Physics teaching in the United States has a chicken-and-egg problem. Many districts and schools (typically, diverse urban schools and rural schools) do not offer the course or perhaps have a single section. Independent of the national teacher shortage, universities produce few physics teachers, with two-thirds of institutions producing none. In fact, according to the latest available data from the 2012–13 school year, fewer than half of physics teachers have any physics training, and only about a quarter have a degree in physics.
Without a good teacher, few students enroll in physics, and with low enrollment, a district has no need for a physics teacher. As a result, many teachers get pulled into physics to cover a section. Furthermore, adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) has required more teachers at every grade level to cover physics concepts in a more robust way than before. While the mere idea of physics may cause some people high anxiety, the reality is that with the right support, any high school science or math teacher can teach physics.
3 Tips for Teaching Physics Without a Physics Background
1. Connect with a physics community. Any teacher who has had the pleasure of a dynamic group of colleagues knows that teaching within a community is essential. This is especially true when teaching outside of your specialty. Find out who your resources are and use them.
Perhaps there is a teacher in the building you can lean on, but also see if you can connect with physics teachers on a local or state level. The American Association of Physics Teachers is a national organization that has state and local levels nationwide. Local meetings occur once or twice a year and are packed with research, teaching ideas, and networking opportunities.
Community and networking doesn’t have to wait or require significant time, travel, and money. Head to your computer and join Twitter, which has a highly active and engaged community that uses #ITeachPhysics to connect. Teachers regularly share ideas, activities, and questions, and start meaningful conversations around student learning.
2. Physics is about models, not math. Many people erroneously believe that physics is a course for math-type students, which is where much of the anxiety around the course is rooted. This couldn’t be further from the truth! In physics, we start with careful observations of phenomena to drive additional experiments in order to discover relationships between quantities. This ultimately results in an equation; however, the real work happens in developing the model. This approach is the foundation of NGSS. Rather than focusing on plugging numbers into various iterations of equations, students should be pushed to use evidence from observations and experiments to describe phenomena and drive more questions.
For a physics-specific approach, Professor Eugenia Etkina from Rutgers has developed the Investigative Science Learning Environment model for teaching, which closely mirrors the NGSS approach. Additionally, the American Modeling Teachers Association was developed with this same goal in mind. They regularly provide webinars and summer trainings that, due to the pandemic, are much more accessible. This type of teaching and learning is truly the hard part of physics but is simultaneously what makes it fun and interesting.
3. Teach with humility. Teaching out of our area of expertise is often more of an asset than a hindrance. As a fellow learner of physics alongside your students, you are more intimately aware of where students are going to struggle and why. Model your approaches to overcoming those challenges to your students.
Alongside this, consider adopting a learning partner, a student in your class with whom you will collaborate before and after a lesson. While some teachers easily shift from a “sage on a stage” concept to one of facilitators where students are cocreators of knowledge, a learning partner takes this relationship of facilitator and learner a step further. The only real requirement is that the student be interested in a shared goal of a positive learning experience for the class. Let them engage in your planning and provide their insights before you try something for the first time blindly.
Lastly, every experienced physics teacher will tell you that one of the most important pieces of advice is to do everything before doing it in front of your students: demonstrations, labs, homework. Almost by default, if you do not practice something, it will fail, and there is nothing more embarrassing than trying to swing a bucket of water overhead and have it all dump out on the floor!
Physics is challenging because students are expected to engage with materials in a manner they have never experienced before. Concepts and cause and effect are studied deeply, and problem-solving is more complex than plucking numbers out of a word problem and shoving them into an equation. Students are expected to think critically and systemically about the world around them and phenomena they experience on a daily basis. Then they are asked to create models to explain and predict these phenomena for new and unusual circumstances. Teaching a physics course is daunting, but with the right mindset, approach, and community, it can become an exciting adventure.