Teaching High School Math

For many people, math is “boring.” However, people who describe math this way usually do not mean that math is too easy for them. On the contrary: They find it rather difficult and a terrible chore, providing no enjoyment.

This is a shame, because math is money: balancing the checkbook, considering a return on an investment, buying the right number of supplies, doing a construction project right the first time—all these things are made easier, more profitable, and even more enjoyable by good math skills. Yet most people never develop an enthusiasm for math—and most won’t, unless they have the good fortune to know a math teacher who can share with them such an enthusiasm.

What’s it like teaching High School Math?

One of the biggest obstacles to both learning and teaching math is math phobia. Pervasive among students, fear of the difficulty of math actually blocks many people from being able to learn effectively—and thus makes it that much more difficult for teachers to get through to them. Often picked up in elementary school—perhaps even from a teacher who wasn’t confident in his or her own math abilities—such a phobia can handicap students through the rest of their lives. (But as long as they can use a calculator, they’ll be fine, right?) A good teacher can break through most students’ math phobia—provided, of course, the teacher has no such phobia him/herself. The teacher must be able to exude confidence and enthusiasm, approaching math as a useful tool instead of as a chore.

The math teacher must also be patient, measured, and always ready to reteach a lesson instead of moving forward in the curriculum, as needed. With other subjects, one bad or difficult lesson doesn’t derail the rest of the year—the class can move on to a new literature book, a new science subject, a new era with history, and still be able to learn the new topic (if a little imperfectly). In contrast, nearly every mathematics lesson builds upon the previous one; in order to complete the exercises (or what many people term “problems”) in lesson 2, one must apply the skills from lesson 1; and in order to complete lesson 3, skills from both lessons 1 and 2 are required. This means that the effective math teacher must be all the more attuned to when students are having difficulties, since once students fall behind, they’re likely to stay behind, permanently.

Periods of review and reteaching are critical to effective math education. A teacher who just presses on to “get through the book” before the end of the semester can lose more than half the class. This doesn’t mean that math is impossible to teach, although it may mean that some classes will progress at slower speeds than others.

Class time in a typical math class usually involves three distinct segments: review, lesson, and practice time. During review, the teacher questions students on the previous day’s lesson and homework, to evaluate whether or not the class “got it” well enough to proceed to the next lesson. Often the teacher will demonstrate the most difficult exercises on the board, for students to check and correct their own answers, but also simply to just rehearse the skill—repetition is important for retention, and again retention is especially important to the progressive nature of mathematics. If students demonstrate that they understand the previous skill, the teacher proceeds to the lesson.

Ideally, instruction includes some “real-life” application, so that students understand the purpose behind the exercises. Here is where many math teachers make a great mistake: Since word problems are more difficult (and time-consuming), they’re often skipped in the lessons and the homework. Yet it’s the word problems that help students make the connection between the skill and the use of that skill in real life; therefore, it’s imperative that math teachers work through word problems with students.

Wanted: Math Students to Become:

  • Statistician
  • Engineer
  • Surveyor
  • Physicist
  • Actuary
  • Cost Estimator
  • Market Analyst
  • Economist
  • Personal Finance Adviser

Finally, the teacher gives the students time to work on some of the exercises in class. During this time, the teacher monitors students’ progress, and answers questions as they experience difficulties applying their new skills.

Here’s a brief overview of the types of high school math classes you might be expected to teach, and what students will hopefully learn:

Some of the topics you may teach…

Algebra I

Students in algebra are introduced to equations with variables, and also learn how to graph simple equations on an x-y axis. For the math-phobic, algebra is a stressful time of trying to figure out whatever x is supposed to be in the next problem. However, the capable math teacher is able to show how algebraic expressions give people more versatility in solving “real-world” problems—like, for instance, how much concrete is needed for that new driveway in front of your house.


Geometry, meaning “measure of the earth,” studies shapes, and the algebraic equations that describe those shapes. It also introduces students to logical proofs, which improves their reasoning skills as well as their math skills.

Algebra II/Trigonometry

These classes are usually together, divided by semester. Algebra II continues to acquaint students with equations, including conic sections. Trigonometry introduces students to the properties of triangles, the ratios of sine, cosine, and tangent, and how those ratios are helpful for planning construction, map-making, and conducting artillery bombardments of enemy fortifications.


Pre-Calculus elaborates on algebra, and completes the set of skills students need for calculus. Here students complete their understanding of conic sections and how to manipulate equations involving exponents, ratios, and radicals. They are also introduced to the concept of the derivative, enabling them to isolate certain effects in an equation to a moment in time.

AP Calculus

High school calculus classes are usually Advanced Placement classes, so that students can earn college credit for completing the class. Calculus uses derivatives and integrals to study variables in flux—for example, the speed of an object as it increases when falling to the ground, or the changing mass of a rocket as it burns fuel. It’s not quite rocket science—but it is a prerequisite for rocket science.

Mathematics teachers often also teach some classes in related subjects, such as computer science or physics, if they also possess the requisite expertise. Conversely, many computer teachers and science teachers also work toward getting a single subject math credential. Becoming credentialed in multiple subjects gives a teacher greater flexibility in getting a job placement, by enabling them to transition between subjects.

Can I find a job?

Average Growth?

When we use the word “average,” we usually are talking about the mean average; but we might also be talking about the median average or modal average. What’s the difference? A math teacher knows!

Current job-growth rate (nationally) for high school teachers is seven percent, slower than the average for all occupations. However, differences in state standards, such as teacher-student ratios, will result in greater growth in some regions more than others.

Also, if at some point after obtaining a bachelor’s degree, you take work as a substitute teacher, the ability to teach math will help you find more work, even as you continuing searching for a full-time position. Math teachers—aware that most substitutes do not have skill in algebra, geometry, or calculus—are ready to write off all sick days as lost teaching days. However, if there’s a substitute in their district who can teach a math lesson from a lesson plan, teachers will often specifically request that substitute every time they have a planned absence.

What salary can I expect?

Salaries for teaching high school mathematics also vary from state to state, depending upon state budgeting and the involvement of the state in federal funding; the median salary nationwide is $53,230. (Although math teachers are harder to come by than English teachers, union rules keep the salaries of all high school teachers the same, regardless of discipline.) Salaries go up with education and years teaching. Teachers can also increase their entry-level salaries by an average of 15 percent by obtaining their master’s degree.

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. Virtually all public school salaries are mandated by union agreements, with pay increasing annually and with further education. Tenure is available for most teachers after a few years, after which point they can be almost impossible to fire.

How do I get started?

Most public schools require teachers to possess a state teaching credential. The component requirements of such credentials may vary from state to state; but a public school in one state will accept a teaching credential from another state. 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), and these options also vary from state to state. A single-subject teaching credential from California, for example, involves some coursework beyond a bachelor’s degree, including observation hours in a public school classroom, a semester of student teaching under a master teacher, and passing state examination (the CSET). Learn more about the math teacher certification process and teaching certification requirements.

You do not need to major in mathematics in college in order to become a math teacher—but you do need to pass a proficiency exam such as the CSET or Praxis II, in order to demonstrate expertise in the subject. However, if you major in any other field, you can still study for and pass a state examination. Many teachers in fact obtain multiple single-subject credentials, so that they’re capable of transitioning between subjects. Many state examinations for math are divided into several subtests (algebra, geometry, calculus), which may be passed individually at different times.

Students are waiting for competent, confident, and enthusiastic teachers to liberate them from their fears and their calculators. Will you answer the call?

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