Thao Nguyen, a freshman at the University of Georgia, aspires to become a high school mathematics teacher, but her parents are not as enthusiastic about her future career as she is.
“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,” Nguyen said. “They heard from other people who keep telling them it’s really tough and most teachers quit within a few years.”
This goes in line with the results of an American Society for Quality survey conducted by The Harris Poll.
Among the 644 parents that polled, 90 percent said they would encourage their children to pursue a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field, yet 87 percent said they would be concerned if their children pursue a career as a K-12 STEM teacher.
Many parents polled said they worried their children would not make enough money as a STEM teacher, that they might not be compensated enough for heavy workloads, that they might not have many career advancement opportunities and that their career might not be worth the cost of a college degree.
K.C. Das, professor of the College of Engineering, said he believed ultimately parents did not want their children to pursue a K-12 STEM teaching career because those who worked in STEM fields could get paid significantly higher than teachers.
To encourage more people to pursue any K-12 teaching career, Das said America would need a system where teachers were rewarded and respected more than they were now.
“If we increase their salaries, it will attract the best people, keep them motivated and evolve the teaching styles to really cutting-edge,” he said. “Also, in certain countries there is a significant social respect for teachers that we don’t have in this country as much as we could.”
Das said he could have become a K-12 teacher had he not gotten a university teaching post right out of graduate school. He said he found teaching more rewarding and less monotonous than working in the private sector in general.
“Teaching is a lot of fun because you get to motivate people,” Das said. “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.”
Chassity Wilkerson, senior middle grades Math and English education major, shares a similar passion for teaching.
“A big incentive for becoming a teacher is knowing that you’re impacting a person,” Wilkerson said. “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.”
Wilkerson said she had not experienced the financial difficulty of working as a teacher yet, but said she was not too worried about it.
“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,” she said.
Trevor Talmadge, freshman biochemistry major, considered becoming a K-12 educator but changed his mind. He aspires to become a STEM professor now.
“I could so see myself fulfilled by being a K-12 educator, but I felt that I would be a little weary of stopping my education after four years because I really enjoy learning things,” Talmadge said. “Now it’d be better for me to become a research professor because I am more interested in exploring topics.”
Amy Peacock, the K-12 Science Content Coach for the Clarke County School District, said there is a great need for STEM teachers because STEM fields are high in demand.
“We need STEM teachers who have strong STEM backgrounds that allow them to engage students and develop within them a love for science,” she said.
Peacock said American society could encourage more people to become K-12 STEM teachers by exposing more science majors to the teaching field. For instance, Clarke County School District has a partnership with UGA called Project FOCUS to bring science undergraduates into elementary science classrooms, she said.
Das said it’s important to encourage people to go into STEM fields because the most significant growth in any economy comes from creating new things.
“It’s very sad that people don’t want their kids to be STEM teachers because ultimately you think education is one of the important foundations for a healthy society. If we don’t send our best to go become teachers, we are compromising future generations’ abilities,” Das said.
Nguyen said she understands the importance of teachers in shaping students’ future.
“I love working with high school students because high school is the trial and error period where you experience things, and you want someone to be there and guide you through it,” she said.
Nguyen said she seeks to make a difference by encouraging more girls to enter STEM fields.
“I want to be there and encourage them because if they can learn to love the subject, maybe they will consider going into that major more,” she said.
Nguyen said she is not too worried about her parents’ reactions to her pursuit of a STEM teaching career.
“My stepdad helped my mom understand that this is something I want to do, so they can put in their opinion, but they can’t force me to do what I don’t want to do,” she said. “They are still not happy with my decision of course, but it’s fine. They will learn to love it or get along with it eventually.”