Encouraging Students to Pursue Careers in Teaching

David Griffiths, Reed College

For years I have been dismayed at how few of our physics majors go into high school teaching as a career. Part of the problem is the mindless teacher training and certification process they would have to endure. (Many years ago the state of Oregon deliberately killed Reed’s outstanding MAT program; the last straw was a requirement that we offer a course on “personal finance” — how to balance your checkbook — and the Reed faculty rightly refused.) But another impediment is that none of us on the faculty know much about high school teaching, so we could offer little useful advice or support (and, to be honest, we tended to convey an impression that anything short of a Ph.D. in physics represented a kind of failure).

So when I read the APS News article by David Meltzer, Monica Plisch, and Stamatis Vokos (August/September 2013), it occurred to me that we should invite some local teachers to present a panel discussion at one of our weekly seminars. Rounding up the speakers was surprisingly easy. Two of them were Reed alumni, one had worked at Reed as a summer intern, and the fourth was my son’s (excellent) teacher at the nearby high school. They were a perfect mix: two women, two men; three mid-career, one just starting out; two from public schools, two from private schools; three current classroom teachers, one now in administration. Two of them had recently sent outstanding graduates to Reed.

In my invitation I wrote, “I’m hoping each of you will speak for 5-10 minutes, leaving plenty of time for questions and discussion. The main purpose is to plant the idea that [high school teaching] might be an interesting career. Our students know nothing about it (except what they may have picked up by being on the receiving end). So anything you can tell them about how you got into it, what training and credentials you needed, what it’s like as a career (the good and the bad, pleasures and frustrations), and above all what it’s like to be in the classroom on a daily basis (preparation, discipline, how to explain things at this level, use of mathematics, role of lab, etc.) — whatever you think would be useful and interesting.” I asked the administrator to talk as well about job opportunities in the field and what she looks for in an applicant.

My main worry was that nobody would come. This was a very unusual seminar for us (ordinarily they are straight physics), and it would not have surprised me if students and faculty both had stayed away. I did do some extra “advertising” — alerting the Career Services office and specifically inviting the other science departments. Fortunately, the room was packed (certainly over 50), and it included all the usual physics students (mostly juniors and seniors) and faculty (seven of us). The speakers were excellent: articulate, informative, and nicely complementary, even though we had not coordinated their presentations beforehand. We took them out to dinner afterward, and it was clear that they were thrilled to have this opportunity to talk about their careers (and, I believe, honored to have been invited).

Exactly how much impact it had is hard to say. Several students stayed after the seminar to ask more detailed questions, so there was clearly some genuine interest. The speakers did not act like recruiters — they were perfectly frank about the irritations as well as the joys of teaching. But they did convey a palpable enthusiasm and excitement that had to leave a strong favorable impression. Last year one of our graduates won a prestigious Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which provides training and a stipend for aspiring teachers in STEM fields; he told me that the seminar had inspired him. I know of one senior this year who is planning a career teaching high school physics, but as far as I know she was not present at the seminar (she would have been a sophomore then). I think I would call the program a success, but really it needs to be repeated every year or two, and I was gratified to learn that a rerun with a different cast of characters is planned for this spring.

David Griffiths is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Reed College where he taught physics for 35 years. His Ph.D. was in particle theory (Harvard, 1970). He is the author of three textbooks: Introduction to Electrodynamics, 4th ed. (Pearson, 2013), Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 2017), and Introduction to Elementary Particles, 2nd ed. (Wiley-VCH, 2008), and a book for general readers, Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Physics (Cambridge, 2013).