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Working in physics: Those who can, teach physics

"Before I began my GCSE, physics was my least favourite science. I didn't have a clue why anyone would study it. However, (after) the first lesson I had with her (a named teacher), it seemed like a whole new subject."

You can do it

This quote, from a recent nomination for one of the Institute of Physics Teachers' Awards, reminds us of the crucial importance of good schoolteachers in ensuring that physics not only survives but thrives. It also hints at the enjoyment that can be derived from teaching. Although my teaching days are long-since gone, I can still remember that special feeling when the light dawned for a pupil who had until then struggled. I also recall the satisfaction of being able to help a student whom one recognized as having greater aptitude and ability than oneself and who would go far, with the right encouragement and challenges.

Postgraduate training
While there are undergraduate routes into teaching - mainly through the four-year BEd course - few aspiring secondary science teachers currently follow this path. Most start their training at graduate level, where there are several ways of achieving Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), which is the prerequisite for working in any "maintained" (i.e. state-sector) or special school in the UK. Until recently, most graduates took a one-year Post-Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) course at a university or higher-education college.

For aspiring physics teachers, the PGCE can either be a specialist physics course, complemented by training in how to teach across all of the sciences, or a science course offering some opportunity for specialist physics work. PGCE students aiming to teach at secondary level spend at least 24 weeks working in one or more schools. The rest of the time is spent learning (or relearning) those parts of physics, biology or chemistry that they will have to teach, and getting to grips with the curriculum and other teaching issues, such as pupil assessment. The training is thus a collaboration between tutors from schools and higher education.

PGCE courses vary in length and starting times, with "initial teacher-training providers" in England now offering flexible programmes to meet individuals' needs and to take into account previous experience. For example, applicants with previous teaching experience - perhaps gained abroad, in private schools or at college or university - can skip those parts of the course where they already have the appropriate skills, and proceed to the final assessment phase.

Trainee teachers can also switch from full-time to part-time study, and vice versa. As training is organized in modules, it means that programmes can even start and finish at different times of year. It is also possible to train through courses running at weekends, or via distance learning, so that trainees can continue in paid employment or keep up family commitments.

Training while you work
In an attempt to tackle the shortage of qualified science teachers, the government has also introduced Graduate Teacher Programmes (GTP). These allow unqualified teachers to be paid a salary of more than £12 000 while training "on the job" in a school, through an individual programme leading to QTS. Open to graduates only, GTP training usually lasts a year. Those wishing to follow this route first need to find a job in a school, although many teaching posts are advertised as being open to such candidates. Applicants must also be supported by a "recommending body" - the school, local education authority, university or other body that will organize the training. The teaching load for such applicants is usually reduced to allow time for training.

Other options include School Centred Initial Teacher Training - full-time school-based training in which the necessary skills and knowledge are acquired in the classroom - and Fast Track, which is aimed at those who show the most potential to do well as teachers and school leaders. In the latter, trainees follow an augmented initial training programme and, after qualification, follow a challenging structured programme of teaching with enhanced pay. Other schemes are also being piloted, including one at Warwick University in which science students take additional education courses during the evening as part of their undergraduate degrees, followed by half-day school-based sessions, leading to credits towards a PGCE.

Financial rewards
Those training to teach now qualify for financial support. Postgraduate trainees in England and Wales may be eligible for a £6000 training bursary. Those in shortage areas (such as physics) can claim a £4000 "golden hello" once they have successfully completed training and seen out their induction period, provided that they are working in a maintained school.

Teachers' salaries in England and Wales were increased last April to make the profession more financially rewarding. The minimum starting salary for a newly qualified teacher is now just over £16 000, although many start one point up on a nine-point scale and earn £17 000-£18 000. Teachers then move up the scale at the rate of one point per year - exceptional teachers may advance faster - to a salary just less than £25 000. Once teachers reach the top of the scale they can apply to be assessed for an upper pay scale. Promotion to this scale is performance based but eventually allows teachers to earn more than £31 000.

Teachers who have been awarded "advanced-skills" status, as well as those in senior roles or who take on management responsibilities, all qualify for additional salary increments and allowances. Schools may also pay extra to recruit or retain staff. Salary levels for older physicists who become teachers after working in another sector are at the school's discretion. If a school is really keen, it may offer them a starting salary several points up the scale, although few can afford to do that.

It is the challenges and rewards of teaching that explain why so many teachers remain in the classroom as they get older, even though many take on additional management and leadership responsibilities. Such teachers are vital to the life-blood of physics education. There are, however, other options for teachers: some move into advisory or inspection work; some become teacher trainers or move to positions with examining bodies; others work in industry as education liaison officers, or in consultancy, computing or publishing; and some even become education managers at professional institutions.

Teaching hotline: tel +44 (0)845 6000 991

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About the author
Catherine Wilson is education manager at the Institute of Physics.

This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Physics World

last edited: January 12, 2018

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