As a History teacher, I believe I have one of the best jobs in the world. Every day I get to share my passion for the past with hundreds of students and I never grow tired of seeing people become fascinated with all of the crazy and impressive things that humans have done over thousands of years.
But what is it like to be a History teacher? What does a typical day look like?
If you’ve ever considered becoming an educator and were curious about what a career in teaching was like, or if you're simply curious, then I thought I would share some answers to those questions above.
From the Colosseum to the Cuban Missile Crisis
When you teach History for a living, you are expected to know an incredibly wide range of historical information.
It is common to walk into the first class for the day and teach the intricacies of ancient Egyptian mummification, and then an hour later, walk into a different class and explain the complex political causes the led to the outbreak of the First World War.
Then, an hour after that, a whole new class needs to learn about how the Nazi regime could have justified the horrors of the Holocaust.
By the end of a single day, I have covered topics from over five thousand years of History, which result in both wide-eyed excitement and disbelieving horror from my students.
It is this amazing variety of topics that makes History a great subject to teach. You can never exhaust the things that you can talk about from the past and, no matter how much content you cover, you always feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of history.
One of the most unpredictable variables in teaching is negotiating how different students think and, as a result, the kind of questions they ask. In a class of 30 students, you have 30 different minds tracking on 30 different wave-lengths. As a result, on any given topic, the questions students ask can be extremely ‘left of field’.
For example, in one lesson when I was talking about Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, my class was surprised to learn that Magellan had died before completing the journey. One student asked why Magellan is credited with being the first to circle the globe when he didn’t survive the entire event. Another student wanted to know who took charge of the expedition in his absence and what name we could alternatively attribute the circumnavigation to. Another asked who had killed Magellan and what weapons were used in the deed, whilst another student wanted to know when Magellan's wife and family heard the news of his death, or did they simply find out when he didn't step off the ship to greet them during the 'welcome home' ceremony. This was an impressive array of questions, and they all occurred in the first ten minutes of the lesson!
Inquiring minds are what we live for as teachers, so as crazy as these queries were, I love encouraging students to ask them. Some questions are so interesting that I can sometimes modify my lesson plan ‘on the fly’ and turn it into a research-based lesson where students find the answers they were looking for. Sadly, there is never enough time to satisfy all of the curiosity in the allotted teaching time and we hope that students are fuelled by their questions to become life-long learners outside of the four walls of our classrooms.
Argue with me
One of the great skills that History teachers give to their students is the ability to argue well. Mundane assessment tasks such as analytical paragraphs and essays teach students to support an argument with solid evidence. Therefore, it is common to have entire lessons devoted to teaching students how to write a well-structured paragraph. They will not the most exciting or memorable lessons, but it does mean that students learn that simply having an opinion about something is not enough, and that they should provide quality reasons to support their claims.
This not only improves their grades through improved assignment submission, but it also improves the quality of open discussion that occurs in the classroom. It is incredibly satisfying to see young students who began voicing random opinions who, after a year or two of History studies, present a coherent and persuasive point in discussion that is based upon the historical sources they’ve encountered in class.
Playing a role
On rare occasions, when students have been working through some very heavy content, it is fun to put my students in the place of the historical people they’ve been learning about. Role play activities allows students to engage their imaginations and pretend to be a historical personality. For example, students have fun using the chairs and tables from the room to re-enact trench warfare from WWI, or cram next to each other under a row of chairs to experience how horrendous the conditions were on the slaves ships during the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Roleplaying is one of the toughest things to integrate into a History lesson. Time is limited, and there are assessment pieces to complete, which means that implementing roleplays are not always possible. However, creating empathy for people in the past is difficult, and roleplaying allows students engage with difficult concepts through personalising them.
As much as I love being a History teacher, there is one obvious detraction: the marking. Like English teachers, History teachers face a huge pile of reading both at drafting and final submission stage. When you have a class of 30 students, each writing a 1000 word essay, marking requires reading 30,000 words when students submit their drafts, then the same amount of reading when the final essays are submitted. Added to the sheer reading is the time it takes to highlight errors, suggest improvements and provide a fully-justified grade.
It is no exaggeration to say that each paper takes 20 minutes to read and report upon. Some simple maths says that a class of 30 assignments takes 8 hours of work. And remember, that is only one class. Most teachers have 5-6 classes. Where do teachers find time to do this? Sadly, teachers frequently give up their weekends to do it.
...and everything else
Regardless of which subject you teach, teachers’ days are also filled with random jobs that pop up without warning. A typical day will see me leading debating meetings during lunchtime, catching up one-on-one with students who want further help with their work, meetings with parents, department meetings with other teachers, playground duty, plus much more.
The best job in the world
There is nothing I would rather do than be a high school History teacher. I don’t wake up in the morning hating the idea of going to work. After many years of this job, I still get excited at the start of every lesson, as I look forward to teaching my students something they’ve never heard before. While I still have decades of teaching ahead of me, I cannot imagine doing anything else.
I hope that has given you a bit of a taste of what History teaching is like. Are you considering become an educator? What else do you wish you knew about the life of a teacher?
Write a comment
Paul Baker (Monday, 23 July 2018 15:35)
Love it. I felt you were describing my days precisely. I think you’ve captured the essence of the joys of teaching history particularly the light bulb moments in the minds of the students as well as the reconstruction of lessons on the fly to capture that genuine inquiry. I concur when you point to the two big weights we carry; the inability to give sufficient time to role play, as empathy is the greatest gift of emancipation that we enable and of course, the marking. My family knows only too well how many weekends over all these years that I have given to my students instead of my family.
History Skills (Monday, 23 July 2018 16:59)
Thanks for the feedback, Paul. It is great to hear that other History teachers experience the same highs and lows as I do. Also, you make a good point about our families: they are often the silent victims in our pursuit of our teaching goals.
Jess (Tuesday, 24 July 2018 18:21)
Hi there, I'm learning to be a history/English teacher (I graduate at the end of next year). I love the idea of teaching trench warfare as a role play. What are you instructions for teaching this activity?
History Skills (Tuesday, 24 July 2018 18:54)
Thanks for the comment, Jess. There are many free role play examples for trench warfare online. There is a link to one below. I wish you all the best as you complete your training to be a teacher. You're about to enter a wonderful and crazy world. Make sure you stay in touch if you have any questions or need any help. Here is the link: http://civics.sites.unc.edu/files/2012/05/TrenchwarefareinWWI.pdf
Maddy (Sunday, 09 June 2019 23:10)
Hi there, aspiring high school history teacher here! Just wanted to let you know this post was very insightful and awesome, thank you!
Nathalie Argueles (Monday, 28 October 2019 22:11)
Post more! Seriously, I am really digging what you have written so far. I've scanning your blog right now for more things to read.