Teaching

The Path to Becoming a High School Teacher Is Roundabout

The Path to Becoming a High School Teacher Is Roundabout
If you have the requisite fortitude and commitment, helping students in grades nine through twelve navigate some of the most complex years of their lives while also preparing them to go to college or enter the working world can be extraordinarily satisfying work. Image from unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 26, 2020

Becoming a high school teacher isn't as easy as earning a bachelor's degree in education and taking the PRAXIS exam. High school teachers are expected to be subject-matter experts, so you'll need a degree in your area of interest—and that's just the first step.

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Teachers across grade levels have a tough job, but high school teachers face double the challenges. Their students are still kids, but those kids often have adult-sized personal problems. Even the most intelligent, curious, and motivated students may also be rebellious, quick to anger, and unruly.

Also, high school teachers have to do more than merely prepare lesson plans and deliver lectures. They have to make sure students meet state testing standards and the basic admissions requirements of colleges and universities. They also have to referee interpersonal conflicts, help students overcome the emotional hurdles that are a part of most teens’ lives, and keep an eye out for signs of abuse, neglect, and drug addiction.

In short, becoming a high school teacher is no walk in the park. However, if you have the requisite fortitude and commitment, helping students in grades nine through twelve navigate some of the most complex years of their lives while also preparing them to go to college or enter the working world can be extraordinarily satisfying work.

Becoming a high school teacher isn’t as easy as earning a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or Master of Education (MEd) degree and getting licensed. Unlike elementary school teachers (and some middle school teachers who teach multiple subjects each day), high school teachers are subject-matter experts. This may be why high school teachers tend to out-earn their colleagues in K-8 classrooms by about $2,000, to the tune of about $62,000. They have to manage classrooms, develop curricula, grade work, and handle administrative tasks, while also keeping their calculus or chemistry skills sharp and keeping teenagers engaged in the material.

In this article about how to become a high school teacher, we answer the following questions:

  • How is becoming a high school teacher different from becoming a K-8 teacher?
  • What general requirements do high school teachers need to meet?
  • Do I need a master’s degree in education to become a high school teacher?
  • Should I get a master’s degree in the subject I teach?
  • Are there certifications that can help me become a better high school teacher?
  • How long does it take to become a high school teacher?
  • Where can I find the requirements high school teachers must meet in my state?

How is becoming a high school teacher different from becoming a K-8 teacher?

First, high school teachers’ day-to-day duties are very different from those of teachers in elementary school and middle school classrooms. High school teachers teach a single subject to students in multiple grades and levels. On Mondays, you might teach AP Lit, then a freshman English class. Tuesdays, it’s remedial writing and sophomore honors English. You may have students from multiple grades in a single class.

Second, you’ll need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in the subject you teach. Unlike grade school teachers, who usually launch their careers after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education, high school teachers often major in whatever subject they want to teach. Some don’t even go to college to become high school teachers. They major in what they’re passionate about and decide to teach later on.

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Graduate degrees for teachers fall into two categories: the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and the Master of Education (MEd). Many resources indicate that the MAT is the best master’s degree for teachers, while MEd programs are primarily for aspiring educational administrators, policymakers, and other current education professionals who aspire to work outside the classroom. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.

Both MAT and MEd programs tend to be concentration-based, and while there are more part-time and full-time Master of Arts in Teaching programs focused on advanced pedagogic theories and skills, there are also plenty of Master of Education programs with grade-level, subject-area, and student-population concentrations.

In some areas of the US, a teacher with a master’s degree at the top of the salary schedule can earn close to $40,000 more than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that going to graduate school will lead to a substantially bigger paycheck. The only way to know how much you’ll earn after graduating with a master’s in teaching or master’s in education is to look at the salary schedule in your district. You should be able to see at a glance how your education and experience will translate into dollars. (source)

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What general requirements do high school teachers need to meet?

Each state has its own requirements teachers must meet to qualify for licensure, but in all of them, teachers need to earn an undergraduate degree. Unfortunately, there is no one typical degree pathway for aspiring high school teachers. You might find a secondary education bachelor’s degree program that allows you to choose a concentration in the subject you intend to teach. Or, you could major in your subject area and minor in education.

You might also major in secondary education and minor in your subject area. Some aspiring teachers double major in their subject area and education. And, if you already have a bachelor’s degree in your subject, you might consider education degree programs to help you transition into teaching. No matter how you slice it, you’ll almost certainly need to study the subject you want to teach at the college level and complete some form of teacher-preparation program.

Beyond that, licensure requirements differ from state to state. Getting a teacher’s license may involve completing state-mandated education courses, student teaching in a public school or private school setting, taking national and state exams, working with a mentor, or working as an assistant teacher. Aspiring high school teachers often, but not always, have to pass the Praxis II Principles of Teaching and Learning exam for grades 9 through 12 and one or more Praxis II subject tests.

Let’s look at how to become a teacher in Massachusetts, for example. All teachers in MA need to take and pass specific Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure, or MTEL, exams, including subject-matter knowledge exams and a Communication and Literacy Skills exam, and pass state and national background checks. That will get you a Provisional License that’s good for five years maximum. During those five years, you’ll need to complete an approved educator preparation program. Once you have that, you’ll be eligible for an Initial License. To get a full Professional License, you’ll need to complete a master’s degree program that includes 12 credit hours of coursework in specific subjects or an approved teacher education program.

Do I need a master’s degree in education to become a high school teacher?

Whether you need a master’s degree to become a high school teacher depends on where you plan to work. In some states, e.g., New York, a bachelor’s degree will get you into the classroom, but you’ll need to earn a master’s degree within a set number of years to renew your license. In others, e.g., Georgia, you won’t need to earn a master’s degree to meet the professional development and continuing education requirements associated with renewing your teaching license. There are also a few states—Pennsylvania is one of them— where teachers can either earn additional undergraduate teacher education credits or take graduate-level courses to maintain their credentials.

The MAT and MEd are the two main master’s degrees for teachers. The Master of Arts in Teaching is sometimes described as the degree for those who plan to spend their entire careers in the classroom. In contrast, the Master of Education is described as the degree for administration, policy, or curriculum design. The reality is more complicated than that. You can pursue an MAT in Secondary Education, but there are also MEd in Secondary Education programs very much designed for educators with no intention of transitioning out of teaching.

Even if secondary school teachers in your state aren’t required to have graduate-level teaching degrees to obtain teaching certifications, there are some compelling reasons to look into master degree programs for teachers. The number of states that require teachers to earn a master’s degree eventually to maintain licensure is increasing, and more teachers are earning master’s degrees. You may ultimately need an MAT or an MEd to stay competitive.

More importantly, teachers with master’s degrees earn more. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, a master’s degree typically results in pay increases of between $1,423 (Texas) and $10,777 (Washington), with a median boost of around $5,000.

Should I get a master’s degree in the subject I teach?

A whopping ninety percent of teachers who earn master’s degrees hold degrees in teaching or education, not in their subject area. This may be because it’s easier to predict the value of an MAT or an MEd than it is to predict the value of a graduate degree in the subject you teach.

However, don’t assume there are no benefits to earning a master’s in the subject you teach. You’ll still get an income boost from a subject-specific graduate degree. The National Center for Education Statistics has found that teachers with master’s degrees earn 26 percent more than those without advanced degrees ($60,140 vs $47,770), regardless of which degree they pursue.

A subject-specific master’s degree can also help you stand out from the crowd when applying for teaching jobs—especially if you teach in a STEM field where discoveries occur all the time. Earning a master’s degree in the subject you teach should also make you a better teacher. You’ll have a deeper understanding of your discipline than most high school teachers and more to share with your students.

Are there certifications that can help me become a better high school teacher?

It’s easy to get confused when searching for teachers’ certifications because, in many states, the word certification refers to licensure. Becoming a certified teacher or getting a teacher certification is the same as getting a license granted by the department of education in the state where you plan to teach.

There are, however, plenty of additional credentials high school teachers can pursue to get a professional edge or become better teachers. Some are granted by the state while others are granted by independent organizations like the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages or ETS. There are educational technology certifications, teacher leadership certifications, foreign language instruction certifications, health sciences certifications, and other subject-specific certifications high school teachers can pursue. The certification offered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is considered the top advanced credential for teachers.

How long does it take to become a high school teacher?

If you don’t already have a bachelor’s degree in the subject you want to teach, and you haven’t taught in elementary or middle school classrooms, becoming a high school teacher will take you about five years. This assumes that you major in education and minor in your subject area, so you don’t need to complete a separate teaching training program before taking the required licensure exams.

The fastest way to become a teacher involves relocating to a state with a teacher shortage, where the board of education has approved alternative certification processes designed to get more teachers into schools with critical teacher shortages. Alternative certification programs take many forms, including fast-track teaching programs and programs that guarantee non-certified teachers classroom placements and master’s degree funding if they commit to teaching in underserved school districts for a certain number of years.

Where can I find the requirements high school teachers must meet in my state?

Figuring out what qualifications you’ll need to become a high school teacher in your state can be tricky. The US Department of Education website, which keeps lists of all the education agencies by state (including contact information for each agency and links to agency websites), is an excellent place to start. Because state guidelines are often confusing, the best thing you can do is reach out to the department of education in your state to ask for the specific guidelines for high school educators.

Ultimately, becoming a high school teacher isn’t that complicated. Sticking with it can be. You need to pick a subject you love so don’t get bored and then bore your students. Think about your favorite high school teachers. Chances are they were the ones who were most enthusiastic about the material. And you need to like teaching because there will be days throughout your teaching career in which you don’t necessarily like your students. As math teacher Paula Barrocas put it, “You have to be truly in love with teaching! If you start teaching high school without really knowing this is the life for you, you’ll be frustrated with your job because teenagers are annoying and confrontational and don’t know how to behave. If you are willing to look past this teenager thing, most of them are really good people, and they have kind, passionate hearts.”

This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated on January 11, 2024 to reflect the most recent data on the subject.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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