When most students think about careers, they tend to first focus on salary. When most Americans think about teaching careers, they think “low salary”, largely because of a media image that has been reinforced by professional teachers associations. In fact, high school physics teachers in the Northeast and in many other parts of the country have total compensation packages that provide a very comfortable standard of living. And when you look beyond salary, high school teaching careers have a lot offer. Let’s go through our “Choosing a Career” list and see how high school teaching careers stack up.
Job opportunities: The current critical shortage of high school physics teachers will continue for the foreseeable future. Highly qualified candidates can expect multiple job offers, and to be able to pick the location and the school district (urban, suburban, rural) where they want to work.
Salary: The average salary for public school physics teachers in New York State in 2006-7 was $59,600, similar to that in other other Northeastern states and higher than the national average of $51,000. There is large variation between school districts, with starting salaries ranging from $25,000 in rural districts to $70,000 or more in wealthy suburban districts. Salaries for highly experienced teachers range from $50,000 to $120,000. These are 10 month salaries: teachers get the summers off, and many obtain other employment to increase their total earnings and to diversify their experiences and skill sets. Teachers in high-demand subjects like Physics can receive signing bonuses. Experienced teachers can earn higher salaries by moving into administration. Teacher salaries are generally lower than those earned by scientists and engineers in the private sector. However, high school teacher salaries can be comparable to or larger than those earned by physics faculty at community colleges, liberal arts colleges and many state universities.
Benefits: Teachers have excellent pension and health care plans that are much more secure than private sector plans. Most can retire with full benefits after 30 years service, typically near age 55, and some of these choose to pursue second careers.
Holidays, vacation time, and job security: Few careers compete with high school, college and university teaching for vacation time and job security. You have tenure, and your job can’t be outsourced to China or India.
Interesting work: As a physics teacher, you have the richest and most respected subject, the best toys, and the strongest students. Your students have an energy that is contagious. Each one is different and presents a new opportunity. By advising student clubs and organizations, you can explore other interests in, e.g., sports, music, debate, art and photography. A teacher’s job is not boring!
Challenging Work: Understanding physics and how it connects with the world around us is a life-long adventure. For most of your students, it is their most challenging subject. Developing an engaging curriculum that optimizes their learning experience is very time consuming; your work continues when the school day ends. You can further stretch yourself and your students through extracurricular competitions, including the Science Olympiad and Team America Rocketry Challenge.
Meaningful work: As a physics teacher, you open up new worlds to your students, and provide them with a gateway to careers in the physical sciences, engineering, medicine and technology. You really do make a difference. Physics teachers have the highest job satisfaction of all high school teachers.
Independence: You will be judged based upon the success of your students, but you are the master of your classroom and of your time spent outside the classroom in extracurricular activities.
Opportunities for advancement: Physics teachers, like all K-12 teachers and like faculty at colleges and universities, have limited opportunities for advancement (and the salary bumps that come with this), unless they choose to move into administration. Unlike most jobs, though, teaching provides very broad challenges and opportunities so that job changes are not necessary to sustain personal and professional growth.
Opportunities to learn: Schools are great places to learn – for teachers as well as students. School districts provide funding for continuing education and to attend professional conferences. During the summer, teachers may participate in research and other activities offered by universities and government laboratories, and can take graduate courses.
People issues: Interacting with students is a source of both joy and despair. You will sometimes have to work with parents, administrators and students to address discipline and other classroom issues.
Job location: There are jobs for physics teachers in just about every part of the country, in just about anywhere that you might want to live. There is also significant international demand for physics teachers. Few technical professionals have as much freedom in choosing where to work.
Job status and community respect: Teachers don’t get much respect in the media. But in their schools and in their communities, good teachers are revered. Students look to you for guidance, inspiration and support. Parents rely on you to prepare their children for the future, in ways that they often can’t.
Compatibility with family: Your work days and holidays are synchronized with those of your children, and you have the summers off together. Few jobs are as family-friendly as teaching.
To get a fuller appreciation of what physics teaching careers are like, talk to a physics teacher. Cornell’s Physics Department has a Physics Teacher in Residence, a master high school physics teacher who is here to answer your questions. Our current TIR, Jim Overhiser, has taught science for 30 years, and has been heavily involved in teacher education and professional development. Please email him at [email protected] or stop by his office in 128 Clark Hall.