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How do we alleviate the shortage of qualified physics teachers?

  1. Jan 20, 2010 #1
    (Apologies if this is long, perhaps you can just cherry-pick the parts that are interesting to you...)

    By all accounts, it seems there is a worldwide shortage of qualified physics teachers. It has been claimed that this shortage is due to low wages, poor working conditions, lack of support from administration (and policymakers) and maybe a few other reasons I'm forgetting.

    To take an example from above, jobs in industry pay better than a job in education. I know that teacher salaries can get to be quite high in Canada and some regions of the US (~$75,000, with experience), but this may be low compared to jobs in industry. However, I have a hard time believing that salary is a major factor preventing qualified applicant from entering the profession, as starting salaries for assistant professors are not much better than those for new teachers (and you don't need +4 years PhD and +2 years of post-docs to be a teacher). Also, some jobs (such as programmers or engineers) may start at similar salaries as starting teachers (I have a friend who just started work as an engineer who is making the same salary that I would if I started work as a new teacher).

    In addition, one of the main reasons schools are having a hard time retaining teachers is due to attrition; teachers who are quitting mid-career to pursue other (more lucrative?) careers.

    However, my opinion is that the main reason for the shortage of qualified teachers is the lack of prestige in the position. Teaching may not provide the opportunity for physicists to solve interesting and challenging problems and learn new technical skills (such as programming), whereas a job in industry or academia may provide these opportunities.

    This is arguable, but I can see no other reason why so few would pursue a stable, relatively stress-free environment with a good wage, such as teaching, while so many would pursue a stressful, low pay profession with no guarantees that you will have a stable in 5 or 10 years, such as being a graduate student. This may be a sensitive issue, but assuming that the lack of prestige is a major reason for the lack of teachers, I'll leave a few thoughts for discussion...

    Are there any changes that can be made to persuade more people to choose physics teaching as a profession? Perhaps allowing for more creativity in experimental design by teachers, as well as more substantial experiments or projects. This idea may coincide nicely with a project-based curriculum, where the students have a large, experiment-based project to complete during the course for credit, although many curriculums compact so much material into a single term it may be hard to work on anything for longer than a few days.

    I'm not proposing doing anything outside the capabilities of a high school; however, performing experiments that take 2 or 3 weeks to design, implement and analyze (as opposed to an hour or two) would give teachers the opportunity to guide the implementation of a cool problem, and give the students a better idea as to how science is actually done, instead of mindlessly following a series of steps to obtain the desired result. Perhaps well-done projects could be submitted to an educational journal (e.g The Physics Teacher), or to a science fair (which could count towards course credit).

    This obviously doesn't address all of the issues involved, but it would satisfy the curiosity that got many people into physics in the first place.

    I'm sorry, I got a bit rambly and disorganized, but I wanted to throw some ideas out for discussion. I am also kind of establishing my own educational philosophy, and I sometimes am very dismayed about what I would be getting myself into if I became a teacher (rote memorization! Undisciplined students!, etc.)

    So, to summarize:What would you change to encourage qualified applicants to teach high school physics?

    I propose more opportunities for teachers to be involved in solving interesting problems (through student-based experiments).

    Maybe this isn't a novel idea at all, maybe everyone's been doing this for 30 years already...my high school physics education was abysmal, so I wouldn't know...if there are any current teachers out there, perhaps you can enlighten me?
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  3. Jan 20, 2010 #2


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    Money isn't necessarily the problem - 'earn much more in industry' isn't always true. For most people working in manufacturing industry (rather than finance) it isn't that well paid or that secure.

    From my experience of the teaching profession:

    Inflexible teaching qualifications. Have a B-Ed from a community college with a minor in nutrition or sport and you are a specialist science teacher. Have a physics PhD and a lifetimes teaching experience and you aren't qualified to be a classroom assistant. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/3736942.stm
    Or the head of a top uk .private school that wanted to teach in a state school after retirement - but with a maths PhD and 20years experience he wasn't 'qualified'. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article493145.ece
    Meanwhile they are recruiting nigthclub bouncers as supply teachers.

    Teaching is entirely based around national standardized curriculum and SATS - deviation from the approved lesson plan is almost a crime.
    Since the schools (and your) future depends on exam scores and league tables - hard science courses are the first to be cut. If they are run you are under pressure to teach to the test and be careful to only allow a few star students into the exams (can't wreck the curve)

    But unionized jobs and seniority mean it doesn't matter how good you are - all you can hope for is to find a school where everyone else is near retirement (or has dangerous hobbies!)

    Don't be a male teacher. Men are effectively banned in primary schools. Even in secondary schools you have to constantly be on your guard never to be alone in a class with a student. One accusation and you will be suspended until it is investigated (a year or two) - even when you are cleared the accusation will show up on your CRB check. As will any rumours - "Enhanced Disclosure" allows any suspicions, even unreported to be counted against you.
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2010
  4. Jan 21, 2010 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    It's not clear, but it sounds like you mean (here in the US) K-12 science teaching, as opposed to college/university.

    There's been a few attempts to increase the number of *qualified* science teachers- most recently, there's some noise about increasing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) teaching, but it's not clear what is actually proposed. And a while ago, a few states decided that if you have a PhD and wanted to teach public-school science, you did not need a teacher's certificate prior to entering the classroom. It's not clear how successful that has been.

    None of that changes the fact that K-12 teachers are not required to have any real grounding in science knowledge; that is, just as it's possible to matriculate through a Physics program without any grounding (for example) in history, K-12 teachers are trained to *teach*- they don't get trained to be 'science teachers' any more than they get trained to be 'social studies teachers'. And, with the increasing importance of standardized testing, more and more of the school year is spent preparing for the various tests, rather than teaching substantive material.

    Furthermore, by High School, it's too late- the changes you are talking about need to occur at the elementary school level (grades K-6, 5-12 year olds) in order to get the students able to undertake 2 or 3 week long science projects by the time they get to High School.

    So, what can be done? I advocate that you volunteer to host a 'science day'. Once a year, I spend an hour or so in a couple of classrooms (primary schools), and talk about science. I ran an 'experiment' where I illuminated colored paper with colored light and had the students predict what color the paper would appear: for example, yellow paper illuminated with red light. The teachers *love* it, the students have fun, and maybe a few of them get interested in becoming scientists.
  5. Jan 21, 2010 #4
    Reasons I'm not planning on being a teacher when I get my BS in about 2 months:

    1. low wages, low opportunity for advancement, in industry there is a small chance to obtain personal glory for such as contribution to important technologies, obtaining patents etc.
    2. becoming part of the prison-like high school environment I hated so much
    3. high school physics teacher is like being a nerd minus the nerd I guess this goes under lack of prestige
    4. no discipline among students, no desire to learn physics
    5. lack of respect for the sciences among faculty and administration

    What can be done? Man I really have no idea I'll try to think about that and come back to this thread. Honestly I feel like more experimentally based curriculum would have little effect, when constrained by the stifling high school environment.
  6. Jan 28, 2010 #5
    There was a fairly sizable group of high school (IIRC) teachers at the national lab where I did my internship last summer, and they both participated in research and worked on designing educational modules. From what I remember, they were mostly hands-on activities, but they weren't anywhere at the level of sophistication that it seems you're thinking of. Part of me wonders if even average high school students wouldn't rise to a challenge (it might take an extraordinary teacher to motivate them, though)

    As for what to change to get people interested in teaching high school physics, my school has what I think is a great program that was started by the CU Boulder (http://stem.colorado.edu/la-program [Broken])

    I know of several students who joined the LA program with no intention of teaching and decided they enjoyed it enough to pursue it as a career. The possibility of a scholarship is also helpful ;)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  7. Jan 29, 2010 #6


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    Quite frankly, being both really good at teaching and knowing your subject well is a rare trait. Someone who knows their subject well and is really a cruddy teacher can still get away with teaching at a university level, because they 1) probably don't teach an entire course but just a few lectures in a team-taught course, 2) can bring in research funds that allow administration to turn a blind eye to their lack of teaching skills and 3) have more mature students who can somehow manage to learn from their books and notes in spite of the professor's lack of teaching skills. You can't get away with being a cruddy teacher in a secondary school; it's easier to get away with less subject content knowledge, because you only teach the students as much as you know how to teach.

    I've been sitting through a bunch of faculty candidate seminars recently, and wanting to bang my head against the wall. They might be fine at research, but have no place teaching, and I think our search committee has a serious challenge ahead of them, since I'm really not sure anyone I've seen so far belongs in a faculty appointment yet. I would dread them training students and think they all need to do another post-doc before being employable.
  8. Jan 30, 2010 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    Our local paper just announced that my institution (I didn't know this previously) is one of the first involved with the 'UTeach' program started at UT-Austin: math and science majors can graduate in four years as a fully-accredited teacher. The goal of UTeach is specifically to increase the number of competent math and science public school teachers.

  9. Jan 30, 2010 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    Anecdotally, not very.

    I had a student who decided to teach high school after his PhD. He got an alternative certification, and started to teach in the Chicago public school system. The environment was unsupportive. He was viewed by much of the rest of the faculty as a threat: those with a B.Ed. and a minor in nutrition like the system just fine as it is, and don't want to see the boat rocked. They were glad to see him go after about two years.

    He's since moved on to a suburban school, and has received many prestigious awards for teaching excellence.
  10. Jan 30, 2010 #9
    How would doing another post-doc train them to become better teachers? Unless there was a teaching component to the position (highly unlikely, especially if there is a shortage of funds), then this will only give the candidates a good boost on their research CV, while doing nothing to improve their teaching abilities.
  11. Jan 30, 2010 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    Then I'd argue that he is a success story! I'm not naive enough to think I can reform the school system.
  12. Jan 31, 2010 #11

    Vanadium 50

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    I suppose it depends on your definition of success. A school district with many good science teachers got another one, so that's success at some level. But the school district that needed one most acutely chased theirs away.
  13. Jan 31, 2010 #12

    Andy Resnick

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    I'd agree with that. I think producing qualified science teachers should be considered separate from installing those qualified teachers in underperforming school districts. I only have control over one of those goals.
  14. Jul 27, 2010 #13
    In the US there is the PhysTech program that aims to increase the recruitment of students to physics teaching programs and also improve the quality of their training. They seem to do some aggressive marketing and get positive results in terms of the size of enrollment. Their website is: http://www.phystec.org/. However I don't think they advocate significant changes in current physics teaching methodologies.

    Check out my new blog http://www.physttr.org [Broken] which discusses aspects of physics teachers training.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  15. Aug 2, 2010 #14
    I found some news today on this subject about a program in Cornell for continuous training for teachers to tackle the problem:

    http://www.weny.com/news-local.asp?ARTICLE3864=9154949" [Broken]

    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  16. Sep 29, 2010 #15
    I think you are comparing maximum salaries for teachers with minimum salaries for professors. Also you have to look at salary evolution over time. You are just not going to make $150K teaching high school, whereas senior engineers can make that much money.

    That's tied to salary. If you make large amounts of money, you can buy prestige.

    This is non-sense. Teaching is *NOT* stress-free. Teaching is one of the highest stress jobs that you can find, and it's also quite low paying. People become graduate students because you aren't going to be a low paid graduate student for the rest of your life.

    Pay teachers more money. People don't like to hear this, but that's what it boils down to.

    Yes you are. The problem is that if you want to teach experimental design, you are looking at an extremely high level of teaching skill, and there aren't enough teachers with this level of skill to go around. Also, it's easy to be a teacher if you have good motivated students, but what do you do about the students that *aren't* motivated and don't have high skills.

    Pay high school teachers more money. Now the problem then is that you get into issues of taxes and administration, but that's another issue.

    And that's why it's a blast to teach when you can choose your students. But you can't.
  17. Sep 29, 2010 #16
    If you create lots of good science teachers, but you can't get them into under-performing school districts, then I'd argued that you've failed, and it may have been a waste since those people that you trained may have done more social good elsewhere.

    Educational administration is tough. Teaching is really tough. Teaching and educational administration are tough because you have to deal with other people, and people can be prickly and irrational.

    One trait that I've noticed in scientists is that they often define the problem in ways that the human element is removed. OK you have a dysfunctional school system. Let's fire bomb it and start from scratch. Except that you aren't in a position to fire everyone, and if you did you'll be left with students sitting around doing nothing while you are trying to hire new teachers that haven't been trained.
  18. Sep 29, 2010 #17
    That's because most physics Ph.D.'s with university teaching experience are simply incompetent at teaching elementary and secondary school without extra training. There are some programs by which Ph.D.'s can get educational certificates very quickly (i.e. within a year).

    Yes, and there is a reason for that.

    Part of the reason physics Ph.D.'s can make incompetent high school teachers is that a lot of elementary and secondary school involves following very precisely defined rules without questioning them, and that's something that Ph.D.'s are pretty bad at.

    Other people have decided what is important to teach and what is not, and it is not your place to question those decisions. If the board of education has decided that it is a bad idea to mention that the universe may be older than 6000 years old, that that's the way it is.

    If you get someone with a bachelor in education to read from a book and follow the lesson plan, they'll do that. If you get a Ph.D. to do that, and the lesson plan makes no sense to them, they won't. Also Ph.D.'s tend to get bored much more easily. Elementary and secondary teachers often do exactly the same thing day after day, year after year, and it doesn't bother them to do exactly the same thing. Most Ph.D.'s go insane if you try to get them to do that sort of thing.
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2010
  19. Sep 30, 2010 #18
    Also to question the question. It's not clear to me that we *do* have a shortage of high-school physics teachers.
  20. Sep 30, 2010 #19


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    It depends on the school and school district. And I believe the qualifier is "qualified". But then it is more complicated than just placing a 'qualified' teacher.

    The next questions - are the students prepared to study physics?!

    In my case, I was. I took calculus as a senior in high school, a second year of chemistry, concurrently with physics. Prior to calculus, I had done the core algebra (two years), trigonometry, and analytical geometry, with some analysis. There were about 20 of us out of more than 700 students that did that track. The rest of the student body took the second year of algebra or trigonometry with some analytical geometry their senior year. The other high school I had attended in 10th grade did not offer calculus.

    Interestingly, during my senior year of high school, I substitute taught the first year chemistry class when the teacher was absent for a week. The department head explained that they could not get a substitute, and she thought I could handle it. It was an interesting experience.

    Of course, when I taught in university, I encountered students with very weak math abilities, and some freshmen had trouble with seemingly simple word problems in the introductory engineering course. These kids came from all over the state, and there were some brilliant kids and others who I would discourage from pursuing engineering.

    I think though a critical problem is how to deal with students who don't want to study, or at least, are not interested in physics. In my experience, the proportion of highly motivated and diligent students is a few percent of the student body. They are the ones who learn for themselves, and who work well, or excell, with a good instructor.

    There may be a place for this approach:
    Otherwise, students motivated to go into the hard math and sciences will take calculus and a calculus based physics program.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  21. Oct 2, 2010 #20

    Andy Resnick

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    Not to pick on you, Astronuc, but the sections above happen to illustrate what I think is a large-scale cultural bias of physics *educators* (and many students). I think becoming aware of this bias (which I admit to having) helped improve my instructional practice. Again, I am specifically discussing teaching physics to non-physics majors (and even non-science majors or high school students).

    The bias can crudely be written as 'physics = math'. Or, the idea that the more sophisticated the mathematical model, the deeper the physical understanding. This is a *belief*, not a *fact*. For example, it is common to express certain highly sophisticated mathematical results in *subjective* terms- using words like 'more elegant', "beautiful", 'simple', etc.

    My claim is that teaching *physical* insight does not require teaching *mathematical* insight. Here's my evidence:

    I am going to list 1 homework problem each from 4 different physics texts, and your task is to match the problem to the text. The texts are:

    1) Kaku, "Quantum field theory- an introduction"
    2) Giancoli, "Physics" (6th ed.)- standard algebra-based intro physics
    3) Steele, "Popular Physics". Published in 1878, designed for high school instruction.
    4) Pieper and Beauchamp, "Everyday problems in science", published 1925, designed for high school.

    And the questions are:

    a) With what momentum would a train weighing 100,000 kg, and running at 10 meters/second, strike against an obstacle?
    b) Consider the electric field created by an electron. Draw the diagram if the charge were positive instead of negative.
    c) Determine your own height in meters, and your mass in kilograms.
    d) Can glass be used as an electrode? Why or Why not?

    No cheating! I'll put the answers at the end of this post. These problems are posted nearly verbatim- the only changes I made are to standardize the units and language.

    Personally, I have a hard time matching them up. Maybe it's obvious to you. What am I trying to demonstrate?

    The mathematical content of the three books could not be more different- Kaku is a graduate text in theoretical physics, Giancoli is an algebra-based introductory text, Steele uses, at best, crude geometrical arguments familiar to Newton, and Pieper's book contains no mathematics *at all*- this book is more similar to a 5th-grade general science book than to a physics text.

    In addition, the problems display variable levels of physical insight: one problem is simple plug-and-chug newtonian mechanics, another a simple measurement, another involves the abstract notion of 'electric field', and the last involves electronic properties of condensed matter.

    Again, I am trying to address a barrier that prevents or discourages people from setting foot in a physics class because of the (justified) perception that a physics class is 'just a bunch of math'. And more, I am trying to demonstrate that physics teachers have the ability to present high-level physical insight *without* the use of advanced mathematics. This puts the burden of instruction where it belongs- on the instructor.

    This is how I become more qualified to teach physics- I work on teaching *physics*, not *mathematics*.

    Now, in terms of training *other* physics teachers, we have an opportunity to train better teachers. At CSU, there's a NSF-funded program in place called "UTeach", which is a national program with the explicit goal of producing better qualified seconday-school science teachers;


    In summary, there *are* reasonable solutions, and they don't have to involve increasing the level of mathematical difficulty.

    Ok, here's the answer key:

    1-b, 2-c, 3-a, 4-d
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