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How to Become a High School Teacher

As a high school teacher, you can help shape the interests and attitudes of students on the cusp of adulthood. From 14-year-olds trying to figure out how to transition from being a kid to a teenager to legal adults preparing for the world outside of K-12 education, these learners need teachers who understand them and their needs. Those who teach high school have a talent for communicating with young people and a natural gift for motivating adolescents to achieve academic and socioemotional excellence.

On this page, you’ll learn what high school teachers do, what educational and other requirements they must meet to become a licensed teacher, and career outlooks and trends in the industry.

What Does a High School Teacher Do?

High school teachers deliver in-depth, subject-specific instruction to students, typically in grades nine through 12. However, in some locations, high school begins in grade 10. High school teachers develop and deliver lesson plans, evaluate student achievement, maintain classroom discipline, and communicate student progress to parents and administrators. They also attend staff meetings and in-service trainings, supervise extracurricular activities, or coordinate field trips.

For most secondary teachers, the schedule is a nine- to ten-month school year, with a 10- to 12-week summer break. However, some schools are open year-round with shorter breaks interspersed throughout the year.

High school teachers typically focus on one or two subjects, some of which may not be available at lower grade levels. Common focuses include:

  • Core subjects: These are the topics people typically think of when they imagine a classroom and are more likely to be included in state testing. Courses include English/language arts, science, math, and social studies, often with a variety of sub-focuses, honors, advanced placement (AP) options, and remedial options within.
  • Required non-core classes: These classes are generally required for high school students but aren’t considered core classes. They can include physical/health education and foreign languages. Teachers of these subjects are often grouped in with those who teach electives.
  • Elective courses: Students are required to choose a certain number of elective courses each year. Classes can include art, music, theatre, business, career and technical education (CTE), family and consumer sciences (FACS), and a variety of others. Like core classes, many of these subjects have sub-sections and advanced options. Speech, debate, and forensics are common electives as well, though some schools require at least one semester of this topic.
  • Special populations: At all levels, there is a need for teachers who can work with specific groups. These subjects can include special education (SPED), gifted and talented, and English as a second language (ESL). If you have a thick skin and a kind heart, you could consider focusing on students in alternative high school programs—these programs are for students who have struggled socially in a traditional environment, usually because of significant behavior problems.

Benefits of Becoming a High School Teacher

There are tremendous benefits to becoming a high school teacher as opposed to teaching younger grades. These benefits include teaching a topic you care about, being able to engage in in-depth conversations, and preparing students about to embark on their futures.

As noted above, you can choose a subject or set of topics you’re particularly passionate about and teach the next generation about them. When you’re excited about what you teach, they may be more excited to learn about it—and this can lead to positive relationships. When you teach one or two topics, you often get to follow the same lesson plans. Though this can result in less time spent planning lessons, the higher number of students can result in more time spent grading.

Another great thing about working with this age is they’re often more able to understand the nuances of adult conversation than their younger counterparts. High school math teacher Holly Werra writes that not only are they able to understand the difference between joking with and making fun of people—including teachers and vice versa—but also, “You can have deep conversations about life and the future. You can talk about current events, or plans for the weekend. You actually have some things in common with them.” This point doesn’t mean no topics are off-limits—they’re still young, and there are still rules that come with that—but the variety of subjects you can discuss is more extensive than those for younger grades.

Finally, you’re among the final K-12 teachers they will have—and that means you could have one of the most lasting effects on their futures. High schoolers decide if they want to enter the workforce, attend college, join the armed forces, or a combination thereof. High school teachers can help them discover their strengths and passions, advise them about their concerns and goals, provide letters of recommendation, and dole out advice for getting scholarships or jobs.

Salary and Career Outlook for High School Teachers

High School Teacher Salary

According to the BLS, the median annual salary for high school teachers, excepting CTE and special education teachers, was $61,660 in 2019. Teachers can earn additional income by supervising or coaching extracurricular activities, earning a master’s in education, or becoming an administrator. Salary and other benefits can differ between public and private schools, so compare specific institutions to get a full picture of compensation.

The average income and demand for high school teachers vary from state to state. If you’re able to relocate, you might seek out different job opportunities around the country. The table below calls out areas with the highest average pay; however, this information does not account for the cost of living.

2019 Highest Paying States
New York $87,240
California $85,080
Massachusetts $81,070
Connecticut $78,540
New Jersey $78,090

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020)

High School Teacher Job Growth

There is a teacher shortage across the United States, and high school education is no exception. CareerOneStop predicts high school teacher employment will grow at 4% between 2018 and 2028, which is about average for all occupations; however, this number only includes new job openings, not those created by retirement or attrition. Job prospects vary by location and specialty area. Only three states–Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut–are expecting job rates to decline for high school teachers. For an even higher shot at getting a job, consider working in a high-poverty area. Below are the top states for teacher growth.

2018 States with Highest Job Growth
Utah 27%
Texas 21%
Colorado 20%
Washington 19%
Idaho, D.C., Georgia (Tie) 15%

Source: CareerOneStop (2020)

How to Earn Licensure in High School Teaching

In every state, you will need a license to teach. Specific licensure requirements vary, but there are a few commonalities they tend to share:

  • Graduation or certification from an accredited program
  • Except for CTE, you generally need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree; however, some states do require bachelor’s degrees for CTE
  • You must pass state licensure exams, often both in general teaching and your specific subject(s)
  • Apply and pay any relevant licensure application fees to your state’s department of education
  • Pass a background check, including fingerprinting

There are several ways to become a high school teacher, the most common being the traditional path, the alternative certification path, and the CTE path.

Traditional Pathway to Becoming a High School Teacher

The most straightforward route to becoming a high school teacher is to earn a bachelor’s degree in education. To gain entrance, you must typically meet the following requirements:

  • Apply to your college of choice. You may also need to apply to the specific school offering the degree program, such as your institution’s college of education.
  • Send transcripts. You’ll need to submit official transcripts from your high school or GED program and any colleges you already attended.
  • Meet GPA and standardized test requirements. Some schools require a minimum 2.0 GPA and specific SAT or ACT scores for admission.
  • Obtain letters of recommendation. Schools may ask for up to three recommendation letters. Get them from people you know through academics, work, or special interests. Don’t use family or friends.
  • Ensure you have all the required vaccines. Most colleges require students to be fully vaccinated, barring religious or health limitations. This includes the meningitis vaccine, particularly for students who plan to live on campus, which is not commonly part of your childhood vaccination schedule.
  • Other possible requirements. Some high school education programs may require applicants to declare a subject focus area or double major, and/or complete core credits before applying to the institution’s education department for their major-specific studies.
  • Be ready to prove citizenship or show a work permit. Most high school education bachelor’s degree programs prepare students to sit for state licensure exams. As a result, programs may limit admission to U.S. citizens and students with valid work permits or green cards.

Your bachelor’s program will typically require 120 hours of coursework, which takes approximately four years of full-time study to complete. Programs will also include time spent in real classrooms, both as an observer and a student teacher—that is, an education licensure-seeker working under a fully licensed mentor. These hands-on hours give you practical experience with students and guidance from seasoned educators.

Additionally, you’ll be prepared for state licensure exams, such as the Praxis. All states require secondary teachers to hold some sort of license or certification to teach in public schools.

Alternative Path to Becoming a High School Teacher

Alternative certification is for those who didn’t earn a degree in education but want to become a teacher. To fulfill the requirements for this option, you typically need to have a bachelor’s degree and take courses and exams relevant to your topic. This certification will take less time and money than earning a master’s or post-baccalaureate degree in education. However, you can opt to take one of those paths instead of receiving an alternative certification.

Alternative certifications are frequently available online, though, as in the traditional path, you’ll likely undergo student teaching. Earning an alternative certification instead of a bachelor’s in education will not lower your chances of employment. However, your previous years of work experience likely won’t count towards your teacher salary level.

Becoming a Career and Technical Education Teacher

Career and technical education (CTE) certification is different than traditional or alternative paths. For this, you often only need a high school diploma or GED, plus several years of work experience in the subject you wish to teach. Though these subjects were traditionally reserved for trades, like construction and agriculture, they can now extend to topics like business, computer technology, and law enforcement.

Online Bachelor’s in Education Degrees

Online programs can offer greater schedule flexibility and may cost less than on-campus attendance. Online classes work very well for many people, although many others prefer the structure and support of the on-campus classroom environment. However, nearly anyone can succeed in an online program.

Bachelor’s programs in education are rarely offered totally online due to the hands-on nature of the work. The programs do exist but make sure to research to ensure you’ll meet all state requirements. Additionally, you can opt to take some of your general education coursework online. Online classes are one of two formats: synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous courses require you to log on at specific times to engage in group chats or watch live lectures together as a class. Asynchronous courses allow you to log in and complete coursework at your convenience, as long as you meet the deadlines noted in the class syllabus.

Even if all your classes are online, you’ll be required to complete an in-class teaching practicum to meet degree and certification requirements. Your school may help you connect with a practicum location, but students are generally responsible for arranging their teaching hours. It’s essential to note teaching credential requirements vary by state, and typically you’ll need to gain your practicum hours in the state in which you’ll pursue licensure. If you’re planning to earn your degree online with an out-of-state school, talk with an academic advisor there before enrolling to make sure they will be able to meet all your degree and licensure requirements.

Beyond a Bachelor’s Degree in High School Education

If you want to expand your knowledge or increase your pay, earning additional degrees or taking professional development courses can help you on your way.

Earn a Master’s Degree

Master’s programs can be in general education to expand your pedagogy and classroom management abilities or focus on specific topics. Particular topics, like special education, music education, and math education, are more common at the master’s level, and some places require master’s degrees for you to work in fields like speech-language pathology. Master’s programs typically take two years of full-time study and can often be completed online.

Earn a Doctoral Degree

Doctorates are best for those who want to work in administration, teach at universities, or become policymakers. The pay difference between a master’s and a doctorate is usually negligible at the high school teacher level, so this may not be the right path for you if you hope to remain as a classroom teacher. Do your research and weigh the benefits.

Become an Educational Specialist

If you want to take your education past a master’s degree but don’t want to earn a doctorate, you should consider an educational specialist program. You can earn educational specialist certificates in fields like special education and school leadership. Depending on your district, the leadership program could lead to a career in administration. These are frequently available online and take less time and money to complete than master’s degrees.

Useful Resources for High School Teachers

  • AP Annual Conference: At the high school level, many teachers find themselves teaching advanced placement (AP) or pre-AP courses. Such classes range from general education to the arts, so regardless of what you teach, you may be preparing students for passing AP tests that earn them college credits. This conference provides new ideas for lesson plans, textbooks, and other resources AP teachers can use in their classrooms.
  • Education.com: This site includes lesson plans and other resources for teachers of all grade levels, including those for high school. You can find printables, online games, and project ideas for a variety of high school classrooms.
  • The Edvocate: This website provides resources for teachers from PreK to 12, including information on topics like classroom management and parent interactions. A great place to start is their article 20 Strategies to Use Right Now for Teaching High School.
  • Remind: While your school may have a learning management system used in its classrooms, like Google Classroom, it can be hard to reach students or parents directly on them. Remind offers something different: the ability to text your students and their parents without divulging your phone number. With the variety of after-school activities and potentially overnight trips high school students take, this can be a convenient way to reach them—especially since 95% of teenagers have cell phone access and spend a lot of time on them.
  • We Are Teachers: This site is full of articles written by teachers, providing ideas for how to teach, explaining trends in technology, and encouraging advocacy. Classroom management is different at the high school level than in younger grades, so check out their article about tips and tricks you could use to make your day run smoothly.