Changing careers

I am thinking of switching careers to become a secondary science teacher (I currently work for an environmental agency). Before I decide, what should I consider? —S., Connecticut

Being a science teacher is a rewarding and challenging experience, helping students develop and pursue their own interests in a subject you are passionate about. Many of our students have never met a scientist in person, and with your background, you can show students how science connects with the “real” world. You can also share the variety of work that scientists do beyond the lab—reports, letters, presentations, and other communications. Some schools may prefer “nontraditional” beginning teachers such as you, who bring life experiences and in-depth content background to the classroom.

You may want to see if a nearby middle or high school will let you “shadow” a science teacher for a day to see for yourself the challenges of working with 25 teenagers in a classroom. Secondary teachers usually have 4-6 sections, interacting with 100-150 students each day, including students with special needs or students learning the English language. Teachers may be assigned to teach more than one subject, depending on their certification. Note the types of technology that teachers use and how they manage their labs (most often without an assistant). You’ll also see other parts of a teacher’s day, including supervision duties in the halls and lunchroom, extracurricular activities, and tutoring.

But a teacher’s day does not end at 3:00, as I assume you realize. Staff meetings, professional development sessions, and managing a laboratory all require time beyond the school day. And teachers have their own “homework”—grading lab reports and tests, planning and revising lessons, preparing and organizing other learning materials, and keeping current on content and pedagogy through courses, workshop, and on-line studies. Much of this homework continues over holiday and summer breaks.

The state’s education department website should have a section on the science standards by grade level or subject and information on any standardized assessments that are administered at the secondary level, including end-of-course exams, for which you would be responsible. (If your state has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, NSTA has a wealth of resources to help you become familiar with them. See NGSS@NSTA)

Check out the job situation at the schools in the area(s) in which you would like to work. Are they hiring new teachers? Are the schools downsizing or eliminating positions? Keep in mind you’ll probably start at a low level of the pay scale.

In places where there is a surplus of teachers, many start out doing substitute work (per diem pay and no benefits), which is a good way to share your availability and showcase your talents. In addition to schools, other types of institutions often hire informal educators, curators, or naturalists: museums, nature centers, zoos, and state or national parks. These positions may be part-time and depend on the funding levels of the institutions.

While you’re on the state department of education site, check out the certification requirements for teaching K-12 science. The state may credential science teachers by discipline (e.g., chemistry, biology, physics, earth and space, environmental, or general science) or by age level (primary, elementary, secondary, middle, or high). You could investigate multiple certifications, including special education.

Depending on the certification(s) in which you’re interested, you may need additional content coursework, and you’ll definitely need background in pedagogy, assessment, educational technology, and classroom lab safety. Before enrolling in any higher-education institution’s teacher program, 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 the graduates find teaching positions? What experience and background do the education professors and the science professors have, especially with the science standards? What kind of practicum or internship is offered?

Good luck with your fact-finding and decision-making!

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1 Response to Changing careers

  1. Stacey Pawson says:

    I’m presently in my 2nd year of teaching, but prior to this I spent my life working in labs and doing research. One of the things I did before going forward with my decision was ask a teacher to allow me to shadow them for a week. Some people may not be able to arrange for that much time off, however even one day of observation might help you with your decision.

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