Deciding the Best Grade to Teach
by Seth Sosebee
The importance of deciding the best grade to teach is nearly as crucial as the choice to become an educator in the first place. When you apply for a job, you'll need your resume and cover letter to reflect why you want to teach a specific age group and your passion for helping those young people succeed.
To help aspiring teachers make this important decision, we spoke with teachers who work with students across various grades. We hope this helps you gain some perspective on what it's like to teach children of every age. For those asking, "What grade should I teach?" here's your guide to the pros and cons of teaching elementary, middle and high school.
1. What it's like to teach elementary school
Elementary school students are enthusiastic, curious and responsive to their teachers. There is a wide range of development occurring within and between each grade, which creates a dynamic environment for educators.
The benefits of teaching elementary school
Lydia Latta, a retired fifth-grade teacher, says that the best part of teaching elementary school is the nature of students. "[Students] are, on the whole, curious, enthusiastic, and even when they are trying to be cool, still willing and eager to be engaged with adults who care about them," she said.
For Latta, watching her students learn is one of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator at this level. "My favorite lessons are those where students work together to try to solve a problem designed to bring them to a new understanding of a concept ― their excitement is contagious as they discover answers for themselves."
The challenges of teaching elementary school
The challenges Latta identifies in working with elementary school children often come from external factors, like students' home life or institutional realities. "Overcrowded classrooms and a myriad of administrative tasks only contribute to that difficulty," she says. "Every teacher I know feels that they could be more successful if they had fewer students and more time to teach."
Young children often are dealing with issues at home, which makes their time in the classroom challenging. "Many elementary school students come to school with barriers to learning that have little to do with education: family issues, health problems, food insecurity and fear for their personal safety," she says. "It is difficult and time-consuming to break through these to develop relationships of trust and a classroom climate that fosters positive attitudes toward learning."
Of course, these difficulties are not exclusive to elementary school. But studies show that students who don't meet the minimum standards in their elementary years are more likely to underperform academically throughout the rest of their education. These studies add additional pressure to elementary school educators, which is important to know if you're still asking yourself, "What age group should I teach?"
2. What it's like to teach middle school
Middle school teachers bear witness to students working through a whole new range of emotional growth, but also boundary-testing behavior, hormonal moodiness, and lots of opinions.
The benefits of teaching middle school
Anna Glasgow has taught science for seven years at McDougle Middle School in North Carolina. She enjoys working with students this age, as well as the unique format and structure that comes with being a middle school teacher.
"The kids are excitable, loving and more willing to volunteer in front of their peers," she says. Students are still into science and they haven't decided to give up, she said, adding that they're also less addicted to their phones than older students.
Additionally, there are some perks to teaching middle schoolers that high school teachers are not typically privy to. "There is enough flexibility in the curriculum for both teacher and student choice," Glasgow says. "There is time for projects, games, team-building, field trips and celebrations. In other words, it's fun!"
At Glasgow's school, teachers of the same subject are grouped into cooperative teams. She says this creates a feeling of community within her department, which she enjoys.
The challenges of teaching middle school
"Middle schoolers are more needy on a day-to-day basis," says Glasgow. "They have a lot of questions. They need positive, caring adults during their emotional ups and downs, but it's also nice to know you are needed and have students that want to build a relationship with you."
Middle schoolers also make for a noisy work environment, and often require a large amount of teacher-parent contact, because they cannot yet advocate well for themselves. "It's exhausting but never boring," she says.
3. What it's like to teach high school
High school students are quickly approaching adulthood. During this time, they must seriously consider careers, SAT scores, GPAs and college acceptances. Students are often also struggling to manage their social lives, extracurriculars and part-time jobs, along with their schoolwork.
The benefits of teaching high school
In my own teaching experience, I value stewarding young adults as they try to find their place in the world. High school students can dig deeper into the concepts they're learning.
They're also about to step out of the confines of their local school and into the broader world. "Students in high school can see the finish line," says Will Lutz, who has taught social studies for six years in the DeKalb County School District, outside of Atlanta. "They are beginning to formulate an interest that can lead to a career."
The challenges of teaching high school
"You are teaching content that is challenging, and you have the discretion to allow the students to work independently," Lutz says. Challenges vary from the stress of balancing school and work to issues in their home or social lives. It is not surprising that the Pew Research Center found 70 percent of high school students report "anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers." Still, high school teachers can have a lasting impact on their students' academic and career decisions.