Non-Physics Teachers Are Teaching Physics - We Cannot Replace Them, But We Can Help Them!

Marty Alderman

Fact #1: Non-physics teachers are teaching physics.
Fact #2: Fact #1 is usually (not always) a bad thing.
Fact #3: Fact #1 is not likely to change … ever!

That is a rather depressing way to introduce this article, but it is true. I propose to explain why it is true, in spite of the best efforts of well thought out programs like those in PhysTEC and UTeach. I will suggest an additional program goal for PhysTEC and similar programs, and will also suggest goals relating to this topic for all working physics teachers.

While the development of a course master schedule and the associated staffing in public high schools, colleges, and universities undoubtedly share some characteristics, it is not something most faculty think about beyond noting, generally with dismay, the size of their classes and their number of preps 1. The course staffing process is important to this discussion, and a sample public high school staffing process works as follows:

  1. In the late winter, each science teacher presents course options (e.g. physics at various levels of difficulty, AP courses, or other electives) to her/his students. If possible, the physics teacher will visit other science teachers’ classes and do a brief marketing pitch with an engaging demonstration.
  2. Each student prepares a proposed course list for the following year, and the current science teacher signs off on the appropriateness of the request or recommends a more appropriate placement.
  3. The counseling office tallies student course requests and forwards the results to the principal.
  4. The district administration informs the principal of the total staffing he/she will have available in the coming year based on projected student population and without regard to specific subject area.
  5. The principal prepares a sectioning list based primarily on student course requests, class size limitations, and whole-school staffing limitations. While a specific department staff size might be considered in this process, specific teachers and their certifications generally are not.
  6. The principal will negotiate for additional staffing as needed, and district level administration will negotiate for cost constraint in the sectioning list, resulting in minor sectioning list adjustments.
  7. The principal and department chairperson will ‘fight’ a bit over class sizes and final sectioning is determined.
  8. Finally, the department chairperson works out teacher assignments within the now-fixed sectioning as well as possible in accordance with certifications.

In most states, teachers are allowed to teach a certain percentage of their day outside of their certification areas. This is where the non-physics teachers teaching physics generally occurs. The other common out-of-certification-area teaching occurs in unregulated private schools and will be discussed later.

The Large School Issue

The odds against the number of sections of particular course offerings exactly matching the teaching loads and certification areas of all the teachers in a school are substantial. Couple that with year-to-year fluctuations in demand, and it is easy to understand why there is generally one or two ‘extra’ sections of science courses that need to be staffed and lead to multiple preps for teachers. Such sections are ideally staffed by teachers with more than one certification area, but there are not enough multiply certified teachers of physics to meet the demand, and in the effort to raise standards, states are making multiple certification even more difficult.

One solution would be to hire part-time science teachers, but it is almost impossible. Retirees, while an obvious source, are often severely limited in the amount they can earn in an in-state public school system and continue to receive full pension. Even if this were not an issue (the law could be changed), schools are reticent to pay what veteran teachers cost in a time when they are offering attractive retirement incentives in the effort to cut budgets. Virtually all newly certified science teachers are seeking full time employment. If they do not find the public school position they want in the region they want, they can do better, financially, teaching full time in a private or parochial school than by teaching part time in a public school.

The unavoidable fact: Large schools will often have some physics classes taught by ‘non-physics’ science teachers. Teachers in public schools can and do legally teach a portion of their schedules outside their certification areas in most states.

The Small School Issue

I believe this is even more common than the large school situation. There is simply not sufficient demand in small, mostly rural schools to warrant multiple sections of physics. For a variety of (misguided) reasons, counselors often fail to encourage students to take all four core sciences at some level. It is common for science teachers to argue with parents, counselors and students’ peers who tell students they don’t need physics.

A new aspect of this is the Small Schools Movement, which argues that ‘Small Is Better’ and divides larger schools into smaller units. It is unclear how popular the Small Schools Movement is likely to become, but it seems to be quite popular in some areas. To site an interesting example, there are some schools in New York City where each floor of the formerly single large-building school is now a fully autonomous school unit with its own administration and staff. While there are certainly benefits to be had from such small schools, one byproduct is that more science teachers (and other teachers, as well) have multiple preps and more teachers are working outside of their certification areas during a portion of their day. If science teachers were shared among these single-floor schools, then the multiple prep and teaching out of certification area issues could at least partially be resolved in this example. If each floor-school has one section of physics, then one fully certified physics teacher shared among 4 single-floor schools sounds like a wonderful, if logistically non-ideal, option. Sharing of teachers is not the norm.

There is more to the small school story, but the unavoidable fact is that small schools have the same situation as large schools with some physics classes taught by ‘non-physics’ science teachers.

The Private or Parochial School Issue

Briefly, this is much like the small school issue with the added complication that private schools are not regulated the way public schools are. Since private and parochial schools do not have the same certification requirements public schools have, physics classes are commonly taught by ‘non-physics’ science teachers.

The Solutions

PhysTEC and Similar Programs

The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), as it currently stands, has 5 principal goals:

  1. Recruit people into physics teaching.
  2. Prepare people to be effective and successful teachers.
  3. Integrate people into a system that may or may not currently be prepared to support them.
  4. Mentor & support new teachers so they will remain in this difficult career field, and hopefully flourish.
  5. Reform physics instruction, consistent with physics education research (PER), in order to make it more effective.

While PhysTEC is supporting many wonderful, creative, and effective efforts to bring more people into physics teaching, they are not specifically designed or intended to address the situation described above. PhysTEC could add a program for this additional goal as part of its continuing effort to test and disseminate new approaches and best practices in physics teaching. Such an effort would encourage targeted content and pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) oriented summer courses for non-physics certified science teachers to help satisfy cognitive needs and encourage high-interest activities to help satisfy affective needs. If the teacher isn’t excited about the subject, the students will surely be ‘turned-off’ to physics! This program would have to be very well promoted, since a teacher who has only one section of physics might be much more inclined to do professional development in her or his primary teaching assignment, which is likely to also be the teacher’s primary area of interest.

Professional Development Workshops

Here we have some problems. Lacking hard evidence, it is hard to say, but it seems a person teaching one section of physics and three sections of another science would be more inclined to spend professional development funds on the three section science. That professional development would likely be seen as giving the teacher maximum return on investment and more likely be in the subject of his or her passion.

Looking at the professional development provider’s side of the issue; the best fully funded professional development opportunities require application and will tend to accept people who teach mostly physics in order to get the most value out of their investment. While this is an understandable position, it does not help resolve the issue of helping non-physics teachers who find themselves teaching a section or two of physics. Recognizing this suggests the need to seek funding, develop, and market programs specifically for these teachers. One hook might be professional development in biophysics, materials science, geophysics, and the like … all with an emphasis on the physics the teachers will need to teach and engaging the teachers where their passion lies. Key to obtaining funding would probably be a commitment from the school administration that the funded teacher would be teaching physics for several years. Such a commitment would make the anticipated return on the professional development investment much more secure and palatable to the funding organization.

The Certified Physics Teacher’s Role - Be a Mentor!

Experienced physics-certified teachers are probably the best ‘first line’ in professional development for non-physics teachers who find themselves teaching physics. It is a shame that satisfaction is the only compensation they routinely get for mentoring people new to physics teaching, but satisfaction is often enough in this line of work. The critical elements here are reaching as many physics-certified teachers as possible, making them aware of the need for their assistance, suggesting ways for them to offer their assistance, and connecting them with the non-physics teachers who need their assistance.

This will not be easy. All teachers are time constrained by the demands of their own work teaching. Most teachers interact well, but not all are cut out to be mentors. First, mentor teachers will need to invite, then encourage, then push people to:

  • Attend Physics Alliance2 meetings
  • Attend professional development courses and workshops
    • Cornell Institute for Physics Teachers (2-week summer program, 1 day fall workshop, 1 day spring workshop, etc.)
    • Arizona State University’s Modeling Physics workshops
    • Quarknet summer workshops, PTRA workshops, etc.
  • Attend meetings of state and national professional organizations and attend sessions in physics … not just in their first certification area. (E.g. APS, AAPT, AIP, NSTA, STANYS, and PSTA)

Next, mentor teachers will need to GUIDE people through the location and use of resources. Awareness is NOT enough! [E.g. ComPADRE, ISLE (Interactive Science Learning Environment) activities, Workshop Physics materials, and Physics Instructional Resource Association (PIRA) materials]

Next, mentor teachers will need to be open to helping teachers in school districts beyond their own, and to take a leading role with little outside motivation. They will need to be open to sharing their materials without waiting to be asked. People will not generally ask for materials, so the mentor should be open to freely offering them.

And finally … the mentor teachers will need to Be Positive! Encourage! Keep the focus on the students, and help the (often reluctant) newbie project a positive vibe!

Non-physics teachers teaching physics can grow into excellent physics teachers if given the right support, or they can sour students to science forever if they are left to flounder. Since there does not appear to be a way to provide fully certified physics teachers to all physics classes, a well thought out program of support and development needs to be provided.

1. A ‘prep’ is a class period requiring preparation which is distinct from other class periods. A teacher might have four class groups/day in only one level of physics class with a lab period every other day resulting in 1.5 preps/day filling the 6 teaching periods. A teacher with a mix of physics and chemistry, both with labs, and a mix of levels has 6 preps/day in the 6 teaching periods and has a much more difficult teaching assignment!

2. ‘Physics Alliance’ is one common name for a regional physics teachers’ collaborative group. Generally sponsored by a college or university, such groups meet roughly monthly with a variety of programs ranging from sharing sessions to lectures to discussions to make-and-take equipment building sessions. The Central New York Physics Alliance held at Syracuse University is an excellent example of such a group.

Martin Alderman retired from teaching physics in a Syracuse, NY area high school in 2007 after 30 wonderful years of working with students in class, Science Olympiad, underwater field studies, and more. He spent 11 of those years as Science Department Instructional Specialist (the 1/6 time department chairperson in the high school), served on the district curriculum council, is active in the CNY Physics Alliance, has spent 6 summers co-teaching the Cornell Institute for Physics Teachers, and is now in his second year as Cornell University PhysTEC TIR (Physics Teacher Education Coalition Teacher In Residence). He can be reached at 101 Clark Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. 14853

This article is not peer refereed and represents solely the views of the author and not necessarily the views of APS.