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High school teachers (also called secondary school teachers) generally teach students in the 9th through 12th grades. They conduct classes in specialized subjects for multiple classes. Subjects can be academic (such as mathematics, biology, English, civics or social studies), vocational or physical education. Teachers at this level help students delve more deeply into subjects. They teach lessons and skills that students may need to prepare for college or to enter the job market.

Day in the Life of a High School Teacher

A high school teaching career offers a variety of challenges and opportunities. On a typical day, a high school teacher may:

  • Plan lessons in the subject(s) they teach, adapting them for different grade levels
  • Manage a homeroom class, keeping attendance records, etc.
  • Assess students' abilities, strengths and weaknesses
  • Teach students in full class settings or in small groups
  • Adapt lessons to any changes in class size
  • Grade students' assignments and exams
  • Communicate with parents about students' progress
  • Work with individual students to challenge them, to improve their abilities and work on their weaknesses
  • Prepare students for standardized tests required by the state
  • Administer standardized achievement tests and interpret results
  • Develop and enforce classroom rules and administrative policies

Other responsibilities may include:

  • Assisting students in choosing a course of study for college or in planning for a particular career
  • Counseling students about academic problems
  • Meeting with other professionals to discuss an individual student's needs and progress
  • Collaborating with other teachers and administrators in the evaluation and revision of school programs
  • Preparing reports on students and activities as required by the school administration
  • Serving on committees as required
  • Coaching sports and advising student clubs and other groups, activities that may take place before or after school
  • Attending teacher training and educational conferences

The work environment for high school teachers depends on factors such as school location, management policies, and school performance. As a general rule, teachers in private schools have smaller classes than their counterparts in public schools and also more control over the curriculum and performance standards. However, public school teachers tend to have greater job security than those at private schools. Teachers in both public and private high schools work more than 40 hours in a typical week, if school duties performed outside the classroom are factored in. Most teachers have summers off and long holiday breaks.

Important Characteristics for a High School Teacher

A high school teacher needs to be:

  • A good communicator with students, other teachers, administrators and parents
  • Patient when working with students of different abilities
  • Resourceful when explaining difficult concepts in terms students can understand
  • Motivational so that students are engaged in learning
  • Flexible in adapting lessons to each student's needs
  • Comfortable using technology in the classroom and when communicating with students and administrators
  • Organized when managing materials, projects and records for many students and subjects

It is important for teachers to find ways to maintain a healthy perspective about their work. Teaching high school can be frustrating for teachers who must deal with heavy workloads, large class sizes, and unmotivated, disrespectful or aggressive students. On the other hand, motivating students to develop new skills and knowledge can be very rewarding for teachers.

Typical Steps for Becoming a High School Teacher

Career education for high school teachers generally follows the steps below. Be sure to learn about high school teacher education requirements in your state.

1) Earn a bachelor's degree. All states require public high school teachers to have a bachelor's degree, usually in a high school subject area. Most private schools require the same of teachers.

2) Complete a teacher preparation program to prepare for certification or licensure. After completing a bachelor's degree program, most students then need to complete an additional credential or teacher preparation program at the same institution. This teacher training course can include classes in education and child psychology as well as time student-teaching — working with a mentor teacher to gain classroom teaching experience. These programs train aspiring teachers how to present information and work with students of varying abilities and backgrounds. Credential programs typically last for one year.

3) Take the exam(s) required in order to be licensed or certified to teach. All states require public school teachers to be licensed or certified in the grade level they will teach. Private school teachers typically don't need to be licensed.

At the high school level, states may require candidates to pass licensing or certification exam(s) that focus on a single subject instead of the multiple subjects that are usually required for teachers at the elementary school level. High school teacher candidates who have passed the required exam(s) are awarded a secondary or high school certification, allowing them to teach 7th through 12th grades.

  • States may offer an alternative route to certification or licensure for people who already have a bachelor's degree but lack the education courses required for certification. Some alternative programs allow candidates to begin teaching immediately, supervised by an experienced teacher. Other programs require students to first take education classes. Completing either type of program results in certification and possibly a master's degree.

4) Secure a job. Employment requirements for high school teachers vary by state but generally include:

  • A bachelor's degree with a minimum GPA
  • Completion of a high school teacher education program, including student teaching
  • Passing a background check
  • Passing a teaching certification test and a test on the subject they will teach

5) Earn a master's degree, if your state requires it. Some states require high school teachers to earn a master's degree after earning their teaching certification and landing a job. Continuing education is a common requirement for teachers in order to maintain their licensure.

Sources:

  • High School Teachers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm
  • Summary Report for 25-2031.00 - Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education, O*NET OnLine, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/25-2031.00
  • How to Become a Teacher in California, Commission on Teacher Credentialing, https://www.ctc.ca.gov/credentials/teach, accessed December 2017
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