Plugging the Leaky Bucket: Retention of Physics Teacher Graduates from Ball State University

David Grosnick and James Watson
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306


bucketDuring the past several years, there has been a growing concern over the numbers of qualified science and math teachers in grades K-12 in the United States [1]. The physics community has also been concerned [2] with the number of qualified physics teachers, and in 2001 this concern resulted in a $5.76-million grant from the National Science Foundation to the American Physical Society, in partnership with American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Institute of Physics [3]. This grant led to the formation of the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), which involved six primary institutions committed to producing more and better-trained science teachers. Since then, PhysTEC has grown to 12 institutions, and, in addition, PTEC was formed as a national coalition of 88 institutions dedicated to improving physics and physical science teacher preparation.

A simple model may be used to describe the number of current high school physics teachers: the water level within a bucket. Newly-graduated teachers are being poured into the bucket, and good recruitment efforts from the student pool or from the professional ranks may increase this inward flow. Unfortunately, the bucket never seems to overflow, so a surplus of physics teachers is not observed. The bucket also has some natural leaks associated with it, for example, when qualified teachers leave the field through retirement, or other changes in a family situation. However, more and bigger leaks in the bucket may be due to other issues, such as job dissatisfaction.

Table 1Data [4] presented in Table I show that approximately 40% of teachers leave the field within five years, and the primary reason for leaving is job dissatisfaction. Retention is then one way to plug some of the leaks to increase the water level in the bucket. Therefore, the retention of qualified physics teachers currently in the field becomes a very important issue, and it has become a major component of the PhysTEC project through the introduction of effective induction and mentoring programs for pre-service and new in-service teachers.

As an example of the water level in the bucket in Indiana, there has been a 20% shortage of experienced physics teachers in the past 10-20 years, and more recently, a 10% shortage in the past five years. An approximately 3% retirement rate per year was expected, and data show that the production of new physics teachers was about 4% per year. Therefore, there must be some leaks in the bucket, or new teachers are moving elsewhere.

Ball State University has had a long tradition of producing teachers within the state of Indiana, and has led the state during the past ten years in producing physics teachers. According to Indiana Department of Education data for this period, 27 institutions in Indiana produced nearly 200 standard certifications in physics; of those reported certifications, Ball State produced 18%, or approximately five times the average.

During the past 8 years (2000-2007), Ball State has produced 41 physics teaching graduates and/or certifications. Of these, 37 are currently teaching in Indiana, while one graduate is teaching in each of the surrounding states of Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, and one will begin a new position in the next few months. Therefore, 100% of Ball State’s graduates have remained in the teaching profession, a remarkable result given the national data just presented above.

This retention result is probably due to many different factors, and not due to a single cause. It is believed to be due in part to the cooperation between faculty in the Department of Physics, in Science Education, and in Teachers College. In addition, a number of the other elements of the Ball State program, which consists of both induction practices and continued mentoring, will be described that may lead to this retention rate.

Induction Strategies for Preservice Teachers to Promote the Retention of Physics Teachers

In the following section, university and departmental practices at Ball State University will be discussed that are believed to promote effective induction and mentoring of pre-service physics teachers.

  • Early identification of physics teaching majors: The university’s enrollment management system provides the names of physics teaching majors to the Department of Physics each semester; therefore freshmen are identified from this list and also from their introductory physics classes as soon as they enroll in the university. During the past 11 years, as many as a total of 25 students (with an average of 17) were identified in departmental teaching programs per year that lead to physics certification.
  • Introducing students to the teaching profession as freshmen: Over the years, beginning teachers at Ball State must immediately enroll in a course that introduces them to the teaching profession. The nature of scientific inquiry, developing basic science teaching skills and disposition, and beginning the process for attaining a teaching licensure are just a few of the issues addressed.
  • Connecting beginning students to physics faculty: The strategies identified in the SPIN-UP study [5] are applied to teaching majors just as they are applied to departmental majors and minors. As soon as the beginning pre-service teachers have completed the introductory courses, these teaching majors are invited to become laboratory assistants and/or work with faculty on either teaching or research projects.
  • Advising of pre-service teachers: The program advising of pre-service teachers is performed by faculty from the Department of Physics, typically a member in physics education and the Department Chair. Courses for teacher programs are listed in the university catalog under the Department of Physics.
  • Connecting pre-service teachers to the department and profession through student organizations: Pre-service teachers are encouraged to become active participants in the department’s Society of Physics Students (SPS) and the Cardinal Association of Teachers of Science (CATS), which is affiliated with National Science Teachers Association. Members of CATS are pre-service, secondary science teachers from all science disciplines. SPS members often participate in physics outreach to local schools.
  • Including pre-service teachers in the weekly notification of the department’s seminar series: Pre-service teachers are encouraged to attend and participate in the weekly seminar. They are also encouraged to join physics majors and minors in the department’s dedicated study room/lounge for undergraduate students.
  • Developing a departmental culture and attitude toward producing physics teachers and serving physics teachers: The faculty in the Department of Physics values the recruitment and production of physics teachers and physics majors equally. Since 1982, the department has offered a Summer Updating/Retraining Program [6] that provides master’s degree, certification, and professional development opportunities for in-service teachers; nearly half of the department’s faculty have offered courses for teachers in this format. Pre-service teachers have both formal (in required classes) and informal opportunities (as laboratory assistants) to participate with the in-service teachers in the summer workshop environment. Many graduates remain in informal contact with the department through visits, electronic mail, and conference attendance.

Mentoring of New Inservice Physics Teachers: A Case for Teachers-in-Residence

As part of the licensing process for new teachers, the state of Indiana requires school corporations that hire new teachers to provide their new teachers with a two-year mentoring program [7] that is conducted by an experienced teacher of that corporation who has completed the state’s mentor certification program. The certified mentor does not have to be in the discipline of the mentee. A quality mentor with a common science interest can be a valuable source of advice, support, and encouragement.

An important part of the PhysTEC project has been to sponsor the position of Teacher-in-Residence (TiR). These TiRs are master teachers selected from local schools and join the faculty at the college level for one year before returning to their home school. They perform a variety of tasks, such as the recruitment of new teachers, assisting Science Education faculty in teaching methods courses, and providing induction and mentoring of newly-graduated teachers. The TiRs have been an extremely valuable resource to both students and faculty, and have contributed significantly in the retention of science teachers.

Since 2003 at Ball State, the TiRs have taken the leading role in developing and expanding the mentoring program [8]. They made contact with pre-service teachers, and then continued this relationship as they become in-service teachers at various schools throughout the state. As a part of mentoring, the TiR would visit the classroom to observe and discuss learning strategies. This mentor/mentee relationship was never judgmental or evaluative, but served as a forum for questions and answers, which continued outside these visits. The number of TiR visits depended on each mentee, but was typically once per month per mentee; sometimes fewer visits were made due to the large distance involved (the farthest school was about 200 miles distant). Sometimes the TiR would bring instructional materials and equipment that might not be available at a school, and sometimes the TiR would run a special day, such as a “Physics Day,” that would give a brief respite for the teacher. Mostly, however, the discussions would revolve around the materials and resources that the teachers had available to them in their classroom. During the past four years at Ball State, 18 in-service teachers were mentored by the TiRs using this approach, and all mentees have remained in the teaching profession.

Another aspect of mentoring in-service teachers is through a continuing-education program of workshops for professional development. During the school year, Saturday workshops are held on a variety of topics, such as the physics of toys or how hot-air balloons work, and are well-received and well-attended. Often, teachers requested a topic of interest to them, and workshops would be developed to address this interest.

The Teachers-in-Residence also discussed the role of “teacher” in the science education and methods courses. The TiRs spoke to the science education classes about their experiences in the classroom, and provided insights and knowledge about teaching in the “real world.” To more advanced classes, they would talk about topics usually not covered in a classroom, such as how to obtain professional development grants and how to deal with safety plans for their classes. The students were eager to hear about the stories and realities of being a science teacher.

The previous examples provide strong evidence for the importance of the role of Teacher-in-Residence in the entire retention process. Being master teachers themselves, they are natural candidates for being excellent mentors and role models. They have also been important leaders of the science workshops for professional development. Finally, they give needed credibility and insight to pre-service teachers on a variety of topics related to classroom matters.


Ball State University’s induction program for pre-service teachers has produced a 100% retention rate for the 41 in-service and pre-service physics teachers that were certified during the past eight years. Similarly, 100% of the 18 mentees of Ball State’s TiRs continue in the teaching profession. The practices of the university and the Department of Physics that are believed to support this outcome have been presented, and are summarized below:

  • Most departments have been attempting to provide induction opportunities for pre-service teachers. However, PhysTEC has brought an emphasis to the importance of mentoring new teachers as an effective way to retain them.
  • Physics faculty must respect the production of physics teachers and physics majors equally; there may need to be a culture change from a mindset that a physics department’s first measure of success is the number of physics Ph.D. students produced.
  • Advising of pre-service physics teachers is performed by physics faculty and the Department Chair; physics certification programs are listed with departmental major programs in the catalog.
  • SPIN-UP recruitment and retention methods, and the best practices of course reform, apply to both physics majors and pre-service physics teachers, as well as to physics majors.
  • Effective mentoring of new in-service teachers and increased retention of physics teachers provide strong evidence for the important role of TiRs in a physics department.
  • Physics Departments need to provide alternative certification and professional development opportunities for in-service teachers at times that they can take them; summers, evenings, and weekend offerings are encouraged. The retraining of in-service science and mathematics teachers as physics teachers is an important source of physics teachers, in areas where shortages exist.

Retention is an important part of plugging some major leaks in the bucket, thereby helping to lessen a crisis in the number of science teachers.


The authors wish to thank those individuals at Ball State University who have given much time and effort into induction and mentoring for retention, the Teachers-in-Residence: Elaine Gwinn, Neil Anthony, Jeff Sayers, Jim Bogan, and George Hill; and to Dave Ober as Department Chair. Without their dedication, this achievement would not be possible. We also extend special thanks to John Layman, Paul Hickman, and Sharon Schultz, whose collaborations have made significant contributions to the mentoring program for the PhysTEC project, and to the dissemination of mentoring publications. Finally, we also regret the passing of Mike Wolter, who was truly the Master Mentor and an outstanding role model for many new physics teachers. Without his tireless efforts, the model of mentoring would be only a shadow of what it is now. He will be greatly missed.


[1] “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, National Academies Press (2005). (

[2] See, for example, the joint letter to Physics Department Chairs: (

[3] On August 23, 2001, a five-year, $5.76 million grant was awarded by the National Science Foundation to APS, in partnership with AAPT and AIP. On September 13, 2001, the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) in the U.S. Department of Education awarded a three-year, $498,000 grant to enhance the evaluation, induction, and dissemination components of the PhysTEC program.; following is a link to the current Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) website:

[4] Ingersoll, Richard M., “Turnover Among Mathematics and Science Teachers in the U.S.,” Report to the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, Chaired by John Glenn, (February, 2000). (

[5] “Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP),” National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics,

[6] “Summer Updating/Retraining Programs for Elementary, MS, and HS Teachers,” Winter AAPT Meeting, San Diego 2001.

[7] For further details on the program, see the site:

[8] The successful Ball State mentoring program, along with contributions from several collaborators, has produced a mentoring manual, “Characteristics of an Effective Mentoring Process,” 5th Annual PhysTEC Conference, Xavier University of Louisiana, (2004), which has been the basis of several workshops at meetings of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and PhysTEC. A recent version of this manual may be found at:

Jim Watson is in his first year of retirement after a long career at Ball State. He received the 2004 AAPT Distinguished Service Award. He has been interested in physics education for most of those years, and specifically in the physics of toys, so that pre-service elementary education teachers can use toys in their classrooms.

David Grosnick is in his 9th year at Ball State and still participates in experimental particle physics research with the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He has also participated in PhysTEC since its inception in 2001. He has a long history of interest and involvement in physics education since then.