Teaching School

In an email I received yesterday the phrase “I teach school” appeared. Although I understand what it means, it sounds a bit strange to me. I suppose it’s a difference between American English and British English.


If I were a teacher, I might say that “I teach in/at a school”, “I’m a teacher” or just “I teach”, but not “I teach school” – that sounds to me like I teach a subject called ‘school’. You could also say “I teach languages/music/physics/[insert name of subject]” or “I teach school children [subject]”.

Would American English speakers, of speakers of other flavours of English, say “I teach college”, “I teach university” or “I teach kindergarten”, or is this structure just used with school? Is it used only in informal writing/speech, or also in formal writing/speech?

6 thoughts on “Teaching School

  1. In general, at least in the US, yes! It is perfectly normal here to say “I teach .”

    However, no one would say “I teach university”, because “university” in the US isn’t fully interchangeable with “college”. Nobody “goes to university” or is “at university” in the same way that they go to college or are at college. If someone attends or teaches at a specific University of Somewhere, they could talk about “the university” as a shorthand for that particular school, but “at university” is a weird foreign phrase.

  2. I believe some US teachers would indeed say “I teach kindergarten”, but not the other forms. Colleges and universities teach many things, and so saying “I teach university” not only ‘feels’ ungrammatical, but it’s needlessly vague. If you wanted to be unspecific but grammatical, you’d say “I teach at a university” in casual conversation, and then wait for the listener to ask for specifics. But in kindergarten, it’s not a regimented educational curriculum. The kids are 5 years old. The main goal is to get them to behave and get used to being in a school. Real meaningful education wouldn’t start until the next year in first grade.

    It appears that what is deemed “grammatical” gets conflated with what is conventional usage and/or what makes sense based on the context. And, part is mere convention, which is dictated by where the language is spoken.

    So, if you are sick, *YOU* might be “in hospital” but *I* would be “in THE hospital”, EVEN though you don’t know and I didn’t tell you WHICH hospital it was.

    There is no rhyme, rhythm or rationale for it. It’s just the way people speak. No one justifies or questions it. You just do it, and that’s the end of it. It’s the way it’s always been. No better answer than that.

  3. To expand on the second thought above, in my experience one could use the expression “I teach” from first grade through 12th grade. I would regard, “I teach college,” as perfectly normal, but it would express to me a somewhat negative attitude toward the college itself, as if putting it in the same category as high school. The speaker would indicate greater respect for the college by referring to it in the same way as a university as described above.

  4. Oops, my comment got a little mangled. I wanted to say that in the US you can say “I teach (type of school).” So “I teach college”, “I teach high school”, etc.

  5. I believe that “I teach high school” is a valid statement when explaining to someone who doesn’t know you at all, and doesn’t know what you do for a living. It’s a very simple explanation that is grammatically correct yet uses the fewest possible words.

  6. My mother was a teacher and she never said “I teach”. She always said “I teach school”. I am not sure if the fact that she started teaching in 1933 had anything to do with it. When I taught, I always said “I teach French, Second Language” to be specific as to the subject. Since I taught in Canada we always added “Second Language” to be even more specific.

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