Recruiting a New Generation of Physics Teachers at Western Michigan University
Drew Isola and Bob Poel, Western Michigan University
Recruitment, recruitment, recruitment. This seems to be the buzzword of late in the world of physics teacher preparation; however, this issue is not new. The need for more physics teachers, and efforts to recruitment them, have been ongoing for decades. But the calls for action have been taking on a new sense of urgency since the call for "10,000 teachers, 10 million minds" was issued in the 2005 National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm (The National Academy of Sciences, 2005). Historically, states that have routinely placed science teachers, without a physics major or minor, into physics classrooms are finding that they are no longer able to do so. In these states, the avenues to producing highly-qualified physics teachers are not well established, or well traveled, and so pressures to meet this need are increasing on physics departments and teacher preparation programs. It's important to point out, however, that increasing the number of future physics teachers is more than a recruitment issue, it is also a retention issue.
The Physics Department at Western Michigan University (WMU) has been focusing heavily on the recruitment and retention of future physics teachers since the 2000-2001 academic year. These efforts are beginning to show signs of paying off with our latest cohort of high school physics teachers. WMU produced 14 high school physics teachers from our Secondary Education certification (SED) program last year (2005-2006 academic year), including 4 women. We also have approximately 44 undergraduate students currently in the physics teacher preparation pipeline (14 are women). It's worth pointing out that these numbers contain predominantly juniors and seniors because we find that many freshman and sophomores do not initially declare their degree intentions and so tend to be undercounted. Hence, we are fairly confident that last year's results are more of a trend than an anomaly. However, it is also true that the number 'in the pipeline' is a difficult number to accurately report at any given time, because counting undergraduates and their future career plans has an uncertainty principle all its own.
At WMU we focus our recruitment and retention efforts on three groups of students: 1) students who are officially enrolled in the SED program as physics majors or minors; 2) students who have officially indicated to their advisor that they are interested in becoming a high school physics teacher and are designated as a pre-Secondary Education (PED) physics major or minor; 3) students who are taking, or have taken, one or more of the required SED physics courses and have indicated to us in some way that they are planning on becoming a high school physics teacher. This last group is the most fluid of the three groups and is mostly composed of freshman or sophomores, recent transfers, and students who have recently changed their major (usually from engineering). The distinctions between these 3 groups are relevant because we have found that recruitment and retention efforts must be focused differently for each of these groups. Groups 1 and 2 do not need recruiting and tend to require more focused support and professional community building efforts, while Group 3 students are prime recruiting territory and are most impacted by informational and promotional efforts related to future job opportunities.
By far, the single biggest factor that improves recruitment and retention efforts is the presence of an individual in the physics department who has specific responsibilities related to the training of future physics teachers. Based on our experience, if no one is in charge of recruiting and supporting pre-service teachers, it probably will not happen or will remain a low priority in the department. If it is delegated to someone as a supplementary responsibility above and beyond all other regular faculty duties it may get done, but only with a minimal amount of time, energy and enthusiasm. Our increased efforts in recruitment and retention were made possible by the presence of a full-time Teacher-in-Residence (TIR) these past 5 years whose position was funded by a PhysTEC grant ( http://www.phystec.org/about.html ). The WMU TIRs are individuals with many years of high school physics teaching experience who were specifically selected from area high schools for the purpose of recruiting and improving the preparation of future physics teachers.
The importance of the role of a TIR, or TIR-like person, cannot be overstated. Without the activities that our TIRs have planned and implemented since the start of these renewed efforts, much of the progress we have made would not have happened. These activities fall into two categories: 1) increasing physics SED enrollment and 2) supporting the students who are enrolled in the program. We have found that to increase the number of future physics teachers physics departments should focus on activities that are designed to get more students to enter the program and keep the students in the program once they enter. Fortunately, these categories are not mutually exclusive, but rather are complementary. Many activities serve both functions.
One such activity for a TIR is maintaining a highly visible presence in introductory and intermediate level physics courses. The nature of this presence often includes team teaching with a faculty member, sitting in on class and helping students with group work, engaging students in active discussions during lab work, and redesigning and rewriting lab activities to increase students' understanding of basic physics concepts. This presence gives students, who are already enrolled as physics SED/PED majors or minors a familiar face to turn to with questions about the physics SED program. It also helps prevent feelings of isolation for these students, amidst a sea of future engineers and scientists. In addition, this presence gives the TIR easy access to groups of students who are potential physics teaching candidates. Many students in the introductory courses are still uncertain as to their future career plans. A number of our graduates have remarked, anecdotally, that they never seriously considered teaching as a career option until one of our TIRs discussed teaching with their physics class.
Of course, we are not advocating an approach where students need to be convinced or sold on the idea of becoming a physics teacher. Rather, we are pointing out that there are many students sitting in physics classes around the country who may have never considered this option. An important part of recruitment is making this option visible enough for students to consider. We find that we have many more students enroll in the physics SED or PED program after their 1 st or 2 nd year of post-secondary education than we do as entering freshman. This observation indicates that this group of students, already sitting in our physics classes, is "ready to listen" and is a worthwhile group on which to expend substantial recruiting energies.
A second major type of activity the TIR takes responsibility for can best be described as "community building". Community building activities are meant to strengthen connections between the individuals who regularly participate in them as well as to built connections between new members and the existing community. Some of the community building activities used over the years include evening workshops in which people share 'tried and true' teaching strategies, make-n-take activities, 'Demos and Donuts' and 'Pizza with the Profs'. We have observed many of our recent graduates making positive use of the connections formed while on-campus with their peers and local teachers long after they have graduated and moved on. Some have even remarked that it was these types of activities that helped convince them to stay enrolled in the program when things got difficult, or helped them stay in teaching when they felt overwhelmed their first few years.
A third type of activity the TIR engages in is frequent, substantive, and focused communication with individuals who are enrolled in, or interested in, the SED/PED program, student teachers, recent graduates and local teachers of physics and physical science. Maintaining contact with these groups by sending out informative updates and announcements on issues, activities and opportunities (local, state and national) aids greatly in raising your department's credibility as a resource and source of support. This also increases the feelings of 'connectedness' among students and recent graduates thereby increasing the likelihood of returning for their postgraduate education.
Another important area of TIR activities is support of pre-service teachers. A TIR who has a good working relationship with physics students making their way through the secondary education pipeline can be a tremendous source of academic and emotional support for students who are at times overwhelmed. Sometimes short-term tutoring is all that is needed or helping to organize groups of like-minded students together into study groups. These types of small group and personal supportive interactions have provided the impetus for our TIR's to also offer further assistance to students in the form of study groups for the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification and classroom visits to some of our student teachers when they have requested another physics teaching resource person to help them. In general, activities that focus on reducing the dropout rate from a physics teacher preparation program are valuable.
The reform of college-level introductory physics courses is also important in attracting and retaining future physics teachers. Since it is widely accepted that most teachers teach the way they were taught, this has the added benefit of improving the teaching skills of our future physics teachers. Quite a few of our physics SED students, who were originally engineering students, have remarked that it was their experiences with a dynamic, interactive physics instructor that increased their interest in physics as a discipline and teaching as a profession.
Another activity that we find produces results is in-service K-12 teacher support. High school teachers can be an institution's best (or worst) recruiters. Our goal is that the graduates of our physics SED program, as well as other area physics teachers, view the WMU program as a supportive program that produces well-prepared teachers. When these individuals need physics teaching support, we want them to turn to us for assistance and we then do our best to try to meet their needs.
We have reported on several successful efforts above. However, there are some activities, or aspects of activities, that we have found did not work well. For example, mass distribution of brochures or large scale attempts to communicate through mail or email without a personal contact seem to get lost in the vast array of other publicity that is continually bombarding the students and teachers. Activities that do not include substantial refreshments, parking passes and relevant, useful materials quickly turn people off and make it harder to get them to return for future events. Inviting people to any activity without frequent reminders up to the day of the event tends to result in poor turnout. Paying for students' registration costs, travel and meals for professional meetings greatly increases the participation level of undergraduates.
In summary, the main issues that need to be addressed by a department or an institution seeking to improve the recruitment and retention of future physics teachers are:
- Select a person whose primary responsibilities are pre-service teacher recruitment, retention and training. It's very useful if that person has extensive physics teaching experience themselves and is familiar with both K-12 schools and your institution.
- Remember, while it is important for one person to take the lead in these areas and serve as the motivator, coordinator and implementer, they can't do it alone. This effort takes department wide support in the form of money, time and personnel.
- The primary person needs to maintain a highly visible presence and involvement in classes that future physics teachers take. Focus recruitment on students who are already taking your introductory physics classes but have not yet committed themselves to a specific career track.
- Build a professional community among students in your program and between these students and in-service physics teachers.
- Communicate well and often. Stay in close contact with as many future and in-service physics teachers as possible. Get to know them and let them get to know you and your department.
- Provide support to individuals at every stage from students who have recently entered your teacher education program to those in their first few years of teaching and even to your more experienced teachers.
Drew Isola is Teacher-in-Residence and Bob Poel is Professor Emeritus, both at Western Michigan University .