Teacher Talk

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Special Feature

Teacher Talk

An Interview with a High School Physics Teacher


Caleb Heath

University of Arkansas-Fayetteville

Erin McCamish. Photo courtesy of Erin McCarnish.As a 2013 SPS summer intern, Caleb Heath helped to design last year's Science Outreach Catalyst Kit (SOCK). This spring he completed the UATeach program at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, in which he combined a physics bachelor's degree with a secondary-school teaching certificate. He then spent the summer as a 2014 SPS intern, working with the American Association of Physics Teachers. This fall he will start his first teaching job, as a math teacher at Van Buren High School in Van Buren, Arkansas.

While preparing to start a new job as a high school teacher, Heath took some time to talk with someone a little further down the path: Erin McCamish, a 2006 SPS summer intern who has been teaching for five years. She had some stories and advice for the budding educator.

How did you get started in physics?

Until my junior year of high school, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Then I took a physics class and figured out that this is what I liked. I had always liked my math and science classes the most, and this combined them.

In my sophomore year [at the University of Michigan] I ended up getting two part-time jobs in the physics department at the same time. The professor in the biophysics lab I worked in didn’t know what to do with me. But I enjoyed working in the physics help room, where the intro physics students went to get help on their homework. Everyone was really thankful for the help. I was like, “This is awesome. I know what I’m doing.” So I was thinking then, “Maybe I want to teach?” I enjoyed interacting with people a little too much to enjoy my mental version of what physics research is like.

You were an SPS intern in 2006. Could you tell us about your experience and how it has affected you?

I worked on the APS Physics Quest [a story-based activity that exposes middle school students to the fun and relevance of science]. It was the first time I really got to do curriculum development and come up with activities that would be both fun and lead to understanding science. I got to buy supplies and try everything out and write the activities up and sketch the illustrations.

What did your advisors and faculty members think of your career path?

I had a very supportive advisor. He never second-guessed that I was committed to being a high school teacher or that it was a valid career path. I did have some less-awesome interactions with other faculty. One of my professors was a gruff, older guy. I don’t think he took me seriously at first. I told him I wanted to be a high school teacher. At the end of the year he started a sentence that made me so hopeful: “Wow, you are one of the best students I’ve ever had.” Then he paused and added, “…who wanted to be a teacher.” One of the only female faculty members told me, “Why don’t you just go and get your PhD, and if you still want to teach high school then you can.” I didn’t want to spend 5 to 8 years becoming the world expert on something I didn’t want to do.

What has made you remain a teacher?

I just completed my fifth year, which is when the statistics say most people have decided they're in it for the long haul. Part of it is that I’m pretty good at teaching, and I like doing it, so I’m going to keep doing it. Another part is learning how to take care of yourself and put the not-nice parts of the job out of your mind. Keeping my focus on the classroom and what I get to do there helps. Surrounding myself with people who are into education has also been helpful.

Why should someone become a teacher? Why shouldn’t someone become a teacher?

I would caution someone who is going into teaching because they think it will be less hard than academia. There will always be something, a new class or new students or new initiative, that you have to account for. Public and charter schools have issues. You’re entering into a very politicized system. It’s long hours, and there are parts that are not fun, including grading and faculty meetings. Kids are not going to universally love you or physics, so it can be hard learning that it’s not personal.

I would encourage people to become physics teachers because you get to watch kids learn things. The sparkle of those things may have worn off for you. Yep, “F = ma.” It’s still true. But to your students it's new and exciting every year. I love watching kids “get it,” and there are very few careers that give you the chance to see that. Some of your students will write you awesome thank you notes. Years later they may also become physics teachers. You don’t know the difference you can make. //

See Erin McCamish's 2006
internship blog at http://bit.ly/spsMcCamish.

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