10 Reasons Higher Education is One of the Most Challenging Careers

Terry Doyle

Learner-Centered Teaching Consultants

Faculty in higher education know that teaching at the post-secondary level is extremely challenging. During a pandemic, teaching is even more challenging. But we, as a group, face the challenge before us time and again. The purpose of this blog is not to tell others that our careers are more difficult than theirs but rather to take a moment and acknowledge all that we overcome to do our jobs. A collective pat on our own backs for the work we do as we reflect on how challenging college and university teaching really is.

The Career Addict website lists the 30 most challenging occupations globally (Zambas, J., January 21, 2021). “Teacher” made the list at number 12. As listed, this is listing is for k-12 teachers, but college and university faculty face many of the same challenges in the classroom. Zambas (2021) recognizes “dealing” with a variety of personalities and disruptive students, but there is so much more. I believe it is essential to recognize that educators' roles and demands are both challenging and rewarding. Below are ten reasons why undergraduate college teaching is one of the most challenging jobs in the world. And also, one of the most important.

1. Faculty Teach More than Content

College undergraduate teaching is about helping students become well-educated, contributing members of society capable of working professionally or prepared to advance their education further.

Soft Skills, Hard Skills, and Wholistic Teaching:

Skills—include reading, writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, cooperating, presenting, and performing.

Behaviors—include those associated with personal growth, professional goals, volunteerism, civic engagement, and human to human interaction.

Content—competency in disciplinary subject matter as well as support coursework.

Thinking—including critical thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, and thinking as a member of the profession (e.g., think like a nurse, bench scientist, or engineer).

Comprehensive teaching requires extraordinary planning, evaluation, and mentoring, requiring both time and effort.

2. All Learning is Interconnected

A successful teacher knows it is vital to activate prior knowledge and connect current content to each student's background knowledge. Danielle McNamara and colleagues (2014) describe four significant aspects of learning: attention, intelligence, hard work, and prior knowledge. Of these, prior knowledge was by far the most important.

Teachers must figure out what background knowledge the students possess and what is lacking before introducing novel information. Teachers develop ways to fill in missing background knowledge as a means to optimize the classroom for learning.

This process of assessing prior knowledge and filling in background knowledge has become more crucial as colleges accept students from diverse backgrounds and represent multiple academic readiness levels. Many of these students may not arrive with the background knowledge and skill set needed for academic success. Investing in students as individuals rather than simply a cohort makes teaching a challenging job.

3. Faculty Have Little Control Over Many Aspects that Impact Learning

For example, teachers have no control over the learner's home environment, work ethic, commitment, or attendance. Faculty cannot control whether the learner is physically fit for learning. Learning is optimized when the learner practices self-care such as proper sleep, regular exercise, and good nutrition/hydration. There are dozens of crucial behaviors for academic success that we as faculty can't directly control.

4. Faculty Cannot "Make" Students Learn

Consider how the following confounds limit opportunities for learning to occur.

Most learning happens outside the classroom through studying and application. Dedicating time for practice with new material forms more permanent memories— reading, thinking, reflecting, observing, and writing.

The desire to learn is a personal choice the student makes each day. Factors influencing student's appetite for learning are beyond the faculty member's control (e.g., student's emotional state, interest, the importance of the material, the relevance of the material, home life, and stress level).

Student background, foundational knowledge, and past successes influence potential learning. Previous schooling, mindset, and life experiences all have a significant impact on how the students view their current learning situation, and as a result, how well they learn.

5. Time to Teach is Limited

A three-credit-hour per week college class engages the student learner just over 5% of their time each week. That is all the time teachers have to explain complex, difficult-to-understand concepts and ideas, discuss these ideas, take questions about these ideas, administrate the course/class activities, and evaluate what learning has taken place.

6. Learning is a Social-Emotional Experience

Most learning outside of formal schooling happens in a community context—with friends, family, church, teams, clubs, organizations, etc. (Bransford, 2000). It isn't easy to effectively create a classroom community. It takes skill, time, interest, risk, and commitment to do well.

7. Teachers Teach the Whole Person, Not a Subject Area

Helping learners to unlearn behaviors, concepts, ideas, and beliefs that are in error is exceptionally challenging and can be even more difficult than teaching students something new (Starbuck, 1996). The neural networks that students formed from ages 0-18 can be robust and not readily open to new ideas and beliefs. Addressing the affective domain is necessary but not necessarily easy!

8. Diverse Learners

The wide range of the learners' abilities, learning preferences, and levels of motivation in any given classroom makes providing learning opportunities to all students difficult and, in some cases, nearly impossible to do well. Add to this that there are likely to be dozens, if not hundreds, of students in the classroom. Can you think of any other profession where the professional sees 30, 40, or 200 clients, patience, or customers at the same time?

9. Technology as a Tool for Learning or a Distraction from Learning

Most college students have grown up in a sense-luscious, media-based culture. Cell phones are a dominant feature of their daily lives. Deciding to either incorporate cell phones and smart devices into the learning process or prevent them from interfering in the learning process is just one more challenge that college teacher faces. Compound this with the fast-paced changes in popular culture that affect students' interests, knowledge base, and behavior. The rapidity of change impacting learning and learning outcomes contributes to making college teaching taxing.

10. Preconceived Expectations of Learning

When first-year college students arrive on campus or in their first online course, they bring with them over a decade of neuronal networks established for what they think school/learning/teaching should be. If college teaching and learning does not align with a student's preconceived expectations, a student finds the learning environment unfamiliar, unpleasant, and difficult. This disconnect makes teaching harder for faculty and difficult for learners. In particular, faculty who incorporate new instructional methods in harmony with research on how the human brain learns may find students resistant to the pedagogical approach. Many times, faculty implementing new pedagogical approaches receive lower ratings from students.

Concluding Thoughts

All in all, teaching is a noble occupation that has inherent risks and challenges. Not many other careers hold a single person accountable for the success of the "company" when that individual has little control over the "making of the product" it is producing. This post provides only a few of the attributes within higher education that make teaching daunting. That said, although teaching is inherently challenging, it is also intrinsically rewarding.

I leave you with what I have told hundreds of groups of teachers I have had the privilege to work with over the past 30 years. College teachers are miracle workers. The fact that you help to get students through to graduation, ready to face the challenges of the world of work or graduate school, is a great accomplishment given everything that works against you. The fact that every occupation and profession requires education means what you do shapes everything. Although it is easy to focus on fatigue and negative aspects of being a college faculty member, create time to realize you do what few in our society can do, and it makes all the difference.

Discussion Questions

1. Think back to early in your career, perhaps even the first course you taught. If you have not yet taught, think about the first course you may find yourself teaching. What would you consider to be the biggest challenge for you to overcome? What are two or three ways you did, or hope to, address that challenge?

2. From the list in this blog, which of these challenges do you see as a pervasive challenge that makes teaching at present challenging for you every time you teach? How might this challenge be addressed, either by faculty members or higher education policies? What new challenges might arise with such a change (caution: policy change is tricky, if you fix one thing it often creates a difference challenge)?

3. What do you find most rewarding about teaching? Describe a specific student or specific teaching event that made you proud to be a teacher and perhaps gave you a bit of strength to face some of the challenges noted?


Bransford, J. et.al. (2000). How People Learn Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

McNamara, D. S., Kintsch, E., Songer, N. B., & Kintsch, W. (2014). Are good texts always better? Interactions of text coherence, background knowledge, and levels of understanding in learning from text. Cognition and instruction, 14 (1), 1-43.

Medina, J. (April 2008). Brain Rules 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Edmonds, WA: Pear Press.

Starbuck, W. (1996). Unlearning Ineffective or Obsolete Technologies International Journal of Technology Management, 11: 725-737

Zambas, J. (January 19, 2021). Retrieved on April 8, 2021 from: https://www.careeraddict.com/stressful-jobs

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