A New Survey Uncovers Strong Misperceptions About the Teaching Profession. What Can We Do to Get the Facts Out?

Wendy K. Adams, Department of Physics, Colorado School of Mines

Over the past two years, in a joint effort with the PhysTEC community, we have undergone an intensive study to develop an instrument that can measure students’ Perceptions of Teaching as a Profession (PTaP). The PTaP is able to discriminate between those who want to become teachers and those who do not on eleven empirically identified categories, ranging from personal enjoyment to teaching is scientific. PTaP data can provide feedback to departments about students’ perceptions of that department’s view of teaching as a career, as well as identify which students are potential teaching recruits. This work also has revealed student misperceptions about both the tangible and intangible benefits of the profession, which are consistent with the findings of the recent APS Panel on Public Affairs report.1

The data from the PTaP are rich, but here I would like to focus on the misperceptions of the tangible and intangible benefits of the profession. During student interviews, these misperceptions appeared to be one of the strongest motivators for students who indicated that they did not want to become teachers. More importantly, a large fraction of students indicated that they would like to become a grade 7-12 teacher if these benefits were better than they perceived them to be. Since these misperceptions are simply a misunderstanding of the facts, shouldn’t they be easy to correct?

Unfortunately, reinforcement of these strong misperceptions about the profession are widespread and commonplace. When reviewing news reports about teaching from the past five to ten years, you can find anecdotes of some of the worst teaching conditions presented as if they represent the profession on average. We are bombarded with the message that teachers have a terrible job, they are over worked, under paid, and are leaving the profession in droves. With this strong, consistent messaging, nearly everyone has an opinion about what it is like to be a teacher and is able to speak about the injustices at length. It is not surprising that the numbers of students pursing teaching has been steadily dropping nationwide over the past five years.2 Why would students want to (or their parents want their children to) enter a profession where they will be unhappy and underpaid?

The good news is that we do have data on the facts. Teachers are not unhappy in comparison to their counterparts in industry.3 The typical teacher’s pay scale results in a comfortable middle-class living,4 and their retirement benefits are some of the best, as teachers in most states retire comfortably before age 60. We also discovered a new large-scale longitudinal study from the Department of Education that shows that 78% of secondary teachers remain in the profession at year five.5 Finding comparable data for industry is difficult, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that people in the private sector are more than twice as likely to leave their position, voluntarily or not, as compared to public educators.6

However, even armed with the facts, these deep-seated misperceptions of the teaching profession will not be easily unset. It will require a nationwide concerted effort across institutions to begin to clarify the facts. And the effort will be worthwhile; for every one of your students that becomes a teacher, you’ve multiplied your efforts a thousand-fold through them. Let’s work together to spread a new message: Teaching, worth it in more ways than you may think. When these misperceptions are consistently corrected with facts, we hope to see a strong upswing in the number of students pursuing teaching as a profession.

How does the PTaP instrument work?

PTaP consists of 58 Likert scale statements that can be completed on line or in class in less than nine minutes. Our motivations for developing the instrument were to better understand:

  • What differences in department culture and student perceptions about teaching exist among institutions that are more or less successful in preparing large numbers of physics teachers?
  • What is the impact of PhysTEC support, as measured by longitudinal changes in student attitudes?
  • What measurable characteristics differentiate students who become teachers from those who do not?
  • Do specific interventions, including providing more accurate information about teaching as a profession or participating in an early teaching experience, increase students’ interest in becoming a teacher?

Data collected from twelve institutions are shown in Tables 1a. and 1b. Here you can see that when comparing students who want to become a teacher with those who do not, there are significant differences between these two populations for each category.

To identify those who want to teach, we combined those who chose either agree or strongly agree on the statement I want to become a grade 7-12 teacher. For those who do not want to teach, we combined students who chose disagree or strongly disagree with this statement. If a student chose neutral, we did not include them in this analysis.

All scores in Table 1a. are % agreement with what the experts identified as positive and accurate perceptions of the profession.

A few specific statements of interest are listed in Table 1b. with raw numbers of students who indicated agreement with these statements. The final set of statements listed “I would if…” comprises a group of four statements such as “I would become a grade 7-12 teacher if the pay were equal to my other career options.”

Data from the PTaP can be used to help departments identify those who want to teach as well as those who would consider teaching given correct information about the profession. Or it could be used as a pre/post measure of departmental efforts to improve perceptions of teaching as a career. Watch for our article in the next FEd newsletter about how we have been applying what we have learned from the PTaP to design interventions to address and correct misperceptions about the teaching profession.

Table 1a and 1b

Wendy Adams is a Research Associate Professor in the Physics Department at the Colorado School of Mines. She has focused her efforts on science teacher preparation for the past seven years and is now helping Mines build their teacher preparation options for science, engineering and math majors.


1. APS Panel on Public Affairs. Recruiting Teachers in High-Needs STEM Fields: A Survey of Current Majors and Recent STEM Graduates. 2017

2. Department of Education Title II Data retrieved from https://title2.ed.gov/Public/Home.aspx on 9/18/17.

3. American Institute of Physics. Physics Bachelors: Initial Employment, 2017.

4. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook: High School Teachers, 2015.

5. U.S. Dept. of Ed. 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, 2015.

6. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job Openings and Labor Turnover – January 2016.

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.