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Kristine Callan, Wendy K. Adams and Lacy Cleveland, Colorado School of Mines
A recent study1 revealed that about half of STEM majors reported some level of interest in becoming a high school or middle school teacher, indicating a large recruiting pool. In contrast, physics, chemistry, and mathematics are rated “considerable shortage” areas for new teachers, demonstrating that the demand for open positions far exceeds the supply.2 These seemingly inconsistent pieces of data can be understood in light of research that was highlighted in the last edition of the FEd newsletter.3,4 These articles present research that has identified strongly held beliefs about the teaching profession, many of which are misperceptions. Further, these misperceptions discourage STEM undergraduates from exploring teaching as a viable career option. Study results also suggest that college and university faculty in STEM departments either do not mention middle or high school teaching as a career option or inadvertently misrepresent the profession. To encourage discussion, and to change the conversation at both the Colorado School of Mines (Mines) and the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), we have implemented an information campaign we call “MythBusters.”
Mines is a public applied science and engineering university that prides itself upon their students’ high job placement success and the ability of their graduates to obtain competitive engineering salaries. We first began offering a pathway for students to obtain a Colorado secondary teaching license in science or math in the fall of 2015 and have been working to spread the word and encourage positive and accurate conversations with the hopes of empowering more students to pursue their interest in teaching. UNC, a former normal school, prepares the state’s largest fraction of teachers. The pursuit of teacher licensure is generally well supported, with 25 – 30% of physics majors earning licensure.
MythBusters is an interactive presentation designed to address the major misperceptions that this recent research has identified, including: (1) the inaccurate belief that the salary gap between teaching and private sector employment is very wide; and (2) inaccurate beliefs about tangible and intangible benefits of the profession. Our efforts have included directly addressing students and high school teachers, in addition to the university faculty and staff whom students often go to for career advice.5 To address these different audiences, we have developed two versions of MythBusters: one that is student-facing, and one faculty/staff-facing.
To recruit students into our teacher preparation program, and to spread awareness about teaching career pathways in general, we find that we first need to address some of the myths and realities of the teaching profession before providing any specifics about our program. For example, if students don’t believe that they could have a good career as a teacher, it doesn’t matter how streamlined our program is or how attractive the scholarship opportunities are.
The Student MythBusters is an interactive presentation that utilizes peer-instruction,6 runs between 20-30 minutes, and has had measurable impact. The presentation involves addressing three common misperceptions by providing students with actual data for teaching and private sector positions related to: 1) pay differential, 2) retirement, and 3) job satisfaction. For example, we ask students to estimate the salaries for teachers in their first year and their 15th year, and then we immediately show the students the salary schedules of nearby districts where our graduates would likely work. We also show comparisons of secondary teaching salaries to those of college teachers with the same degree levels, as well as comparisons to private sector jobs. This gives them a chance to recognize and confront any potential misperceptions that they or their classmates may have.
Materials also include handouts with local teacher salary schedules, data on retirement benefits, information on loan forgiveness programs, and job satisfaction survey data. The handouts are shared at Student MythBusters events or during one-on-one meetings. Students frequently use these materials to have conversations with their parents. In a few instances where we have had the opportunity to speak with parents directly, a short conversation with handouts seemed to have a positive impact.
At both UNC and Mines, student knowledge of the profession has improved over the last two years, indicated by an increase in the percentage correct on clicker questions from about 30% initially up to about 60% at recent student events that included both new recruits and veteran candidates. We’ve also seen an increase in the fraction of students who express interest: At a recent Mines event with ~30 Engineering Physics majors, 12 asked to be contacted to learn more about teaching options.
In addition to raising the perception of the profession among students, we also need to do so with the faculty and staff whom students often turn to for career advice. For example, we’ve run workshops for admissions, first-year advising, residence life, and faculty at a campus-wide conference. Goals for participants are listed in Table I to the right.
The Faculty MythBusters workshop involves intensive collaboration and data mining by participants, and it takes about an hour for the conversation to reflect a more accurate understanding of the teaching profession. In comparison, when participants are high school teachers, it can take more than an hour due to deeply-seated misperceptions and limited knowledge of the actual benefits and drawbacks of private sector STEM jobs. As part of the faculty-facing workshop, we share the outcomes of this exercise when it was conducted with our Teacher Advisory Group (TAG), which is made up of middle and high school science and math teachers, state administrators, and industry stakeholders (including Mines’ alumni). In short, given the same data sets along with many person-years of experience in the teaching profession, the conversation started off negative and focused on the common misperceptions. But after some reminders to look at the data, and with some valuable perspective from our industry representatives, the conversation changed to one where the rewards and benefits of teaching were being celebrated.
The Faculty MythBusters is also improving faculty acceptance of teaching as a valued profession. The workshop closes with an anonymous clicker statement, “I would feel comfortable with my favorite student becoming a 7-12th grade teacher,” and all participants have agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.
At both a competitive engineering institution and a teaching oriented former normal school, we have found these same common misperceptions and have had success in getting the facts out. However, we know there remain many students at Mines, and elsewhere, who are interested in teaching, but who don’t pursue or complete a teaching license because of misperceptions about the profession. We are hopeful that with continued outreach to students, faculty, and staff, we can continue to elevate the view of the teaching profession and ultimately see the number of students who become teachers grow. If you are interested in implementing MythBusters on your campus, please feel free to contact us.
Dr. Kristine Callan is a Teaching Professor in the Physics Department at the Colorado School of Mines. She has led the Mines side of TEAM-UP (Teacher Education Alliance Mines – UNC Partnership) since its inception.
Dr. 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.
Dr. Lacy Cleveland is a Teacher in Residence with the TEAM-UP program at the Colorado School of Mines. She is a former high school science teacher, with a background in biology education research.
1 M. Marder, R. C. Brown, and M. Plisch, Recruiting Teachers in High-Needs STEM Fields: A Survey of Current Majors and Recent STEM Graduates, A Report for the American Physical Society Panel on Public Affairs (American Physical Society, College Park, MD, 2017).
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