What Does a Ph.D. Chemist Know About Teaching Physics to 12-Year-Olds?


As a leaving certificate * student in 1987, making choices for university and beyond, I wondered should I study science and follow a career in industry, or arts and maybe think about teaching as a career. Science won on the basis that I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in becoming a teacher.

After 4 years at University College Cork, I had an honours degree in chemistry, having also studied physics, maths, and computer science along the way. But I still wasn?t sure what I wanted to do with my life. So when the opportunity to put off making the decision about entering the real working world came along, I took it: I went to Edinburgh to study for a Ph.D. in peptide chemistry.

In my second year there, I did some demonstrating for undergraduate practical classes, and it was around then that I began to think that teaching might be something I would enjoy doing full time. At that stage, I didn?t know at what level I would like to teach, but the obvious progression seemed to be to try third-level teaching. Having obtained a green card for working in America (in the days of the Morrisson visa, being Irish was a great advantage), I crossed the Atlantic as soon as I finished my Ph.D.

I spent 2 years in the United States and held two teaching positions, both sabbatical-leave replacement jobs in private undergraduate colleges where teaching was the main focus. I taught several different courses to classes that ranged in size from six to 35 students, and the experience helped me decide that teaching was definitely for me. However, since most of the classes were of approximately 20 students, I began to think that what I was doing was probably more similar to secondary school teaching at home than to third level. So, when it was time to return to Ireland, I decided to chance my arm at teaching adolescents!

I started my Higher Diploma in Education course at University College Dublin (UCD) in September 1997. The advantage of the UCD course, I felt, lay in the fact that the day is split between teaching in a school in the morning and attending lectures at college in the afternoon. This allows you to experience what it?s like to be teaching every day. It also allows for a school to give you complete responsibility for a particular class, rather than having to share the teaching of a class with a full-time member of staff.

Other universities have training courses organised so that you are in college 2 1/2 days a week and then in a school for teaching practice the remaining 2 1/2 days. This isn?t as easy for schools to deal with from a timetabling point of view, so in effect, it means that you share a class with a full-time member of staff. You teach the class maybe 2 days a week, but they have the ?regular? teacher the other 3days. This, I feel, allows you to being labeled early on as the ?student teacher? and adolescents are adolescents--they love a new target!

With a science degree, you can teach any of the subjects you studied at undergraduate level, even if you only did them for a year. During my training year, I was given a first-year maths class and a transition-year chemistry class. At UCD, you get examined in only one of your teaching subjects (although some training programmes require you to be examined in both) and you get to nominate which one, so I chose my first-year maths class. The transition-year students never knew until the end of the year that I was a trainee teacher. I eventually told them when I disappeared off to do my exams for a week in May.

The universities do not organise your placement in a school; it is your responsibility. Don?t leave it too late before making enquiries in schools, or they may already be filled up. This, of course, means that you have to apply to schools before knowing if you have a place on your first-choice course--something to bear in mind if you have to travel between school and university each day.

The application process for doing the Higher Diploma in Education has changed in recent years. It used to be that everyone applied to each university individually, but now there is a central applications process in place where you rank the places you would like to study at in order of preference. All courses last 1 academic year, and financial support may be available if you are applying as a mature student (anyone over the age of 24) and you have not had funding for a postgraduate course from the government already. In 1997, the total maintenance grant covered approximately 2 months of Dublin rent and not much more! Though it may have gone up since, so has rent, so don?t expect that the financial support will be sufficient for you to live off. This was where having worked for a couple of years first was an advantage: I had enough saved up from my very lucrative teaching jobs in America to see me through the year.

The job-application process starts around Easter. I have never yet come across a science teacher who couldn?t find any job at all, but I know plenty who didn?t land their ?dream job? straight away. The statistics say that most people start off in a part-time position of one sort or another.

The variety of ways in which you can be employed is mind boggling, to say the least. Starting at the bottom, you could be employed as a part-time teacher, paid by the hour. This means you get paid for the number of contact hours you have with the students only. Secondly, you could be employed as an EPT teacher (eligible part time--eligible meaning you are eligible to apply for a permanent post if one becomes available). Anyone with 11 or more contact hours can have such a post, and the advantage over an ordinary part-time job is that you are paid a monthly salary, which is the appropriate fraction of a full 22 hours in accordance with the Department of Education salary scale.

Then there?s a TWT position (temporary whole time), meaning that you have a full teaching timetable and you are paid the appropriate salary for the full year, but the position may not be there the following year--for example, you may have a job filling in for someone who is on career leave and who may be due to return.

Finally, there is the ever-elusive permanent post. The number of permanent posts in a school is dependent upon student numbers, so larger schools will have more--and will also tend to have more movement of staff, so the wait might not be as long as you might think.

When looking for a job, I have found that sending CVs out ?on spec? is a very wise approach. Many jobs that are advertised already have in-house candidates, so the advertising is often purely to cover the legal requirement. Sending a CV out letting principals know that you are available and what your teaching skills are can often lead to interviews for jobs that never get advertised. It is also extremely important to appear flexible in what you are willing to teach. As a science teacher, you may be asked to teach a subject that you have not studied since first year at university. This was the case with the first job I was offered: I had spent years studying chemistry, but they wanted a physics teacher. I took it on not really knowing if I would sink or swim, and amazed myself at how much I enjoyed it.

Having a Ph.D. can have its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to looking for a job. In many of my early interviews, I felt I had to work quite hard to convince people that secondary teaching was really what I wanted to do. On the other hand, in many other interviews I felt that my experience was regarded as a very positive thing. It really varied from one school to the next, so I learned to be prepared to defend my decision and not show any signs of being offended by the question which, on one occasion, was put as bluntly as ?What would someone of your qualifications know about teaching 12 year olds?? Admittedly, at that stage, I only had 1 year of experience to go on. However, I knew the buzz I got from teaching all age groups was very real, so it was just a matter of finding a way of expressing it.

Four years later, am I still feeling as enthusiastic as I believed myself to be at the beginning? Well, the first couple of years are definitely pretty tough in any teaching job, particularly if you find yourself teaching subjects that you?ve not studied for a good number of years. There?s a lot of preparation work outside of teaching hours, and by far the most difficult part of teaching science in Ireland is the lack of any funding for a laboratory technician. Preparing for several different practical classes in a week takes a lot of organisation.

Just to add to all that preparation work, each year that I?ve been teaching I?ve taken on something new. I now teach chemistry at leaving certificate level, as well as physics. Next year, I will have leaving certificate maths for the first time. In addition I teach junior certificate * maths and science. It does have the advantage that there?s plenty of variety in my teaching day! Yes, it gets very tiring, and sometimes stressful on a day when I teach all the different subjects to all different years. On the other hand, in my mind the stress is minimal when compared to that of doing a job every day that you don?t enjoy.

Teaching is definitely not a job where you can simply ?do your time?. The long summer holidays are wonderful, but they certainly wouldn?t sustain you through January and February if you didn?t enjoy what you were doing. I think the students can very quickly pick up on whether a teacher enjoys teaching them or not, and they can respond very negatively if they think you don?t want to be there, making the problem all the worse.

Speaking of which, learning to deal with the discipline side of teaching takes lots of practice, and it?s something that the teacher training course does very little to prepare you for. It really is something you can learn only with experience, and I probably still need more! No one can expect to get it right all the time, but that?s where teaching adolescent boys is a real joy. They can be very forgiving, and most of the time they don?t bear any grudges! I?m sure my male colleagues would say the same.

Getting involved in extracurricular activities can also help to keep your enthusiasm from flagging, as long as you do something you enjoy. I assist one of my colleagues in running a junior science club one afternoon a week. This mostly involves first-year students, and we take the opportunity to do lots of ?fun? experiments that are not on the curriculum. On a day that I might feel teaching is not going that well, science club is a great way to let me know I?m in the right place. The excitement on those 12-year-old faces when we allow them to make their own ?hydrogen bombs? for the first time made every minute of effort worth it!

Learning from other teachers is also a great way to keep the enthusiasm going. I spent a week during the Easter holidays this year in the Netherlands taking part in a physics teachers? conference, ? Physics on Stage 2.? It was an amazing week of swapping teaching ideas with teachers from all over Europe. Each country had a stand on which to set up demonstrations, so we had the chance to see how teachers in other countries go about teaching physics. In total, six teachers from Ireland attended the event and we are now in the process of trying to develop a publication on the teaching ideas we came across as a resource for all physics teachers in Ireland. It?s a good thing we have a long summer break. ...

On a final note, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoy what I?m doing and have no regrets about leaving the world of research behind. In particular, the independence of being able to choose how I want to run my classroom and teach what I want, when I want, is a major plus of the job. I know, for example, that here in Ireland we currently have a lot more freedom than teachers in the United Kingdom in this respect. If doing a Ph.D. prepared me for anything, it was to be able to work independently without having to answer to anyone on a daily basis. What other job offers you this amount of freedom and the control to be your own boss?

* The leaving certificate is the final set of exams taken by Irish school students at the age of 18. The junior certificate is taken at the age of 15.

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