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Primero mi pregunta en español:

¿Cuál es la diferencia entre «catedrático», «docente», «maestro», y «profesor»?

Details in English:

Earlier this year, I prepared to take a DELE exam, more specifically, the DELE B2 exam. Feeling a bit nervous about my abilities in the month prior to the exam, I splurged on some preparation books published by Edelsa. Though I did not get a chance to cover them quite as thoroughly as I would have liked, I continue to use them for study from time to time. I find the vocabulary section in the one titled, "Preparación al Diploma de Español Nivel B2," particularly useful. Even though it does not provide English translations, it has brought my attention to useful and current words and phrases I might not have encountered otherwise. It was during one of my sessions with this book that I began wondering what the differences are between the following:

catedrático

docente

maestro

profesor

Unlike my other inquiries here, I actually came upon some resources that helped further develop my understanding of each of these. Since the answers I found come from multiples sources, most of which are in Spanish, I've decided to add what I discovered in an answer to this post, but if any of you have something more to add, or dispute any of my findings, please post an answer and/or comment of your own.

Detalles en español:

A comienzos de este año, estaba preparando para tomar el examen conocido como «DELE». Me sentía un poco nerviosa de mis habilidades en el mes antes del examen, especialmente después de ver este vídeo. Por esa razón, derroché en algunos libros de preparación publicados por Edelsa. Aunque no tuve el tiempo para cubrirlos tan a fondo como habría gustado, continúo usarlos para estudiar de vez en cuando. Encuentro la sección de vocabulario en el uno denominado, «Preparación al Diploma de Español Nivel B2», particularmente útil. Aunque no da traducciones al inglés, ha traído mi atención a palabras y frases actuales y útiles que quizás pueda no haber encontrado de otro modo. Fue durante una de mis sesiones con este libro que empecé a preguntarme, cuál es la diferencia entre los siguientes: [Véanse arriba en la sección inglesa.]

Al contrario a mis otros preguntas aquí en este foro, en realidad, encontré con algunos recursos que ayudaron a seguir desarrollando mi comprensión de cada una de estas palabras. Desde las respuestas encontré vienen de recursos múltiples, la mayoría de los cuales están escritos en español, he decidido añadir lo que he descubierto en una respuesta a este post, usando la pregunta y respuesta estilo de post autorizado por este foro. Pero, si alguno de ustedes tienen algo más que añadir, o disputan alguna de mis conclusiones, por favor, añadan un post con su repuesta or comentario.

  • 1
    In Mexico, sometimes "profesor" is lower in the pecking order than "maestro." It might seem counterintuitive. So I would say this is one of those areas where you're going to have to fine-tune your ear according to local customs wherever you are trying to function comfortably in Spanish. – aparente001 Aug 16 '17 at 3:37
  • La respuesta depende del país que use el español/castellano como lengua nativa. – alvalongo Jun 5 at 20:05
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catedrático
This appears to be a professor, but not a generic word for professor. From the definitions I’ve read, this refers to a special type of category of professors — those who have reached the highest status at a university (but this can also refer to those at a high school). The gist I get from this definition that I got from the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE) is that a “catedrático” is akin to at least a full-time professor, not an associate professor or an adjunct professor, and quite possibly this title is reserved for those who have tenure. This notion seems to correspond with information I found later on a Wikipedia page titled, “Academic ranks in Spain.”. It is part of a larger page titled, “List of academic ranks.” It contains links for 75 other countries in addition to Spain; 7 of these 75 countries are Spanish-speaking countries — Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela). The only one among these that I see that refers to a “catedrático” is Costa Rica as in “Profesor Catedrático” and it refers to a “titular professor” (something below an emeritus professor and an “associated* professor). I do not know if any of the 14 Spanish-speaking countries not referenced by this page use “catedrático” among their terms for academic rank. (If you happen to know and/or want to set up a page for the academic ranks of your country, I am sure Wikipedia would encourage it and many others would appreciate it.)

*I think this may be a typo for “associate” professor.

docente
Appears to be more often used as an adjective than a noun. In fact, the DRAE only lists this as an adjective for teaching, but despite that, you will see use of “docente” refer to a teacher even in Spain’s paper of record — El País (see below).

Examples:
«… un docente de inglés es como un cocinero …» —Clarin
«Ésta es la propuesta para la evaluación de la actividad docente de los profesores universitarios diseñada por la …»—El País
«… un docente con más de 15 años de experiencia tiene un salario …» —El País

regional notes for «docente»:

After a review of academic rankings by country (as found on Wikipedia), only a couple of countries (Colombia, Costa Rica) appeared to make special mention of “docente.”

In Colombia, there is a distinction between a “profesor universitario” and a “docente universitario.” A quick glance at the Wikipedia page, “Academic ranks in Colombia” seems to indicate that becoming a “professor” in this country may be difficult and competitive, but worthwhile, whereas a “docente” is, perhaps, a position one takes on the way to becoming a full-fledged “professor” and can take the form of an “associate” or “adjunct” professor (to provide something of a U.S. equivalent).

In Costa Rica, you will find a “Docente de Emergencia.” I did not find any resource to back this up, but it seems likely that this would be the equivalent of a “substitute teacher” in the U.S. The word “docente” also applies to auxiliary teachers and lab assistants in Costa Rica. In the U.S., I think you would refer to these types of teachers as “Teacher Assistants/Helpers.”

maestro
From the Latin root “magis,” meaning “more” or “great.” (Source: Wiktionary entry for “maestro.”) As I understand it, in Spanish, this is just a generic word for "teacher," but can also mean “master.” It is a word that is actually found in several different languages, all with slightly different meanings, but at the core of them all is a meaning of someone who has mastered something.

Examples:
«El maestro ideal, según la Reforma Educativa»Educación Futura
«Un "maestro del fuego" reveló los secretos del asado en La Rural»Clarin

profesor
I’ve kind of already defined “profesor” when I attempted to give a description for “catedrático” and “docente.” Like “maestro,” this is a word that can be used somewhat generically (but perhaps a bit less so) and in certain contexts, it can have a very specific meaning. Generally speaking, however, this tends to refer to a teaching position at a university. It can also refer to a teaching position at a high school, but I sense the word is mainly reserved for those who teach at an institution beyond “la escuela secundaria.” A recent glance at a Univision headline has me second-guessing myself on this, so if any native Spanish speakers know for sure, please comment.

Examples:
«Profesores en huelga: ‘Mañana no vayan al colegio porque …’»Perú21
«Un profesor de la Universidad de Navarra escribirá una película ...»20minutos.es


While doing this research, I stumbled upon two other synonyms for “teacher,” so I decided to add them to this post. They are below:

enseñante
Only listed as an adjective in the DRAE.

Examples:
«He conocido a enseñantes muy buenos»La Voz de Asturias
«…el rol enseñante del docente…»La Voz

educador
This is usually translated into English as “educator.” It is a word that is more formal and less generic than “teacher.” According to Wiktionary, it defines someone who is “distinguished for his/her educational work.”

Example:
«Justo Arosemena, el educador»La Estrella


Lastly, allow me to share with you two more things that might illuminate these words a bit more. The first is an image of the Google Ngram I ran for these words:

And lastly, is this article here, which really was the catalyst that took me from I don’t really know the difference between these words to maybe I should do some research and share what I learn. The article provides what I think is more of a philosophical approach to the differences between some of these words rather than the dictionary meaning/common application I tried to lay out, and because of that, you just might enjoy it more than anything I've written above.

«Docente, profesor, educador y maestro»El Heraldo

  • 3
    Nice research! A very nice example of an "answer your own question" post! :-) – Charlie Aug 15 '17 at 13:00
  • Lo mencionado para Colombia en Wikipedia acerca del Decreto 1279 of 2002 solo aplica para las universidades públicas. – alvalongo Jun 5 at 20:08
  • @Lisa Beck, en Colombia independiente si es nivel primaria, secundaria o universitario los estudiantes sencillamente los denominan "profesores" – alvalongo Jun 5 at 20:12
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Just to add to Lisa's extensive research my experiences as a frequent visitor to a Spanish university medical school a few years ago. There would only be one catedrático in a department so it would correspond to what in the UK at that time we called a professor. The next level down of senior figures were profesores titulares. Below that they were profesores ayudantes or asistentes. I was always introduced to people as profesor de bioestadística even though my colleagues knew I was not entitled to the rank of professor in the UK at that point being a senior lecturer. When challenged in staff areas in the hospital I always said Soy profesor visitante which empirically seemed to satisfy people. I never heard any of the other terms you mention used for anyone else in the university medical school.

In a comment which has subsequently been deleted @moo pointed out that there can be more than one catedrático in a department so my statement above is not true now. Unfortunately I have lost the link @moo provided which gave the source of the information.

  • 1
    In the U.S. the "catedrático" equivalent would also be "professor" but which is most commonly known as "full professor" especially in speech, although there may be more than one or even none in a department (my department doesn't have one at the moment since our former head retired). – user0721090601 Aug 15 '17 at 13:44
  • As @guifa rightly points out the translations differ in different English speaking countries and my use of terms is strictly UK only and may change there over time too. – mdewey Aug 15 '17 at 15:38
  • Is this the link you were looking for: Catedrático de universidad? – Diego Sep 25 '17 at 16:53
  • @Diego I do not think it is the same one and I cannot find the right info in it. – mdewey Sep 27 '17 at 15:36
  • Ese es el único enlace que veo para el comentario (de moo), borrado por el propio moo. No se muestra ninguna otra cosa en el timeline de este post y los otros no tienen comentarios borrados ni nada por el estilo. – Diego Sep 28 '17 at 0:14
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For Spain:

  • Catedratico = University Professor;
  • Profesor = University Lecturer. (Also used for Secondary and Primary Level Education. e.g.: "Profesor de secundaria" or "Profesor de primaria");
  • Maestro = Teacher (Commonly used in Primary School. It denotes sometimes less qualification but just because it sounds "old" to Spanish ears. e.g: "Maestro de Escuela").
  • Docente = Common term for anyone who teaches. Used in administrative language. E.g.: "Personal docente", "Los docentes", "La docencia es una actvidad estresante".
  • I cannot upvote this answer as "maestro" denotes that someone has earned the mastership and might even have a master degree. – Mike Jun 5 at 19:54
  • @Mike en Colombia los que se graduan de una maestría (master degree) NO se les dice "maestro" ni nada parecido, de hecho no existe una palabra para designar una persona que obtiene ese grado; sencillamente se dice "hizo una maestría" o "tiene una maestría en..." – alvalongo Jun 5 at 20:15
  • Dado que el examen DELE (Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera) lo administra el "Instituto Cervantes" cuya sede en España, está sería la respuesta más adecuada para ese examen, – alvalongo Jun 5 at 20:21
  • @alvalongo puedes agregar las fuentes de dicha información ? – Mike Jun 5 at 21:56
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    @Mike it all depends on the context. Maestro is a general term for a school teacher. In trade sectors you could hear someone is a "maestro" of this or that, but it sounds very literary. The "Master degree" which translates as "Maestria" o "Grado Master" is just university jargon and particularly in Spain was used after the Bologna agreement which adopts the British/American degree system, so before that the term "Master" was hardly used (only for MBAs etc.). That's the reason a Maestro and having a Master does not seems related. – lmblanes Jun 6 at 20:43
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La respuesta depende del país en el cual se hable nativamente español.

En el caso de Colombia, en general e independiente del nivel educativo de enseñanza, primaria, secundaria (conocida como bachillerato) o universitario, todo aquel que enseña se le dice "profesor".

La palabra docente se usa principalmente para referirse a aquel que enseña.

Coloquialmente se usa docente universitario para indicar en cuál nivel educativo enseña la persona pero NO implica un rango específico.

Cuando una persona enseña en una universidad, hay dos denominaciones:
el docente de planta cuando tiene un contrato de tiempo completo con la universidad.
el Docente de cátedra NO tiene un contrato de tiempo completo con la universidad y esta le paga por la cantidad de horas-clase que da.

La palabra maestro se usa principalmente para referirse a aquel que enseña en una institución de educación pública, en los niveles de primaria y secundaria.

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