Teaching High School English

In the musical movie My Fair Lady, linguist Professor Higgins teaches the lower-class Eliza Doolittle how to speak “proper” English, and hilarity ensues

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But while we laugh at their struggles and at the Professor’s absurd character, we hopefully also understand some of the messages behind the movie (itself an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion), as well as the method to Professor Higgins’ madness: An educated, “proper-speaking” Eliza Doolittle has far many more economic and social options than she had at the beginning of the play.

While most people reading this article speak English, how we speak, how well we write, and how well we understand others’ articulations has huge implications for our relationships and careers. The difference between one who can communicate well and one who can communicate only adequately can be the difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime, in terms of job and promotion opportunities alone. Indeed, one of the most important skills employers look for is command of the English language, as it’s often also an indicator of intelligence, interpersonal skills, leadership ability, and various other skills that are important for success in the workplace.

There even are places where English completely disappears.
(In America, they haven’t used it for years!)
—Professor Higgins, My Fair Lady

In addition to those careers more obviously impacted by language facility such as academics, writers, lawyers, entertainers, and advertisers, language skills also impact many of our other career options—and much more than we think. Retailers and service providers who speak better provide better customer service, and thus generate more sales. Mechanics and repairmen who communicate effectively develop better customer rapport, and so generate more repeat business. Police officers who write better spend less time on paperwork and reports, resulting in more time spent on engaging crime. Social workers and government employees who have a greater command of English are able to get more information from interviews, and have to spend less time struggling with confusing policies. And so on.

Some parents offer to pay their children money for getting good grades. The fact is, the market pays too—and pays substantially more than your parents did.

What’s the job like?

Of course, most high school students already know how to speak, read, and write—so what’s left for the teacher to teach?

At the high school level, English instruction involves helping students become aware of the many and varied rules of language use that we acquire unconsciously. Thus, it gives students more ability to manipulate the language, and more options for communication—and consequently, understanding. Students who become more aware of their language options also have more tools at their disposal for communicating. They learn how to become both subtle and specific, as well as persuasive and adaptive.

Oral and Written Language Skills

Among elementary school students, oral language skill is generally ahead of written language skill. Students at this level can improve their writing simply by writing what they would say. However, this changes in the high school and college years.

Fully developed written language uses more complex vocabulary and syntax than oral communication. Therefore, high school English teachers must help their students to stretch beyond their oral capabilities, and further adapt the more formal structures expected in written English. You may have noticed that many highly effective speakers are ineffective writers, and this is why. Five hundred words and basic syntax may be enough in interpersonal communication, but it’s woefully insufficient for print communication.

Over the course of a semester, a high school English teacher will help students develop their oral and written language skills so that they can adapt to a wide variety of contexts. This includes developing foundational skills including grammar, syntax, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and organization of thoughts into larger units. From there, students then learn to apply these tools toward producing clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to the target audience.

Teachers instruct students how to write informative and explanatory texts; how to present and support claims as they analyze substantive topics, using valid reasoning and evidence; and how to write narratives that relate their experiences and how they interpret them (even with fiction). In each of these tasks teachers equip students to sort and select information, organizing their ideas to clearly and effectively meet their goals in communication. In addition to these skills, teachers also help train students in the processes that inform their writing, including researching, planning, pre-writing, editing, revising, and rewriting.

Students who develop these skills are also much better equipped for college. The difference between marginal proficiency and excellence in these skills will hugely impact the difficulty or ease of college coursework—and consequently, the chances of graduation versus dropout.

Of course advanced writing skills are only effectively taught within the context of reading; therefore much of a high school English teacher’s job is devoted to instruction in the reading, comprehension, and analysis of both non-fiction and fiction. Expository and persuasive essays make up the bulk of the non-fiction samples, and provide direct models for developing comparable writing skills. Fiction samples are more diverse, and may be drawn from a variety of diverse cultural contexts. In addition to developing students’ narrative abilities, these stories may also expose students to new experiences and values unknown to a modern teenager from a particular location and background. Narrative fiction also influences some non-fiction writing, such as the writing of biographies and other histories. After fiction and non-fiction prose, high school teachers may also introduce students to various kinds of poetry—although state and federal standards place a much lower emphasis here than they do on prose, resulting in less instructional time being devoted to the subject.

Also, depending on state and locality, the teaching of literature will vary according to the traditions of the school and the political influences acting upon the legislature. Traditionally, a common body of established literature served as a shared knowledge base, which enabled people (and particularly storytellers) to communicate with references to these common experiences and traditions; but as the nation has become increasingly diverse and pluralistic, literature curriculum has been expanded to include more diverse samples, representing other cultural experiences and viewpoints. With only so much instructional time to devote to so many competing authors, some of the more former writing samples have been left out. For example, the teaching of Greek and Roman mythology tends to be much less covered today than in the past, and in some areas is no longer part of the standard (i.e. tested) curriculum.

The Road to a High School English Job

Most public schools require teachers to possess a state teaching credential, and the component requirements of such credentials may vary from state to state (often including a state history course). However, a public school in one state will accept a teaching credential from another state (although it may also require the teacher to pursue additional coursework—such as in the state’s own history).

Advancement in the Public School System

The more years one is employed in a public school, the more options that become available. High school English teachers can become grade-level advisers, or can earn stipends for directing extracurricular activities such as student government, forensics, or drama. Experienced teachers also can have input into the school’s curriculum and instructional methods.

Forty-eight states also have some sort of alternative credentialing process in place (for example, for those who already possess some kind of other teaching experience); these options also vary from state to state. A teaching credential from California, for example, involves some coursework beyond a Bachelor’s Degree, including observation hours in a public school classroom and a semester of student teaching under a master teacher, as well as passing a state examination. Teachers are expected to be familiar with traditional and contemporary literature, reading/writing processes and how students learn to read/write, conventions of oral speech and professional writing, and methods of developing instructional curriculum. You can view your own state’s teaching certification requirements here.

What Salary Should I Expect?

Salaries for teaching high school English also vary from state to state, depending upon state budgeting and the involvement of the state in federal funding; the average salary nationwide is $56,790, with a range from about $35,940 (10th percentile) to $84,000 (90th percentile) (statistics from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics).

Note: if you live in a lower-paying area, don’t despair of having underfunded classrooms with inadequate resources. Lower salaries tend to represent lower costs of living in particular areas; and furthermore, a nationwide survey of education results indicates no relationship between per-student funding and student achievement.

How Do I Become a High School English Teacher?

Some states provide financial incentives for pursuing a teaching credential. California’s APLE program, for example, forgives student loan debt for teachers who work in impoverished areas. (On the other hand, current budget difficulties within the state of California make for fewer openings for teachers than what might be available in other, more solvent states.) Virtually all public school salaries are mandated by union agreements, with pay increasing annually and with further education. Find more information about specific state teaching certification requirements here.

Tenure is available for most teachers after a few years, after which it can be almost impossible to be fired (although lay-offs are still possible in areas with budget issues; often many teachers—starting with those with least seniority—are given notice prior to the completion of the year’s budget, and yet many of those “pink-slipped” teachers are retained after the budget has been secured.)

Areas with thriving private schools also afford opportunities for high school English teachers. Generally, private schools do not require a teacher to possess a state credential (although it could help one applicant look better than another); a person with a Master’s degree in English may easily compete for a private school position without a teaching credential, while the Master’s degree also opens up opportunities in other career fields. Private schools tend to pay less than public schools; but the trade-off is that there is often much more freedom with instruction than in public schools.

If you’re willing to do the work of becoming a high school English teacher, there’s a way for you to make it happen. Think about the way that’s right for you, and start pursuing it.

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