, businesses will hire an adult education teacher to come into the business to train employees on-site. These continuing education teachers are called training representatives.

Vocational education teachers prepare students for specific careers that do not require college degrees, such as cosmetologist, chef, or welder. They demonstrate techniques and then advise the students as they attempt these techniques. They also lecture on the class subject and direct discussion groups. Instruction by a vocational education teacher may lead to the student’s certification, so teachers may follow a specific course plan approved by an accrediting association. They may also be involved in directing a student to an internship or local job opportunities.

Whether teaching in a basic education or continuing education classroom, adult and vocational education teachers work with small groups of students. In addition to giving lectures, they assign textbooks and homework assignments. They prepare and administer exams, and grade essays and presentations. Adult and vocational education teachers also meet with students individually to discuss class progress and grades. Some courses are conducted as part of a long-distance education program (traditionally known as correspondence courses). For a distance education course, teachers prepare course materials, assignments, and work schedules to be sent to students, and then grade the work when students submit it.


High School

As an adult education teacher, you will likely focus on a particular area of study, so take the high school courses that best suit your interests. You’ll also need to follow a college preparatory plan, taking courses in English, math, foreign language, history, and government. Speech and communications courses will help you prepare for speaking in front of groups of people. Writing skills are very important, no matter what subject you teach, because you’ll be preparing reports, lesson plans, and grading essays.

Postsecondary Training

Before becoming an adult education teacher, you’ll need to gain some professional experience in your area of teaching. A bachelor’s degree is also usually required. Requirements vary according to the subject and level being taught, the organization or institution offering the course, and the state in which the instruction takes place. Specific skills, however, are often enough to secure a continuing education teaching position. For example, a person well trained in painting, with some professional success in the area, may be able to teach a course on painting even without a college degree or teaching certificate.

Certification or Licensing

There is no national certifying board for adult education teachers, but some states require their own teaching certification. Most community and junior colleges, however, require only a bachelor’s degree of their teachers. Teachers in vocational education programs may have to be certified in their profession. If teaching English as a second language (ESL), you’ll probably have to take some required workshops and seminars. For information on certification, contact local adult education programs and the department of education in the state in which you are interested in teaching.

Other Requirements

As a teacher, you should be able to deal with students at different skill levels, including some who might not have learned proper study habits or who have a different first language. This requires patience, as well as the ability to track the progress of each individual student. Good communication skills are essential, as you’ll need to explain things clearly and to answer questions completely.


Adult education classes are often held at high schools; if this is the case at your school, take the opportunity to discuss career questions with teachers before or after a class. You may also get the opportunity to observe one of these classes. Some of your high school teachers may be teaching adult or vocational education courses in the evenings; talk to them about the difference between teaching high school and teaching in an adult education program. Registering for a continuing education or vocational education course is another way of discovering the skills and disciplines needed to succeed in this field; if you have an interest in a particular subject not taught at your school, seek out classes at community colleges.

Your school may have a peer tutoring program that would introduce you to the requirements of teaching. You could also volunteer to assist in special educational activities at a nursing home, church, synagogue, mosque, or community center.


There are approximately 98,000 adult literacy, remedial, and self-enrichment teachers employed in the United States. About one in five of these teachers is self-employed. Adult education teachers can find work in a variety of different schools and education programs. Community and junior colleges regularly have openings for teachers. Specially trained teachers can work for state-funded programs, such as literacy and ESL programs. Teachers are also hired for long-distance education programs and to lead continuing education courses for corporations and professional associations. Teachers are often needed in such institutions as prisons, hospitals, retirement communities, and group homes for disabled adults.

Starting Out

Most people entering this field have some professional experience in a particular area, a desire to share that knowledge with other adults, and a teaching certificate or academic degree. When pursuing work as an adult education teacher, you should contact colleges, private trade schools, vocational high schools, or other appropriate institutions to receive additional information about employment opportunities. Many colleges, technical schools, and state departments of education offer job lines or bulletin boards of job listings. You can also often find job openings in the classifieds of local newspapers.


A skilled adult or vocational education teacher may become a full-time teacher, school administrator, or director of a vocational guidance program. To be an administrator, a master’s degree or a doctorate may be required. Advancement also may take the form of higher pay and additional teaching assignments. For example, a person may get a reputation as a skilled ceramics teacher and be hired by other adult education organizations as an instructor.


Earnings vary widely according to the subject, the number of courses taught, the teacher’s experience, and the geographic region where the institution is located. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, adult literacy and remedial education teachers earned a median annual wage of $18.74 in 2004. Based on a 40-hour workweek, this is about $38,980 a year. The lowest paid 10 percent of these workers made less than $10.57 an hour ($21,985 a year), while the highest paid 10 percent earned more than $34.94 an hour ($72,675 a year).

Because many adult and vocational education teachers are employed part time, they are often paid by the hour or by the course, with no health insurance or other benefits.

Work Environment

Working conditions vary according to the type of class being taught and the number of students participating. Courses are usually taught in a classroom setting but may also be in a technical shop, laboratory, art studio, music room, or other location depending on the subject matter. Of course, when teaching in such settings as prisons or hospitals, adult education teachers must travel to the students as opposed to the students traveling to the teacher’s classroom. Average class size is usually between 10 and 30 students, but may vary, ranging from one-on-one instruction to large lectures attended by 60 or more students.

Some adult and vocational education teachers may only work nine or 10 months a year, with summers off. About half of the adult and vocational education teachers work part time, averaging anywhere from two to 20 hours of work per week. For those employed full time, the average workweek is between 35 and 40 hours. Much of the work is in the evening or on weekends, as many adult students work on weekdays.


Employment opportunities in the field of adult education are expected to grow faster than the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Adults recognize the importance of further education and training for succeeding in today’s workplace. In fact, many courses are subsidized by companies that want their employees trained in the latest skills and technology of their field. Many new teachers will also be needed, as current ones leave the occupation or retire. As demand for adult and vocational education teachers continues to grow, major employers will be vocational high schools, private trade schools, community colleges, and private adult education enterprises. Immigration also fuels a demand for adult-education and ESL teachers, especially in places such as New York, California, and Florida with high foreign-born populations.

Many “school-to-work” programs have evolved across the country as a result of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. To prepare more graduating seniors for the high-wage jobs, “tech prep” programs offer course work in both academic and vocational subject matter. As more of these programs are developed, vocational education teachers will find many more opportunities to work in high schools and training schools. Finally, the recent economic downturn has led many workers to seek to upgrade their work skills in a more competitive environment.

For More Information

For information about conferences and publications, contact

American Association for Adult and Continuing Education

4380 Forbes Boulevard

Lanham, MD 20706

Tel: 301-918-1913


For information about publications, current legislation, and school-to-work programs, contact

Association for Career and Technical Education

1410 King Street

Alexandria, VA 22314

Tel: 800-826-9972


For information about government programs, contact

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20202-0498

Tel: 800-872-5327

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