What Can a TIR Do For Your Teacher Preparation Program?

Jon Anderson


With the recent death of Neil Armstrong and the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, the United States is reminded of the countless accomplishments of NASA. The space race inspired national investment and innovation to improve the quality of math and science teachers. Consequently, the courses these teachers taught and the students in these courses benefitted greatly. Once again, our nation is facing a critical shortage of qualified science teachers, specifically physics and physical science teachers. As colleges and universities around the country take steps to respond to this need, a number of strategies and approaches are being employed. In this article, I will discuss one important aspect of many successful teacher education programs, namely the role of the Teacher-in- Residence (TIR).

History and Background

The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) has identified a TIR as one of the key components that is shared by successful teacher preparation programs across the country. The PhysTEC project is led by the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), with support from the American Institute of Physics (AIP). The mission of PhysTEC is to improve and promote the education of future physics and physical science teachers. It was started in 2001 and to date has funded 27 institutions that are engaged in innovative and effective methods of physics teacher recruitment and training.

Initially, it was believed that the TIR position would be a one year appointment of an accomplished in-service physics teacher who would return to their school after their time as TIR. This person was to be housed in the physics department at the PhysTEC site and work closely with the the project PI. Although this model of the position in many ways holds true today, there are numerous variations on this model.

Today, the "typical" TIR can be characterized as a teacher from a high school that is reasonably close to the funded institution and someone who is a recognized master teacher and leader. Most commonly, this teacher is released either full-time or part-time from their school district to the PhysTEC site. Commonly, a portion of the PhysTEC funding is used to pay for this teacher's release from their district. In return, the district receives recognition as the home district of the TIR. The district is usually able to hire a less expensive replacement teacher for the time that the TIR is released. When the TIR returns to their home district, they return revitalized, more connected to the PhysTEC site, and more knowledgeable in Physics Education Research (PER). Since the start of the project, there have been 53 TIRs. Of this total number,
  • 23 were/are female, 30 were/are male.
  • 42 were/are in TIR positions full-time, 11 were/are in TIR positions part-time.
  • 42 were/are in-service teachers, 11 were/are retired teachers.
  • Teaching experience ranges from two years to over 40 years.
  • 38 were/are in TIR positions for one year, 15 were/are in TIR positions two or more years.
The majority of the TIRs do fit the "typical" model but it is clear that there are many variations as well. These variations are in response to the different needs of the PhysTEC sites, the evolving responsibilities associated with the TIR position, and the demographics of the area served by a PhysTEC site. To illustrate this variation in the TIR position, consider the following three former TIRs:
  • Diane Crenshaw: Diane earned her physics degree from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. After graduation she moved to Miami to teach physics for two years in an urban high school as part of the "Teach for America" program. Upon completion of her teaching tenure, Diane was lured away to work as the full-time TIR for one year at Florida International University. Currently, she is working on a PhD in an education field at Columbia University.

  • Alma Robinson: Alma is both a Virginia Tech graduate and the first TIR at Virginia Tech. While completing her Master's degree in Education, she worked as the Outreach Director for the Virginia Tech Physics Outreach program. Alma then spent the next eight years teaching all levels of physics before starting as the TIR at VT in 2011. Upon completion of this, her second year as TIR, Alma plans to return to teaching physics.

  • Jim Selway: Jim started as the TIR at Towson University in January of 2011 and continued until August of 2012. Prior to his TIR position, Jim taught physics in the Baltimore public school system for 38 years as well as several years in the community college system. Towson has hired a new TIR for 2012-12 and Jim is continuing at Towson as a volunteer TIR - a first for PhysTEC!

Each of these TIRs left their own unique stamp on both their institution and on the PhysTEC Project. Each also took a different path both to and from the position.

A Day in the Life of a TIR

Here again, it is difficult to define "typical" TIR job responsibilities. They are as varied as the TIR's background and as the needs of the site at which they are working. However, PhysTEC has identified many different roles that TIRs fill in teacher preparation programs. Some of these roles are:
  • Recruiter
  • Advisor
  • Instructor
  • Course and curriculum developer
  • LA/TA leader
  • Mentor
  • Professional Community Leader
  • Program Coordinator
  • Professional Development Facilitator
  • Ambassador to School of Education
  • Ambassador to School Districts

This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, and several of these will be discussed in more detail later in this article. I will start by showing how the 2011-12 TIRs spent their time.

Beginning with the Fall 2011 semester, there were nine TIRs. Four were working full-time and five part-time at their position. Of these nine, five were new TIRs and four were returning for their second year. The majority of this group attended the "Phys- TEC TIR & VMT Meeting" on July 29, 2011 in Omaha, Nebraska. This annual meeting occurs prior to the start of the AAPT Summer Meeting and is an opportunity for new TIRs to interact with veteran TIRs as well as PhysTEC Project personnel. It is a "launch pad" of ideas and details for new TIRs and their chance to get a much better sense of the responsibilities of their new role. Additionally, the TIRs participated in three video conferences that were scheduled throughout the academic year. The TIRs log their hours spent in various activities and submit monthly time logs of these hours. The two graphs shown below represent how the TIRs cumulatively spent their time in the Fall 2011 semester and the Spring 2012 semester. Please note that the y-axis represents the percentage of total hours spent in a given activity.

Fall 2011 TIR Time Allocation

It is interesting to note that a closer look at the time spent in the five teaching-related categories ("Teach a course, lab, or seminar," "Co-teach a course, lab, or seminar," "Provide instructional assistance," "Prepare/conduct lecture demonstrations," and "Train teaching/learning assistants") accounted for an average of 50% of their time. Of the many strengths that the teachers bring to their TIR position, it appears that their experience and expertise as teachers is recognized and relied upon by the PhysTEC sites.

Spring 2012 TIR Time Allocation

Because of their connections to the physics teaching community in the area surrounding their site, TIRs are also able to act as liaisons between the PhysTEC sites and the local schools. This ambassadorial role is beneficial both to the site and the schools. It connects the site with a larger pool of physics teachers that can be drawn upon for professional development opportunities, outreach activities, placement of student teachers, and the assembling of Teacher Advisory Groups. Additionally, it provides the area physics teachers with these same benefits as well as more direct access to the PhysTEC site and the people associated with it.

TIRs also serve as mentors to pre-service and in-service physics teachers. In fact, they have been involved in mentoring over 800 prospective and new teachers since PhysTEC's inception. This significant and far-reaching aspect of their position occurs in both a formal mentoring situation as well as informal situations. Because TIRs are fresh out of the physics classroom, they bring a sort of credibility and expertise that can't be duplicated and is recognized and sought out by prospective teachers. Often, the mentor/mentee relationship that develops continues after a TIR's tenure is complete. Personally, when I was starting my career, I was fortunate to work with an excellent physics teacher who continued to mentor me for many years. These types of relationships exist between TIRs and their mentees and continue to this day.

Furthermore, four former TIRs now continue in a more formal mentoring role as Visiting Master Teachers (VMT) at the six Phys- TEC legacy sites that are served by the PhysTEC Noyce Scholarship awards. These VMTs maintain regular contact with preservice and in-service physics teachers who were also awarded a PhysTEC Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship. This PhysTEC supported mentor/mentee relationship insures that soon-to-be and new physics teachers have the ongoing support and resources that are provided by an experienced and knowledgeable master physics teacher.

The TIRs have also produced a wide variety of materials that have and continue to leave a mark on their site. Some of these materials include recruiting posters, recruiting videos, informational presentations and posters, monthly newsletters, Teacher Advisory Groups, talks at local, regional, and national conferences, reformed courses, new courses, outreach activities, lecture demonstrations, Learning Assistant programs, and classroom observation/ volunteer options to name a few. Collectively, these materials enhance the physics teacher preparation program at these sites.

In the TIRs' Own Words

A comprehensive questionnaire of former and current TIRs was recently completed and the responses were compiled. This questionnaire produced several interesting results. First, the TIRs were asked to think about how they spent their time and about what amount of time they spent in these activities. The top five roles performed by TIRs (based upon frequency of response) were:
  1. Recruiter
  2. Instructor
  3. Advisor
  4. Mentor
  5. LA/TA Leader
The top three activities in which the TIRs engaged (based upon time spent in activity) were:
  1. Instructor
  2. Mentor
  3. Recruiter & LA/TA Leader

The most common response to the question: There are a number of areas of knowledge and expertise that a TIR might contribute to the teacher preparation process that regular university faculty might not be able to contribute, either not as well or perhaps not at all. Please cite some examples of such areas that seem to you to be particularly notable or important. was: "TIRs have a significant knowledge of classroom teaching/management and high school culture." Quoting one former TIR, "I think that the TIR brings an awareness of how a high school works and what are the daily challenges a teacher faces. In a sense they are the liaison between theory and practice," while another said: "Everything that is directly related to the culture and practice of HS teaching is better done by TIRs."

To the question: If you were responsible for hiring TIRs, what specific qualities would you look for? the most frequent responses were: "Energetic/enthusiastic, Passion for teaching, Significant teaching experience & content knowledge, Good communicator, Leadership, and Flexible".

The question: From your standpoint as an experienced classroom teacher, what are some of the key areas of knowledge and expertise that pre-service teachers need to learn in order to make a successful start in teaching? Please be specific and cite examples. drew the following responses: "Physics content knowledge, Pedagogical content knowledge, and Classroom management/student motivation".

Finally, in response to: Are there some activities that are better done by TIRs and other activities better done by university faculty? the TIRs responded that the they are better at "Sharing teaching knowledge, experience & pedagogy, recruiting, and advising/mentoring" while the faculty are better at "course reform, department engagement, and research strategies/opportunities".

Although I have provided only a generalized snapshot of the TIR responses, my hope is that it is clear that they share common perspectives and common responsibilities in spite of the fact that they are meeting many different needs at many different sites. One former TIR summed it up with the following words "This opportunity was one of the greatest in my life. After having had 38 wonderful years as a high school physics teacher, the TIR position gave me the chance to pay back by recruiting future physics teachers and training them at the university level."


The role of the TIR continues to evolve, and this is a good thing! It is also necessary as meeting the needs of the sites they serve and addressing the changing demographics of the next generation of physics teachers demands flexibility. It is also important that TIRs help lead the charge as universities continue to address the critical shortage of qualified physics and physical science teachers that our nation is facing. So, "What can a TIR do for your teacher preparation program?"
  1. TIRs are experienced teachers. They bring this recent experience, a clear and honest perspective, and a first-hand knowledge of what physics teachers need to know and do in classrooms in the area that is served by the PhysTEC site.

  2. TIRs are master teachers. Their expertise can be tapped to teach pedagogy courses, train Learning Assistants, assist in the reform of existing courses, and provide input in the design of new courses.

  3. TIRs are connected. These connections to local organizations of physics teachers, schools, and state departments of education prove to be a valuable resource to the PhysTEC site and to the pre-service and in-service teachers associated with this site.

  4. TIRs are mentors. Based upon 1, 2, and 3 above, they are in an excellent position to provide a mentoring experience that is both rich and comprehensive. Furthermore, the teachers that serve as TIRs bring a commitment to the profession of teaching physics that is pervasive in all they do, including their role as mentor.

  5. TIRs are resourceful. They will develop and produce a host of materials related to the profession of teaching physics that will be available for the site's use long after the TIR's tenure has ended.

  6. TIRs are recruiters. Please see 1-5 above for the reasons why.

Ultimately, it is reason #6 that potentially has the most long-term impact on a teacher preparation program. If the goal is to produce more physics teachers to meet the critical need that exists, then this end product has to start with recruiting. Once the recruitment→ engagement→ pre-service→ in-service teacher pipeline is established, a teacher preparation program is poised to continually address the need for more physics teachers.

Jon Anderson has taught physics at Centennial High School near Minneapolis since 1988. He was the TIR at the University of MN PhysTEC site from 2007-2009, continues to work as a consultant for the PhysTEC project, and has been a QuarkNet Fellow since 2007.

Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.