(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Joel Boyce, a high school science and math teacher in Canada.)
1) What is your non-academic job?
I’m a high school science and math teacher.
2) What is your science background?
I have a B.Sc, majoring in physics, with a minor in mathematics, followed by a B.Ed degree, senior years stream (i.e., high school). Both of these degrees are from the University of Winnipeg, in Canada. The minor is important, since being a high school teacher in my province requires a university background in two teachable subjects. Indeed, pure math jobs have often put food on the table as I’ve waited for my perfect physics posting to come along.
3) What led you to this job?
It was largely through process of elimination. Although I loved learning about physics, I couldn’t see myself in a research setting, so grad school was out. That meant it was either engineering or education. I always preferred pure physics to the practical stuff – the coolest thing for me was deriving the special relativity equations from a couple of physical assumptions, not fiddling with lab equipment or building things – so I went for education, hoping to share these cool ideas with others.
4) What’s your work environment like?
I teach in a classroom, and when I’ve had one to myself, this has also been where I’ve prepared lessons and labs, marked assignments, etc. Where I haven’t had my own permanent classroom, I’ve had office space to use during my “prep” time. I also have an office set up at home that I use almost as much.
5) What do you do in a typical day?
The main thing to be aware of is that teachers don’t work on shifts or on a 40-hour weekly schedule. Our job is task-based rather than time-based. In-between teaching, I am likely to be photocopying, gathering materials, marking, or attending meetings or lunchtime extra-curriculars. My days usually go by rather quickly, because there is always plenty to do. However, the final bell is not the end of the work day for me. I need to spend as much time preparing lessons as teaching them. This doesn’t just mean writing up the notes and preparing/finding an assignment, but really thinking through how I will introduce a topic and maintain student interest: it may include finding topical videos, preparing physical demonstrations, looking up relevant history or applications of a scientific topic, or anything else I can think of to engage my students. The day ends when I have a plan for (at a minimum) the following day’s classes, which I also feel good about.
6) How does your science background help you in your job?
It’s entirely necessary. To teach elementary concepts in physics effectively, you need to have a really deep grasp of what you are teaching, not just be a few pages in the book ahead of your students. The unfortunate thing for physics education in particular is that, due to a shortage of individuals with the requisite background, physics positions are often filled by someone with a related specialty only, like chemistry or mathematics. Though hardly clueless, these individuals may lack an intuition for the particular brand of analytical reasoning practiced in physics, the very thing we want our students to take away from their education. I once made the mistake of agreeing to teach biology, and even though I had the necessary content knowledge, I didn’t feel like I knew how to get it across to students as effectively as I wanted to. As a rule, most teachers want to teach subjects that they know they can teach really well, and I’m no exception.
7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
Well, in Canada, though teacher certification is a provincial responsibility, requirements are pretty similar. Either a first degree with both a major and minor in teachable subjects (if you want to teach my age group), followed by the two-year education degree, or a combined five-year program, which is essentially the same thing, only courses from both degrees can be done simultaneously, with both degrees awarded together at the end.
In the United States, the requirement is essentially the same, but the education degree is considered a masters rather than a bachelors. The timescale is similar.
8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?
‘m wary about crossing a line and getting too political, but I think some things in our society have become controversial when they shouldn’t be. Many people have a vested interest in muddying the waters, for example, when it comes to global warming, even though the science is not ambiguous. I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting pseudoscience, but for the general public it’s like distinguishing Latin from Greek. Science teachers are in a privileged position: we know the stakes involved, we have the tools to critically assess information when making decisions on scientific issues, but unlike most working scientists, we also have a captive audience in great need of these skills. Many of them may not take another science course after ours, so it’s one last chance to teach them what they really need to know, which is how to think scientifically.
9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
The great irony is that I went into teaching not being able to even think of anything else I could do or would want to do. In researching in order to provide my own students with informed career information, I’ve since learned about a plethora of cool and unusual career paths that I was completely unaware of at the time of finishing my first degree. Most universities will have career services, but I also suggest googling, checking university Web Sites, and just exploring. I also really suggest checking want ads, thinking hard about your transferable skills, and seeing the variety of stuff that’s out there that you think you might be good at. You may see something you had never thought of that sounds really cool, and it’s better to know about it now so you can get started working towards it.
10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?
Pay scale is graduated based on years of experience, as well as education. Every year we teach we get a raise until we’re capped after ten years. Currently, in my neck of the woods, a first year salary ranges from the high 40K to low 50K, while a veteran of a decade or more will be making over 70K. Most of my friends who graduated with me a couple years ago were able to pay off their student loans the first year. You’re not gonna get rich doing this, but you should be comfortable, in Canada at least. US states can vary wildly.