Teaching High School

High school encompasses some of the most formative years of many students, as they explore new areas of life, learning, and growth.

During high school, students begin to think more critically, as they dive deeper into more complex areas of math, English literature, science, and social studies. This is also a time of immense cognitive growth and development for students, as they are granted more freedom in life and school.

These developments and changes would be more distressful and worrying for many students if not for the support of their high school teachers. These individuals help their students navigate around the pitfalls of adolescence, while also providing instructions and information about the various school subjects they’ll need to understand for future success in life.

Thinking back to your high school years, you might recall an instructor who helped you, or inspired you to consider a career in education. If you’re seriously thinking about entering the Field of Education, read about some of the qualities and requirements of high school teachers today.

What is it like?

High school teachers typically carry a large workload. Between lesson planning, test creation, curriculum development, and grading, these teachers are constantly thinking ahead. Because of their high workload, high school teachers typically collaborate with each other to make connections between subjects, and to gain advice from fellow teachers about how to present a subject.

To accomplish the vast amount of activities necessary during the day, high school teachers typically arrive at school an hour or so earlier than their students. During this time, teachers will make last-minute adjustments to lessons, finish grading papers, and prepare the classroom for learning.

As students enter the classroom, teachers might take a few minutes to meet individually with students, answer questions, and address concerns. Some schools have a 10-minute free period where students are allowed to work on anything they wish, whether that be homework, reading, or drawing. Teachers can further prepare for their lessons during this time.

Usually, by 8:30 a.m., school begins, and teachers begin to dive into their curriculum. In high school, many of the typical school subjects are broken down and specialized into focus areas. The general subjects include:

Teachers must become experts in their focus areas to teach these subjects. The following are some of the skills and subjects where teachers must gain a deep understanding.

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In high school, students study general biology, physics, chemistry, and Earth science. Many students have some knowledge of these subjects from their experiences in elementary and middle school, but high school teachers push them to gain a much broader understanding of each.

High school biology allows students to explore cells, biological processes, genetics, and evolution. Teachers provide their students with hands-on learning activities that allow them to discover differences between single and multi-cell organisms, such as prokaryotes and more complex creatures, such as worms.

They also come to understand molecular properties, such as how atoms are structured, and how chemicals bond. This leads to further information gained about osmosis and diffusion, and how they interact in biological processes.

High school students also examine more complex topics in chemistry. Teachers must effectively explain topics like chemical bonding, such as ionic and covalent bonding. They look at atomic numbers, and how the periodic table of elements is arranged by trends, such as chemical reactivity.

An understanding of physics allows students to make sense of how motion, energy, and magnetism affect the world around them. In-class laboratory assignments give students a first-hand look at how heat flows from one object to another, or how Newton’s laws of motion affect a moving object.

High school science allows students to find explanations for the seemingly every-day occurrences around them. This includes anomalies in the weather and Earth itself. High school Earth science gives students a better understanding of weather systems and minerals that make up the planet. Teachers give students a first-hand look at how erosion occurs and wears away rocks, and explain how the Earth’s surface has changed over time.

Teachers who want to gain additional knowledge and complete professional development exercises should join a professional teaching organization such as the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA). The NSTA provides high school teachers with lesson plan advice, and academic journals that include content suggestions.

Social Studies

In high school social studies, students continue to expand their understanding of history, geography, and economics.

Students gain a more thorough view of how the Europeans settled North America, and the effects of settlement on politics, Native American society, and the rise of the United States. They especially focus on post-World War II America, and how social programs and the political process has evolved since then.

Teachers also show their students how geographic differences led to the rise of various civilizations, and how some societies had greater access to resources that accelerated their development. They also examine various cultures, and the similarities and differences between those cultures.

High school social studies teachers focus on building upon the existing knowledge of students, while encouraging them to ask “essential questions” about their history.

According to “Challenging History: Essential Questions in the Social Studies Classroom,” published in Social Education, essential questions address the big ideas in history and social issues. In the article, author Heather Lattimer states that many students have spent time memorizing events and dates without truly questioning them.

How to implement essential questions

  • Pose questions that bring issues of time and place to the present
  • Introduce units by building connections to present concerns
  • Examine events further through historical case studies
  • Encourage students to seek primary source documents
  • Require students to reflect on larger questions in light of new information

Source: Challenging History: Essential Questions in the Social Studies Classroom

Essential questions allow teachers and students to view content from multiple perspectives, for example, taking into account the Japanese perspective when the atomic bomb was dropped. These questions link the past with the present, addressing the concerns that newer generations must eventually respond to, such as war and social progress.


Students focus mainly on developing algebraic reasoning skills in high school. These skills become the foundation of more complex math topics down the road, such as calculus. During algebra classes, teachers direct their students to add, subtract, and multiply polynomials, while also exploring mathematical functions of fractions.

These mathematical skills build on each other as teachers show their students how formulas and equations may be graphed, and expressed in lines, planes, and spheres.

With graphing skills, students also study geometry, and how to describe relationships between sets of squares, triangles, and circles. They solve problems involving reflections, rotations, and translations of geometric shapes, while also computing the properties of those shapes.

Toward the end of high school, many students gain a deeper understanding of calculus and functions. Calculus is the study of change, and students might examine how families of functions model real life occurrences like population growth, or how a hot object cools down.

The National Council of the Teacher of Mathematics notes that students must develop critical thinking skills to succeed fully in high school mathematics. In Focus in High School Mathematics: Reasoning and Sense Making, the council notes that unless students develop these skills, they won’t see the point of learning the classroom material.

Develop reasoning and sense making-skills

  • Analyze a problem
  • Implement a strategy
  • Seek and use the strategy
  • Reflect on the solution

Source: Focus in High School Mathematics: Reasoning and Sense Making

English Literature

By the time they reach high school, most students have honed their reading skills, but may need additional help to write well. High school English literature focuses on both increasing a student’s critical reading skills, while also providing writing instruction.

Where previous English classes may have focused on the development of skills in discovering context clues and sentence comprehension, high school English mostly focuses on critically analyzing and comprehending the meaning behind a famous work of British or American literature.

High school English teachers show their students how elements of style, prose, tone, and setting change the meaning of a piece of poetry, nonfiction, or fiction. They examine an author’s mood and background, and how those may have affected his or her writing style and subject.

Typically, high school writing exercises include critical analysis of a book, or creative writing exercises. Teachers help their students to understand and apply the various elements of the writing process, such as stages of writing, and research and documentation of sources.

Students also come to understand the purposes for writing, including creative writing, persuasive writing, and informative writing.

The National Council of Teachers of English gives teacher resources and tips for teaching English class effectively. Through the organization, teachers have access to classroom activities, lesson plans, and advice to make class engaging.

Can I get a job?

Teachers will always be needed in order to provide leadership and impart knowledge to their students. During the 2010-20 decade, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects job growth for high school teachers to be slightly lower than the average for all occupations, but there are a number of steps teachers can take to ensure they stand out above the rest of the job market.

First-time job seekers should attempt to obtain some first-hand experience in the teaching field before seeking a job. Often, teachers who excelled in school may be passed over for a teacher who also has previous experience working in a school.

Teachers should try to teach part-time through substitute teaching. While substitute teaching is a different experience than full-time teaching, teachers still gain classroom management and lesson instruction skills.

Another way teachers show potential employers that they have extraordinary teaching skills is by earning a master’s degree in education. Master’s degree holders have honed their content knowledge and skills so that they can tackle almost any problem a classroom presents to them.

Master’s degree programs allow teachers to jump into leadership positions, earn higher pay, and give more input on school-wide curriculum development. Advanced degrees make teachers more valuable to employers, and may lead to increased job opportunities.

Networking is one of the most important aspects of the job search. Teachers can join several different teacher organizations that connect them with fellow teachers and leaders in education, while also providing professional growth opportunities.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that high school teachers specializing in math, biology, chemistry, and physics will have the greatest success seeking jobs between 2010-20, filling in absent teaching positions.

Additionally, a greater number of older teachers will retire between 2010-20, while student enrollment will increase. In order to meet the increasing demand, school districts will need to hire additional teachers to keep class sizes down.

Teachers will find jobs most abundant in the South and the West, so teachers should be willing to remain flexible about where they live.

What salary can I expect?

High school teachers work hard, and are paid competitively to compensate for their hard work. Average teacher salary will vary from state-to-state and district-to-district, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median teacher salary of $53,230 in 2010.

The lowest 10% of earners made less than $35,020, while the highest 10% made more than $83,230. These salaries also come with a host of benefits, including insurance, vacation time, and retirement plans. Click here to get a better idea of the kinds of benefits available to teachers.

Becoming a high school teacher

Teachers must complete a certification process in the state they wish to teach in before seeking a job.

Teacher certification is a way of showing that a potential instructor has completed a teacher preparation program and knows his or her content area sufficiently. Prior to seeking certification, teachers must pass PRAXIS I and II content area examinations, showing they know not only their subject, but also that they know how to teach it.

Each state has a different certification process and requirements that lead to certification. For a full list of each state’s requirements, and links to important documents and materials, visit teaching-certification.com.


Teaching and Learning