Pros and Cons of Teaching High School, Advice From the Trenches

Do you prefer vomit or profanity? This is a fundamental question you’ll have to ask yourself when deciding which grade level you want to teach. If you’re confused, little kids throw up and big ones curse. Yes, there are other factors to consider as well.

My experience consists of one year in middle school and eighteen years in high school. I cannot speak with direct knowledge to elementary school, but have had many deep discussions with primary school teachers.

If you are trying to decide whether to teach high school or elementary, or are thinking of changing grades, there are many things to consider. They are two very different jobs. One entails corralling 25 cute, adoring children all day and the other throws you in a room with brash young adults with raging hormones.


More Engaging Content

The is a biggie. As a high school teacher you are engaging in content at a much higher level than in the earlier years. As a history teacher I cannot imagine building long houses like the Iriquois lived in year after year.

That sounds random, but when my son was in second grade he came home with that assignment. A seven-year-old cannot make a long house by himself! So I researched, studied architectural drawings and went foraging for sticks. I was very proud of my — I mean Bobby’s — long house. That is until he came home from school the next day very angry and informed me that I made the worst long house in the class!

Back to the topic, you can really teach interesting topics that are engaging not just for your students, but for you as the teacher, too. Teaching quadratic equations instead of the multiplication tables is much less mind-numbing in my humble opinion.

Why should you never shower around Pokemon? They may Pikachu!

It’s fun, they get your jokes

Interacting with almost-adults is so much more stimulating than the little ones! I love a good corny joke or play-on-words and high school kids actually understand them. They may groan, but they get it.

The students themselves can be hysterical. Every year I have a handful of truly funny kids. They’re bright and quick-witted and keep you on your toes. The mental challenges exponentially increase teaching high school versus middle or elementary.

Higher Stakes Social-Emotional Learning

Social emotional learning is crucial at every grade level. And many of the skills, such as self-control, need to be part of the curriculum for all grades. At the high school level, however, I think the stakes are so much higher. Students are making decisions that can truly change their lives for the better, or have a negative impact for literally decades.

One of the top reasons I chose to become a teacher was the hopes of positively affecting some young lives. Yes, I can teach history well and students will remember some of it ten years from now. But you can live a full life without ever knowing anything about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But changing a student’s mindset can have far reaching effects. I teach in an urban school with a diverse population of kids ethnically, socially and economically. Some of the students are very sheltered and need “street smarts”. Others need a broader view of society.

The most important emotional learning any teacher can model for students is a positive mindset. I see negativity, hopelessness, anger and a jaded outlook from some of kids every year. This emanates from home environment, harrowing circumstances, tragic events, innate personality and many other reasons.

If you’ve ever connected with a young person and shifted their outlook from “I can’t” to “I can” it’s powerful. “I can’t” is not allowed in my classroom. “I can’t yet” is.

More Overtime Opportunities

It’s no secret that teaching is not a high-paying profession. According the Ed Week 20% of teachers have second jobs. The easier way to earn more income is right in your school building. Most high schools offer ways to bring home extra income. You can run a club, coach, teach night school, tutor, produce a play or teach summer school.

Teach A Subject You Love

As an elementary school teacher you are tasked with teaching several subjects. I know some schools have “specials” but generally you’re the science teacher, math teacher, social studies teacher, reading teacher, etc. every day. Not only is that a LOT of preparation, but you may not like some subjects.

A high school teacher is a specialist who gets to choose their content area. If you have a passion for math, science, English or history you get to envelope yourself in the topic every day — and get paid for it. It’s awesome!

Never Bored (except meetings)

Each and every day brings new challenges and surprises. I can honestly say I have never been bored one day in the last 19 years of teaching. That excludes, as mentioned above, meetings. Most faculty and professional development meetings are rather brutal. Fortunately they’re infrequent.

The only caveat to the never-bored edict is if you teach the same class five times a day. That can get old. I have taught at least two subjects most of the time, but once or twice spent the whole day espousing just U.S. history. One antidote to this problem is to hone the lesson each time you teach it. Also, every class is different, so your approach can change, even though it’s the same lesson.

Higher Level Interactions and Discussion

I’m not going to lie, this does not always happen. You can ask a provocative question expecting a lively exchange of ideas and get, well, not that. There are ways to scaffold debates and discussions that will improve your results.

I have enjoyed many out-of-the-box opinions and ideas during whole class interactions. Even if it doesn’t meet your expectations, it will be better than debating which character of Paw Patrol is the best (though high school kids have opinions on that, too)

You Get to See the Results of Your Labor More Often

There have been dozens of times that graduates come back to their alma mater to visit their old teachers and catch up. I have to believe — but have no data to back it up — that this happens less often in grade school.

You can physically feel your heart swell when an old student, especially one you were concerned about, comes back two or four years later and they are thriving young men and women.

I live in the neighborhood where I teach and run into graduates all the time. Last year I was in the gym (not my favorite place to see students!) and a woman came up to me, “Ms. M, is that you?” It took me a bit to remember her. She graduated eight years ago and earned a graduate degree in biochemical engineering! I cried. Then she said, “I hope you’re still teaching, because you really inspired me.” I cried some more.

More Non-Teaching Days

I love my job, but damn, it’s tiring! Breaks are so necessary. And high school teachers get more of them than other grades. In New York State there are Regents exam week twice a year. We have to proctor the occasional test and that ‘s it all week. It’s so amazing!

Then there are PSATs and SATs, prom, senior trip, talent show, field day, just to name a few other days out of the classroom.

Get the Chance to Prepare Them for Adulthood

As a high school teacher you can directly affect life decisions that your students make. It’s a big responsibility as well as a wonderful opportunity. There are still seniors in high school who believe they will be pro-basketball players, even though they’re not even playing varsity. Someone has to get into their psyches and guide them to have a “Plan B”.

I am a bit of a contrarian when I lecture my kids. Students have been brainwashed since kindergarten that they MUST go to college or they’re losers. College for all is the mantra. Nope, not buying it.

The drop-out rate at community and city colleges is not pretty. Nation-wide 40% of students drop out of 4-year institutions. The rate for community college is even higher. Many others graduate with “soft degrees” that don’t afford concrete, marketable skills. These young adults are racking up student debt that will plague them for decades to come.

At the same time there is a shortage of skilled, high-paying labor jobs sitting vacant. Have you tried to get a reliable contractor who knows what he’s doing to your house?!

You can get HVAC certification in a year. Or attend a proprietary school for coding, MRI tech, court reporter (that was my last career) or a plethora of other highly sought-after skills.

My brother has a high school education, is talented in the trades and makes WAY more than I do with my fancy-shmancy Master’s Degree!

Sorry for the rant. The point is students will look to you for advice on important life decisions. And I’m not knocking elementary teachers. Teaching a love of learning and fundamental skills are very, very important.

Fewer Tears and Vomit

Young children cry — a lot! And they eat fourteen cupcakes and get sick. And they are often very emotionally needy. Filling those needs takes a special, patient, lovely person. I am grateful for the many amazing teachers my two children had in elementary school. And that mean one, my daughter’s fifth grade teacher, you can do a lot of damage. Go sell insurance, please!


Witness Self-Destructive Behavior

Teenagers’ brains are not fully developed, especially the frontal lobe where good decisions are made. They are impulsive, have no sense of mortality and sometimes engage in self-destructive behavior.

It’s hard to watch. And oftentimes there’s nothing you can do. I’ve watched brilliant young girls fall for a loser boy (sorry, I know that’s harsh) and she changes overnight. Peer pressure is incredible in high school. Some students come to class clearly high. It’s an emotionally difficult part of the job to be a helpless witness as a student of yours goes down the wrong path.

Gangs and Violence

There are fights in grade school, I know. But the students and bigger and stronger and the fights are worse in high school. Last year in the middle of (a very engaging!) mini-lecture a girl burst into my room, grabbed my student and started pummeling her. There was blood and hair left at the scene when it was over. It shook me up for days because that girl was in my charge and I couldn’t protect her.

Gangs are another problem. Some schools suffer more than others. It’s hard to spot them; they don’t wear their “colors” to class. Other times there are not formal gangs but groups that don’t get along. They hide knives in bushes around the school to fight later. I hate that any of my kids ever have to witness, let alone be victim to, violence. But it happens.


I have been told, “Suck my #@$%” numerous times. Usually by a girl, which really cracks me up. Teens curse, a lot. I insist on professional language in the classroom, but sometimes they slip. If this offends your sensibilities greatly, don’t teach high school.

By the way if you curse as part of your vernacular DO NOT use the language in class. Nothing happens to students for foul language, but you will get into BIG trouble!

They’re just not as cute

When I see the grammar school kids get off the school bus near my house they are so darned adorable! Teens, not so much. They can be awkward and a bit ripe after gym class.

So I get cute from cat videos on YouTube and always have a window cracked in the class, even in the wintertime. Problem solved.

Less Respect and Adoration

Little kids LOVE their teacher. They hold them in high esteem; they’re a surrogate parent. That can be intoxicating. You bask in the adoration and still get to send them home at the end of the day, sweet!

In high school this is not the case. students have six other teachers besides you, so you have a one in seven chance of being their favorite. And even if you are the favorite it’s not blind affection. They’re teens, adoration is saved for their favorite band and crush-of-the-month.

You need a thick skin to teach high school. And you cannot take things personally, even when they are aimed at you personally. It’s par for the course. Deal with it.

Frustration with Low Skills

This is a tough one. I have students who read and write at a 3rd grade level. There is no way I am going to bring them up to grade level one period a day for a semester.

There are, however, things you can do. Differentiating for these kids is imperative. You can read about that here. Guiding them through hacks and tricks to comprehend at least the gist of reading passages is a life skill for them. Working with their counselor to ensure that they are given guidance for options after high school is crucial.

The thing to remember is that not everybody has to be a rocket scientist. I know, and I’m sure you do, too, adults with basic jobs who are well-rounded and happy. Perhaps a student will deliver packages for Fed Ex or UPS in the future. They can pay the rent with that. And have time with their families, maybe coach soccer, play in a band, etc. Everyone has a different life path and one is not better than the next.

Student Apathy

Yeah, I don’t care. I hate school. History is about old, dead white guys. I’m never going to use geometry (kind of true). I just don’t do homework. I just need a passing grade and I’m good.

You will face a number of these kids every year. And it’s frustrating. Last year I had Dan in my elective course. He showed up two of three times a week; he went home early on the other days. Handed in a rudimentary classwork handout. And he’s smart, really smart!

Dan told me very clearly: I have a job in a trade union waiting for me when I graduate. I just need the diploma. A 65 grade is fine. And nothing I said persuaded him otherwise.

If you need all your students to be prepared and excited to work it’s not going to happen. My mission with Dan was relegated to not letting him distract the other students. That’s the best I could do. And sometimes that’s the way it is.


Is this an impartial comparison on teaching high school versus elementary or middle school? Heck no. I spent one year in middle school and am still twitching. But there are a few teachers who love that age and my hat is off to them. Middle school is a critical point in a child’s education. Grade school is charged with creating literate scholars. All tough stuff.

Thankfully, there are teachers whose superpower lends itself to each level. If the negatives I listed in this article sound horrific, perhaps the younger grades would be better suited to you.

Oh, I forgot to mention one “pro” that each and every grade shares: summer! Teaching is physically and emotionally draining. But then there’s summer.


Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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