Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Fall 2006 / Spring 2007 Newsletter



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A Quiet Revolution in Preparing Future Teachers of Physics

Julia Olsen, University of Arizona and Drew Isola, Western Michigan University

As noted in other articles in this newsletter, numerous reports, position papers and research studies, we face a crisis in mathematics and science teacher preparation in the United States. This is especially true in regard to physics teachers. As the political uproar has increased, the pressure on institutions of higher learning and on physics departments in particular has become more intense, leaving many to wonder about possible solutions.  How can we, as physicists, take on such an overwhelming task in an area where we have little experience or training? 

This article deals with one approach to addressing these issues. The use of exemplary K-12 teachers as agents of change in universities has been quietly making its way into teacher preparation programs around the country over the past decade.  While it is not unheard of for K-12 teachers to work on college campuses as an entry level or temporary instructor, it has rarely been the case that they are sought out specifically for their expertise in the K-12 classroom. However, more and more K-12 teachers are employed to directly apply their classroom wisdom to the many facets of identifying, recruiting and supporting K-12 teachers of physics. In this role, they are commonly called Teachers-in-Residence (TIRs) or Master Teachers (MTs).

We will attempt to summarize here the TIRs' or MTs' many roles. Several of these are discussed in more detail Isola and Poel's article which follows. In addition, we encourage readers to contact us with information you may have about similar scenarios. We would like to continue documenting the emerging trend of including classroom practitioners in university teacher preparation programs. Our long term goal is to make detailed data available to those who wish to explore this promising option, specifically focusing on the positive impact a TIR/MT can have on the preparation of future teachers of physics and physical science.

The TIR/MT, as defined by the institutions that have utilized them, is more than just a person with K-12 teaching experience who begins to work in a teacher preparation program as an instructor or supervisor. For the purposes of this article, the TIR/MT is defined as:

  • An experienced K-12 classroom teacher who has been identified as an exemplary educator; one who has extensive knowledge of physics concepts as well as experience teaching and a strong footing in the realities of K-12 classroom management.
  • One actively recruited and hired by a teacher preparation program and/or physics department specifically for the purpose of providing a 'reality check' and improving the preparation of future teachers of physics.
  • Having as their main duties: 1) working side-by-side with physics and teacher preparation faculty as an integral member of the teaching team and participating in college level physics course reform projects; 2) building bridges between various departments/colleges on-campus and with area K-12 schools; 3) providing mentoring and follow-up support to pre-service teachers, recent graduates, and local area teachers of physics and physical science at all grade levels.
  • Perhaps having a Ph.D. and/or research experience but not considered 'traditional faculty' in the sense that they are not assigned a regular teaching load nor are they expected to carry out scholarly research. However, they are expected to share their expertise with the department and the greater physics community.

The utilization of TIRs/MTs is not without support in the literature. It has been recommended, and even encouraged, in a number of influential reports and position papers over the past decade. For example, the NRC report Educating Teachers of Science, Mathematics, and Technology: New Practices for the New Millennium (The National Academy of Sciences, 2000) recommended that "colleges and universities should reexamine and redesign introductory college-level courses in science to better accommodate the needs of future teachers." The report went on to say that they "envision master teachers in partner school districts [having] adjunct faculty appointments in the partner two- and four-year colleges and universities." The master teachers would "take on a much more significant role in the mentoring of future teachers." The TIRs/MTs described in this article were specifically brought on-campus to fulfill this particular need.

TIRs/MTs at institutions around the country have taken on a wide range of roles and responsibilities that play a significant part in a high quality teacher preparation program. While many of these responsibilities are important and worthwhile, many physics faculty find themselves ill equipped to perform them or are unaware of their potential impact.

The Fall and Spring 2005 APS Forum on Education Newsletters ( ) contain articles describing programs which utilize K-12 TIRs/MTs in ways that are consistent with what we describe here. Some examples from these articles include:

  • Hiring experienced, certified, secondary school teachers as coordinators of teacher preparation programs with the goal of overhauling and improving the program.
  • Using graduates of one's own program as cooperating teachers during student teaching experiences.
  • Utilizing retired secondary science teachers as adjunct instructors.
  • Bringing together area secondary science teachers in advisory groups to provide input on program decisions and feedback on mentoring student teachers.
  • Hiring full-time TIRs/MTs to oversee activities such as those described below.

Some of the specific responsibilities connected with the improvement of teacher preparation programs that TIRs/MTs are carrying out at sites nationwide include:

  • Reforming existing physics and teaching methods courses as well as developing new ones that focus specifically on the use of Physics Education Research (PER) based teaching strategies.
  • Mentoring and building community among pre-service physics teachers and providing support as they navigate their way through the preparation program.
  • Developing and maintaining contact lists of pre-service teachers, recent graduates and area physics teachers.
  • Utilizing those contact lists to stay in meaningful contact with these groups and to gather data on graduates' career progress.
  • Mentoring and community building among novice K-12 teachers of physics to provide support as these individuals learn and implement new PER based teaching strategies.
  • Developing bridges and interactions between physics departments, colleges (or departments) of education and area K-12 schools.
  • Supervising and mentoring student teachers in order to relieve other faculty who may lack either physics background or K-12 background.
  • Providing first-hand information on the realities of K-12 teaching to college-level course reformers, committees, and departments.
  • Planning and implementing activities specifically focused at the recruitment and retention of K-12 physics teachers.
  • Supporting pre-service teachers through personal, one-on-one interactions including spending time talking with students about what it's like to be a teacher, listening to their fears and concerns and giving them encouragement whenever it is needed.
  • Supervising and coaching graduate Teaching Assistants and undergraduate Learning Assistants to improve the quality of the experiences they provide for students and to refine their teaching skills.

Again, more detail on examples of several of these activities is provided in the next article by Isola and Poel.

The list of potential TIR/MT activities above might seem extensive. Still, one might ask "Why should a research intensive department bother?" First, many physics teacher preparation sites that have utilized TIRs/MTs have seen a three fold increase in the number of physics teachers produced over the past 5 years. (Specific data is available at ). Since these students are often additional students, the increasing enrollment in physics teaching programs often benefits the whole department. In addition, we believe that the techniques employed to increase the number of students going into physics teaching also improve the general physics major/minor enrollment. Second, the pressure to produce more physics teachers will likely increase as the shortages become more acute. Implementing some of the strategies we have described will proactively move departments to the forefront of this issue. Lastly, we argue that for departments that care about improving science education TIRs and MTs are exceptionally well positioned to act as agents of change. They are individuals who are familiar with the often separate worlds of K-12 and college-level education. They can move back and forth between these worlds, speaking with credibility and insight to both cultures. Hence, they are very well positioned to transmit developments in physics teaching. For example, we have learned a lot about how students learn, which teaching strategies work and which ones don't and we've developed and are utilizing new technologies to demonstrate physics concepts and challenge students' thinking.  This paradigm shift, from traditional to reformed teaching, has been trickling its way down into our local school systems. TIRs and MTs can lead the way on this by calling for change in K-12 schools and providing the support needed to make it happen. Physics departments that utilize this important human resource take the lead in developing and supporting quality teachers of physics for the next generation.


We would like to acknowledge the contributions of the thirty-three other PhysTEC TIRs and MTs past and present who helped to define this unique role within the project. Their willingness to share their efforts in their journals and presentations has allowed us to describe their contributions and impact. We also thank Paul Hickman, PhysTEC Project Consultant, who encouraged us to develop this article, helped with resources and edited the early drafts. This work is supported in part by NSF (PHY-0108787).


American Association of Employment in Education. (2002) Educator Supply and Demand in the United States Report.

Hodapp, T. (2005) The Role of Colleges and Universities in the Preparation of Future Teachers. Presented at Annual PTEC Conference, Fayetteville, AR. March 2005.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2001). Teacher turnover and teacher shortages: An organizational analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 38 (3), 499-534.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2002). Out-of-field teaching, educational inequality, and the organization of schools: An exploratory analysis . Seattle: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy.

Ingersoll, R. (2003). Is There Really a Teacher Shortage? University of Pennsylvania: Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Available from

Isola, A. & Buck-Moyer, D. K-12 Teachers On-Campus: Their Impact on Teacher Preparation. Teacher-in-Residence Workshop at Annual PTEC Conference, Fayetteville , AR. March 2005.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). The Nation's Report Card: Science 2000. NCES 2003-453. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). Qualifications of the Public School Teacher Workforce: Prevalence of Out-of-Field Teaching 1987-1988 to 1999-2000. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

National Research Council. (2001) Educating teachers of science mathematics, and technology: New practices for the new millennium. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Neuschatz, M. & McFarling, M . (2003) Broadening the Base: High School Physics Education at the Turn of a New Century Findings from the 2001 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers. Statistical Research Center, American Institute of Physics. College Park, MD.

Julia Olsen is Teacher-in-Residence at the University of Arizona. Drew Isola is Teacher-in Residence at Western Michigan University.



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