In Arizona, no one can argue that the shortage of teachers is at crisis proportions. There are less and less reasons each year to return to the classroom for teachers statewide. In the sciences, we are even harder pressed to stretch our resources. In physics alone we are down to only 159 certified teachers left state wide. With that being said, myself and my colleagues decided to do something about it rather than complain on Facebook or Twitter. In spring of 2016, we went to the state capitol and simply asked for help. We brought evidence and data that what we were seeing was going to have some serious effects on our Arizona students. Kids in parts of our state are denied access to higher levels of STEM because the teachers that taught these subject areas, simply don’t exist anymore.
So, after lots of visits to the state capitol we found some folks willing to listen and help. We worked with the Senate and House Education Chairs to find a plan to do something and the efforts of this collaboration is now a bill called SB 1038. The bill would create a program to incentivize teachers to get credentials higher than what they are already teaching by paying for 2000$ in graduate credit as a onetime grant to an Arizona university. In exchange for their grant, teachers agree to teach in Arizona for an additional 3 more years and pledge to work on a certificate in a hard to fill STEM subject area such as Chemistry and Physics.
What I think most folks don’t understand is that the human capital to double the number of Physics teachers in Arizona is not undergrads, but teachers already in the field. We have the folks who want to teach these subject areas but can’t because of financial constraints in getting these certificates. So, to put it in perspective, if you wanted to teach conceptual physics in high school. You need around 9 credits to gain the knowledge you need to pass the test. However, at 1900$ a class at an in-state school for graduate credit it’s a pretty tough sell. When most teachers today make only 2000$ a month, giving up that much of their paycheck is next to impossible to accomplish.
A great example of this is my friend and colleague Nicole, she has been teaching for 7 years, and currently teaches 8th grade science in Phoenix. She is from a small town in Rural Arizona, and physics was not available at her HS, so she never took it. She did not feel prepared going to college only taking biology and advanced biology in HS, and DID NOT have the confidence to take a class like physics while in college. Nichole stated “Even in my science methods course for my undergrad, I was so intimidated by science and I felt, for lack of a better word, stupid.” Nichole however like so many teachers in our state started out teaching entry level science in her middle school in central phoenix and quickly learned that not only did she have a knack for teaching science but a real joy for the subject matter.
Soon like many of us in the physics and chemo community she got onto the physics modeling list serve run by Dry Jane Jackson at ASU. She now had a pathway to become an effective and excellent STEM teacher through the ASU Physics Modeling instruction program which has nationally recognized proven results. But when the financial aid for the program disappeared, her plan to get certified was put to a halt.
Now Nicole is taking less productive junior college classes in an effort to get enough knowledge to pass the AZ physics test. Not that most junior colleges don’t teach great content, however unlike ASU modeling instruction, the curriculum is not geared towards teaching teachers how to teach the really hard subjects like mechanics and optics. The pedagogy and delivery is different and unlike a JC program, the graduate credits awarded by ASU can be applied to professional ladders in most districts unlike undergrad credits. People forget that teaching content is one thing, but preparing others to deliver that same content to kids is a whole other ball game that takes skills and a learning curve.
Like so many Arizona teachers Nichole fits the profile of what SB 1038 could achieve if passed. It would allow teacher who want to move up and teach our hard to fill STEM positions the chance to do so and give them an incentive to affect positive change in their schools and for their students.
My good friend Earl Barret who taught physics in the valley for years spoke not too long ago about the changes are state has seen in the last 20 years. He talks about in his day the idea of the teacher paying to take more classes was unheard off. School districts paid their staff to train and learn to become better science teachers. You could walk into most high schools and there was PhDs sprinkled within the faculty. Today your lucky if anyone in the front office has a PhD. After all they are the only people in schools these days that can even afford such a luxury.
If we are to really make some changes in this state than it must be a goal that we double the number of Physics teachers in Arizona and drastically increase Chemistry within 5 years. This must be done by getting teachers already in the field back to school one way or another to gain those credentials along with the confidence to do the job our kids need to be leaders in science. Right now, it is quite literally a handful of legislators that have the final say on this GOP backed piece of legislation. It is our hope that this plan created by GOP leaders in education will not be tabled and indeed see the floor for a vote in this next session. So far so good, were almost out of the Senate and now on to the house. Keep your fingers crossed.