Advice for a future physics teacher

  • #1
Coming into college, I had a vague idea that I wanted to be an engineer. After the first quarter of engineering classes, though, I realized how "industrial" the profession was. I never considered the business part of it, sitting down in an office and designing parts all day. So I dropped out of engineering.

I entertained majoring in physics or math, and eventually picked the former with the intent of being a teacher. I feel that while I could pursue a PhD in physics and perhaps teach at the college level, the sheer investment of time and money conflicts with my desire to start a family sometime before I am 40 (hyperbole, I know). That desire, coupled with my passion for teaching and hopefully science education reform makes the job of high school physics teacher a great match for me.

The catch is, I would prefer to teach AP and/or advanced physics to students who want to pursue a degree in engineering or the hard sciences when they reach college. I don't mind teaching college prep physics at all, I just want to be able to exercise my brain and delve into the calculus behind physics on top of that.

Because of this, I want to be as selective as I can in choosing a school to work at, and in order to do this I need to work out what level of education I need. I have decided that while I could major in education with specialization in science, I feel that majoring in physics would be more fulfilling (besides, the university I attend does not offer undergraduate education degrees). From there I would get a masters in science education. My institution does not offer masters in physics; only PhD's.

I understand now, however, that most teachers go on to get their masters degrees anyways, so I am looking for some way to distinguish myself and be better qualified. Does anyone have any advice on what education I should pursue, or any other sundry counsel for a future science teacher?

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Actually most teachers (in public high-school) do not go on to get their masters degrees. I think it's like about 10%
  • #3
I would suggest pursuing physics if that's what you're really interested in. It's reasonably common for people with non-education degrees to then enroll in an "after degree" education program that certifies them as teachers. My understanding is that pay-scales for teachers are tied to their education level, and thus there is a strong incentive for teachers to pursue master's degrees.
  • #4
Most teachers pursue higher education beyond the bachelor's, either from personal interest, or because it is required to maintain licensure, or because there are education-related salary increases.

Most teachers I know do pursue master's degrees, either in education (common), in their subject area of interest (less common), or in subject area education like "physics education" (gaining popularity).

Aside from that required for licensure, degrees you have will only really distinguish you in the first five minutes. That's five minutes after the principal reads your resume, or five minutes after the parent steps into the classroom. Beyond that, what distinguishes you is your passion for your subject, your passion for teaching, your dedication to self-improvement, and your dedication to your students.

Some things that can show those dedications might be classes and workshops you choose to take on pedagogy or content area knowledge; perhaps staying current on educational research, especially in your subject area; and implementing the best ideas you find into your classroom.

To start off with, I personally think a degree in the subject area is a big plus, and probably reflects a better content-area knowledge base than someone who has an education degree. HOWEVER, some administrators may see you as a more severe flight risk--that physics or mathematics degree EASILY translates into jobs outside of education that pay way, way more than teaching.

Another point you mentioned is that you want to teach primarily upper-level, pre-education/science/professional students. I can almost gurantee that you will not be doing this*, except at a few academies. Even college-prep schools that require their students to take physics will be circulating a large number of non-science-focused students through your classroom. You will probably teach both a smaller number of upper-level students, and a larger number of younger students in a "physical science" or "physics first" type course.

Especially if you do not teach calculus-based physics, you will probably want to continue studying and doing physics on your own. Maybe as a class, maybe just reviewing your E&M and QM every couple of years to reassure yourself you haven't lost it. In my experience, very few (<5%) of students take Calculus by the end of their Junior year, and HS calc courses do not cover things at the same pace as college courses. You can't count on your students to get the calc they need when they need it if they are concurrently enrolled (both HS calc and HS calc-based physics). I usually have two to four upper level students who have sufficient curiosity to approach me about calc-based physics, and I will work with them to some degree during the year.

If you feel a strong desire to teach calc-based physics, consider teaching (summers, nights) at a local community college, which you can usually do once you have 18 graduate hours in your subject area.

*ETA: I am thinking of the high schools in the midwest, with which I am familiar--the majority of which have an enrollment of less than 1000. If you teach at a high school with 2000+ students, it is possible that there could be enough motivated and capable students to fill a teacher's schedule with mainly upper-level classes.
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  • #5
ks_physicist has already made some excellent points, so I just have a little to add.

First, just so you go into this realistically, be aware that teachers do have more to do than just teach. Teaching is the fun and rewarding part, but there is also the nuisance work that goes with it. Any job will have this factor, but I just want to make sure your expectations are realistic. There will be lesson plans to fill out as required by administrators. There will be report cards and progress reports to fill out by certain deadlines. There will be the parent meetings to deal with...some of these will be positive experiences, some will be negative when they try blaming you for their kid not doing their homework and getting a C in the class instead of the A their parents want them to be "given." And there will be the issues of trying to get supplies for the classroom and having to sell your soul, first-born child, and an arm and a leg to squeak out enough money from administration to buy half of what you asked for.

As for choosing the level of students you teach, even in a large school district, there is usually only one section of AP level physics, maybe two sections of honors physics (these students, although bright, may still not have taken calculus yet, so calculus-based physics will still be too hard for them), and you'll spend the rest of your day teaching college prep level classes. I'm not sure what you're hoping for. Is teaching between one and three sections of more advanced classes enough to make up for teaching the lower level classes? Or are you expecting to teach all advanced classes?
  • #6
Actually most teachers (in public high-school) do not go on to get their masters degrees. I think it's like about 10%

In some states, if you do not go back and get your masters, you loose your teaching certificate.
  • #7
Since many points have been covered for degrees I guess I'll expand on some light advice for teaching. This is coming from a high-school student with an awful physics teacher.

If you become a teacher, I highly recommend teaching exclusively AP/Honors. The conceptual physics class in my school is full of loquacious seniors and the majority in the class just to get an "A" or to continue science. In AP, students are much most immersed in the learning process, and have much more fun.

Anyways, just make sure to teach slow, know that your students don't know this material yet - small anecdotes and real life examples help a lot. My awful teacher explains much too quickly, you will only know what he is talking about if you studied the entire chapter for a few hours, without telling our class, but I still pay attention because he makes hilarious physics jokes - so keep the students entertained, no monotone. And don't lose your temper if your class doesn't know the answer - this brings a free/laid-back atmosphere, students wouldn't be afraid to ask/answer questions that normally they would be too scared to ask.
  • #8
I just want to expand on 3 points:

1) You probably won't get to teach just AP physics, so don't set yourself up for that expectation. You'll be lucky if you just teach AP and honors (college-prep) algebra-based physics (and believe me... the algebra derivations of some topics, like circular motion are a royal pain, and you'll be lucky if students follow or even care). Even though as a physics teacher you might be in demand, these classes are typically reserved for "experienced" faculty who have been there a while (even if your undergraduate degree in the field might be stronger). Even if you're in a large school, you'll probably have to start low on the totem pole and have to teach conceptual classes in physics. I've actually found over the years that I really enjoy teaching conceptual classes to non-science students, because it's a chance to get them comfortable with science so they might be more willing to talk about it with their children (when they get to that stage) and try to understand science issues that effect public policy. If you're at a small school, you'll probably even have to teach another science. I was dual certified in physics and chemistry. Some physics teachers also teach math courses.

2) Many states are starting to require a undergraduate degree in an arts & science or engineering field, and a Master's degree in classroom teaching. This is true for many states for the secondary level, some even for the elementary level (unless you're in special education, which is still often offered as an undergraduate degree). Having gone through such a system myself, I have mixed views on this. I was definitely stronger in science than any of my colleagues, but I don't think a year internship was enough experience to really get down the mindset of a high-school student (see next point). You'll need to look into the programs your university offers, and the requirements of your state. Note: certification is a three-tier process, you have to meet a university's requirements for an education degree, take national tests (the PRAXIS), then apply for state certification. You also must typically be certified to teach at a public school (sometimes you can get a position if you have an undergraduate (B.S.) degree in a field and are working towards certification through a Master's of Education (M.Ed.) degree.

3) Like the student posting above me mentions, you need to know the pace/mindset of the student, who probably has no prior experience in the subject (or minimal experience with vocabulary and concepts in the lower grades and has forgotten it!). I originally taught chemistry better than I taught physics because of the fact that chemistry was my secondary field... so I took the subject a bit slower and set high but reasonable expectations (I probably set my physics expectations too high). You do have to be amusing, have a variety of teaching methods at your disposal and switch these up OFTEN (day to day, if not splitting the period up some with different activities), and give the kids creative and somewhat social time (through projects, etc.).

And yeah -- the pay kinda sucks a bit, and you will probably buy things from your own pocket, even when you do figure out the purchasing process, but I still have those problems, even though I now teach at the university level. Despite those disadvantages, it's certainly a fun and worthwhile job. (I've considered going back to teaching at the high-school level several times, but I let my certification expire, and I've moved states a bit, and I'd probably be too expensive for a district to hire because of the three graduate degrees I've attained since then.)

Good luck, and of course you're lucky... you always have physicsforums to ask for help!
  • #9
Are the degree requirements different for science/math high schools? Like say the Illinois Math and Science Academy or schools of those sort??
  • #10
Are the degree requirements different for science/math high schools? Like say the Illinois Math and Science Academy or schools of those sort??

Local district math and science academies
are run by the local school district, and therefore still require state certification.

Private schools don't experience the same restriction on teacher certification, but it is often looked upon as a plus in hiring and promotion procedures.

Charter schools get some funding from the state and/or local district, so usually they need to have at least a certain percentage of teachers with certification.

For the state academies, I've seen two different setups:

1) Some of these academies (the best in my experience) are actually hosted by universities (usually the state flagship university) and the students have housing on campus (that is just more regulated than normal freshman housing) and the students attend regular university classes (for the most part), just receiving dual credit for college and high school. In that case, you'd need to have a Ph.D.

2) Other state science and math academies (the worst in my opinion) have facilities that are mostly independent. In some of these cases (usually the smaller schools that are just being established), I've seen faculty who are actually probably less qualified teaching children that are gifted, because the cases I've seen have been really particular about finding someone with state certification to be the teacher (so nation-wide searches, which in my opinion would have been the best, were not conducted). Some of the larger more established state academies are decent when they have separate facilities, but I'm still not so keen on them, as you'll read below.

One big problem with state academies that doesn't concern certification is also this: they are usually residential, so the teacher often has a large "" [Broken]" role, and the schools tend to have tight restrictions on student freedoms, even if a lot of residential staff are hired to fill the parent role. In my experience, these restrictions tend to bleed over into the student psyche a bit too much. Some gifted students (I would have been one of them) need more freedom and crack under strict regulation. This is especially a concern if the school isn't well-established, but is probably a concern everywhere because of the US view on teenage freedom in the media, as well as its relative unfamiliarity with boarding schools.
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