The Importance of Talking About High School Teaching

Monica Plisch, APS Director of Education and Diversity

There are severe and persistent shortages of qualified K-12 STEM teachers, particularly in the high-need disciplines of physics, chemistry, math, and computer science. According to the 2012 Schools and Staffing Survey, large percentages of teachers whose main assignment is physics (63%), chemistry (66%) or math (38%) have no major or minor in the subject, or no certification to teach it. And computer science is not even offered in most high schools. These teacher shortages have a significant impact on the quality of STEM education and a ripple effect of discouraging young students from pursuing careers in STEM.

The APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) decided to take on the issue of STEM teacher shortages in its first-ever education policy study. Led by POPA member Michael Marder, APS undertook a survey of STEM majors to learn about their attitudes and opinions toward teaching and what colleges and universities could do to increase the number of majors who pursue K-12 teaching. APS partnered with the American Chemical Society, the Computing Research Association, and the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership to extend its reach, and the POPA survey ultimately garnered responses from almost 8,000 current undergraduates and recent graduates in high-need STEM fields, including over 1,200 physics majors.

About half of all STEM majors expressed some level of interest in teaching, indicating a substantial pool from which more teachers could be recruited. Not surprisingly, given the long-standing tradition of math education faculty embedded in many math departments, math majors were most likely to indicate an interest in teaching (54%). Somewhat lower percentages of physics majors (48%), chemistry majors (41%), and CS majors (36%) reported interest.

In one of the most encouraging findings, the survey revealed evidence that talking about teaching with STEM majors helps recruit more teachers. While about two-thirds of students in each discipline reported that their top career choice was discussed in their major department, there was a significant gap when it came to discussing the option of middle or high school teaching. Only 36% of physics majors, 29% of chemistry majors and 7% of CS majors agreed that careers in teaching were discussed in their department; mathematics stood out as the only discipline in which teaching careers received close to equal air time, with 63% of math majors affirming that this option was discussed. These percentages roughly correspond to majors’ interest in teaching careers. Further, at PhysTEC sites, where physics departments engage strongly in teacher education (see, teaching careers were discussed just as much as other careers (showing similar results to math departments). Notably, these sites have more than doubled the number of physics majors who become teachers.

POPA survey results also indicated a lack of information about the salary and working conditions of actual teachers. Nearly all STEM majors with some interest in teaching (and many who declare no interest) reported that a higher salary would increase their interest in teaching. While a teaching salary does lag behind some other professions available to students with a STEM degree, undergraduates underestimated teacher compensation by almost $20,000 per year. The starting salaries that they reported would interest them in pursuing a teaching position are close to the actual starting salaries of middle and high school teachers. A top concern shared by over 40% of STEM majors about becoming a teacher is dealing with uncontrollable or uninterested students, yet less than 8% of practicing teachers reported this as an issue.

There are many positive aspects of teaching that students may be unaware of. Teachers are six times more likely than STEM majors in other professions to report that they are making a difference in people’s lives through their job. Teachers are just as likely to report satisfaction with the level of intellectual challenge and the level of responsibility in their job as those who went into other professions, and almost twice as likely to report satisfaction with job security. In addition, teacher salaries are for a 9- or 10-month position, and summers can be a time to explore other passions or earn an additional salary. Teaching also has some downsides as documented in the POPA study, but to undersell the profession or not even discuss it as an option does a disservice to majors for whom teaching is a good fit, as well as the hundreds if not thousands of young students who would benefit from having a qualified teacher.

The full POPA report, “Recruiting Teachers in High-Needs STEM Fields: A Survey of Current Majors and Recent STEM Graduates,” is available at

Dr. Monica Plisch is a co-author of the POPA report and the Director of the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), a project of the APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers to improve the education of future physics teachers. As APS Director of Education and Diversity, she leads a number of national efforts to advance physics education and promote greater inclusion and diversity.

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.