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Building bridges of spaghetti is not enough

By John Daicopoulos - posted Monday, 4 February 2008

With the constant prattle and media reports concerning the lack of qualified teachers, time is fitting for a personal and experienced perspective on the reasons behind the shortage, especially in physics.

Having happily taught physics for 17 years in two countries I have recently opted to leave the profession; but the why is a question even I have found difficult to answer. After much personal thought and professional reflection the answer can be synthesised into three simple reasons: there are no incentives to enter the profession; there are no incentives to stay in the profession; and there are no incentives to return to the profession upon leaving.

As a four-year honours (physics) graduate with a second degree specialising in physics education demand for physics-teachers was high (in Canada) when I began teaching; today the demand for such qualifications in Australia can only be called extreme with fewer physics-teachers filling the gaping hole.


In any decently designed system, educational or otherwise, demand is best met through incentives flowing from flexibility and options - not so in (private or public) education. A physics graduate with hopes of becoming a teacher has no ability to adjust or amend the collective teacher working conditions that govern education.

In the market place a person with such in-demand skills (especially ones as sought after in teaching as physics) would be in a highly favourable position to negotiate over the terms and conditions of employment. In addition, schools would already be marketing themselves as stimulating places to work thereby attracting qualified physics-teachers.

Although this lack of negotiating power (or even permission) is perpetuated by union collective agreements (negotiated in good-faith by all stake-holders) the actual entrenchment is a result of the longstanding educational establishment’s appeal for uniformity - the ensuing hue and cry to rise up against teachers being treated differently based on their academic qualifications would be sourced directly from the grass roots (the unions are simply doing the professions’ bidding). Equal pay for equal work does not necessarily mean equitable, or attractive.

A physics-teacher must teach the same workload, following the same timetable and schedule, with the same pay as any other teacher for whom there may be a dime-a-dozen availability.

What is the motivation to gaining a full honours degree in physics then learning to teach, when you can simply enter a teacher training program learning some physics along the way? There is no incentive to being a physicist who teaches over a teacher of physics with minimal qualifications - add in the news that Western Australia is toying with the idea of allowing lower than normal TEE scores for acceptance into teacher training programs and the dilution of academic skills and qualifications continues.

In an open market the possibility to negotiate better working conditions is crucial to encouraging educational advancement; there must be some benefit to being more qualified than those around you for a position they cannot fill.


The options are numerous, they could include: teaching fewer classes for the same pay, (greatly) increased pay, targeted budgets and professional development funding, or whatever conditions the local situation needed to be resolved. Nevertheless, it must be unmistakable that these possibilities must be for fully qualified physics-teachers only, not for the no one else is qualified teacher of physics.

What value should we place on a full honours degree qualification? Great value. Many will argue that an honours degree is no guarantee that someone will now make an excellent physics-teacher, and that much is true; however, the opposite is patently false, namely that someone with an honours degree in physics cannot make a great teacher. So if teacher training is as good as we are led to believe, then beginning with a significantly higher academic foundation is better for the teacher, the system and ultimately for our students.

Assuming one decides to give-it-a-go entering the profession fully qualified with a contract negotiated in good faith, what are the conditions that will affect the physics-teacher’s level of work satisfaction? Outside of the same demands placed on all teachers, it will most likely be the physics (and science) curriculum.

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About the Author

John Daicopoulos is the editor of Australian Physics, the Journal for the Australian Institute of Physics and has been a physics teacher in Australia and Canada for 17 years. John has previously been published by Quadrant.

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