Teaching is an Independent Skill
In response to the letter in the May APS News
from Kashyap Vasavada titled “Education Courses Don’t Help”: I agree that the balance between hours of education classes and classes in one’s target subject required for a teaching certification needs adjustment. However, in my opinion, education classes do help. Even someone who understands the subject material can’t necessarily teach it effectively. To teach well requires a commitment to the process of enabling learning and development in others, and this trait is not correlated with proficiency in one’s field. However, understanding the principles of effective teaching doesn’t mean you can teach a subject well when you don't understand the material. For me, the balance needs to be addressed because subject matter familiarity is required to teach effectively, but it is not sufficient. Therefore, education classes do (or at least should) help.
Dr. Vasavada was surprised by my statement that “...in most schools, too few students take physics to justify full-time physics teachers.” The reason for this situation is that, although large percentages of students take 1 year of physics (100%?), those same students take 2-4 years of English, history/social sciences, and math. For this reason, the physics teachers often teach one or more of the other sciences the students take. So the issue isn’t the percentage of students who take physics at some point in high school but rather that most students only take physics for one year in high school. I acknowledge that my “not enough students take physics” was a misleading way to express this point, and I am sorry for any confusion this may have caused.
One of my outside pursuits for the past 12 years has been coaching youth soccer. I am rather too fond of saying that I encounter nothing in my profession as a university researcher, graduate student and postdoctoral advisor, and K-12 science education outreach presenter, that I don’t see on the soccer field in the interactions of 10-15 players, their parents, and the coaching and refereeing staffs. Of relevance to this discussion, we frequently have coaches who have played soccer at much higher levels than I ever played (collegiate and even professional) who wish to coach. These players often are frustrated by the certification requirements–they believe that since they play the game arguably better than the instructors, that they have nothing to learn in the coaching clinics. Many can and do go on to coach well, but many do not–the control parameter in my view being the style and effectiveness of the player's own coaches. Just as we tend to emulate our parents (for better and worse) when rearing our own children, we often tend also to emulate our teachers when teaching–which is why effective mentoring is so important, and can have such a big impact.
In any field of human activity, mastery of the skills of the activity does not necessarily imply mastery-or even competence–in teaching those very skills to others. I have been teaching some subject continuously since I was 17, when I was first certified by the Red Cross to teach first aid and CPR. Whether it’s first aid, music, scuba diving, soccer, Sunday school, or even physics, my experiences tell me that this is a universal truth. I hope that the physics community will remember this “truth” when working to improve the training of physics teachers. Rick Moyer San Diego, CA