Teaching Tuesday: Choosing Elementary vs. Secondary School

By Tracy Vasquez, Emily Farkas, and Dusty Sanchez, faculty

young students raising hands in class

As you prepare for a career in education, you may find it challenging to decide which grade level you would like to teach, such as elementary or high school. 

No matter which school setting you choose, there will be opportunities to grow in your profession. Each setting has differences to explore, including teaching responsibilities, developmental levels of students, and subject matter expertise being taught.

Teaching Responsibilities

All teachers will have “other duties as assigned” as a part of their contract. This will look different for each teacher, depending on the setting in which you choose to teach. Typical elementary schools have arranged school functions to be done by assigning teachers “duties” such as recess duty, bus duty, after-school duty, lunch duty, etc.

There are also usually evening rotating social and academic events for the teachers to assist in planning and hosting. A few of these examples are literacy night, math competitions, book fairs, craft fairs, science fairs, talent shows, art shows, concerts and plays. High schools may also have some of these similar events.

However, in high school, teachers will typically volunteer to take on the sponsor role of a club or group at the school and would take on the bulk of the planning responsibilities for that activity. Serving as a teacher sponsor of a club could earn you some additional money as a stipend for your time.

No matter the setting, being involved in after-school activities with students allows you to stay connected with a hobby or interest that is important for you. You will also to get to know your students better and build strong relationships with the community.

Developmental Levels

Good teachers take into consideration the principles of educational psychology for each age level they work with. Teaching strategies in elementary schools revolve around many cooperative learning strategies, including Kagan strategies. As an elementary teacher you can teach subject matter in a thematic style by overlapping standards of several content areas in one unit or lesson. This instruction can include music, movement and manipulatives.

As grade-levels progress, there is more opportunity to engage your students in higher order thinking strategies, such as using the Socratic method. Another potential area that differs is the use of technology for instruction. Elementary teachers may use technology to display content or build skills with their students. However, as students progress in technology competencies and take on more independent investigations, they are ready to be challenged to use technology as tools for learning and for demonstrating their learning.

Depending upon your personality and teaching style, you may also find your best fit is working with older or younger students. Some considerations for finding this fit is your sense of humor and level of extroversion.

Subject Matter Expertise

While you must be knowledgeable in the subject matter you are going to teach, the school setting in which you teach will determine the number of subject areas you will need to plan for, teach and assess. Elementary school teachers prepare for an interdisciplinary approach. They will need to be prepared in all or most of the content areas that their students will be learning. You will likely be teaching mathematics, English language arts, science, social studies and possibly also physical education, music and art.

Secondary school teachers are focused on one or two content areas. These teachers are content experts and can be very passionate about their subject matter. High school courses may include some specialty courses, including dance, ceramics, drama, choir, band, videography or photography. Some of these teachers can share their expertise teaching a career and technical education (CTE) course, such as automotive, workshop, cooking or agriculture.

Teaching in each type of school setting can look and feel very different. As you seek the best fit for you, take some time to reflect on your interests and your personal teaching philosophy. Do some “window shopping” by exploring different settings and if possible, seek out multiple practicum placements to experience a variety of settings in action. You will eventually find a match that best aligns with the environment in which you want to teach.

Want more? Check out all of the articles from Teaching Tuesday and return each week for a new post. To learn more about the College of Education and our degree programs, join in our efforts to elevate the education profession.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.