Monday, June 9, 2014

Ph.D. chemist encourages colleagues to become high school teachers

Thanks for sharing highlights from the recent “Science & Engineering Indicators” (SEI) (C&EN, March 10, page 29). I am a big fan of those reports and spent many hours analyzing the data in them in my past career in science policy. The statements about K–12 teachers in particular caught my attention because about one year ago I made the decision to change my career and become a high school chemistry teacher. 
I am now among the data—part of the 82% of high school teachers with a science degree (I have three, including a Ph.D.). I am also aware of the high percentage of teachers who quit in their first few years of teaching (especially those teaching secondary math and science), given that I am struggling to make it through my first year of teaching high school. 
I want my fellow chemists to know that teaching high school is an extremely hard job—harder than any job I have ever had. Teaching chemistry is about half of what I do; the other half involves keeping teenagers awake and on task in addition to endless administrative duties. On the other hand, becoming a high school teacher is a decision I don’t regret for a minute. I have some of the most supportive, hardworking, and dedicated colleagues (teachers and administrators) I have ever had and many wonderful students who keep me on my toes and put a smile on face at the end of every day. 
Although the SEI data are interesting and paint a rather negative picture of the status of K–12 education, I urge readers to look deeper at the individual data points. If you have been considering changing your career to teach high school chemistry, please know that it is truly rewarding, that you are needed, and that you will make a difference. You can do your part to help increase the percentage of teachers with science degrees and also hopefully decrease the percentage of teachers who leave within the first few years of teaching. 
Tina Masciangioli
Arlington, Va.
I think Dr. Masciangioli makes an interesting point -- that if you become a high school chemistry teacher, lots of your time will be spent managing behavior of teenagers. I'm not sure that I would be up for that, to be honest. The last time I was engaging teenagers, I found myself more irritated than anything else.

Nevertheless, "truly rewarding", making a difference and being needed are all things that make for a happy career -- I'd say that this is a pretty strong endorsement.

16 comments:

  1. Some people are naturals at handling HS kids who want to test your limits, to see how much they can get away with in terms of being rotten.

    That was not me.

    Im now teaching at a community college--kind of similar intellectual level of the student without the behavior issues.

    Too bad the pay is crummy.

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    1. The pay is the real killer for me. If you don't start on the K12 track as a 22-year-old, you will never reach the high salaries and decent pension that those teachers receive when they are in their fifties and beyond. Pensions by design are heavily backloaded, and this is compounded by the ladder pay scale system which gives no credit for years of relevant non-teaching experience. In most districts, a PhD with 20 years of experience in the private sector who just started teaching would get paid about as much as a 25 year old who became a teacher straight out of college.

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    2. Those pensions won't be there anyway for any teacher under the age of 40, IMO.

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  2. I would consider teaching HS Chemistry or Physics if they mandated RF-controlled shock collars on all students, and half the parents.

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    1. I would have preferred a cattle-prod. Or the re-institution of paddling. Maybe even sharia law.

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  3. It was easier to be a HS teacher when you could bust out the ruler when needed.

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  4. A couple of years ago I was asked to give some high school recruiting talks for the CompSci department where I have been an adjunct for many years.

    It's been over 40 years since I was a high school student and the environment was quite a shock to me. When I was a student, you had to have a hall pass signed by a teacher or administrator and you could walk halfway across the school without seeing a student in a hallway during classes. Now it seems that more students are running loose in the hallways and common spaces than sitting in a classroom.

    It's no wonder that the public schools have such a safety and security problem.

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  5. Look at the bright side, guys! Where else, as a chemist, do you realistically have a chance to go on strike? Not at Pfizer of DOW, that's for damn sure.

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  6. I spent a wonderful, awful year teaching high school chemistry in an under-funded public school. One day, right before winter break, a group of students convinced one of the administrative assistants to break into my classroom early in the morning. They assembled a Christmas tree and decorated it with VSEPR structures that they had made from pipe cleaners and sparkly pompoms. It made me cry. And then another student called me a "b*** rookie teacher" for making him put his cell phone away. If I wanted to get paid less than 40K a year to work 80 hours a week, I would go back to graduate school.

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  7. It seems to be the same throughout the developed world - the pay for teachers isn't good enough to justify the stress of teaching science, when you could be doing something far less stressful for more money.

    I can see the benefits to students of PhD's teaching them (I had excellent science teachers 16-18 3 out of 4 of them had PhDs), but I'm struggling to see the benefits for PhDs becoming teachers either in my own country (UK), or elsewhere. In the UK, the fact that you have a PhD is simply ignored in terms of remuneration or training requirements in the teaching profession, at odds with most other careers when one uses one's scientific knowledge.

    PhD's go into schools a bit older and wiser (able to function more independently), often with some teaching experience at a higher level (undegraduates) alongside their work experience (at least in the UK - you have to have spent some prior time in a school before they'll consider you for teacher training) and, most importantly of all, a much deeper understanding of their subject than most first degree graduates. If they are trained properly in the soft skills of teaching, PhD's will be excellent teachers and often effective school leaders in time. Personally, I think this justifies a more attractive initial offer. Of course, that would require us to be operating in educations system that demand the best, rather than ones that seek merely to achieve an average standard.

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  8. Yes, teaching kids is an extremely hard job, as you have to teach kids, keep them awake and interested and carry out administrative duties, too. It'ss is difficult but good education is something worth investing in and kids must be conscious of this fact. Such skills as researching and writing a dissertation can bring lots of benefits in the future, as the purpose of a dissertation is to make the students conduct a small research project that will display the students' grasp of a particular research question and the competent application of research methods. Visit this site here if you have some difficulties with college paper, disserttion witing process or seek for expert writers online.

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    1. "Visit this site here if you have some difficulties with college paper, disserttion witing process or seek for expert writers online."

      Surely you jest.

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  9. I just laugh. Why should people with a P.HD in chemistry do a better job than one without? I went to a private prep school. Many of our teachers including our headmaster had post-graduate degrees. It didn’t make them better teachers. Our history teacher had been fired for some kind of misbehavior (he was an alcoholic) from his university. I thought he was great. So long you agreed with his political views he gave you an A. I did so he gave me good grades but many for the students hated him. We had also a substitute teacher which an unfinished degree in the same field and he was just as great. We had a young teacher in (Western) Philosophy which was pretty funny. He was a failed academic (never got into the tenure-track). He always forgot that he was teaching kids and went way beyond the curriculum in his effort to help us understand his field. Was he a good at teaching kids?

    Not at all – but I enjoyed having him because I liked his field. We had a full professor in economics which was employed for minor course and for a hefty salary. Why he was hired is still beyond me but I think the administrators used him to sell their school to parents. He was good but nothing special. In general there were no real differences between those which had a post-graduate degree and the other teachers. Statistics may say otherwise. What I do know is that it is a waste of resources to let people go through a P.HD program and then have them teaching High School. Only a liberal would say such things. The main problem is that we have too many people with degrees in this country resulting in under-unemployment and unemployment. The sooner people get it the better for all. We need to get rid of public education. Education ought to be a private matter and not the business of government. If corporations or other employers need people with a degree they better pay for it themselves.

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    1. No they won't pay the money. They will call for 457 workers from India or Philippines instead.

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  10. Teaching is a demanding but fulfilling job and at times not to be underestimated such as around the beginning of term/semester: planning etc., exam times + report deadlines or that class of constantly challenging students. Knowledge and enthusiasm for one's subject is mandatory and most graduates should be ofay with that. But more importantly, are these 'soft' teaching skills mentioned by others here and without the ability to teach effectively or know when to seek any support provided by school policies makes teaching increasingly unbearable or stressful, however gifted the person is in their subject e.g. PhD.

    In an ideal world (ideal gases hehe) the enthusiasm for one's subject should shine through and install enthusiasm in the more stubborn students, but with teenagers perhaps focused on other things, talking to their classmates when not supposed to, modern gadgets etc. it is easier said than done. At least with a science subject there are resources to make it more colorful (e.g. Powerpoint animations, interactive quizzes) and a class demonstration/experiment can make the day if suitable for the classroom or lab. To do this requires much more work (and experience) on the part of the teacher if they have the time and energy to look into it when not seeing to that professional development folder or administrative tasks. So do PhDs make better high-school teachers than those without? I think it has to be observed on a case-by-case basis; alternatively do PhDs make better entrepreneurs or business-people than those without? At least you can feel rest assured that you have broken some new ground in chemical research and written about it in a thesis or probably had it published in a journal.

    The last point is quite important too: in these apparent difficult economic times for many PhDs, e.g. those that are not destined to become tomorrow's tenure-track faculty or directors of research in industry, high-school teaching is where people are needed but they have to be able to teach and make a difference to students' lives. It seems a shame that they cannot continue to use their PhD research skills in that manner but c'est la vie.

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  11. Another point is important. Supposing the PhD research chemist wishes to leave bench chemical laboratory research for personal reasons, family commitments, a desire to see more of the world or simply tired of separating tarry residues of diastereomers using column chromatography, HPLC analysis etc. Then what is on the cards? Teaching? If you wanted to see more of the world but not go in a the deep end into K-12/high-school teaching or teacher training program you could do a TEFL course and start a teaching career in the Far East (Korea, China etc.)....

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