APS News

The Back Page

Recruiting High School Physics Teachers

By John Stewart, Gay Stewart, and Alma Robinson

Alma Robinson

Alma Robinson

Of the 1400 new physics teachers hired each year in the United States, only 600 are highly qualified — i.e., they have a major or minor in either physics or physics education [1, 2]. Physics departments are uniquely responsible for this shortfall in that they are the only academic units that can produce highly qualified physics teachers. Also, physics departments disproportionally benefit from improved high school (HS) physics instruction through an increase in the number of majors and a general increase in the preparedness of the students in physics classes. Unfortunately, casting physics teacher preparation in the light of a public service responsibility places it amongst many other public service demands on departments, such as outreach and science advocacy, for which they receive little support and the immediate tangible benefits are small.

Yet for the last 15 years, the University of Arkansas (UA) physics department found that featuring HS teaching as one possible career path for its graduates produced dramatic, immediate benefits for relatively minor investments [3]. Sixteen percent of UA physics graduates chose to enter HS teaching, providing excellent outcomes for these students and significantly increasing the overall number of physics graduates. Discussions with these graduates find them nearly universally satisfied with their career choice.

A physics major’s progression is a complicated personal journey where sometimes-naïve beliefs about the physics profession are replaced with tangible experience. At many institutions, professional internships in the form of mentored research experiences are available only to more senior students because of the prerequisite knowledge. After the experience, some students decide academic research and graduate school do not fit their personal goals. During this process a student is also maturing from an 18-year-old HS student to a more mature 22-year-old adult and has time to seriously consider both professional and personal goals such as quality of life, geographic flexibility to be near family and long-time friends, working environment, and the opportunity to directly impact people’s lives.

HS physics teaching is a career path that has many attractive features for students who find their personal goals will not be well served by the 10 years of additional preparation (Ph.D. and postdocs) required to secure an academic position, and the dramatic personal pressures placed on individuals who pursue this path. HS teaching allows a student to directly apply skills learned in physics in a dynamic environment with rewarding personal interactions. With technology like robotics, cheap microcontrollers, and 3D printing, and pedagogical innovations, HS physics classrooms are exciting and creative work spaces for physics graduates. HS teachers are often more connected to physics than graduates pursuing industrial careers which use reasoning and lab skills but not necessarily physics content knowledge.

HS physics teachers can become central figures in many communities and impact a generation of students from their hometowns. HS teachers work hard, but enter their careers years earlier than students who pursue graduate training in physics, have significant flexibility in terms of where they work, the ability to leave and re-enter the workforce, and the possibility of sometimes leaving work at work.

Successfully preparing students to enter the HS classroom requires some effort by physics faculty, but effort commensurate with other nonacademic career paths such as medicine. To successfully allow students to enter teaching, a department must develop internal expertise in the paths to and requirements for licensure and train in-department advisers in them. At most institutions this information already exists on campus and can be obtained by working with the college of education.

We need to stress that an understanding of the requirements must be contained in the physics department so that a physics adviser can immediately answer questions about the path to teaching. Education may be able to provide additional resources to allow a student to explore the option, but the conversation must start in physics. If one simply sends a student to the college of education, the likelihood of that student entering HS teaching is very small; by doing this, the physics department demonstrates a lack of respect for HS teaching by failing to understand the career.

Beyond the development of this basic career information, a physics department must present HS teaching as a respected possible career path in venues where career information is discussed: advising sessions, freshman seminar, and Society of Physics Students meetings. As with any prospective career for bachelor’s students, the academic program must allow sufficient flexibility to incorporate the classes needed to prepare the students to enter it. If a department wishes to graduate pre-med students, the degree must allow space for pre-med requirements such as organic chemistry. If a physics department wishes to graduate HS teachers, its degree requirements must include space for classes relevant to teaching: electives that broaden the student’s knowledge (e.g., cosmology instead of a second semester of electricity and magnetism). Broader licenses (most physics teachers also teach other subjects) may require additional science courses; these must fit within the elective structure of the degree requirements. Reformed introductory courses that offer good models for future teachers, and access to formal and informal teaching experiences are also important [4].

To illustrate the rich career trajectories available in education and to share advice on preparing future teachers, Alma Robinson, Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) Teacher in Residence (TIR) at Virginia Tech (VT), describes her experiences as a physics major who entered HS teaching:

At some point during adolescence, my formal education, which once encouraged my curiosity and captured my imagination, had become dull and uninspiring. While I wasn’t sure what my future entailed, I knew that I wanted a job where I’d feel both rewarded and challenged, and those goals felt unachievable within a school environment. But physics changed everything. Within the first few weeks of HS physics, I realized that my curiosity had found a place within the classroom walls. Physics wasn’t about memorizing facts. When I asked a question, my physics teacher responded with, “Let’s figure that out!” For the first time in a long time, school felt relevant; in fact, I can pinpoint the moment I knew I was hooked: During a grueling swim practice, my coach yelled at us, “Elbows up!” a reminder that we should use bent arms with a high elbow during the recovery phase of our stroke. I immediately thought, “Oh, of course! That reduces my arm’s moment of inertia!” It was at that moment, surprised by my inner nerdiness, that I knew I should major in physics.

When I walked into my first physics course at VT, I fortuitously stumbled into a class taught by Dr. Dale Long, an award-winning teacher who taught his students to think about the concepts behind the equations. On one of my first visits during his office hours, he asked me about my long-term goals and I mentioned that I wanted to become a HS physics teacher. He smiled widely, regaled me with stories of his inspiring HS physics teacher, Alice Estes Martin, and encouraged me to work hard in hopes that I might also inspire young minds one day. I left his office feeling excited about my possible career, and a few years later, I received the Alice Estes Martin scholarship, an award created by Dr. Long to be given to a future HS physics teacher.

Only looking back do I fully appreciate how lucky I was to have such a positive conversation about physics teaching with my first physics professor. While I hear stories of professors discouraging their students from teaching, they ring hollow; my favorite professors seemed happy that I wanted to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for physics. The VT Physics department valued teaching and even encouraged us to visit schools to teach K-12 students physics concepts through the Physics Outreach program. That experience of helping students learn physics and become excited about science is what solidified my decision to become a physics teacher. Because the department supported me with scholarships during my undergraduate years and provided me with a physics graduate teaching assistantship (GTA) while I pursued my Masters of Arts in Education (MAEd), I was given validation that HS physics teaching is a worthwhile career.

Upon finishing my MAEd, I excitedly began my career in Arlington, VA, at Wakefield High School, a diverse school with students from over 80 countries and a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. Although I chose teaching because I loved physics and sparking student interest in science, I was surprised to find that I fell in love with teaching because of the relationships that I built with these amazing kids. I learned that for many students the rapport that you build with them can make the difference in their academic success. If they feel respected and supported in your classroom, they work harder for you. But the students weren’t the only ones who benefited from these relationships; few things are more fulfilling than making a difference in a student’s life.

Now, as the PhysTEC TIR at Virginia Tech, I have the opportunity to relay my personal story to our students. Through formal and informal interactions, I describe how rewarding teaching can be and encourage them to participate in our Learning Assistant program or one of our Outreach classes. Each semester students join these as a break from their core physics courses and are surprised by how much they enjoy teaching. After participating in these early teaching experiences, many consider physics teaching, but they, or their parents, have a slew of fears and questions. Luckily, I can assuage most concerns by laying out the facts: Historically, we have had a 100% job placement rate for physics teachers, and many start their teaching career with an annual salary over $50,000 (with the possibility of eventually earning a six-figure salary in some districts). Further, the physics department will provide them with GTA support while they earn their MAEd. Through these concerted efforts to offer more early teaching experiences and to affirm HS physics teaching as a worthwhile and valuable career, we have been able to increase the number of physics teacher graduates from our program. Physics teacher candidates are in your program: They just need the opportunity to discover how rewarding teaching can be.

John Stewart and Gay Stewart are at West Virginia University, and Alma Robinson is at Virginia Tech.

[1] S. White and C. L. Tesfaye, Focus on Turnover among High School Physics Teachers (AIP Statistical Research Center, College Park, MD, 2011).

[2]  S. White and C. L. Tesfaye, Focus on Who Teaches High School Physics (AIP Statistical Research Center, College Park, MD, 2010).

[3]  J. Stewart, W. Oliver III, & G. Stewart, Revitalizing an undergraduate physics program: A case study of the University of Arkansas. American Journal of Physics, 81(12), 943-950 (2013).

[4]  C. Sandifer and E. Brewe, eds., Recruiting and Educating Future Physics Teachers: Case Studies and Effective Practices (APS, College Park, MD, 2015).

Editor's note (January 27, 2016):  The last line of the fourth paragraph has been revised to correct an editing error.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik