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Teaching Social Studies for the First Time!

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

Congratulations on getting your first job as a social studies teacher!!!!! My department likes to call ourselves the “Syndicate of Paragons,” so I welcome you to the syndicate. I have been a teacher for over ten years and have absolutely LOVED my job and of course, my content area. Get ready for a wonderful ride.

Here is a short list of items that will help you as you enter your first classroom and even before!

Get to Know Your School

Some of you may be lucky and you know the school you will be working at. You either were a substitute, student taught there, or you are an alumni. If you are unfamiliar, try to get connected and learn about the school and the students as much as possible ahead of time. It is difficult with Covid-19 to really jump into any social system that the school already has; however, you may be lucky. A friend of mine is currently switching schools this year and is involved in a book club with staff members from her new school. It is happening via Zoom, and it is helping her to get to know faces, names, and a little bit about her fellow staff members. She also has had some meetings with others to just talk and get ready for her new environment. This is a great way to get started. Reach out and see if there is anything you can do early to get to know people and ask questions of fellow teachers! I was hired less than a week before my first full-time job started, so I did not get that opportunity. I walked in without that added benefit, but I walked into a community of educators who constantly asked if I needed anything or had any questions. Use those moments to ask questions or simply ask them what is one thing that I should know about the school or the student population.

Find a Mentor

As I already mentioned, finding, or having a mentor is great! I did not have an official mentor, but I had two people that I knew I could turn to right away to ask questions. One was an English teacher who I was paired with to align our curriculum (such a great concept to have students read “The Things They Carried” in English while I covered the Vietnam War!) and the other was the school’s director who also had a background in social studies. I showed him tests, went over curriculum and rubrics and he gave honest feedback and really helped me. I also put myself out there for critique, which is needed when creating items for the first time. I am now a mentor to new staff and I try to make myself as available as I possibly can but am open to help any new or newer teacher. So take note, there will be people there that want to help you be successful from the start!

Political Neutrality

Politics come up often in Social Studies, especially if you teach Government! A BIG item I go over with student teachers or apprentices is to be politically neutral in school. Why??? If you go out and state, “I am a Democrat” or “I am a Republican” on day one, then some students will shut you out and state that you are biased and are trying to sway them. They will disengage immediately, and you then have to work to get them back. Now, I am not saying to not be yourself and to not teach politically charged items in class. However, be the neutral player in the room and you will find that students from all walks politically will feel welcomed into your class and will then feel okay to raise their hand and talk. If covering an election, talk about the statistics and polls. Talk about tactics and platforms. Trust me, the politicians will provide plenty of talking points for you to go over in class without you having to back one or the other. Compare current elections with past elections. I love to show old commercials and have the students discuss why it was successful or why it was a flop! This also helps them see and learn about propaganda!

Social Studies is a CORE Subject

As I mentioned in my blog last week, social studies teaches all the things! We are an integral subject area; however, sometimes we seem to be overlooked. State legislators or large districts heads do not always see how valuable our subject area is! We teach reading and writing constantly in our classes while also bringing in critical thinking, analysis, and transferable knowledge. So join statewide organizations or national organizations that help to advocate for Social Studies and also utilize the resources that they will give you to help in your classroom.

I love Minnesota Council for the Social Studies, and also am looking forward to when the national organization hosts their annual conference in my state so I can attend. The National organization and state level organizations are great to get involved with or follow.

Utilize Outside Resources

When I first started I had 4 different preps to prepare for! Four different classes that I had to tackle and few resources from the previous teacher to do so. It was a crazy first year of planning, creating, and recreating! I didn’t utilize all the online sources that were out there at the time and well, there were not as many when I started. Now there are plenty of resources on TeachersPayTeachers, SHEG, and other websites that will help you get started! There are also Facebook groups focused on subject areas! The Advanced Placement groups that I am a member of have been extremely helpful with course redesigns and helping me find new ideas to bring into my class. It is also a wonderful place to reach out and ask for help. There are also several blogs that can help you along the way in various ways! So many people will share resources or just talk about their approach to a lesson.

The Content & Your First Week

Our content area can be highly engaging, but it can also be sad or triggering. We talk about death, we explain psychological disorders, we discuss politics, we try to teach about cultures and cultural diversity while also being faced with the fact that not all of our students feel 100% comfortable in their own community because they are a minority. Make a goal to make sure your students feel comfortable in your class from day one. I am not one for a lot of ice breaker activities as I will not remember what their favorite ice cream flavor is. I jump into activities that make them talk to each other and me and that are easier. In World History I cover art in history and geography in history. In European History I discuss historiography with various fun tasks or stories. In Psychology we go over the psychologists that we will be going over and talk about them as people, not as major figures, because in the end, we are all humans. Think of activities or find some that matches your personality and teaching style but that will also get your students talking to each other and to you. Be authentic with them and let them know that you are happy to meet them.

Projects, Lectures, and Writing

Project based learning?? Lectures? Textbook or no textbook? What am I doing tomorrow? What am I doing a week from now? Hopefully while you were student teaching you were able to find a system that worked for your class. I tend to start with a bell ringer, do a lecture, and then move into a project, activity, or reading with a discussion. This works for me. When I first started, my school was really focused on project-based learning, and I found that around half of the students struggled with that model. Some need a short lecture. Others LOVE to be independent learners. I also found that teaching writing is extremely important as it is a skill for life but it also helps the students learn to analyze information far better over the course of the year. Teaching writing and covering it often helps improve in-class discussions and also prepares them for college. Each year I meet with professors from two different local colleges and they all talk about students not being prepared to write an essay. Don’t hide from it, embrace it!

Documentaries and Movies

I like to show visual items with each unit to match different learning types. However, I am not a “movie teacher.” I may have a 28 minute documentary that takes 2-3 days to watch in full. Each semester I show one Hollywood movie because the content is important, and the film does a fantastic job covering the information. The best example is Schindler’s List, which I show in my European History course (I do get permission slips for this as it is rated R). Find a movie that helps add to your curriculum. If you show it near the end of the semester, you can then catch up on grading!!!! If it is rated R, get a permission slip or find another. Also, always watch the movie or documentary first to make sure that it is 100% appropriate for your students. Just because there is a movie guide for it on TpT, does not mean that it is right for your class.

Safe Space / Students in Distress

I have had students come to me over the years with very personal information as they have found that I am a safe person to address it with. Make sure you know your school’s counselors, social workers, and special education teachers from the beginning so if a student comes to you while in distress, you can help lead them to a person who is WAY more qualified to help. Don’t walk them to the social worker immediately, listen to them (and remember to make documentation, if need be later) and then ask if you can help them talk to someone who really knows how to help and offer to be in the room with them as they do. For issues that do not need outside wisdom, listen and try to help in any way that you can (you can ask others for help too with addressing it). Check in with the student later to see how they are. This goes a long way.


Your first year can feel like a whirlwind. So many emotions. So much to do! Take time for yourself. Yes, you will probably be working on Sunday so you are prepared for the week, but make sure to do items that make you happy and help recharge you. Ask people who love and care about you for help, if need be. If you have kids, see if a friend or family member can watch them on certain nights of the week for you to prep. I had a babysitter when I pursued my Masters in Education every Tuesday night so I could concentrate on my work and have my child in taken care of while I was still in the house (My husband use to travel for work often, so this was critical for me).

Parents and Guardians

Positive emails help. If you have a student that has done something great in class, even as a high school teacher, you can email a quick message home. Parents and guardians love to hear positive items. It also helps you build community rapport and goes a long way with the student as well! Some communication may not be the best though with parents. I have been lucky with my school and its community to not really have stories to share about conflict with parents. However, I know that there are items within social studies that can get parents on edge. For example, when I approach my religion unit, I discuss how we will be going over the state standards that are focused on religion. I once had one uncle email me about this unit and how I approached it and I explained it and even shared my PowerPoint presentations with him and our project. He was extremely satisfied and saw the educational merit in it. I also know that when I am entering into a topic that may be touchy to some people (but are state standards), I give the office a heads up as a just in case. You may also want to ask other social studies teachers in your school to know if there has ever been any controversies about curriculum in the past.

Have Fun - Be You!

When my department has the same class taught by different teachers, we go by the 80-20 rule. 80% of the class will be the same between the two and 20% gets to be 100% you! I will assign the same work and projects as the other teacher who teaches the same course, but I will be able to add my own unique items take make the class fun for me and my students! Figure out the ways that you can reach your students and help them grow and you will have a great year!

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