How to Become a Social Studies Teacher – A Complete Guide to Becoming a Social Studies Teacher
By Catherine Dorian – former English Teacher, Brattleboro Union High School and Fort Benton Middle/High School
We live in political times. Our smartphones constantly keep us notified of the world’s events, developments, and tragedies. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok not only serve as a primary source of news for many of us, but also give us a place to follow politicians and thought leaders. Influencers have now become activists. It’s no surprise, then, that middle and high school students, who consume media in a variety of forms and at many times during the day, are in tune with current events.
The young are also curious, impressionable, and passionate about what they believe in. And now, more than ever, we need teachers who will teach them how to navigate the changing times and global issues that challenge all of us to think about where we stand in the world and what we want the world to look like in the future.
If you are contemplating joining the profession, particularly at the middle and high school level, I can think of no better time than to consider becoming a social studies teacher. If you love teaching about current events, a career as a social studies teacher could be a great fit. You’ve got questions, and we’ve got answers – you can learn about becoming a social studies teacher right here.
What Does a Social Studies Teacher Teach?
A social studies teaching license is what some districts call a “broadfield” licensure; it allows you to teach a variety of grade levels and courses, many of which may be niche subjects, and much of your curricula may be fluid, changing from semester to semester to keep up with the changing times.
So, what does a social studies teacher teach? Nearly every public and private high school curriculum in the United States includes some form of social studies, with the primary subjects being US History, World History, and some kind of civics or government class. In some states, your secondary teaching endorsement will also allow you to teach at any grade level, from 5th – 12th, so you may be able to teach middle school social studies as well. So, becoming a social studies teacher can mean becoming a particularly versatile teacher, capable of switching between courses and grade levels throughout your career.
Every teacher has their own reasons for doing what they do, but most social studies teachers would agree that their primary objective is to teach students to be thoughtful, engaged individuals who can navigate the plethora of information about societies, governments, history, and current events. They want to teach students to draw inferences about what they are learning, and who can make thoughtful decisions about policy, politics, and ethics.
Under these criteria, there are infinite options for curricula, units, texts, and projects.
- In an American History course, for instance, you may ask students to choose one of the amendments in the Bill of Rights and research the supreme court cases that have been most closely connected to those amendments.
- In World History, you may have students analyze the impact of World War II on each of the countries in Europe, and you may hold a Socratic seminar on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enacted thereafter.
- At the secondary level, you may even get to design your own semester-long or elective course like Sociology, Social Justice Movements of the Twenty-first Century, or Basic Economics. In a profession so versatile—not to mention, so pivotal for these times—you will get to build a curriculum that is always adapting.
Qualifications You Need to Become a Social Studies Teacher
The most common and fast-tracked way to become a social studies teacher is to earn a degree in teaching, whether it’s a bachelor’s with a focus in social studies or a master’s in education after you have already done your undergraduate in a social studies-related field.
So, of course by now you’re asking, what qualifications do I need to teach social studies today? The straightest line from high school graduation to becoming a social studies teacher starts with earning either your BS in Education with a Social Studies endorsement, or a degree in a related field (like a BA in History, for instance) with an educational endorsement. The requirements will (as usual) vary by state, but for the most part, the chances of landing a social studies teaching job will be best if you choose a BS in Education with the an endorsement that covers social studies—that way, you can teach a variety of courses and age levels.
When choosing a specialty, be sure to consider what options your state offers for licensure and job prospects, but be sure to also consider what you are most passionate about. For instance, in some states, you may be able to choose a specialty certificate in teaching history rather than a broad-field social studies certificate, and that may make sense for your situation and the district in which you would like to teach. Either way, you will have to go through the process for licensure, which in most states includes a practicum, field experience like student teaching, and taking the praxis exam.
If you already hold a bachelor’s degree, there are a few alternative pathways to becoming a social studies teacher. You can go back to school for a post-bac teaching certificate, a master’s in education that will allow you to become licensed, or you can even go for an emergency teacher certification. The steps to becoming a teacher can vary depending on the level of education that you already have and where you are in your career.
What Unique Skills Does it Take to Be a Good Social Studies Teacher?
So, what skills do you need for social studies? Since social studies teachers work in middle and high school settings, they may manage as many as 30 students per class. They will be expected to differentiate their instruction to a variety of learners. Social studies teachers may teach multiple courses, and they may also serve on committees and collaborate with other teachers. But what really makes the role unique is that social studies teachers need to stay up to speed on current events and the evolution of social norms, and they need to be able to discuss these issues with students with high level of sensitivity, nuance, diplomacy and objectivity. Becoming a social studies teacher will require that you learn and refine all these skills.
Social Studies Teachers Need to Be Organized
Between sequencing units, lesson objectives, and standards, you will need to teach to your students’ needs, and you will also most likely need to adhere to your department’s expectations when it comes to curriculum. For example, if you teach one class of American History I to ninth graders, you will want to ensure that you are reaching the expected time periods, information, and primary and secondary readings, so that when students enter American History II in tenth grade, they have the prerequisite knowledge and skillset to succeed. You will also want to be organized when collecting and managing graded materials like quizzes, tests, and essays, and you will want to be organized in how you sequence your instruction and assignments.
You also may find, like many teachers of the humanities, that there are infinite readings and angles from which to teach information. And in many districts, you won’t be restricted to a textbook—you may have quite a bit of free choice in which texts you teach and which projects you assign. This will allow you to be creative and to make your curriculum meaningful. With such possibilities, you will want to be organized so that you can ensure that you and your students are successful.
Be Ready to Answer Questions—But Mostly, Be Ready to Ask Them
Students have a lot of questions. They’re curious, sometimes unfiltered, and oftentimes, they’re expecting you to know the answer. But oftentimes, they appreciate when you admit that you don’t know the answer. And moreover, your job is to get students thinking about the material and to guide them in their own exploration and discovery. Social studies provide students the opportunity to ask questions, offer perspectives, evaluate biases, and explore dissenting opinions. Your job is to get students to consider their points of view and to find new ones. Becoming a social studies teacher means becoming ready to ask them open-ended questions.
Be Ready to Facilitate Arguments and Discussions
Since it’s largely inquiry-based, social studies, like other courses in the humanities, can oftentimes be a discussion-based class, where you teach students to offer insights about a historical event, to dig for more context about the event, to close-read a primary or secondary source document, and to support their ideas with evidence. Teaching students how to have civil discussions, whether via debates, Socratic seminars, or other activities, is integral to teaching them how to learn about government, history, and social issues.
Facilitating Great Communication, Particularly in Writing
English teachers are not the only ones who teach students writing. In most districts, social studies teachers will carry as much of the writing weight as those who teach literature and language classes—and for good reason. Being able to write in an organized fashion, to present arguments and support them with well-chosen evidence, and to offer thorough, thoughtful analysis of an issue are all skills that are necessary when teaching students to be informed citizens of their nation. Especially in the digital age where many practice political activism and consume news via social media, teaching students to articulate their ideas in a refined, calculated manner is not only important for their own development, but for the health of society.
Be Able to Navigate the Library, and Teach Students to Do it Too
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: become best friends with your school and local librarians.
When you teach social studies, you teach students how to navigate the plethora of information that is available to them, both digitally and in print. You teach them to look at both primary and secondary sources, to cross-analyze these sources for common information, to compare and contrast the language of these sources, to look for contradictions, and, most important—to think for themselves. Librarians can and will guide you to the sources that will be most helpful to your students, and they will point you to texts that will enrich your teaching of any historical time period or subject matter. Looking for a text about women’s involvement in WWII? Your librarian may give you an op-ed from a newspaper from the time period. Is a student writing a paper about the colonization of New Zealand and Europeans’ first interactions with the Maori people? Your librarian probably knows where to find them sources.
Teaching means learning. Over time, you will also participate in the professional community, including going to conferences, learning about new methods, and networking with other social studies teachers in your district or state. Bottom line: you will always be refining your skills. As a social studies teacher, you can look forward to a lifetime of learning.
Becoming a Social Studies Teacher Comes With Career Stability
Before you decide to become a social studies teacher, it’s important to consider what your job prospects will be. Are social studies teachers in demand? The simple answer is that yes, like all teachers, social studies teachers are in high demand in many settings across the country.
There isn’t a lot of data out there for discipline-specific teachers, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for high school teachers is predicted to grow 8% in the decade between 2020 and 2030, with an average of over 750,000 openings for high school teaching jobs expected each year. Middle school teachers are also projected to see a 7% growth, with just under 50,000 openings projected each year on average. While some of this growth will vary by state, pending state and local budgets, chances are that if you receive an endorsement that allows you to teach middle and high school, and if you are willing to potentially be flexible about where you work and what courses you teach, your chances of getting a job will certainly be fair.
What Makes a Good Social Studies Teacher?
Being a good teacher means being lots of things—patient, caring, interested, and interesting, to name a few. But anytime you’re choosing a specialty, you’ll want to consider what qualities are specific to that content area. In particular, what makes a good social studies teacher?
Being a good social studies teacher means building trust with your students so that you can get them thinking about subjects that are times difficult, and in today’s polarized society, help them have thoughtful, kind, but informed discussions with one another. You must remain curious about the past and aware of the present, as you continue to read about history and learn about current events. You must be passionate about your subject matter, but you must also cultivate that passion in your students by allowing them to explore what areas of your subject are most interesting to them. You must also empower your students to ask questions, to work hard to get to the bottom of that question, and to share their research with others.
Above all, being a good social studies teacher means knowing your purpose and planning instruction with your purpose in mind; that is, knowing that your purpose is to teach students to be thoughtful and aware, and to make ethical decisions that empower students to develop their own ideas.