From Grad School to Grade School

So you want to be a science teacher? Here's how to get started.

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob Grant is Editor in Chief of The Scientist, where he started in 2007 as a Staff Writer.

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Sep 1, 2007
<figcaption>Irene Salter demonstrates sheep brain dissection for her 6th grade class. Credit: Courtesy of Jason Salter</figcaption>
Irene Salter demonstrates sheep brain dissection for her 6th grade class. Credit: Courtesy of Jason Salter

In the spring of 2002, Irene Salter was on the verge of a successful scientific career. After attaining her PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco, the 26-year-old Salter secured a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship to study at the prestigious University of Cambridge. She was planning to build on her doctoral work, studying the neuroscience behind drug-seeking behavior in an animal model she developed at UCSF. Her potential for scientific achievement seemed boundless.

Irene's husband, Jason, planned to follow her by applying to the London Business School, but he was put on the wait list at the last minute. Salter deferred her position for a year so her husband could reapply, and used that free year to reflect on her volunteer work at UCSF's Science and Health Education Partnership,...

Speeding Certification

Alternate-route programs shuttle scientists and other professionals through a certification process that would traditionally have required starting from scratch with a bachelor's degree in education. These programs have cropped up in all 50 states since the early 1980s and produce about 60,000 new teachers per year, according to Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Alternative Certification. The center's Web site (www.teach-now.org/default.cfm) is an excellent resource where one can search for information on alternate teacher certification, state by state.

Unlike Salter, who skipped the certification step by teaching in a private school, Elisa Stone took advantage of the two-year Master of Arts and Credential in Science and Mathematics Education (MACSME) program at UC, Berkeley, to get the credentials she needed to teach at Berkeley High School, a local public school. The MACSME students make a full-time commitment to their credentialing from the start of the program; other programs ease students into their new teaching careers.

The State University of New York's Empire State College program helps professionals make the transition by providing night classes for the first year as a trial period where future teachers can keep their day jobs in case they decide that teaching is not for them. The three-year program hopes to spawn sorely needed teachers for high-need schools in New York City's massive educational system, outfitting its students with a Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT).

Aside from taking classes, says Brian Baldwin, a professor of math and science education at Empire State, his students also do some teaching in the classroom during their first year. Though students are required to spend only 50 hours observing working teachers in classrooms, MAT students typically spend from 120 to 150 hours in schools during their first year in the program. To ease the transition (and keep their options open), some MAT students have squeezed those hours into vacation time from their day jobs, says Baldwin.

In their second and third years, MAT students enter New York City classrooms as full-time, full-paid teachers. "They're thrown to the wolves," quips Baldwin, adding that mentors, coaches, and senior teachers at their schools support the new teachers, which helps ease the transition into the classroom. For two years, students practice their teaching skills during the day and take classes at night. "The hope is that whatever new idea [students] might learn in one of our classrooms in the evening," says Baldwin, "they might implement it in their classrooms the next day."

If paying for yet more education is a problem, take comfort in the fact that many states and cities provide financial assistance to people entering teacher certification programs. The New York City Teaching Fellows program, for example, has helped more than 8,000 career-change teachers enter New York City classrooms since the year 2000 by supporting them financially while in school and occupationally with a mentor support network when they begin teaching. Though the fellowships are highly competitive (last year nearly 20,000 people applied for about 3,200 fellowships), fellows are guaranteed a teaching position in a New York City school, and pay only about $5,000 for a master's in teaching and subsequent teaching certification compared to the roughly $13,000 that un-aided, in-state students at Empire State College pay for their degrees.

Challenging Transitions

Even with the help of alternate-route and fellowship programs, the decision to teach can be difficult for scientists like Salter and Stone, for many reasons. One of the main factors is the potential salary disparity between scientists and teachers (see salary graph). Stone, for example, took a $10,000 pay cut when she started teaching at Berkeley High, trading the $50,000 a year she was making as a research associate in a UC, San Diego, lab for a starting teacher's salary of $40,000 per year in 2004.

But Salter, being fresh out of grad school, actually made about $8,000 more in her first year as a teacher than she would have as a postdoc at Cambridge. However, Salter says that in the long term, teacher's salaries increase much more slowly than those of faculty members or industry scientists, where most postdocs end up.

Teachers with PhDs do tend to command higher salaries than their less-educated colleagues. In the Berkeley Unified School District where Stone works, starting teachers with a bachelor's degree, working towards a teaching credential, would have made $35,842 per year, whereas a PhD with no teaching experience would have made $45,068 last year, according to the district's human resources office.

Monetary issues aside, scientists also must contend with the perception that they are forfeiting their talents and academic accomplishments by transitioning into elementary or secondary teaching careers. As the need for well-trained teachers in US schools increases, this perception could be changing. "That resistance is lessening as we realize that the demand for these teachers is so high," says Feistritzer.

These scientist-turned-teachers are "scientific ambassadors," says Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences. Because "they've got PhDs and therefore are well connected and respected by the scientific community," says Alberts, they can be more effective liaisons between the education system and the scientific community. "I'm able to bring in a lot of hands-on laboratory work and focus on the process of science as much or more than anything else," says Stone, who uses interactive case studies of asthma, rather than just anatomic charts and lectures, to teach her classes about the respiratory system.

Salter agrees that her PhD has not been wasted in the classroom, saying that her scientific training has been extremely instructive in her teaching. "The difference in the way that I teach science and the way that I see other people teach science is that I've experienced how research is done," Salter says."I try to have [my students] derive the scientific principles through their own observations rather than me telling them."

Though the decision to leave research for teaching may have been difficult for Salter and Stone, they both say that their teaching careers have been very satisfying. "I've never done anything more rewarding, ever," says Salter, "When a student's eyes light up because they understand something that they never figured out before, it's so great."

"It's not as if molecular biology research is exactly one of the easiest careers in the world, but teaching is harder," says Stone. "At the same time, even though it's as hard as I expected or harder, also, I have more fun every single day."

This fall Salter will take the next step in her teaching career and become a professor in science education at California State University, Chico, where she'll share the insights she gained in the classroom with the next generation of science teachers. "I feel like if I can influence a couple of teachers to teach and think in a new way, then I'm going to be impacting so many more than my little 45 students," Salter says.

She first had to say goodbye to her Archway students, though, and Salter says that leaving her middle-school students was not easy. "When I left, all my students were really sad and were saying things like, 'But who could ever take your place?'"

Tips:

Find a good mentor. Irene Salter says that when she was a starting teacher, she had the help of a more experienced educator who showed her the ropes. Salter says that a good mentor is "somebody who can be a friend and a coach." Salter had the benefit of a local volunteer who was able to spend ample time helping her transition into teaching. Most alternate-route programs provide for this level of support.

Bone up on classroom management. Though PhDs bring a vast and intimate knowledge of science to the classroom, they have much to learn about controlling 30-40 boisterous students. Salter did this by studying the latest techniques in behavioral management and trying them out in her classes. After about a year of trial and error, she honed her disciplinary tactics. "I had all of these systems in place, and I kind of knew how to have a presence that the students would respect and listen to."

Choose the right school. If given the luxury, do your best to pick a school with policies that mesh well with your views on education and your personality. "Choose a school that gives you a lot of freedom in what you teach and how you teach it," says Salter. "A school that brings you that kind of flexibility is really important."

Keep it simple. When envisioning lesson plans and trying to squeeze years of scientific experience into digestible bites of information for students, think small. "You can teach anything as long as you have the appropriate sequence of smaller steps," says Elisa Stone.

Teachers Wanted

According to Emily Feistritzer, President of the National Center for Alternative Certification, location matters. "I would encourage people to look at large inner cities, outlying rural areas, and the states that have the highest demand for teachers," she says. School districts with high and growing enrollment rates are likely to hire more teachers.

Public School District Total Enrollment 2004-2005 (District)* Projected state enrollment change for 2003-2015* Resources to get
started teaching**

New York City

904,799

-7.9%

New York Office of College and University Evaluation
Attn: Barbara Downs
(518) 474-1914
E-mail: bdowns@mail.nysed.gov

Los Angeles Unified

709,279

+2.9%

California Commission on Teacher Credentialing
Attn: Michael McKibbin
(916) 445-4438
E-mail: mmckibbin@ctc.ca.gov

Chicago

426,812

+0.3%

Illinois State Department of Education
Attn: Martha (Marti) A. Woelfle
(217) 782-7091
E-mail: profprep@isbe.net

Miami-Dade County, Florida

368,933

+16.9%

Florida Department of Education
Eileen McDaniel
(850) 245-0568
E-mail: emcdaniel@gamet.acns.fsu.edu

Clark County, Nevada

282,851

+35.7%

Nevada Department of Education
Attn: Jerry Barbee
(702) 486-6458
E-mail: drbarbee@doe.nv.gov

*Data Source: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core Data
**Also see www.teach-now.org/default.cfm for information on alternate routes to teacher certification.

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