Teaching Social Studies

Why did the Europeans colonize North America? How did they colonize it? What factors allowed for their success and how did these factors eventually lead to the creation of the modern day United States of America?

Modern educational standards demand students gain a deeper perspective on citizenship, the world, and history than simple memorization of dates, events, and facts allows. While most people can recall that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” the implications of that famous voyage had far-reaching effects still felt today.

To help students realize the importance of historical events, geography, cultural differences, and political ideologies, social studies teachers explore these subjects with their students in-depth, providing memorable lessons and in-class discussions that connect the past with the present.

Social studies teachers help students explore how the main themes of our history play a part in their everyday lives. Learning historical accounts of how race, class, gender, language, and nationality affected people in the past allows students to identify with the material in a more personal way that transcends simple date memorization. Read on to discover how social studies teachers help build critical-thinking skills that transform their students from mere observers in society to productive and informed citizens.

Why teach social studies?

Social studies imparts essential knowledge for students hoping to make informed decisions in the future. Some important benefits of a quality social studies education include:

  • Students become better judges of world affairs
    By exploring world governments, conflicts, alliances, and political affiliations, students gain a holistic view of how nations interact with each other. Students will determine the causes of war, economic concerns of individual counties, and how the world functions as the result of communications between multiple nations.
  • Students understand change and how the world and nations developed
    Studies study the history of world civilizations, how they rose, how they fell, and where current nations stand in history. Students learn why nations are located in certain areas, from geographic reasons like resources and landmass, to reasons such as war or technological advancement.
  • Students learn skills essential for citizenship
    Social studies informs students about the ways our democracy functions, such as how citizens are represented by elected officials and how the voting process works. Students explore America’s founding documents and civic institutions to understand how they, as future citizens, will fit into the democratic process. Typically, these courses also require students to participate in community events and service-learning projects to understand how citizens work together to create a functioning society.
  • Students develop critical thinking skills by analyzing decisions made by famous leaders in history
    Everyone learns from their mistakes. Students have the benefit of learning from other peoples’ mistakes as they explore successful and unsuccessful decisions made throughout history by world leaders. Students participate in history simulations and role-playing exercises to see first-hand how different decisions might have affected America today.

Themes of Social Studies Curriculum

The National Council for Social Studies notes 10 important themes that students should focus on in social studies. These themes include:

  • Culture
  • Time, Continuity, and Change
  • People, Places, and Environments
  • Individual Development and Identity
  • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Production, Distribution, and Consumption
  • Science, Technology, and Education
  • Global Connections
  • Civic Ideal and Practices

Source: National Council for Social Studies

Social studies teachers mix expansive content knowledge with innovative methods of teaching that knowledge. Typically, social studies teachers focus on instructing students at the elementary and middle school level, though some high schools offer courses in the subject.

Because students at this age are eager to find their place in the greater overall society, teachers focus on growing this interest in civic engagement. The goal of any social studies teacher is to help students learn from the past so they can become better informed, and help themselves and their societies in the future.

The best way to accomplish this, according to the National Council for Social Studies, is by providing teaching and learning opportunities that are “meaningful, integrative, value-based, challenging, and active.” Social studies teachers push their students to dive deeply into history and the global discussion, fostering the growth of interdisciplinary skills used in multiple subject areas along the way. In social studies classes, students typically conduct research on specific topics and build information-gathering and communication skills as they craft papers and reports. They might then present these reports to their classrooms, while the social studies teacher asks in-depth questions to the rest of the class about the report.

Social studies encompasses multiple subject areas, including history, geography, and economics. Educators combine these areas in lessons that provide opportunities for greater student inquiry, giving students opportunities to participate in group discussions about major events or issues around the world. Students explore any potential problems and propose solutions related to these events, allowing for debate and communication-building exercises.

Focus Areas of Social Studies Teachers

The major focus areas of social studies become more specialized as students advance to higher levels of education. These areas include:

United States History

Students in social studies classrooms explore the foundations of United States history in greater depth than they might have in lower grades. Teachers help their students build a deeper understanding of the events and personalities that helped shape the United States from its formation to its modern role as a world power today.

To engage their students to a greater degree, teachers provide interactive learning experiences that take them out of the textbook and back through time. For example, to give students more perspective on the civil war, teachers might assign writing exercises placing them in the role of confederate or union soldiers writing letters to home. This exercise requires students to study and research the background material, in addition to applying it to a situation where they aren’t just relaying back important civil war dates on an exam.

Social studies teachers also help students understand the political process in the United States, and how it’s been shaped by a rich tradition throughout its history. By exploring the history of political parties, presidents, key court decisions, and laws, students learn how participants in the political process dictate the policies of the United States.


Expertise in geography gives students insight into how borders, natural resources, and the features of land masses have given rise to civilizations and societies. Teachers explain the characteristics of different countries around the world, the societies that inhabit them, and the more technical aspects of geography such as map data interpretation.

The geography of a region is intertwined with its civilization. The geographic characteristics of a region determine the kinds of food a society consumes, the types of natural resources they harness, and the overall economic conditions in a country.

These resources and characteristics help determine the political landscape in the country, allowing social studies teachers to not only focus on physical geography, but also on the different types of civilizations that have occupied that area. To deepen their students’ understandings of different cultures and their relation to geographic conditions, they might allow each student to choose a country and report about that country’s geographic and cultural characteristics.

For example, students might create posters detailing the geographic features of a country, like population, growth rate, natural resources, and cultures. Then, students could also bring in different kinds of food from that country to engage students in their presentation.


Given the immense economic issues the entire world faces, students must understand the principles that drive economies around the globe. Social studies teachers provide lesson plans detailing the characteristics of macro and microeconomics, from scarcity, supply, and demand, to unemployment, inflation, and fiscal policy.

Instructors teaching economics might ask students to chart household debt and its effects on economic growth, or explore economic philosophies that address the issues we face today. In exploring the principles of supply and demand, younger students might be tasked with selling lemonade on the weekend, creating a budget and gaining their first business skills.

World History

World history is an expansive topic in social studies, one that merges knowledge of American history, geography, and economics. With an expanded understanding of world history, students are better able to make connections from past events to current world-wide issues.

Teachers educate their students about the rise and fall of classical civilizations like Greece, Rome, and Persia. Many of the major political philosophies and ideologies that exist today first rose from those civilizations, meaning students have greater chances to make connections to the present.

Social studies teachers also explore the major technological developments of those civilizations. Students today have grown up around technology, and some may be surprised to learn that the Internet hasn’t always just “existed.” Teachers focus on the technological innovations civilizations have introduced to the world, and how those marvels have built upon each other to create the modern world.

Can I get a job?

As teachers retire and more students enter middle school, the number of social studies teachers will need to rise to meet this demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of middle school teachers will grow by 17% between 2010 and 2020.

Teachers willing to relocate to the South or West may find better employment prospects. Researchers expect growth in these areas to increase throughout the coming years, while employment growth in the Northeast will decline.

As with all professions, strong networking skills increase a potential teacher’s chance of landing a job. If you’re interested in learning more about the networking opportunities available to teachers, explore some professional teacher organizations.

What salary can I expect?

Statistics from the BLS show a median annual salary of $51,960 for middle school teachers. Earning a master’s degree in social studies education potentially increases this salary, though state policy and local demand dictate this pay increase.

If a teacher finds a high school hiring social studies teachers, this pay increases further. Teaching high school students requires an expansive understanding of social studies content, student psychology, and specialized teaching methods. High schools reward teachers for their dedication to the social studies field with competitive salaries, with most teachers earning at least $53,230 each year.

Teachers also receive expansive benefits to compliment their salaries. Typical benefits include health coverage, ample vacation time, and retirement accounts.

How do I become a social studies teacher?

To become a social studies teacher, you must earn at least a bachelor’s degree in teaching, with an emphasis in social studies education. Your bachelor’s program helps set you on the path toward teacher certification, a requirement for any potential teacher.

Most teachers must complete student teaching internships, PRAXIS examinations, and a qualified teacher preparation program to gain certification. However, certification requirements vary by state, requiring potential teachers to research the needs of their teacher certification boards. To explore the requirements in your state, click here.

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