I have been like a kid with a new Lego set this month, unpacking IOP Spark and building all sorts of imaginative lesson plans with the finely engineered building blocks on offer. When I was in the classroom, this sort of link to the physics teaching nexus was invaluable, and from what you tell me, lack of everyday contact with fellow physics teachers is the professional equivalent of solitary confinement.
As we understand more about what makes good professional development for teachers, the problem of isolation becomes more pressing. The quality of teachers’ CPD has improved dramatically over the last few years, and thank goodness! We can all recall the bad old days, crammed onto tables with colleagues from every department; a fug of jaded resignation in the air; an overpaid consultant telling us that children are all unique (I mean, I had no idea). Not so much profound as profoundly unhelpful. “Think of all the stuff I could be doing…” our brains would scream in unison.
Expectations have changed. Increasingly discerning, teachers are less resigned to poor quality CPD. Unsurprisingly, they want their precious time investment to pay real dividends. Teachers are looking for more subject-specific CPD. It makes sense: as a physics teacher, which course would appeal more, “behaviour management in the classroom” or “behaviour management in the physics lab”?
If a teacher is going to invest in CPD, they want tangible improvements for their students, and this is a challenge for any CPD: does it transform practice to raise attainment? Subject-specific CPD is more likely to hit the mark here: the more precise and targeted the intervention, the more likely you will be able to measure a result. Generic pedagogy will struggle to provide that level of specificity.
CPD becomes punitive when driven by high stakes accountability. It is best when it is collaborative, and participants feel able to take and give feedback in a supportive atmosphere. This collaborative model is powerful (Lesson Study has beneficial outcomes), but physics teachers need the chance to share practice with fellow physicists. A room full of teachers produces good discussions, but the richness goes up an order of magnitude when the teachers share a common specialism.
Teachers are increasingly wresting control of CPD from the tyranny of “one-size fits all”, setting their own agenda, collaborating and looking hard for subject-specific development. A rosy picture, then? It would be, but for physics teachers, there are some dark clouds in need of a silver lining.
The scandalous and sustained lack of specialist physics teachers means that on average, they have access to far fewer collaborative networks. Generally, they also have to support the development of those drafted in to fill the shortage of trained physicists. Rarely is this recognised with extra time allocation or an increased CPD budget to allow them out of school to access their professional network.
Higher than average early-career attrition combines with the overall shortage to leave an even smaller pool of experience to draw on when we look for the seasoned subject custodians so valued by young teachers. These figures in turn are under pressure to counter a shortage in their schools and beyond, and so the cycle continues.
I write this as we swelter in another record-breaking summer, politicians doubling-down on frippery and nonsense with elephants in the room increasingly becoming mammoth in scale. Without a scientific plan for a solution to climate change and the associated environmental degradation, humanity faces a bleak period. We must speak truth to power: physics will be at the heart of any technical solution and we must promote the subject if we expect it to save us.
As we head, full of optimism, towards a new school year, my plea to you as a physics teacher is to make some noise in support (defence?) of your subject. Politely insist that the unique challenges of your job are acknowledged, and ask how they are going to be addressed. Point out the importance of physics in dealing with the biggest issues facing humanity. Point to the pay premium attracted by physicists, not just as a factor that ‘pulls’ physics teachers away from teaching, but also as a great career choice for your students. Schools are all about prioritisation, so make sure physics climbs the ladder.
If you need help, engage with IOP for support. Add to your credibility: become a member, get your CPhys, apply for Fellowship. Make sure your school is affiliated and keep in touch with the latest via spark.iop.org. To make a case for physics teaching look at Jenni French’s excellent summary from 2015 on the Gatsby website.