Teaching US History

Our current reality of standardized testing and “teaching for the tests” might cause some to ask, “Why teach U.S. history? It’s become a luxury upon which we cannot afford to spend valuable instructional time.” It’s a fair question, but one easily dispatched.

An understanding of U.S. history may not directly prepare students for success on standardized tests. Even so, something more important happens: Students discover how their personal stories fit into the story of our nation. They learn how to take their place as well-informed U.S. citizens. And because there’s a strong verbal component to the class, it does in fact prepare students for those critical reading and writing tests.

U.S. history gives students a sense of identity as residents of the United States. History explains how we came to have our current systems of federal, state, and local government. It tells the stories of voting rights, dissent, and civil disobedience, and also illustrates how we’ve banded together as a country to overcome both domestic and foreign threats. As teachers emphasize our commitment to democracy and personal liberty, yet acknowledge our shortfalls along the way, they help create a sense of cohesion and shared values among students.

U.S. history also helps us understand the moral challenges our society currently faces, and how to better face them. It’s impossible to understand today’s racial tensions without first knowing the history of chattel slavery, the “two-thirds compromise,” the Civil War, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement. However, a study of role models like Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. can point the way for our continued progress toward racial equality.

If you have a love of teaching children or teens, an aptitude for instruction, and a passion for our nation’s heritage, then teaching U.S. history might be for you.

What’s it like to teach US History?

It’s often not until high school that some districts offer classes solely in U.S. history, although many middle schools offer U.S. history as its own course. In an elementary school setting (and again, in some middle schools), U.S. history is one of several topics covered over the course of a year-long social studies class. Usually at this level, the U.S. history portion of the class covers the period from our nation’s founding through the Civil War.

At the middle and secondary levels, you’ll not only challenge students to master dates and events, but to grapple with the meaning of those events. You’ll encourage students to debate over why certain crises came to be, and how they were responded to. You’ll help them see how the origins of the civil-rights and organized-labor movements continue to influence current events. In fact, this can also work in reverse: Current events can provide entrance points that take students deeper into U.S. history. For example, a discussion of our recent economic collapse can provide a vista into better understanding past economic crises and the history of Federal regulation.

U.S. History: still in progress

Our nation’s history is continually unfolding. What will be included in our history books 100 years from now? No-one knows for sure, but according to the Smithsonian Institute, these are the five most important events of the past 40 years:

  • 1970: The passage of the Clear Air Act
  • 1991: The emergence of the World Wide Web
  • 2001: The 9/11 attacks
  • 2003: The completion of the Human Genome Project
  • 2008: The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States

No matter what level you teach, your role as teacher will be to make history come alive. Therefore, effective history teachers will frequently use creative teaching methods to engage their students. You might use storytelling and hands-on learning experiences—such as recreating the feast the Pilgrims and Native Americans shared—as a way to help your learners connect with their heritage. Or, you might ask a group of students to script a fictitious interview between a TV talk show host and a historic figure; a project like this will demand that students have both a mastery of the historic facts surrounding that person, and some comprehension of why that person behaved the way he or she did.

When it’s time to teach about the Gold Rush, a teacher might break students into groups and have them act as chamber of commerce for a “boomtown.” Students could then research what these boomtowns were like, and create brochures or other advertising to promote their fictitious town.

Writing is a crucial element, as it helps students process and verbalize what they’re learning. Assignments could be something as simple as a daily paragraph from students, summarizing what they’ve understood from the day’s lesson. Students might also write first-person stories, where they insert themselves into history—perhaps as an eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg, or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. An exercise like this engages students on an emotional level, and helps them build empathy with those who actually did participate in those historical events.

Teaching, of course, is a demanding profession with responsibilities that extend well outside of class time. Most schools require teachers to be in their classrooms an hour before their students, in order to make final preparations and to meet with teaching teams. Immediately after school, teachers monitor detentions or provide individual tutoring to students. Evenings are spent grading papers and writing lesson plans. However, one payback is the extended vacation time teachers enjoy, which can be used to spend extra time with the family, earn supplemental income, or work on continuing-education requirements.

The presidency as a stepping stone?

Many of our presidents have ascended from the positions of state governor, senator, or member of the House of Representatives. However, only one president has used the office of president as a stepping stone to serve as a Supreme Court justice.

William Howard Taft, was pressured by his wife to run for president. He won, and became our 27th president, but his real personal aspiration was to serve on the highest court in the land. He got his wish, when 29th president Warren Harding nominated him as justice.

Can I get a job in this field?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that job growth for elementary and middle school teachers will keep pace with the rest of the economy, increasing by 17 percent between now and 2020. During the same time period, the BLS projects secondary-education job growth of only seven percent—noticeably slower than overall job growth nationally.

Teachers who are open to teaching social studies alongside U.S. history will have better chances of employment, as many school districts blend the two together in their curricula. As you wait for full time employment opportunities, you also can make yourself available as a substitute teacher, as a means of demonstrating your ability to manage a classroom and present the subject matter.

Teachers who are open to relocation have the best opportunity to find work. There’s currently a surplus of qualified middle school teachers in the northeastern United States, while there’s a shortage of middle school teachers in the southeastern U.S.

You might also consider joining a professional association of U.S. history teachers or historians, such as the American Historical Association. This is a great way to inform yourself of trends in the field, as well as enhance your resume. Local and regional U.S history-teacher associations are more valuable, in terms of finding networking and job placement opportunities.

What salary should I expect?

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average median salary of a middle school teacher is $51,960 per year, while the median salary of a high school teacher is $53,230. An elementary school teacher averages a bit less, at $51,380 per year.

A bachelor’s education is required for entry-level teachers. However, a master’s degree almost universally enhances a teachers’ earning power. Ultimately, the question of salary is determined by region of the country, as well as the educational and work experience of the employee.

How do I become a US History teacher?

You’ll either need a bachelor’s degree in secondary education with a minor in U.S. history, or a bachelor’s degree in U.S. History. Additionally, you’ll need to earn a teaching certificate. Visit the Teaching Certification website for more information about your state’s requirements.

If you’re open to relocating in order to find work, you’ll want to check to see if the states you’re interested in have reciprocity with one another. This would allow your teaching certification to remain valid even if you ended up moving out of state.

Don’t forget about Teach for America, a non-profit organization that specializes in placing teachers in poverty-stricken urban and rural centers. It’s worth researching to see if your state offers fellowships for students willing to commit to teaching in-state for a given length of time.

If the job market isn’t favorable when you complete your undergraduate work, consider completing your master’s degree in teaching. This will increase your employability, as you’ll have demonstrated a mastery of the subject matter; also, several states require continuing education for those teachers who have earned only bachelor’s degrees.

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