Teaching high school requires an entirely different skillset and specialized knowledge compared to teaching elementary school. So you may be wondering if your elementary education degree qualifies you to teach older students. The quick answer is in most cases, no.

While there are a few exceptions, an elementary teaching credential does not meet the requirements to teach high school.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down the key differences between elementary and secondary teaching credentials. We’ll outline the typical certification and degree requirements to teach high school.

And we’ll explain the limited scenarios where elementary teachers may be able to transition to teaching high school subjects.

Key Differences Between Elementary and Secondary Teaching Credentials

Subject-Specific Certification Areas

One of the key differences between elementary and secondary teaching credentials is the subject-specific certification areas. Elementary education degrees typically provide a broad range of knowledge across multiple subjects, such as math, science, language arts, and social studies.

This allows elementary school teachers to teach a variety of subjects to their students.

On the other hand, secondary teaching credentials require teachers to specialize in a specific subject area. A secondary education degree typically focuses on a particular subject, such as English, math, science, history, or a foreign language.

This specialization allows secondary school teachers to develop a deeper level of expertise in their chosen subject and teach it exclusively to their students.

Separate Licensure Processes

The licensure processes for elementary and secondary teaching credentials are also different. To become an elementary school teacher, individuals typically need to obtain a general teaching license that covers multiple subjects.

This allows them to teach a variety of subjects to students in the early grades.

Secondary school teachers, on the other hand, often need to go through a separate licensure process for their specific subject area. They may need to pass subject-specific exams and complete additional coursework related to their chosen subject.

This ensures that secondary school teachers have a strong foundation in the subject they will be teaching.

Coursework and Exams Tailored to Grade Levels

The coursework and exams for elementary and secondary teaching credentials are tailored to the specific grade levels they will be teaching. Elementary education degree programs typically focus on child development, teaching methods, and curriculum design for younger age groups.

Secondary education degree programs, on the other hand, delve deeper into subject-specific content and teaching strategies for older students. Secondary school teachers often take advanced coursework in their subject area and may be required to pass subject-specific exams to demonstrate their knowledge and competency.

It’s important to note that while an elementary education degree may not provide the specific subject-area expertise required for teaching at the high school level, it can still be a valuable foundation for a career in education.

Many states offer pathways for elementary school teachers to obtain additional certifications or endorsements in specific subject areas, allowing them to teach at the secondary level with additional coursework or exams.

For more information on the specific requirements for teaching credentials in your state, it’s best to consult your state’s department of education website or reach out to a local school district for guidance.

What Certification Do You Need to Teach High School?

Teaching high school requires specific credentials to ensure that educators are equipped to meet the unique challenges and demands of this level of education. While having an elementary education degree may provide a solid foundation in teaching principles, additional certification is typically required to teach at the high school level.

State Teaching Credential

One of the primary certifications needed to teach high school is a state teaching credential. Each state has its own requirements for obtaining this credential, which typically include completing a teacher preparation program, passing the necessary exams, and fulfilling any additional state-specific requirements.

Obtaining a state teaching credential demonstrates that an individual has met the necessary qualifications to teach in their designated subject area.

Subject-Area Expertise

In addition to the state teaching credential, high school teachers are often required to have expertise in a specific subject area. This expertise is typically demonstrated through earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject they plan to teach.

For example, if someone with an elementary education degree wants to teach high school math, they may need to pursue additional coursework or a second bachelor’s degree in mathematics to meet the subject-area expertise requirements.

Degree Requirements

While an elementary education degree may provide a solid foundation in teaching methods and pedagogy, some high schools may have specific degree requirements for teachers. For example, a high school may require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree in a specific subject area, even if they have a teaching credential.

It’s important to research the specific requirements of the school or district where you plan to teach to ensure you meet their qualifications.

When Elementary Teachers Can Transition to High School

Many people may wonder if it’s possible for an elementary teacher to make the transition to teaching in a high school setting. While the two levels of education may seem vastly different, there are actually several pathways that can allow elementary teachers to pursue a career in high school education.

Here are a few options to consider:

Career and Technical Education Programs

One way for elementary teachers to transition to high school is by focusing on career and technical education (CTE) programs. These programs are designed to provide students with hands-on skills and knowledge in specific industries, such as healthcare, technology, or skilled trades.

Elementary teachers who have a background or interest in a specific CTE field can undergo additional training or certifications to become qualified to teach these specialized courses at the high school level.

This can be a great opportunity for elementary teachers to bring their expertise and passion to a different age group and subject area.

Alternative Certification Pathways

Another option for elementary teachers looking to teach in high school is to explore alternative certification pathways. These programs are designed to help individuals with a non-teaching background become licensed teachers.

While these pathways may vary by state, they typically involve completing a teacher preparation program, passing required exams, and obtaining a teaching license. This can be a viable option for elementary teachers who have a desire to teach in high school but may not have pursued a traditional teaching degree.

Teaching With Emergency or Provisional Credentials

In some cases, elementary teachers may be able to teach in high school on an emergency or provisional basis. This usually occurs when there is a shortage of qualified teachers in a particular subject area.

While these credentials may have certain limitations or requirements, they can provide elementary teachers with an opportunity to gain experience in a high school setting and potentially transition into a full-time teaching position.

It’s important to note that these credentials are temporary and may require additional coursework or training to maintain or upgrade.

Regardless of the pathway chosen, it’s essential for elementary teachers looking to transition to high school to gain a deeper understanding of the specific subject matter and age group they wish to teach.

Additionally, networking with high school educators, attending professional development workshops, and seeking mentorship can greatly support the transition process.

For more information on transitioning from elementary to high school teaching, you can visit teach.org or educationdegree.com.

Challenges for Elementary Teachers Switching to High School

Content Knowledge Gaps

One of the main challenges that elementary teachers face when transitioning to high school is the content knowledge gaps. Elementary education degrees typically focus on a broad range of subjects, while high school teachers specialize in specific subjects such as math, science, English, or history.

Therefore, elementary teachers may need to acquire additional knowledge and expertise in their chosen subject area before teaching at the high school level.

According to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 35% of elementary school teachers feel very well prepared to teach high school level content. This highlights the need for ongoing professional development and training to bridge the knowledge gap.

Classroom Management Differences

Another challenge for elementary teachers switching to high school is the differences in classroom management. High school students are typically more independent and have different behavioral expectations compared to younger students.

Elementary teachers may need to adjust their classroom management strategies to effectively engage and motivate high school students.

According to a survey conducted by the National Education Association, 62% of elementary teachers who transitioned to high school reported that classroom management was their biggest challenge. This indicates the importance of understanding the unique dynamics of high school classrooms and adopting strategies that promote a positive learning environment.

Lesson Planning and Instructional Strategies

Lesson planning and instructional strategies also present challenges for elementary teachers switching to high school. High school curriculum often requires more advanced and complex teaching methods compared to elementary education.

Teachers must design lessons that cater to the specific needs and abilities of high school students.

A study published in the Journal of Teacher Education found that elementary teachers transitioning to high school reported difficulties in adapting their instructional strategies. This emphasizes the need for professional development programs that support elementary teachers in developing effective teaching techniques for the high school level.

Steps for Elementary Teachers to Transition to High School Teaching

Earn Subject-Area Degree or Endorsement

One of the first steps for elementary teachers looking to transition to high school teaching is to earn a subject-area degree or endorsement. This is important because high school teachers typically specialize in a specific subject, such as math, English, science, or social studies.

By obtaining a degree or endorsement in the desired subject area, elementary teachers can demonstrate their knowledge and expertise in that particular field.

There are various ways to earn a subject-area degree or endorsement. Some teachers may choose to pursue a master’s degree in their desired subject, while others may opt for additional coursework or professional development opportunities.

It’s important to research the specific requirements and options available in your state or district to ensure you meet the necessary qualifications.

Pass Required Exams

In addition to earning a subject-area degree or endorsement, transitioning from elementary to high school teaching often requires passing required exams. These exams are designed to assess a teacher’s knowledge and proficiency in their subject area.

The specific exams required may vary depending on the state or district. For example, in some states, teachers may need to pass the Praxis exams, while others may require the state-specific exams. It’s essential to familiarize yourself with the exams required in your area and prepare accordingly.

There are numerous resources available, including study guides and practice tests, to help you succeed in these exams.

Complete Student Teaching at High School Level

To gain practical experience and demonstrate your ability to teach at the high school level, completing a student teaching placement at a high school is crucial. This allows you to work directly with high school students, observe experienced teachers, and apply the knowledge and skills you’ve acquired.

Student teaching placements are typically arranged through a teacher education program or university. It’s important to seek out opportunities to work with high school students specifically to gain the necessary experience in that setting.

This hands-on experience will provide valuable insights into the dynamics of a high school classroom and help you develop effective teaching strategies.

Apply for State Secondary Teaching Credential

Once you have completed the necessary education and experience requirements, the final step in transitioning from an elementary teacher to a high school teacher is to apply for a state secondary teaching credential.

This credential is typically issued by the state’s department of education and certifies that you are qualified to teach at the high school level.

The application process for a secondary teaching credential may include submitting transcripts, passing background checks, and providing evidence of completion of the required coursework and exams. It’s important to carefully follow the application guidelines and provide all the necessary documentation to ensure a smooth process.

Transitioning from elementary to high school teaching may require additional education and experience, but it can be a rewarding career move for educators looking to expand their horizons. By following these steps and meeting the necessary requirements, elementary teachers can successfully transition to teaching at the high school level.


While requirements vary by state, in general an elementary education degree does not sufficiently prepare teachers for the demands of high school instruction. The best path forward for elementary teachers who want to make the switch is to go back and earn additional subject-area degrees, credentials, and student teaching experience at the secondary level.

With proper advanced preparation, some motivated elementary teachers can successfully transition into teaching high school. But it does require an investment of further education and training tailored specifically to secondary grades.

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