Secondary School Teacher Career

Secondary school teachers teach students in grades seven through twelve. Specializing in one subject area, such as English or math, these teachers work with five or more groups of students during the day. They lecture, direct discussions, and test students’ knowledge with exams, essays, and homework assignments. There are approximately 1.1 million secondary school teachers employed in the United States.

History of Secondary School Teacher Career

Secondary School Teacher CareerEarly secondary education was typically based upon training students to enter the clergy. Benjamin Franklin pioneered the idea of a broader secondary education with the creation of the academy, which offered a flexible curriculum and a wide variety of academic subjects.

It was not until the 19th century, however, that children of different social classes commonly attended school into the secondary grades. The first English Classical School, which was to become the model for public high schools throughout the country, was established in 1821, in Boston. An adjunct to the high school, the junior high school was conceived by Dr. Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard. In a speech before the National Education Association in 1888, he recommended that secondary studies be started two years earlier than was then the custom. The first such school opened in 1908 in Columbus, Ohio. Another opened a year later in Berkeley, California. By the early 20th century, secondary school attendance was made mandatory in the United States.

The Job of Secondary School Teachers

Many successful people credit secondary school teachers with helping guide them into college, careers, and other endeavors. A teacher’s primary responsibility is to educate students in a specific subject. But secondary teachers also inform students about colleges, occupations, and such varied subjects as the arts, health, and relationships.

Secondary school teachers may teach in a traditional area, such as science, English, history, and math, or they may teach more specialized classes, such as information technology, business, and theater. Many secondary schools are expanding their course offerings to better serve the individual interests of their students. School-to-work programs, which are vocational education programs designed for high school students and recent graduates, involve lab work and demonstrations to prepare students for highly technical jobs. Though secondary teachers are likely be assigned to one specific grade level, they may be required to teach students in surrounding grades as well. For example, a secondary school mathematics teacher may teach algebra to a class of ninth-graders one period and trigonometry to high school seniors the next.

In the classroom, secondary school teachers rely on a variety of teaching methods. They spend a great deal of time lecturing, but they also facilitate student discussion and develop projects and activities to interest the students in the subject. They show films and videos, use computers and the Internet, and bring in guest speakers. They assign essays, presentations, and other projects. Each individual subject calls upon particular approaches and may involve laboratory experiments, role-playing exercises, shop work, and field trips.

Outside of the classroom, secondary school teachers prepare lectures, lesson plans, and exams. They evaluate student work and calculate grades. In the process of planning their class, secondary school teachers read textbooks, novels, and workbooks to determine reading assignments; photocopy notes, articles, and other handouts; and develop grading policies. They also continue to study alternative and traditional teaching methods to hone their skills. They prepare students for special events and conferences and submit student work to competitions. Many secondary school teachers also serve as sponsors to student organizations in their field. For example, a French teacher may sponsor the French club and a journalism teacher may advise the yearbook staff. Some secondary school teachers also have the opportunity for extracurricular work as athletic coaches or drama coaches. Teachers also monitor students during lunch or break times and sit in on study halls. They may also accompany student groups on field days and to competitions and events. Some teachers also have the opportunity to escort students on educational vacations to Washington, D.C., other major U.S. cities, and to foreign countries. Secondary school teachers attend faculty meetings, meetings with parents, and state and national teacher conferences.

Some teachers explore their subject area outside of the requirements of the job. English and writing teachers may publish in magazines and journals, business and technology teachers may have small businesses of their own, music teachers may perform and record their music, art teachers may show work in galleries, and sign language teachers may do freelance interpreting.

Secondary School Teacher Career Requirements

High School

You should follow your guidance counselor’s college preparatory program and take advanced classes in such subjects as English, history, science, math, and government. You should also explore an extracurricular activity, such as theater, sports, and debate, so that you can offer these additional skills to future employers. If you already know which subject you’d like to teach, take all available courses in that area. You should also take speech and composition courses to develop your communication skills.

Postsecondary Training

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and to have completed an accredited teacher-training program, which includes many hours of supervised teaching. There are more than 500 accredited teacher education programs in the United States. Most of these programs are designed to meet the certification requirements for the state in which they are located. Some states may require you to pass a test before being admitted to an education program. You may choose to major in your subject area while taking required education courses, or you may major in secondary education with a concentration in your subject area. Advisers (both in education and in your chosen specialty) will help you select courses.

In addition to a degree, a training period of student teaching in an actual classroom environment is required. Students are placed in schools to work with full-time teachers. During this period, undergraduate students observe the ways in which lessons are presented and the classroom is managed, learn how to keep records of such details as attendance and grades, and get actual experience in handling the class, both under supervision and alone.

Besides licensure and courses in education, prospective high school teachers usually need 24 to 36 hours of college work in the subject they wish to teach. Some states require a master’s degree; teachers with master’s degrees can earn higher salaries. Private schools generally do not require an education degree.

Certification or Licensing

Public school teachers must be licensed under regulations established by the department of education of the state in which they teach. Not all states require licensure for teachers in private or parochial schools. When you’ve received your teaching degree, you may request that a transcript of your college record be sent to the licensure section of the state department of education. If you have met licensure requirements, you will receive a certificate and thus be eligible to teach in that state’s public schools. In some states, you may have to take additional tests. If you move to another state, you will have to resubmit college transcripts, as well as comply with any other regulations in the new state to be able to teach there.

Other Requirements

Working as a secondary school teacher, you’ll need respect for young people and a genuine interest in their success in life. You’ll also need patience; adolescence can be a troubling time for children, and these troubles often affect behavior and classroom performance. Because you’ll be working with students who are at very impressionable ages, you should serve as a good role model. You should also be well organized, as you’ll have to keep track of the work and progress of many students.

Exploring Secondary School Teacher Career

By going to high school, you have already gained a good sense of the daily work of a secondary school teacher. But the requirements of a teacher extend far beyond the classroom, so ask to spend some time with one of your teachers after school, and ask to look at lecture notes and record-keeping procedures. Interview your teachers about the amount of work that goes into preparing a class and directing an extracurricular activity. To get some firsthand teaching experience, volunteer for a peer tutoring program. Many other teaching opportunities may exist in your community. Look into coaching an athletic team at the YMCA, counseling at a summer camp, teaching an art course at a community center, or assisting with a community theater production.


Secondary school teachers are needed at public and private schools, including parochial schools, juvenile detention centers, vocational schools, and schools of the arts. They work in middle schools, junior high schools, and high schools. Though some rural areas maintain schools, most secondary schools are in towns and cities of all sizes. Teachers are also finding opportunities in charter schools, which are smaller, deregulated schools that receive public funding.

Starting Out

After completing the teacher certification process, including your months of student teaching, you’ll work with your college’s placement office to find a full-time position. The departments of education of some states maintain listings of job openings. Many schools advertise teaching positions in the classifieds of the state’s major newspapers. You may also directly contact the principals and superintendents of the schools in which you’d like to work. While waiting for full-time work, you can work as a substitute teacher. In urban areas with many schools, you may be able to substitute on a full-time basis.


Most teachers advance simply by becoming more of an expert in the job that they have chosen. There is usually an increase in salary as teachers acquire experience. Additional training or study can also bring an increase in salary.

A few teachers with management ability and interest in administrative work may advance to the position of principal. Others may advance into supervisory positions, and some may become helping teachers who are charged with the responsibility of helping other teachers find appropriate instructional materials and develop certain phases of their courses of study. Others may go into teacher education at a college or university. For most of these positions, additional education is required. Some teachers also make lateral moves into other education-related positions such as guidance counselor or resource room teacher.


Most teachers are contracted to work nine months out of the year, though some contracts are made for 10 or a full 12 months. (When regular school is not in session, teachers are expected to conduct summer teaching, planning, or other school-related work.) In most cases, teachers have the option of prorating their salary for up to 52 weeks.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for secondary school teachers was $45,920 in 2004. The lowest 10 percent earned $31,180; the highest 10 percent earned $71,370 or more.

The American Federation of Teachers reports that the national average salary for all teachers was $46,597 during the 2003–04 school year. Beginning teachers earned approximately $31,704 a year.

Teachers can also supplement their earnings through teaching summer classes, coaching sports, sponsoring a club, or other extracurricular work.

On behalf of the teachers, unions bargain with schools over contract conditions such as wages, hours, and benefits. A majority of teachers join the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association. Depending on the state, teachers usually receive a retirement plan, sick leave, and health and life insurance. Some systems grant teachers sabbatical leave.

Work Environment

Although the job of the secondary school teacher is not overly strenuous, it can be tiring and trying. Secondary school teachers must stand for many hours each day, do a lot of talking, show energy and enthusiasm, and handle discipline problems. But they also have the reward of guiding their students as they make decisions about their lives and futures.

Secondary school teachers work under generally pleasant conditions, though some older schools may have poor heating and electrical systems. Although violence in schools has decreased in recent years, media coverage of the violence has increased, and so have student fears. In most schools, students are prepared to learn and to perform the work that’s required of them. But in some schools, students may be dealing with gangs, drugs, poverty, and other problems, so the environment can be tense and emotional.

School hours are generally 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., but teachers work more than 40 hours a week teaching, preparing for classes, grading papers, and directing extracurricular activities. As a coach, or as a music or drama director, teachers may have to work some evenings and weekends. Many teachers enroll in masters or doctoral programs and take evening and summer courses to continue their education.

Secondary School Teacher Career Outlook

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that job opportunities for secondary school teachers will range from very good to excellent through 2014, depending on geographic area and subjects taught. Many secondary school teachers will reach retirement age over the next decade and will need to be replaced. The National Education Association believes this will be a challenge because of the low salaries that are paid to secondary school teachers. Higher salaries will be necessary to attract new teachers and retain experienced ones, along with other changes such as smaller classroom sizes and safer schools. Other challenges for the profession involve attracting more men into teaching. The percentage of male teachers at this level continues to decline.

A decline in student enrollments due to lower birth rates will result in average job growth for teachers over the next ten years. Enrollments will vary be region, with the largest enrollments occurring in southern and western states California, Texas, Georgia, Idaho, Hawaii, Alaska, and New Mexico. Teachers who are bilingual and who specialize in subjects such as math and science will be in high demand, especially in urban school districts. In order to attract qualified teachers to these areas, some states and cities have started programs pay for qualified candidates’ graduate school or teacher certification education while the candidate works in a school that is in need of teachers.

In order to improve education for all children, changes are being considered by some districts. Some private companies are managing public schools. Though some believe that a private company can afford to provide better facilities, faculty, and equipment, this hasn’t been proven. Teacher organizations are concerned about taking school management away from communities and turning it over to remote corporate headquarters. Charter schools and voucher programs are two other controversial alternatives to traditional public education. Charter schools, which are small schools that are publicly funded but not guided by the rules and regulations of traditional public schools, are viewed by some as places of innovation and improved educational methods; others see charter schools as ill-equipped and unfairly funded with money that could better benefit local school districts. Vouchers, which exist only in a few cities, allow students to attend private schools courtesy of tuition vouchers; these vouchers are paid for with public tax dollars. In theory, the vouchers allow for more choices in education for poor and minority students, but private schools still have the option of being highly selective in their admissions. Teacher organizations see some danger in giving public funds to unregulated private schools.

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