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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2008

Teaching High School Psychology as a Career Pathway
Debra Park, West Deptford High School (NJ)
Amy Fineburg, Spain Park High School (AL)

Each year, in more than 5,000 high schools across the United States, introductory psychology courses are offered to high school students. Many people, psychologists included, are often unaware that psychology is taught at the high school level, but psychology is one of the fastest growing elective courses in the high school curriculum. In the high school psychology class, students are introduced to an exciting scientific discipline that is directly relevant to their daily lives—and to everything they do. Psychology has a lot to teach young students, and students are eager to learn. As undergraduate psychology students know, psychology addresses societal concerns that include reducing prejudice and discrimination and improving education. What better subject for teenagers to learn?

The focus of many undergraduate programs in psychology is to prepare students for advanced training in psychology that might lead to an academic career, usually in a college or university setting, but few undergraduate programs focus on preparing their students to teach high school psychology. This article focuses on the teaching of high school psychology as a possible career path by discussing the popularity of the high school course, what it is like to teach high school psychology, things to consider as one pursues high school teaching, and the professional resources available to teachers. If you have enjoyed your psychology courses and have ever considered teaching in a classroom, becoming a high school psychology teacher is something you may want to consider.

Psychology as a Popular High School Course
Psychology has been taught in high schools in the United States since the mid-1800’s (Benjamin, 2001) and has evolved from a course that emphasized personal mental health and wellness to a course that teaches psychology as a scientific discipline, mirroring introductory psychology courses in college. Over the last 15 years, high school psychology’s popularity has grown exponentially (APA, 2007). In 1992, the first Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology exams were given by the College Board. That year, just over 4,000 exams were graded. In May of 2007, over 118,000 high school students took the AP Psychology exam, making it one of the fastest growing, and one of the most popular, AP courses. High school students can receive dual credit for their introductory psychology course if they are concurrently enrolled at a local community college. The popularity of the introductory psychology course is obvious, especially since the excitement of the students and their teachers is contagious. Teaching psychology is fun and rewarding, and psychology courses are an important part of the high school curriculum.

Teaching high school psychology has rewards beyond the joy of teaching a popular course. Just imagine—students stopping by your classroom in May to ask, "When are we going to get our textbooks and summer homework assignments?” While most students are counting the days before school ends, incoming psychology students are anticipating the beginning of a new school year, excited to start learning about the discipline (a science!) and motivated by the stories they have heard from their peers about the class activities and topics. Their expectations are high and, for many, it will become the most anticipated and memorable class of their high school years. One of our psychology teacher colleagues, at a recent meeting, commented that he has had students who have told him that if it wasn’t for their psychology class, they would not be coming to school.

Important Considerations for Teaching High School Psychology
As with any career, some aspects of teaching high school psychology are wonderful and others are challenging. Here are some important considerations to take in to account if you want to pursue a career as a high school psychology teacher:

1. Determine your state’s certification requirements. Many teachers find themselves teaching introductory psychology because no one else in the social studies or science departments in their schools is prepared to teach the course. Often, psychology majors decide very late in their undergraduate or graduate careers that they might want to teach in high schools. However, students who are majoring in psychology with an interest in teaching can become certified teachers (granted, with a bit of extra work). In fact, many high school psychology teachers have earned bachelor’s degrees or master’s degrees in psychology, and some are even pursuing doctoral degrees in the field as they continue to teach at the secondary level. Table 1 outlines the traditional route to getting a certification to teach psychology by taking courses in education and becoming a certified teacher.

Many states offer alternative certification routes for those who have not taken the traditional route to certification. These alternative certification routes typically offer a conditional certificate while the teacher takes education courses needed to obtain regular certification. This route is especially helpful for those who may have come to the end of their academic career and feel the desire to teach in a high school. Contact your institution’s School of Education or your state’s Department of Education certification office to determine the appropriate coursework and procedures to follow to get certified. Ask about alternative certification routes in addition to traditional ones. (Be aware that people working in the School of Education or the state Department of Education may not be cognizant of psychology as a high school course. They may say that psychology is not taught in high schools, or they may give certification information for school psychology, which is a more clinicallybased field serving students in precollege educational settings. Check the state’s Department of Education website or find a local high school psychology teacher who can give more detailed information about certification routes.)

2. Be willing to teach courses other than psychology. States will often require certification in multiple areas. The certification combinations shouldn’t be limited to social studies, however. Depending on the state’s requirements, students can earn certification in psychology and any other area, including English, math, science, foreign language, and physical education. This type of flexibility in what courses one can teach helps makes the candidate more marketable. In addition, if a psychology program does not exist at your school of choice, you can often establish a psychology course while teaching another course for a year or two.

3. Teaching high school psychology is not the only assignment you will have as a high school psychology teacher. Similar to teaching at the university level, teaching at the high school level involves committee work, extracurricular duties, and significant lesson preparation. New teachers are often given difficult students and courses to teach that no one else wants to teach. New teachers are also called upon to sponsor clubs or teams in addition to their regular duties and responsibilities. Some school systems provide strong support networks for new teachers while others provide very little support. The first two years of teaching are often the most difficult because teachers are working "from scratch” to create lesson plans, perform extra duties, organize parent conferences, and address classroom management issues. New teachers should build a support network of fellow teachers who can help the new teacher navigate the world of high school.

Table 1

The traditional route to certification usually requires you to enroll in an education program where you will take courses that are required by the state to obtain a teaching license. • Enroll in an education program with the specific goal to become a high school teacher (subject specific programs such as English, Social Studies, Science, Math) • Most psychology teachers have a social studies secondary education certification • Some states offer psychology certifications but require you have another certification first • NCLB federal legislation requires at least 30 hours of coursework to be considered a "highly qualified teacher” in the subject you plan to teach and praxis tests must be taken as well in that subject area • A minor in psychology would be a good way to obtain 30 hours in psychology but check with the state in which you plan to teach to find out if there are any specific psychology courses required to be eligible for a certification

Professional Resources for High School Psychology Teachers
Fifteen years ago, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Committee of Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS) was formed. APA, through TOPSS, is an organization that supports high school teachers, providing teachers with resources to help teach the science of psychology to students. Sixteen unit lesson plans have been developed that outline content and activities teachers can use in such areas as the history of psychology, research methods and statistics, biological bases of behavior, memory, learning, and social psychology, to name a few. APA and TOPSS offer numerous workshops for teacher professional development during the school year and in the summer. TOPSS offers a mentoring service for new teachers and a Speakers Bureau of volunteer psychologists so that high school teachers can find and contact guest speakers to visit their high school classrooms. APA resources for high school teacher affiliates include materials on careers in psychology and publications like the APA Monitor on Psychology (see and the Psychology Teacher Network newsletter (see APA has developed the National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula (APA, 2005); a document that outlines the course content teachers should follow as they develop and teach their high school psychology course. The support that teachers have, through TOPSS and the networking that has developed since its inception, has made the teaching of psychology a very successful career choice for many individuals. For more information on TOPSS and teaching high school psychology, students and faculty can contact any member of the TOPSS Committee. A list of the current committee members can be found at the TOPSS website, at topss/homepage.html.

Other organizations also offer support to high school psychology teachers. The Psychology Learning Community of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) meets annually at the group’s national convention to network and share ideas. Advanced Placement psychology teachers have the support and resources provided by the College Board via content outlines, sample syllabi shared by other teachers, resource evaluations, released exams and exam questions, and teaching tips. The Society for Teaching Psychology (APA’s Division 2; STP) provides membership to high school teachers, and both STP and the APA Psychology Teachers at Community Colleges (PT@CC) provide materials and networking opportunities for teachers. It is common for high school teachers to attend regional and national conferences and participate in workshops along with college professors and psychologists from many different fields within the discipline. The quality of the friendships that have developed from these networking opportunities across all levels of psychology educators is unparalleled by any group of academic professionals.

To be a high school psychology teacher, you should be ready and willing to share your love and knowledge of psychology with others. Yes, you will work long hours, grade papers, and have to follow a schedule that others might dictate—but if you love psychology and want to influence young students, it is an excellent career path. When students graduate from high school and pursue careers in psychology, teachers have the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped to develop the minds of future leaders in the field. Just stop and think about how you became interested in what you are doing right now–and you will want to thank a teacher. To be that person is a very rewarding accomplishment.

American Psychological Association. (2007). Enrollment data: What we know and what we’re learning. Retrieved June 28, 2007, from

American Psychological Association. (2005). National standards for high school psychology curricula. Retrieved June 28, 2007, from

Benjamin, L. T. (2001). A brief history of the psychology course in American high schools. American Psychologist, 56, 951-960.

Debra Park has taught at West Deptford High School in Westville NJ, for 31 years and is currently the Social Studies Department chairperson. She is past-chair of APA’s TOPSS, has served on the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, and is currently on APA’s National Standards Working Group. Ms. Park was selected Gloucester County Teacher of the Year (1999-2000), was Rutgers University Public School Educator of the Year (2004), and received the APA Award for Excellence in Teaching Psychology (2006). In August of 2007, she was the recipient of the Moffett Memorial Teaching Excellence Award for High School Psychology given by APA’s Division 2 Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Professor Park teaches Methods and Issues in Teaching Social Studies as a part-time lecturer at The State University of NJ Rutgers-Camden campus in the Teacher Preparation Program.

Amy C. Fineburg is the Social Studies Department chair and teaches AP and regular psychology at Spain Park High School in Hoover, AL. She is the author of several publications and is a frequent workshop presenter about teaching psychology and positive psychology in high schools. Amy has served as chair of TOPSS and was named the 2006 Moffett Memorial Award winner by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology and the 2005 Hoover City Schools' Secondary Teacher of the Year. Amy enjoys spending her precious down time with her husband Ben and son Micah.

Copyright 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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