Comment: Forum Physics World  May 2017
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Dealing with the demand for teachers

Allison Barrett says that more physicists need to pass on their passion for physics by going into teaching

Many governments around the world have decided that students need to study science and engineering to boost their country’s economy. That’s great, but there is a problem. For our students to continue with physics and move into careers such as medicine and engineering, it is crucial that they are taught by passionate people with good subject knowledge. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening given the worldwide shortage of teachers of science and engineering subjects, especially physics. The issue is only set to worsen as many current educators approach retirement.

An interesting exercise is to Google “physics teacher shortage” followed by any country name to find out just how widespread this problem is. As head of physics at a high school in New Zealand, I have become very concerned about the supply of physics teachers. It has become much harder to recruit teachers who have the ability to teach physics, and even harder to find teachers who can teach it well. So this year it has become my mission to raise awareness of the issues.

The New Zealand education ministry has, for the last few decades, relied on importing skilled physics teachers from other countries such as the UK, South Africa and Canada. This supply is now drying up as fewer physics graduates are electing to teach in those countries and their governments are also looking overseas. Both my husband and I are physics teachers who taught in the UK for 20 years then moved to New Zealand in the 1990s. We are approaching pensionable age – but it is hard to find new staff to replace us and some schools are even pleading with physics teachers to return from retirement.

Delivering better content

Physics has often been viewed as a difficult subject, and this is an attitude that is engendered by teachers who were not well taught themselves and who are only teaching physics because there is no-one else to do it. The subject is therefore often taught without enthusiasm, together with “dry” content. The curriculum itself doesn’t help as it is often not well thought through and much of what we teach in high school is foundational for higher level courses. This means that the more interesting material is often deemed to be too conceptually difficult, especially by those whose main subject interest is chemistry or biology.

The Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, has led reforms in the school physics curriculum in the UK. However, in New Zealand – and probably many other places – there has been no significant change since the 1970s in terms of content. Nothing is taught beyond what was known in 1950. The content has even been reduced, with diodes and light-emitting diodes that used to be in the syllabus now axed from the examination requirements, despite the world moving away from filament lamps

The content for external examinations in New Zealand is also dry and not well related to real life. It includes simple harmonic motion, rotational mechanics and AC theory (not very relevant to the bulk of the population) but no thermodynamics. Universities are often surprised that our students know nothing about heat beyond what they learnt at the age of 13. When the current syllabus was reviewed a couple of years ago, a lot of teachers – most of whom were not native New Zealanders – lobbied for a “core” and “options” model that would have given more flexibility and the opportunity to introduce more relevant material. This could have been an improvement to the existing pattern, where 16 to 18 year olds in each of their last two years of high school do three external papers on waves, mechanics and electricity, and one or more internal papers that may, or may not, cover atomic and nuclear physics.

Seeing the wonder

There are many students in our classes who are doing physics as a means to get into engineering or medical courses. This may be one of the reasons why there is a lack of students studying for science degrees and becoming teachers. If we are to change the downward spiral, we must enable students to see the excitement in physics: the wonder and the amazing possibilities of being able to see how the universe works.

We must enable students to see the excitement in physics

If governments are serious about addressing the problem, there need to be initiatives or funding to specifically promote physics teaching and provide financial incentives for students to move into this career. The UK has taken a lead in this area (see March 2017) and others should follow suit. There also needs to be a shift in attitude towards the pay and conditions for teachers, as remuneration scales are not attractive to physics or engineering graduates who can earn more elsewhere and clear their student loans quicker. The situation has not been improved by the way in which teachers have been denigrated by governments and the media for many years. It should be no surprise that if you vilify a profession very few people will voluntarily follow that career path.

These are issues for governments, but as physicists we need to talk about the issues and make our concerns known. Those of us who are teachers, or who talk to students, need to pass on our passion and persuade them that pure science is an option and that physics teachers are in high demand. Without good physics teaching in high schools there will be knock-on effects for engineering, technology and parts of medical science. It is important that we start looking now at ways of encouraging our best high-school students to take pure science degrees and move into teaching as a career, which many may not even have thought about as a possibility.

Finding physics teachers should not be like finding hen’s teeth. The future is in our hands.