What I learned about FSU’s Physics students when Orange County Public Schools leaders visited to recruit teachers

Last Thursday, a high-powered delegation from Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) visited the FSU Physics Department to recruit teachers from among math and science undergraduate and graduate students. The delegation included the Superintendent’s Chief of Staff, Dr. Bridget Williams, the district’s Senior Administrator for Secondary Science, Rebecca Ray, and Senior Administrator for Talent Acquisition and HR Compliance, Bonnie Toffoli.

Twenty students attended the main recruiting event, which featured (in addition to the OCPS leaders) pizza and drinks. Despite the invitations extended to students from the Chemistry, Computer Science and Math Departments, nearly all of the students attending were physics students.

And the result of the visit? Two students who will be awarded bachelors’ degrees in physics later this year agreed to teach for OCPS during the 2018-19 school year. Several others who are a year or two away from graduation said they would consider it seriously.

While that sounds like a modest haul, it should be put in context. Only two students who graduated from the FSU Physics Department in the last five years are presently teaching high school physics – so the OCPS visitors matched that total in one day. FSU’s decade-old FSU-Teach math and science teacher education program has only graduated two teachers from its physics program, and that was back in 2012. That program has graduated no physics teachers in the last six years.

So the OCPS single-day haul was impressive, even if it seems modest at first.

What can we learn about FSU Physics students and what it takes to get them into teaching careers from this experience? Perhaps a lot. Start with this list:

  • Physics majors (at least ours) are quite ambitious. They want to be on the cutting edge. If they are teaching, they want to teach in a school or district that is on the cutting edge. In publicizing the OCPS visit to undergraduate physics majors, I emphasized the Broad Prize (a national prize for urban education) that OCPS won in 2014. I also talked about the district’s Calculus Project, an initiative that recruits middle school students from disadvantaged backgrounds into Algebra 1 classes, putting those students on track to complete one or more calculus courses in high school. The key to the program is a summer math boot camp for rising 7th graders. The program is working, making OCPS Florida’s leader in bringing students from disadvantaged backgrounds into the STEM career pipeline.
  • Physics majors want to be taken seriously. OCPS Chief of Staff Bridget Williams, who led the delegation, is second in command at the district, which is the nation’s ninth largest. She is one of the most influential and powerful school district officials in Florida. She has an aura of personable authority that cannot be missed by anyone in a room with her. The physics students at the recruiting event were clearly impressed with Williams’ ability to command a room, and they were aware of her position of responsibility and influence. They were impressed that Williams was willing to take the time to come 250 miles to Tallahassee to see them, and their response to the recruiting pitch probably had much to do with that. In addition, the other two members of the OCPS delegation – Secondary Science administrator Rebecca Ray and Talent Recruiter Bonnie Toffoli – were willing to talk about aspects of teaching that some might consider too technical to discuss but that the physics students seemed to want to hear about, including math and science progression plans and even a course pacing guide for Honors Physics. In retrospect, I learned that physics majors are not impressed by recruiting gimmicks and they are turned off by anything that smacks of mediocrity. But when the real deal comes all the way to their doorstep to talk, our physics students respond.
  • Our Learning Assistant Program is doing its job – introducing students to teaching as a profession based on research about how students learn. Nearly all of the 20 students who attended the OCPS recruiting event were physics students, and nearly all of them had been graduate teaching assistants or undergraduate learning assistants (the undergraduate version of teaching assistants) in our Studio Physics Program. The first learning assistant program at the University of Colorado resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of physics bachelor’s degree grads who entered the high school teaching profession. I’ve heard more than once from new learning assistants something like “I had no idea that there was research on how students learn that you can actually implement in a classroom.” And that excites the learning assistants (and some of the graduate teaching assistants).
  • Some physics students are willing to pass up the higher salaries available to new bachelor’s degree graduates in engineering, science and IT jobs in the private and public sectors in order to teach. And some aren’t. The students who committed to teaching at OCPS were obviously not deterred by the starting teaching salary at OCPS (close to $40K). But one undergraduate physics major I talked with the next day and who had attended the OCPS event told me that when it comes right down to it, he is not willing to take a $10K-20K salary penalty to teach. And that’s the way economics works. The supply curve is not a step function. Instead, it has a slope – the supply increases smoothly as the price increases. More physics students would be interested in teaching if the salary were higher, but some will do it where the salary is now.

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