Teachers Have Great Careers. People Think Otherwise Because of Bad Data.

It’s time to correct the record.

By Wendy K. Adams | August 8, 2022

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Teachers rate their lives better than nearly any other profession—but not enough students and faculty know this.

Right now, middle and high school physics classrooms across the nation face a challenge. I know the problem, you might think—We don’t have enough physics teachers! And you’re right: Not enough people are entering the profession, so the US has too few physics teachers.

But this isn’t the challenge I’m talking about—at least, not all of it. Instead, I’m talking about the challenge causing this teacher shortage: inaccurate information about teaching. The data is clear: Teachers rate their lives more highly than nearly all other occupation groups. Half of students are interested in becoming teachers. Nearly all faculty would support that choice.

These facts indicate that teaching is a great career option—but negativity and misinformation about teaching is pervasive. That’s why, since 2016, my dedicated colleagues and I have dug into the facts about the teaching profession, conducting research and mining data from a range of external sources. Our initiative, called Get the Facts Out (GFO), aims to counter misinformation about the teaching profession and solve the teacher shortage—and you can help solve it, too.

Since 2016, here’s what we’ve found.

The physics teacher shortage is caused by too few people entering the profession.

The US has well-documented shortages of teachers in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Only a third of certified physics teachers have a major or minor in physics[1],[2]—a problem, because when science teachers don’t have degrees in their field, their students are less likely to go to college and major in STEM.[3] And the situation is getting worse.

But this shortage is not caused by teachers leaving the profession. In fact, data shows that teacher retention is one of the best in the nation. A large-scale study by the Department of Education found that, at five years, 79% of secondary teachers are still in the classroom—higher than for all other careers except health professions.[4] And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the separations and quit rates for the State and Local Education (Public) Sector is around 10% annually, compared to 30% for all sectors.[5],[6]

The real issue is that too few people are entering the teaching profession. The number of people entering teaching has dropped by about a quarter in the last 10 years.[7] This decline is particularly acute for math teachers, with a 30–50% decrease. And given that negative stories about teaching travel quickly and widely, perceptions of the teaching profession are worsening.[8]

So why are existing teachers staying in the profession but new people not entering? Because, as the data shows, students who could become teachers—and the faculty and mentors who guide them—have an inaccurate picture of the profession.

So what does the data actually say about teaching?

The data paints a clear picture of teaching as a great career.

#1: Teachers in the US rate their lives better than all other occupation groups, trailing only physicians.[9],[10]

We’ve identified three major reasons why teachers rate their lives so highly: work-life balance, student and colleague relationships, and financial stability. Let’s look at each of these (the last reason is so important that I’ve separated it into its own point—see #2).

Work-life balance. From focus groups of teachers and other STEM private-sector professionals, we’ve learned that there are three features of work-life balance where teaching excels:

  1. Flexible summers to rest, spend time with friends and family, and pursue other interests.

  2. Scheduled three- and four-day weekends and holiday breaks. Teachers work hard, and these regular extended breaks give them a chance to recharge.

  3. Time to take care of “life things” during business hours from about 3:30–5:00pm, which isn’t possible for most other jobs.

And in any discussion of work-life balance, it’s worth noting another fact: Teachers in the US retire at age 59 compared to age 63 for all occupations.

Colleague and student relationships. We asked a room full of science and math teachers to write down answers to the question, “What provides you with day-to-day satisfaction?” Then we had tables swap responses and asked each table to only keep those answers that resonated with everyone at the table. When we looked at the 60 approved responses, six sources of satisfaction emerged.

  1. Students—building relationships with them, watching them learn and grow over time, and, in particular, witnessing students’ “lightbulb moments.”

  2. Teachers’ day-to-day work schedule (the time for “life things” mentioned above).

  3. The challenge and science of teaching (“Teaching is a science; teachers constantly use their STEM skills as teachers”).

  4. Colleagues (“Other committed teachers make amazing coworkers and friends”).

  5. Learning content (“Teaching provides the drive/reason to explore new and challenging areas of physics”).

  6. Autonomy in the classroom (“There’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s nice to be able to make all of the decisions, within basic guidelines, in my room”).

#2: At year 15, the middle 50% of teachers earn $64,000–$102,000 per school year (25th–75th percentile).[11],[12] This compensation is very competitive with national data for physics majors’ average compensation; while teachers should be paid more, they are squarely middle class in every community we’ve evaluated.

Our surveys, as well as the APS POPA report, have found that both student and faculty perceptions of salaries are anchored by examples from the bottom quartile for teaching, but the top quartile for physics careers in private industry.[13],[14],[15],[16] This creates a perceived wage gap that doesn’t exist, and it may deter students.

#3: Teachers feel they’re respected in their communities. In a survey of 5,000 teachers, 95% of teachers said their co-workers treated them with respect; almost 90% said that their students’ parents and their students did.[17]

Only about 40% of teachers felt respected by local and national media, and that makes sense: After all, many media portrayals of the teaching profession are negative and unrepresentative. In contrast to these portrayals, teaching is a great career, and teachers feel valued in their communities.

So, how can we get more students to enter the profession?

If you mentor or teach, you can help solve the physics teacher shortage.

Did you know that half of physics majors have an interest in becoming middle or high school physics teachers,[13],[14] as do nearly 75% of students of color?[14] Students indicate that they often do not mention this to faculty for fear of disapproval. Most university faculty believe that only 1 in 20 students are interested in teaching—an underestimate.

Additionally, 88% of faculty surveyed (n=2200) agree or strongly agree with the statement, “I would be comfortable with my strongest student becoming a grade 7-12 math or science teacher.”[16] This is the case even though more than 40% of students surveyed (n=2300) indicate that they’ve never heard a faculty member mention teaching as a career option.[14] Faculty also indicate that they perceive their colleagues as not supportive of the career[15]—a misperception.

In short, many students are interested in teaching, and nearly all faculty support that choice. So, to start to fix the teacher shortage, let’s talk about teaching! If you are a college faculty member or mentor to students of any age, you are in a position of influence. Here’s what you can do:

  • Learn accurate information about teaching, especially in your area. As our data shows, grade 7-12 teaching is a great career by many measures.

  • Always mention teaching as a career option when discussing careers with physics majors—or, for that matter, anyone who studied, is currently studying, or wants to study a STEM field.

  • Create an environment of knowledgeable, supportive peers and faculty by sharing teaching facts with everyone. Students often report that they don’t like having to defend their career choice; teaching is an excellent career, and once the physics majors in your department know this, students interested in pursuing teaching can do so with pride.

  • Ask students if they have considered being high school teachers. We often hear stories from teachers about how their path to teaching began when a college professor asked, “Have you ever considered teaching high school?”

  • Resist sharing negative anecdotes. Instead, only share facts you’ve verified through a reliable source (e.g., a school district website or Get the Facts Out). For example, it’s critical to share actual teacher salaries in your area and the range of salaries students can earn with a physics major. GFO has spent years studying the financial compensation packages for teachers by state, and we’ve created resources to easily share this data with students. Take advantage of these resources.

As a teacher or mentor, you’ll reap the benefits of guiding students toward a meaningful career like teaching. It’s important to understand career paths and support students while they explore options; for me, that’s what’s so fulfilling about working with students, and I’ve personally come to see teaching as one of the best careers a physics major can pursue. In fact, my son just changed careers to become a high school teacher!

Encouraging physics students to pursue their interests in teaching will also reap rewards for your department. What better way to recruit students for your department than having one of your graduates teaching physics in a nearby high school? Since so many STEM students have an interest in teaching, students may choose another field of study if they don’t know upfront that teaching is a great path.

On a final note, there’s reason to be optimistic. The last two years have brought new challenges to people in all careers, but I’m hopeful that many of these challenges are temporary, including for teachers. Based on our work with teachers across the US and federal data, teacher employment is stable, even while quits in other careers have increased.[5] We believe that teacher well-being, and their desire to support students, have bolstered them through these challenges.

And we believe that, if we work together to get the facts out about the teaching profession, we can solve the teacher shortage, get more physics majors into meaningful teaching careers, and—along the way—educate the next generation of great scientists and great teachers.

To learn more about GFO’s research on the teaching profession, visit getthefactsout.org/facts-and-data/.

Wendy K. Adams is a physics research professor at the Colorado School of Mines and the Principal Investigator of Get the Facts Out, an NSF-funded partnership of Mines and four national societies, including APS, which aims to repair the reputation of the teaching profession and address the US teacher shortage.

The views expressed in interviews and in opinion pieces, like the Back Page, are not necessarily those of APS. APS News welcomes letters responding to these and other issues.

[1] National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Schools and Staffing Survey, 2011-2012 school year.

[2] American Association for Employment in Education, “2021-2022 Educator Supply and Demand Report.”

[3] Se Wong Lee and Geoff Mamerow, “Understanding the role cumulative exposure to highly qualified science teachers plays in students’ educational pathways,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 56, no. 10, May 23, 2019.

[4] Lucinda Gray and Soheyla Taie, “Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results from the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study,” NCES, 2015.

[5] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Openings & Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) Database.

[6] Josue DeLaRosa, “Public State and Local Education Job Openings, Hires, and Separations for December 2021,” NCES Blog, June 30, 2022.

[7] Title II data, Dept. of Ed., analyzed by Michael Marder of UT-Austin (personal communication).

[8] “The 50th annual of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” PDK Poll & Langer Research Associates, Sept. 2018.

[9] Dan Witters, “U.S. Doctors Lead in Well-Being, Transportation Workers Lag,” Gallup, Mar. 13, 2013.

[10] Norman M. Bradburn, et al, “State of the Humanities 2021: Workforce & Beyond,” American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2021.

[11] Author’s analysis of >400 school districts across US.

[12] NCES, National Teacher and Principal Survey.

[13] American Physical Society, “Recruiting Teachers in High-Needs STEM Fields: A Survey of Current Majors and Recent STEM Graduates” POPA Reports, Jan. 2017.

[14] Perceptions of Teaching as a Profession (PTaP) survey data from >50 U.S. colleges and universities each year from 2019–present, Get the Facts Out.

[15] GFO student and faculty focus groups conducted yearly at seven US colleges and universities.

[16] Perceptions of Teaching as a Profession in Higher Education (PTaP.HE) survey data from >50 U.S. colleges and universities each year from 2019–present, Get the Facts Out.

[17] “2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey,” American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association, 2017.

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Editor: Taryn MacKinney

September 2022 (Volume 31, Number 8)

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Articles in this Issue
How to Squeeze a Rock Like the Center of a Planet
For Agile Flight, Just Add Feathers
Computer Simulations Uncover How Barnacles Slow Down Ships
Scientists Create New Way to Predict Rogue Waves in Crossing Sea Conditions
The Newest Quantum Frontier: Building a Skilled Workforce
This Month in Physics History
How to Build a Crisis Management Plan for Your Career
The APS Topical Group on Hadronic Physics
Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction Touts Achievements
The Back Page
FYI: Science Policy News From AIP
Chips and Science Bill Isn’t Enough. America Needs to Retain Its International Students.
Should We Build Quantum Computers at All?
Danielle Buggé Wants High Schoolers to “Fail Productively” in Physics