In theory, science teachers are in short supply. Inner cities and rural areas are experiencing teacher shortages. Because half of all U.S. students live in rural areas or inner cites, the odds for landing a science teaching position there are very good. But if you are only interested in teaching in wealthy suburbs, your odds aren't as good. Science teachers are rarely in short supply in the 'burbs, and when a position does open up, those school districts get plenty of applications. "One teacher vacancy in suburbia may generate hundreds of applications; 100 vacancies in a big-city school system will attract maybe 20, many of those having been rejected by suburban districts," reports the journal Education Week.
"Suburbs don't have a shortage," says Emily Feistritzer of the National Center for Education Information, a privately run think tank in Washington.
Moving to or living in a state where the population of children is exploding will further improve the odds. California presently has a statewide teacher shortage. Texas, Florida (to some extent), and North Carolina also have booming youth populations and a dearth of teachers. States and districts with more stable populations have fewer teaching jobs.
A good indication of whether a state has a shortage of science teachers is the percentage of teachers "on waivers"--teachers that don't meet the state?s certification requirements but who are allowed to teach anyway because the state can't find enough certified teachers. The table shown here lists the number of teachers in science and mathematics, state by state, as well as the percentage of teachers in those fields currently teaching on waivers. Be wary of these data, though: They're the best available, but because some states don't take federal reporting requirements all that seriously they're not always reliable. If a state isn't listed in the table, that means they failed to report, despite federal regulations requiring them to do so.
Teachers, State by State
An asterisk means that less than 0.5% of all teachers are on waivers. States not listed didn't report. Data from U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education, Office of Policy Planning and Innovation, Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge: The Secretary?s Annual Report on Teacher Quality, Washington, D.C., 2002.
Finding a Position
Statistics are a useful guide but, after all, you only need one job. How do you find it? Online job databases and teacher recruitment services (see the feature Resources page) don't do very well in listing the available teaching openings, and some charge a fee (which you should avoid paying). If you are close to a college or university with an education program, you will find they often have a placement service or office to which school districts routinely send vacancy announcements. Some state education departments maintain useful Web sites (again, see the Resources page), but the best information sources are local: Open teaching positions are often advertised only in local newspapers and--increasingly--on the Web sites of local school districts. Sometimes it is easier to hunt for an open position close to where you live.
As was already mentioned, school districts are often granted emergency waivers to attractive applicants when no certified teachers are available. Although emergency certification has a lousy reputation and may be eliminated in the next few years, for now it may be the most direct route into teaching if you plan to work in a high-need area. An emergency waiver, however, is only a temporary reprieve: Until you've met state certification requirements you'll be considered temporary. Unless you're working diligently toward certification you can even be replaced by a certified teacher if one comes along.
Once you've decided the state(s) in which you want to teach, visit the state's department of education Web site and get a list of state contacts here or at the National Teachers Recruitment Clearing House Web site. Request a licensure/certification application packet from the state agency, as well as information about alternative certification that details licensure requirements. The state department of education may be able to provide a list of colleges and universities that have developed alternative teacher preparation programs, as well as, possibly, a roster of available jobs.
Most states have reciprocal certification agreements with some, but not all, other states. If you are certified in one of those states, transferring that certification to a state with a reciprocal agreement is nearly automatic. To find out which states participate, look here.
But the real action is local, so the best approach is to zero in on one or more school districts where you'd like to teach, contact the local officials, and tell them that you are interested in becoming a teacher. Ask about guidelines for alternative certification; you need to make sure the district and the state agree on what's required. Be sure to ask, too, which educational institutions offer programs that satisfy their certification requirements. Most important: Begin to establish some personal relationships. Let them know you're serious ... and competent.
Unless you're lucky, you may find yourself living like a college student again, at least for a while. If you can earn an emergency waiver you may begin teaching right away for a full salary. Similarly, if there's an alternative certification program in which you can participate, you may be able to draw a decent salary in short order. Nonetheless, you will still need to get certified, and those classes aren't cheap. State departments of education and colleges offering the programs can provide information on financial aid, and some states, such as Minnesota and North Dakota, have loan repayment programs for teachers willing to work in areas of critical need.
Finally, working for a while as a substitute teacher or teacher's assistant can help to get your foot in the door--and also get you paid while you're working on fulfilling certification requirements. These might not be high-prestige jobs, but if you can establish a local reputation for competence and diligence, your odds of landing a permanent position improve.
Bottom line: Progress is being made in lowering the barriers to entry, but there's a long way to go. Rational alternative certification proposals are making headway, but most alternative certification programs are still cumbersome. Even if you know your subject inside and out, making the move into teaching is likely to be more complicated than it needs to be. Lawrence Davis, a professor in the biochemistry department at Kansas State University, sums it up: "To teach science you need to know how science works. That means doing real laboratory courses and probably some individual research project or undergraduate thesis. That is what we find most lacking in Kansas. ... The rest is politics."