Social Studies & History Education

The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Social Studies Teacher

The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Social Studies Teacher
As philosopher George Santayana famously observed about the importance of studying history: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Image from Unsplash
Hannah Grabenstein profile
Hannah Grabenstein October 1, 2019

History, geography, civics, economics, religion, law: as a social studies teacher, you are the repository of a literal world of information. If you're ready to teach students how the world works and how to make sense of it all, this is the job for you.

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With all the focus these days on STEM instruction, it’s easy to forget the importance of a thorough humanities education that includes social studies. STEM disciplines may prepare students for high-paying jobs, but a solid grounding in the social sciences—civics, geography, economics, religion, history—provides them with the context they need to make sense of the world. That’s important, too.

Social studies teachers—who may teach broad social science surveys or specialize in such narrow fields as human geography—guide students through complex subject matter to help them understand their place in history, their community, the nation, and the world. And they have to make it engaging, no mean feat with kids who would rather be looking at their phones than at a map of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Becoming an effective social studies teacher requires more than just a love of political science, history, and philosophy. It requires a great deal of training and a great deal of planning. Social studies teachers must decide what field and grade level they want to teach, where they want to teach, and how they hope to advance their careers.

So, you want to know how to become a social studies teacher?

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The pros and cons of becoming a social studies teacher
  • The educational commitment to become a social studies teacher
  • Resources for becoming a social studies teacher
  • Kinds of social studies teacher careers
  • Licensure programs and accreditation for becoming a social studies teacher
  • The typical advancement path for social studies teachers
  • Further accreditation or education for social studies teachers

Pros and cons of becoming a social studies teacher

Con: income level

It’s no secret that teaching is not a high-paying profession. However, it also shouldn’t require a vow of poverty. A social studies teacher can, in fact, earn a comfortable living. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for high school teachers was about $62,360 a year in 2023. Middle school teachers make a little less; according to Payscale, the median annual pay for middle-school social studies teachers is about $54,000. A master’s degree will give your income a welcome boost.


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Pro: job satisfaction

While you won’t make what a lawyer of day trader earns as a social studies teacher, you’ll probably be a lot happier than they are. According to a National Center for Education Statistics report , 90 percent of public school teachers and 95 percent of private school teachers report high levels of satisfaction with their jobs. Teachers cite their impact on students, peer support, opportunities for creativity, and their involvement in lifelong learning among the reasons they love their jobs.

Educational commitment to become a social studies teacher

There are many ways to become a teacher, and becoming a social studies teacher is no different. A bachelor’s degree is typically enough to secure an entry-level job as a middle- or high-school teacher, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Most school systems prefer teachers to have a bachelor’s degree in education or, at the secondary school level, a degree in the field they hope to each, e.g. history, geography, or anthropology.

A few schools offer specific majors in social studies teaching. They include:

  • Ball State University
  • Boston University
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Temple University
  • Washington State University

Each state has its own teaching certification requirements. Most also require that you complete a teacher preparation program in which you learn educational methods, complete a student training experience, and undergo a background check. Many states require social studies teachers to pass the Praxis-Social Studies exam in order to earn certification.

Some states require teachers to hold a master’s degree by the time they are due for license renewal, typically five years after they are initially hired. Most states offer an increase in pay to teachers who hold a master’s. Whether it’s mandatory or just beneficial, a master’s is a good degree for social studies teachers. A masters in teaching, a masters in education, or a master’s in your social studies area of expertise can each improve your teaching and advance your career.

Resources for becoming a social studies teacher

  • The National Council for the Social Studies is a professional organization dedicated to improving the quality of social studies education “by providing leadership, services, and support to educators.” It regularly holds institutes and webinars, often free, on topics like “Teach Different: Become The Social Studies Teacher Your Students Remember” or “Early Childhood and Elementary Education Community.” The organization offers a digital library, publications, and a podcast, all devoted to helping effective social studies teachers improve their skills.
  • Other professional groups, like the National Education Association, also facilitate educator preparation with social studies lesson plans, classroom management ideas, teaching strategies, and advice and support.
  • If you’re looking for scholarships or funding for your education, consider a government TEACH grant. They’re for students who attend approved teaching programs and agree to teach for at least four years post-graduation in high-needs fields that serve low-income families. Although social studies is not included in the list of high needs fields nationally, certain districts and states do report a lack of social studies teachers. Check the government’s report on teacher shortage areas to see if where you plan to teach would qualify you for the grant.

Kinds of social studies teacher careers

Once you decide to become a social studies teacher, you need to choose among public schools, private schools or charter schools. Check out our article on deciding which of those school types feels right for you. Basically, charter schools are public schools with no oversight by local school boards; they are also typically non-union jobs. Private schools often do not require a state-mandated license or teaching certificate.

You’ll also have to decide which grade is right for you. If you don’t know which grade you prefer, you may be able to narrow down your social studies preferences among elementary school, middle (or junior high) school, and high school. Here’s our guide to making that choice.

Once you’ve decided what grade and type of school you’re interested in (and even if you haven’t) you may also want to consider whether there’s a specific area of social studies that you’d like to teach. The National Council of Social Studies lists some areas that help define the field. They include disciplines such as:

  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Economics
  • Geography
  • History
  • Law
  • Philosophy
  • Political science
  • Psychology
  • Religion
  • Sociology

Check with your specific state or school district to see what types of courses are offered; in general, high schools will offer more specific class types than primary education.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming a social studies teacher

Most states require additional certifications beyond the bachelor’s degree to teach in public schools. Check with your state to see what specific licenses or certifications are required for becoming a teacher, because they vary.

Each state requirement program is different, though there are similarities. Many states require prospective teachers to complete an educator-preparation program after earning their bachelor’s. You’ll likely need to spend time gaining clinical experiences by student teaching and pass a certification test in your intended subject and/or grade level. A high school certification might only require mastery of a specific field of expertise (e.g., US history, geography), while a primary school certification might ask for a demonstration of knowledge in a variety of subjects.

Your state may require you to complete professional development classes to maintain your teaching license or certification. You also may be required to complete a master’s degree. Again, check your state’s certification requirements. Administrators at the school where you work should be aware of these requirements and may help you pursue license renewal.

Typical advancement path for social studies teachers

For many teachers, the classroom is the apex of their profession, and they feel no need to move beyond it. Others are ready for a change after a few years, or a few decades, in front of a blackboard.

For those looking to pivot, opportunities abound. Teachers with years of experience may advance to a “lead teacher” or social studies department head; in doing so, these teachers can serve as mentors and help new teachers improve their skills.

A social science teacher who obtains additional certification or education can also pursue a career as a school counselor, librarian, or instructional coordinator. School counselors are usually required to have a master’s degree in school counseling and state-issued credentials. According to the BLS, school counseling jobs are increasing at an 8 percent rate, much faster than the national average for all occupations (5 percent). Librarians typically need a master’s in library science and teaching experience or certifications. Instructional coordinators also usually need a master’s degree and teaching experience.

Some teachers may aspire to the role of assistant principal or principal. Entering school administration requires additional education, typically a master’s degree in education administration or leadership. The median pay for principals is around $101,320 a year, according to the BLS.

Further accreditation or education for social studies teachers

In addition to the webinars or voluntary classes offered by groups like the National Council for Social Studies or the National Education Association, some states require continuing education, renewal of teacher’s licenses, or additional certification programs. In Colorado, for example, teachers renewing their licenses must demonstrate 45 hours of applicable professional development in “culturally and linguistically diverse education training.” In North Carolina, license renewal (which occurs every five years after the initial three-year license expires) requires additional credits in coursework like the teacher’s subject area, digital learning competencies, and literacy.

Social studies educators may also choose to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which some states use for teacher licensure or teacher certification.

School teachers also often choose to pursue further degrees, sometimes by completing an online master’s program, which can be more affordable and offer more flexibility than traditional master’s programs.

No one is suggesting that the STEM disciplines aren’t important. But in the process of promoting science, math, and technology, let’s not overlook the humanities, which provide us with… well, humanity. And wisdom: as the philosopher George Santayana famously observed about the importance of studying history: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Are you ready to help humanity avoid repeating past mistakes? Then you’ve got what it takes to be a social studies teacher.

(Updated on January 11, 2024)

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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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