How to Become a Physics Teacher


Introduction

Physics is a scientific discipline concerned with the investigation of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Over the past two thousand years, physics has been used to investigate phenomena ranging from light and sound to the universe itself. Too complex for the elementary or middle school levels, students typically first encounter physics at the high school level. With more attention being paid to increasing the number of professionals and educators related to STEM fields, aspiring physics teachers are finding abundant opportunities to not only obtain an education, but to also find jobs in high schools and postsecondary institutions.

The demand to hire qualified physics teachers is also tied to the rapid growth of high school students taking physics. Over the past two decades, statistics have more than doubled to nearly 2 million students, with significant improvements made in the number of students taking Advanced Placement or second-year physics classes. Results from the 2012-13 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers, issued by the American Institute of Physics, revealed that overall, 39 percent of high school graduates had taken a physics class. This type of growth contributes to the overall need to hire qualified teachers.

What is a physics teacher?

At its most basic, physics is a field in which students explore questions related to the nature of energy and matter, and, at its most complex, physics is a field in which teachers encourage students to investigate unknown physical phenomena.

High school physics teachers primarily oversee the investigation of the field’s most rudimentary questions. By contrast, physics professors at the university level are often engaged in teaching more specific concepts and subjects. At the university level, students may attend classes taught by physics professors who are well-versed in areas of specialization, dealing with topics such as experimental atomic physics or string theory. Graduate-level courses may touch upon subjects ranging from mesoscopic physics to quantum technology.

How can I become an elementary or middle school physics teacher?

Physics only appears as a stand-alone subject at the high school level and, as a result, there are no specific job positions available for teachers looking to teach physics exclusively at the elementary or middle school level. Nevertheless, basic physics, usually packaged under the umbrella of “general science,” is taught to students as young as kindergarten. At its most basic, physics may simply take the form of investigating basic questions such as ‘what is light,‘ and ‘how far will a ball roll.’ In elementary and middle school, students will learn about gravity, friction and kinetic energy – all of which are rudimentary principles of physics.

As students advance into middle school, however, units dedicated to concepts of physics begin to appear in the science curriculum. Science teachers on the middle school level are hired to educate students (typically aged 11 to 14), who attend the sixth to eighth grades. Physics majors and education majors with a concentration in physics are often hired to fill the role of introducing physical science to students, in addition to other concepts within a general science class.

Middle school students typically complete science units on topics such as energy and circuits. Usually, these lessons are taught in conjunction with basic experiments. While turning a lemon into a battery (a common middle school physics exercise) may not be quantum physics, it is still a physics-related experiment.

Individuals who qualify to teach middle school science have typically completed a Bachelor of Science degree or at least a certain number of postsecondary level science courses (usually at least 30 semester credit hours or five courses), in addition to science education courses. Education majors may also select physics as an area of specialization. Completing a teacher education program, as well as student-teaching experience, are requirements before an individual qualifies to apply for a license or certification to teach in their state of residence.

How can I become a high school physics teacher?

Although many smaller high schools expect science teachers to teach across the science or STEM curriculum, larger high schools, especially those specializing in the sciences, frequently employ teachers to teach physics exclusively. To become a high school physics teacher, one must hold a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics or in some states, a Bachelor of Science degree with a certain number of credit hours in physics (usually at least 30 semester credit hours or five full-year courses).business woman writing on grey wall formulas text shot from back

Many high school physics teachers also hold a Master of Science, Master of Arts in Education, or Master of Education with a focus on science education, which is a requirement in some states.

Physics is a science course offered in high school that students typically take after having completed introductory levels of biology and chemistry. High school physics is known for incorporating mathematics through its use of physics equations and formulas. The typical curriculum starts with general theories of motion, which includes concepts related to matter, force, energy (such as kinetic energy), friction and acceleration. Teachers eventually introduce more advanced subjects, such as tension.

To teach physics at the high school level, candidates must:

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree program in physics, where topics such as thermodynamics, circuit analysis, optics and electromagnetic theory, are covered. Some four-year programs incorporate physics and education for aspiring teachers, which helps speed up the process to becoming a physics teacher.
  • Complete a teacher education program, in addition to their science curriculum.
  • Fulfill supervised student teaching requirements, which involve observing the environment of a high school physics classroom, interacting with students, planning lessons, and teaching a class under the supervision of a seasoned educator.
  • Gain state licensure or become certified to teach physics, as set by state requirements, which usually includes passing examinations, paying license fees and submitting the proper paperwork. For example, the state of Virginia requires high school physics teachers to graduate from an approved teacher preparation program in physics; major in physics (or have completed 32 semester hours in physics); and have earned an endorsement in another discipline of science and at least 18 credits in physics (and preparation in electricity-, mechanics-, and optics engineering).
  • Obtain a master’s degree within a specified time frame after becoming licensed to teach physics in a public school, as some states require an advanced degree of their teachers. The curriculum involves advanced coursework related to classroom procedures and instructional techniques.
  • Maintain a teaching license by completing professional development activities, such as attending workshops and conferences, taking online classes, and participating in peer coaching and research. 

Physics teachers within the private school system are not always required to fulfill the above requirements, and depending on a school, may hold a bachelor’s degree with no license or certification.

How can I become a college physics teacher?

Physics teachers in the two-year college system usually offer physics courses to students pursuing degrees in applied programs, such as engineering. These courses may or may not overlap with and review concepts already covered at the senior secondary level.

Physics teachers in two-year colleges focus on developing students’ ability to understand energy and matter in an applied context. For this reason, at a two-year college, physics teachers are most likely to find themselves teaching courses with titles like “Physics for the Life Sciences” or “Physics for Engineers.”

To teach physics at a junior- or community college, one must:

  • Hold at least a Master of Science in Physics, while the majority of full-time physics faculty at two-year colleges hold a PhD in Physics.
  • Demonstrate the ability to teach a college-level course, either through previous teaching experience, work history, or reputation within the field.

How can I become a university physics professor?

At the university level, physics stands out as one of the oldest-studied scientific fields, and has a history that includes the observations of ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle and Socrates. Physics is a wide-ranging subject that allows students to explore topics such as DNA’s interaction with materials like carbon nanotubes and graphene, or ask questions about the nature of black holes.

In order to teach physics at the university level, individuals must have completed a PhD in Physics, meaning they possess a bachelor’s degree, and have completed several years of graduate-level course work in the field, passed one or more field exams in physics, as well as completed and successfully defended a dissertation on a topic in physics. University level physics teachers also publish articles related to their research in highly reputed journals in the field, such as the Journal of Applied Physics, The Physical Review or Annals of Physics.

While part of a professor’s job may entail teaching introductory level courses in physics, much of their time is generally spent carrying out research and supervising a team of graduate and postdoctoral students (recent PhD-prepared graduates who have yet to obtain a full-time position) in a research setting. In physics, as with other scientific fields, supervising graduate students and postdoctoral students are typically considered an extension of one’s teaching work.

Permanent placement for a physics teacher within a university setting is competitive; and it is not uncommon for new graduates to start their careers as assistant or associate professors. In time, they may assume full-time positions, when available, and work their way towards establishing tenure with a school. Tenured professors have guaranteed job security, earn more money, and carry more responsibility than other professors.

The job outlook for university professors teaching science is high, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipating between 11% and 19% job growth rate for the field until 2022.

What is the compensation for physics teachers?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salaries of physics teachers in 2014 (including those who taught other science classes, and/or combined teaching and research for a living) were as follows:

  • Elementary and middle school teachers – $53,760 – $54,940
  • High school teachers – $56,310
  • Postsecondary teachers – $90,500

The overall salaries of physics teachers are affected by a range of factors that include their place of employment, level of experience, years spent teaching full-time, and geographic location. For instance, the BLS reported that the following states (with annual mean salaries) paid the most money in 2014 to postsecondary educators that teach physics:  Massachusetts ($119,640), New Hampshire ($111,310), California ($109,560), New York ($104,190), and New Mexico ($99,020).

To make the most money as a physics teacher, individuals achieving the highest level of education for the field (a doctorate degree such as a PhD) often qualify for positions within the most top-paying industries for the occupation. The BLS identified colleges, universities and professional schools as not only employing the most physics teachers in 2014, but also paying the highest annual salaries ($93,920), followed by junior colleges ($69,780).

What is the job outlook for physics teachers?

As one of the fastest growing and most well-paid fields in the U.S., occupations falling under the umbrella of STEM-related careers (such as physics teachers) are in high demand. In recent years, the United States has made it a priority to increase the number of educators and professionals trained to promote and fill open positions associated with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. These professions have been identified as playing a significant role in the nation’s ability to compete on a global level.

Physics is the branch of science that explains how the world works, and is considered the basis for most modern technology. The tools and instruments that play an important role in medical research, engineering, manufacturing, scientific studies and development are all connected to physics in some way. The demand to hire educators that teach physics is high because of how the subject fits into individual communities, states, and the country gaining a competitive edge with their respective companies and global industries.

The overall demand for teachers on the middle and high school level is high. The BLS reports that middle school and high school teachers should expect a 6% job growth rate, from 2012 to 2022.  New openings to teach all subjects are expected to grow due to a variety of factors that include retiring educators leaving behind vacancies and student population increases, especially in the South and West. Urban and rural school districts also tend to have more open positions available for science teachers, especially in physics.

Additionally, certain states experience widespread teacher shortages for specific subjects from time to time. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Education, schools in Michigan, Maryland, and Rhode Island (at the high school level) experienced a statewide need to hire physics teachers for the 2015-2016 academic year.

According to PhysTEC, the National Task Force on Teacher Education and other agencies have stated that the U.S. has suffered a shortage of qualified physics teachers for quite a while. The American Association for Employment in Education, Inc. stated that school districts consistently rank physics as one of the areas of education demonstrating the greatest need out of all other academic subjects to solve a shortage crisis. The number of teachers possessing a physics degree is so low that at one time, only 47% of physics classes have been taught by an educator with a degree for the subject.

In conclusion, becoming a physics teacher and obtaining a job is much easier to achieve than in previous years. From offering financial incentives for attending college as a science major to establishing programs for minority and female educators, school districts and the government have made it a point to increase the number of professionals representing STEM-related fields, such as physics. Those who graduate with a degree to teach physics often find the most opportunities in high schools, colleges and universities, with those possessing an advanced degree typically earning the highest salaries.

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