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Can Any STEM Ph.D. Teach High School Math?

  1. Oct 4, 2015 #1
    Would anyone obtaining a STEM Ph.D. have the mathematical knowledge to teach high school math (the highest math class in my hs was a choice between statistics and calculus)?

    Also, what about community college? E.g., Would...say...a mechanical engineering Ph.D. or physics Ph.D, for example, have enough math background to teach any community college math course?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 4, 2015 #2
    If you can get a Ph.D in a more mathematical STEM field (engineering, physics, math obviously, chemistry depending on the sub field), then you're more than qualified to teach math at the high school level.

    Of course, that doesn't mean you're technically "qualified," since teaching license rules vary by state.
     
  4. Oct 5, 2015 #3
    Private high schools will hire you right away if you want to teach physics. I have a professor who had a decision to teach at either community college or high school and he said some of the offers from private schools were really good. He did say if that's what I wanted to do (which it is) that I should just go for a masters degree though, since they're just as qualified and often get teaching experience as well when they're in school.

    If you want to teach public, a PhD alone won't do it in many states (surprisingly). Many require one to have a teaching assistant position at a high school for at least one year before you can teach in your own classroom (i.e. Pennsylvania).
     
  5. Oct 5, 2015 #4

    bcrowell

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    I double majored as an undergrad in math and physics, and I have a PhD in physics. I teach both physics and math at a California community college. I was hired by the natural science division to teach physics, and 18 years later I convinced the math division to let me teach a calculus course, which I'm now teaching once a year. California has the world's most ridiculously detailed education code (hundreds of pages long, and nobody reads the whole thing). One of the things enshrined in the ed code is what they call FSAs, which are the minimum qualifications you need in order to teach various subjects. For example, someone with a bachelor's degree in history and 2 years of experience in appliance repair would meet the minimum qualifications to teach vocational courses in appliance repair. Because I double-majored as an undergrad, I met the FSA for math.

    So if you get a PhD in physics, you are not automatically going to be eligible for California community college jobs in math. There is also an equivalency process you can go through. However, the school would have to be highly motivated in order to go through that much of a hassle for you. Community colleges generally offer sub-poverty wages to part-timers, and for that reason they often have trouble staffing courses taught by part-timers; for that reason, they might be willing to go through equivalency if they had a good candidate.

    Another thing to realize about community college jobs is that different departments will have different sets of priorities. For example, if a department currently has a faculty who all have master's degrees, they may not want to hire someone with a PhD, because they'll feel threatened by that person. At a different school, the faculty for the same subject may not even be willing to consider a candidate without a PhD seriously.

    At both the high school and the college level, a big chunk of math instruction is remedial -- or, euphemistically, "developmental" -- courses. Especially at the lowest levels (kindergarten math being taught to adults), this type of teaching is a highly specialized skill. You aren't automatically able to do a competent job at it just because you did a PhD in string theory.

    The highest levels of math we teach at my school are differential equations, vector calculus, and linear algebra. Keep in mind that schools aren't just trying to hire someone who barely knows math at the level at which their courses are taught. If that logic made sense, we'd hire kindergarten teachers who didn't know how to count past a hundred.
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2015
  6. Oct 8, 2015 #5
    Yes, of course a STEM Ph.D. gives you more than enough *math knowledge* to teach any high school or community college math course.

    It doesn't necessarily mean you have the teaching skills or qualifications to be hired for either job though.

    A few years ago, my wife went back to school to get a teaching credential so she could transition from computer programming to teaching high school math. I think it bears repeating that in all of her job interviews after obtaining her credential, she was never asked a single question about math. Not one...
     
  7. Oct 8, 2015 #6

    bcrowell

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    This is absolutely not true. For example, a PhD is marine biology says nothing about your ability to teach differential equations. And it is amazingly common, from my experience interviewing candidates for community college jobs, for people with graduate degrees to be utterly incompetent in the subject in which they have a graduate degree. We have had people with a PhD in physics who couldn't apply Gauss's law to find the field of a point charge, and people with a master's in math education who couldn't differentiate sin(cos(tan x)).

    IMO this would be noteworthy mainly as a sign that there is something wrong in those schools' hiring processes. Possibly they're desperate for STEM teachers, or the people doing the interviewing lack competence in math.
     
  8. Oct 8, 2015 #7
    I think the right way of taking it is that math knowledge is actually a surprisingly small part of being a math teacher, and classroom management experience is much more important.
     
  9. Oct 8, 2015 #8

    bcrowell

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    No amount of classroom management can make up for a lack of competence in the subject matter. Let's also keep in mind that we're discussing both high school and community college. Community college students are adults, and in my experience they tend to behave like adults.
     
  10. Oct 11, 2015 #9
    No Ph.D is likely to get hired "right away" whether he/she can teach the subject or not. I applied for many teaching position over the last 2-3 years. In each case, the school told me their intention to interview at least 3-12 candidates per teaching position for in my case (physics at the community college level). I also learned they would never hire a physics Ph.D to teach math. They told me without a math degree, they could not by law hire someone outside of math to teach math. (I suspect this was not entirely true. (I believe B Crowell as I have heard of rare exceptions for physicists to teach math but they have to jump through a lot of hoops. It isn't easy)
    Maybe the Community college thought their accreditation would be in jeopardy, I do not know).

    Recent Ph,D's are also competing with Masters graduates for community college positions.

    The original question whether a STEM Ph.D was qualified technically, I might give a guarded yes. I have examined some videos in math in high school and I found students multiply /divide polynomials differently than the way I was taught. I suspect a recent PhD, would quickly learn all the new tricks, but in several cases, it would be important to prepare before class. They should not be surprised to find newer techniques, and they had better find out before the student uncover's their ignorance. By the way some of the best integral solvers I know are calculus teachers. Many physicists were allowed liberal use of integral tables in their education.
     
  11. Oct 11, 2015 #10

    symbolipoint

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    The administrators trust your technical knowledge; they just want to know how you are at teaching and at classroom management.
     
  12. Oct 17, 2015 #11
    Just now getting back to this thread guys! Thanks to everyone for your responses!!

    For what it's worth, my community college has some math instructors who are incompetent in class material they are not assigned to teach. For example, when I took pre-calculus last year, one of my instructors explained to the class that she wasn't going to be teaching any applied or "regular" calculus (w/ analytic geometry) courses in the Fall and that she might need to brush up on the material if the department ever asked her to. She was a "lower" ranking instructor (I believe a part-time lecturer) and mostly taught pre-calculus and below. I saw that her credentials showed a Master's degree in mathematics, but perhaps it was a long time ago and she had gotten rusty on some topics. She happens to also work in our school's "math lab" (a free tutoring center offered to anyone enrolled in math) and frequently declines questions from students in calculus and differential equations. I've seen her tell students that they would have to ask someone else for assistance on those topics.

    Similarly, my second semester pre-calculus teacher last year frequently had to stop to redo problems and think for what seemed an inordinate amount of time before solving certain homework or book example problems. She frequently made mistakes or got "lost" in her train of mathematical thought. It felt like she was not that good at the subject!! Students would talk behind her back and complain about her competence. She was a very friendly and caring teacher, nonetheless. She just didn't seem like the most proficient and effective instructor on the subject.

    My applied calculus teacher, however, is quite good this semester. He's able to explain things well and knows his stuff. And he challenges the class to learn beyond rote memorization. My community college math instructors have been a sort of mixed bag in terms of competence - both in terms of teaching acumen and mathematical knowledge.

    High school felt the same way. I recall teachers of one level of math having to ask the 12th Grade math teachers how to do something before.

    Is it just unreasonable to expect a math instructor to recall and have mastery over all of their course work in graduate school years after finishing their degree and having not used some of the material afterwards? There's the saying, "use it or lose it," and I wonder if these instructors are just naturally losing their competence over time from inactivity and use of the material?

    What types of questions did they ask her, out of curiosity?

    How do the Ph.D.s fare against the Master's students? I know bcrowell said it can depend on the dynamics of a school as to possibly favoring one over the other, but generally speaking are the Ph.D.s simply better off/more competitive, due to the higher level educational credential?

    Or, conversely, might they be "overqualified" in some way?
     
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2015
  13. Oct 17, 2015 #12

    vela

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    Yes, it's unreasonable. It's natural for people to become rusty when dealing with material they haven't seen in a while. If someone asked me about solving a differential equation using variation of parameters, I'd be pretty useless right now. I have a vague recollection of the technique, but I don't remember it in enough detail to be helpful.

    Note it's not just the material. Sometimes, it's the techniques taught in class. After going through grad school, I often see math problems differently than the way students do, and I sometimes end up solving them in different ways than they're taught in class. Students will say, "No, no, no, we have to do it this way," and then show me the method they've been learning.

    At one school I teach at, the answer to this question, according to some full-time faculty, was it didn't make a difference really. They were more interested in your commitment to teaching. Economically, you're better off with a Ph.D. because it bumps you up the pay scale.
     
  14. Oct 17, 2015 #13

    symbolipoint

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    bballwaterboy
    Too many students want too varied assistance from so few teachers. Teachers also must relearn anything they must teach if they have either not taught it before or rarely taught it in their history.
     
  15. Oct 17, 2015 #14

    bcrowell

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    I doubt that a community college hiring committee would ever ask a candidate to demonstrate competence in graduate-level math. They should ask them to demonstrate competence in college freshman and sophomore math, which means calculus, vector calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra. These topics are extremely basic, and they're topics that a community college math teacher is expected to be able to teach. A math major would use these topics as foundations for their upper division courses, and then for their graduate courses, so someone doing a master's degree would get something like four years of practice applying these basic skills. There is no way that someone should forget calculus after having completed a graduate program in math. I think what happens is that there is a vast amount of variation in the quality of upper-division coursework and graduate programs. Here in California, for example, a Cal State is very different from a UC. A master's in math education is very different from a master's in math, which is in turn very different from a math PhD.
     
  16. Oct 18, 2015 #15
    I thought I would raise a point that has not been addressed so far. The hiring committee at the 4-5 community colleges I applied at and obtained interviews were from many various disciplines within the college. One in particular had the dean (this was a surprise as she was actually on the committee. At another college I had a meeting with the dean and provost but they were not on the committee), a biologist (science department), a human resource manager, a faculty member from automotive technology, and a English professor. Clearly I was unlikely to get a tough technical question on physics from this mixed group. They granted that my credentials were adequate.

    My career advisor taught at a CC as an adjunct and she gave me a pointer. She said, Make sure you know the mission and vision statement of the CC before you go in for the interview. The obvious question in light of the mission and vision statements, will be how will you advance the mission of the college. You better have a convincing answer to this question. Most CC's seem to have a common mission. They teach at all educational levels, backgrounds and diversity of incoming students.

    It is more important for teachers at CC's to play a greater role in the community than many research universities. You may be asked how you can improve and maintain close relationships and understandings with the community outside of the college, so called town-gown relations. You will more likely be doing academic advising, graduation participation, and extracurriculars than may be expected at universities.

    I thought I made a great candidate. I felt I was well prepared and established contacts at CC's that did not interview me. I would occasionally talk to the science department head at a nearby local CC, (they were not hiring), and apprised them of upcoming interviews and paid attention to what they told me about their positions and students. I actually think they were pulling for me. However after 5 interviews in 6 months I never got hired at a CC. I had an upcoming interview with a local CC but I was fortunate enough to get re-hired a non-academic position as a physicist similar to the one I left before the interview
     
  17. Oct 18, 2015 #16

    bcrowell

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    Even if there's only one physicist on the committee, they still can (and should) ask questions that probe your knowledge of the subject. At my school, our most recent physics hiring committee had three physicists on it. If there's only one physicist on the committee, presumably that's because the department only has one person in it and is hiring a second person.
     
  18. Oct 20, 2015 #17
    I was being considered at three different CC' s in the Midwest. In three hiring committees (5-6 members each), I never had a physicist on the committee.
    In all cases I would have been the only full-time faculty member in physics in the department. In one, I applied for a teaching position, and when they got back to me, they were also interested in my past supervisory roles. I was pleased to see that they were considering me for a science lead (or a title like this). I thought it was ironic it seems I was being considered for a position in which one of my immediate duties would be the attendance on committees to hire applicants like my current self.

    The bottom line is that in these CC's there may be not be a current full-time faculty member in physics. In one school, the chemist was teaching physics.

    This is not to say the chemist (on one committee) who had significant industrial experience, or biologists (in two other CC's) could not have asked a probing technical questions if they desired. However, I did not get a physics question from any committee.

    Every school asked me (and other applicants) to prepare a 10-20 minute teaching presentation to verify that the applicant could teach. The committee told me to prepare as they would play the role of students. In one early presentation I prepared one (easy) question on solar energy for the audience to answer. (I thought I should make it interactive). After all, you want to teach to engage the audience, not just lecture straight through. This backfired terribly

    No one wanted to answer the question. They did not want to engage at all. (My sister later sardonically suggested, maybe when they told you they would play the role of students, it meant they would all be asleep. After all, the presentation was immediately after lunch)

    My presentation at later CC's went better (without any questions), although there was an interactive exercise in one (without wrong answers)

    You are fortunate to have three or more full-time physicists teaching at your (CC?) or maybe you teach at a college.university?. (I do not think adjuncts can serve on hiring committees.)
     
  19. Oct 20, 2015 #18

    symbolipoint

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    mpresic described:
    That was their fault; not your fault.
     
  20. Oct 20, 2015 #19

    bcrowell

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    We're a large community college. We have five full-time physicists and are hiring a sixth.
     
  21. Oct 23, 2015 #20
    Questions about classroom management and teaching experience. As symbolipoint said, they trusted that having passed the subject matter exams for the teaching credential, she knew enough math. What they didn't know is that she knew anything about teaching...
     
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