Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Celebrating and Supporting High School Teachers of Psychology

01 Mar 2023 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

I hope your March has not come in like the proverbial lion although I am seeing a lot of unpleasant weather around! Please don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm for teaching and your students.

This month I want to talk a bit about our high school colleagues. Kristin Whitlock, our VP for Programming is my guest columnist. (The link brings you to more information about Kristin’s accomplishments). I want to give some history and context of high school psychology for those who may not be familiar with it.

High school psychology did not really exist when I was in high school, lo these many years ago. I first encountered it when I became a reader for the Advanced Placement Psychology exam. I started as a Reader in the early years when we really got to know all of the readers. As I became acquainted with the high school teachers participating in the Reading, I was gobsmacked! (One of my favorite British terms). They knew so much more than I did about the breadth of psychology plus they could read any handwriting when we, college faculty, were struggling to read essays.

High school psychology has existed in some form, albeit with various names, for over 150 years (Benjamin, 2001). In 1992, Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS) was formed by APA. Since then they have published National Standards, adopted by APA and also have published multiple lessons on common topics in Introductory psychology.  I have used their lessons many times and point new faculty to these for ready-made activities. TOPSS has been working to move psychology into the science curriculum, rather than the social science area. They are now sponsoring annual workshops at Clark University and at Oregon State University. There are about 840,000 high school students who take psychology each year and Advanced Placement Psychology is the 6th most popular AP course. I could go on with more high school teacher accomplishments but I want space for Kristin’s thoughts. (Thanks to Emily Chesnes of APA for some of this information; you can read more information here).

When I really look at all that is required of high school teachers, I am exhausted. They generally teach five or six sections of courses every day with 30 or more students in each. They are expected to help with extracurricular activities as well as tutor students. They serve on committees and help prepare students for AP and other college exams. As society expects them to be social workers, financial literacy teachers, counselors, surrogate parents, and many other roles, I marvel that they have the time needed to plan lessons and actually teach. I hear a lot of complaints on social media about how unprepared high school students are when they come to college but that has not really been my experience when students have completed high school psychology. STP is fortunate to have so many high school teachers willing to give time and energy to our endeavors. So, the next time you run into a high school teacher, thank them!

My Connection to Psychology

Kristin Whitlock

Lately I’ve been reflecting on the events and people that have influenced the development of my teaching identity.  I am not sure why I’ve been feeling this so keenly lately, but it might be due to being in my 33rd year in the classroom.  I feel so blessed to be surrounded with so many wonderful psychology instructors and to have so many resources within my easy reach. But when I began teaching it was a much different story.  I felt the lack of a community intensely despite being in a large school. For much of my career, I’ve been the only psychology teacher in a social studies department filled with history teachers. My colleagues have been, and continue to be, wonderful, but they didn’t have the background to help me establish my identity as a psychology teacher.  I was so unprepared to teach the science of psychology.

My first introduction to a larger psychology community was as a participant at the National Science Foundation Psychology Institute at Texas A & M University in 1994.  With Dr. Ludy Benjamin, and a group of incredibly talented high school and college faculty, I found exactly what I needed.  I learned the content of psychology, as well as creative and pedagogically sound ways to engage students. It was also here that I learned about the APA’s Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools. I couldn’t believe there actually existed an organization that was just for me. The resources available, such as lesson plans and the National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula, were absolutely invaluable. To this day, TOPSS is still a vital resource for me. When I left Texas A & M, Dr. Benjamin challenged all of us to “go home, and do something” to help build psychology education. 

My first opportunity to give back came when Dr. Irwin Altman, at the University of Utah, contacted me about starting a grass-roots organization for high school psychology teachers in our state.  Along with other passionate educators, we established the Utah-Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (UTOPSS) in 1997.  We have held our annual fall teaching conference every year, minus 2020, growing from about a dozen participants in 1997 to over 70 in 2022. In a unique partnership, Westminster College, in Salt Lake City, and UTOPSS collaborate to improve the teaching of scientific psychology at the high school level. This conference provides opportunities for teachers to learn new content, obtain new teaching resources, and build professional networks.  We’ve hosted amazing high school and college faculty presenters. It is the only professional development offered to all high school psychology teachers in our state and surrounding areas. As a group, we look forward each year to reconnecting and learning together.

My professional learning community has continued to grow with my membership and involvement in the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP).  I’m deeply appreciative of the many wonderful colleagues that I have worked with and learned from in this incredible group. Along with quality conference programming, it is a deep dive into the many resources STP has to offer, including the journal Teaching of Psychology, free eBooks, Project Syllabus, and more. When I began teaching this course, the challenge was finding solid resources; today, it’s almost overwhelming how many peer-reviewed resources are so readily available. 

Yet, there is still work to be done!  There are still too many instructors that are working in isolation that would deeply benefit from the work of both TOPSS and STP.  It’s time for each of us to “do something” to improve the teaching of scientific psychology.  Help us get the word out to new colleagues in your departments and local schools. Resources exist to help you develop regional teaching networks, such as UTOPSS. TOPSS publishes a guide to the process called Building, Guiding, and Sustaining Regional Networks For Psychology Teachers, that is easily available online. If you are interested, but concerned about starting from scratch, look on the TOPSS webpage to see what networks might currently exist in your area. You’ll find contact information for those who are currently involved. There are so many ways that you can give back and express the gratitude you feel for the benefits you have received as a member of our community.

References and Resources

APA (2018). Building, Guiding, and Sustaining Regional Networks For Psychology Teachers. regional-networks-guide.pdf (

APA (2019, March) Report of High School Psychology

Benjamin, L. T. (2001). A brief history of the psychology course in American high schools. American Psychologist 56(11):951-60. Doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.56.11.951

National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula

Professional Development for High School Psychology Teachers

Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools

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