Starting a new career

I have always loved science – earth and space sciences especially. Although I’ve had a variety of jobs, since I began home schooling, I’ve discovered I absolutely love teaching. I’m thinking about getting my bachelor’s degree in science education, perhaps at an online university. Do you believe this could be a worthwhile career change for me? Are science teachers still needed? Will I be able to support a family on a new teacher’s salary? I need advice.
–M.S., No City or State

Being a science teacher can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, sharing your passion and interest in the subject with students. But there are some aspects of the job you may want to consider. You mentioned your own interest in the earth sciences, so I assume you’re thinking of teaching in a middle/junior high or high school setting. You may want to see if a nearby school will let you “shadow” a secondary science teacher for a day. You’ll see for yourself the dynamics of working with 25 adolescents in a classroom. Secondary teachers usually have 4-6 sections, which add up to working with 100-150 students each day. You’ll also see other parts of a teacher’s day, including supervision duties such as homeroom or hall duties. But a teacher’s day does not end at 3:00, as I’m sure you realize. Staff meetings, professional development sessions, and managing the laboratory all require time beyond the school day. Then there’s the teacher’s “homework” – grading lab reports and tests, planning lessons, revising lessons, keeping current on the content, and preparing other learning materials. I didn’t see the top of the desk in my home office for years!
You asked if science teachers are still needed. That’s hard to predict, without knowing your geographic location. Schools in urban and rural settings often recruit teachers actively, and schools with a lot of “baby boomer” teachers who are getting ready to retire may also have openings. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has an Occupational Outlook Handbook with job outlooks and projections. Having a certificate in more than one subject area (e.g., earth science, biology, math) or credentials in special education or ESL may make you a more attractive candidate. One thing is in your favor – I know of schools that look for “nontraditional” beginning teachers who bring a lot to the classroom in terms of life experiences and maturity. In places where there is a surplus of teachers, many teachers have to start out doing substitute work (per diem pay and no benefits).
In addition to schools, other types of institutions often hire educators: museums, nature centers, zoos, and state/national parks. I talked with a friend who works at a nearby nature center where I’m a volunteer. She loves her work but noted funding for her type of position is always an issue, and she cringes at every budget cut.
Speaking of funding, you asked if you could support a family on a new teacher’s salary. That certainly depends on the starting salary and your family’s needs and lifestyle. Most public schools offer benefit plans (health insurance, life insurance) and some may offer full or partial tuition reimbursement for future studies. The American Federation of Teachers has an online tool to look at salaries state-by-state and the Teacher Portal website has a table to compare beginning salaries in the 50 states Even within a state, the salaries can vary, but this would give you an estimate. Many schools have extra opportunities for teachers to supplement their salary: extracurricular activities, tutoring, evening adult education classes, or summer programs for students.
If you do decide to pursue teaching credentials, a major decision will be on a college or university. Before enrolling in any higher-education teacher program, I’d ask a lot of questions. Does your state accept the coursework and degree from the institution for a teaching certification? What accreditation does it have? What percent of graduates find teaching positions? What experience and background do the education professors and the science professors have?
The courses at online universities are certainly convenient and can be challenging and informative with a good instructor. I’d go a little further with my questions about the science courses. How will you gain experience in a real laboratory or out in the field? How will you get experience with the “tools of the trade” you probably don’t have at home (e.g., telescopes, weather stations, computer-based probes, digital balances, microscopes, SmartBoards) but you’ll be expected to teach with in a classroom lab? What kinds of scientific inquiry will you do, and how? What kind of training in lab safety is provided?
On a practical note, I also would ask any online university which local schools they have partnerships with for you to do your practicum (student teaching). Does the university have a supervisor who will visit you in the classroom regularly to provided feedback? How do the education methods courses enable you to address your state’s science standards and reach a diverse student population?
I realize I responded to most of your questions with more questions! You have a lot to think about, and you’re very smart to gather data from a variety of sources before making such a big decision. Going back to school sets a wonderful example for your children!

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