We’ve seen a great deal of emphasis in recent years, from the President on down, on the need to develop and attract more STEM teachers.
But maybe policymakers need to take a step back and start by convincing parents that it’s even a viable career option.
A new poll from the nonprofit group ASQ (formerly the American Society for Quality), finds that while 90 percent of parents would encourage their children to pursue a career in a STEM field, 87 percent said they would be “concerned” if that career happened to be as a K-12 teacher.
In all, the survey, conducted for ASQ by The Harris Poll, found that only 9 percent of the 644 parents participating would encourage their children to pursue a career as a STEM teacher. Parents’ top choice of STEM careers for their children was engineering, which—in another sign of the times—beat out doctor by nine percentage points (50 percent to 41 percent).
In a separate poll, meanwhile, ASQ found that even current educators aren’t all that wild about the prospect of their children becoming STEM teachers, with only 29 percent saying they would encourage their kid to pursue that course as a STEM-related career option. That poll was conducted online among 185 ASQ members who self-identified as educators.
For both parents and educators, not surprisingly, the big issue was money. Some 70 percent of parents and 77 percent of educators said they worried that their child may not make enough money as a teacher, according to ASQ.
In addition, 60 percent of the parents said that a career in STEM teaching may not be worth the cost of a college degree, while 82 percent of the educators—perhaps venting some personal frustration here—responded that STEM teachers’ compensation may not match the heavy workloads demanded of them.
Perspectives From Campus
Those financial realities—and parental expectations—aren’t lost on college students and educators in STEM fields, to judge by a related story in a student newspaper at the University of Georgia. “My parents support me in my pursuit in the math field, but they don’t want me to be a teacher because it doesn’t pay a lot,” one freshman told The Red&Black.
K.C. Das, an engineering professor at the school, echoes the ASQ’s key takeaways from its survey in saying that, to compete with employers in STEM fields, school systems need to find ways to improve STEM teachers’ compensation. “If we increase their salaries, it will attract the best people, keep them motivated and evolve the teaching styles to cutting edge,” he said.
The article also makes it clear, however, that teaching still has a distinct pull on STEM types, regardless of what their parents might say. Das himself said he prefers teaching (albeit at the college level) to working in the private sector because it is less monotonous and provides greater personal satisfaction:
Teaching is a lot of fun because you get to motivate people. It doesn't happen every day, but occasionally you run into a student who comes to you with a lack of interest in a subject and leaves you excited about it. If you manage to catch that, it's very rewarding."
Likewise, a math and English education major at the university noted that, despite its potential financial drawbacks, she intends to go into teaching because of the personal rewards it offers:
A big incentive for becoming a teacher is knowing that you're impacting a person. You're not just getting a check in the mail. You're not just doing your job. You're helping kids reach goals that they might not expect to meet. ... The financial thing might be an issue, but at the end of the day I'll be doing something I've always wanted to do, fulfilling my purpose in life."
A freshman biochemistry major, meanwhile, said that he could see himself being “fulfilled by being a K-12 educator” but is leaning against it not because of the money but because he wants continue doing research in his field.
So perhaps an alternative takeaway for policymakers and school leaders is that, if they are serious about attracting and retaining more STEM educators, they need find ways to marry all of these aspects—financial stability, the opportunity to make a personal impact, and passion for the subject area—into their recruitment initiatives. That might be something for more kids to write home about.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.