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Teachers Deserve More Than 'Thanks'

Recently, I've seen a bumper sticker thatstates, "If you can read this, thank a teacher." Each year the first full weekin May is Teacher Appreciation Week. There's more than 3 million teachers inelementary, middle and high school classrooms teaching about 46 millionchildren how to read, write, calculate, conduct experiments, observe theuniverse, and grow up to be good citizens. That's a lot of people to thank, butthanks are not enough.

By 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)predicts that we will need about 18% more teachers than are in the classroomnow. The BLS notes that "Currently, many school districts have difficulty hiringqualified teachers in some subject areas--mathematics, science (especiallychemistry and physics), bilingual education, and foreign languages." Teachingis a growth industry, but will schools be able to attract people to theprofession? In particular, will schools be able to attract those trained inmathematics and physical sciences?

According the BSL, the annual median startingsalary for a teacher is just under $31,000 (2002). Compare that with the$60,000 median salary of lawyers just 6 months after graduation, and the mediansalary for all lawyers at over $90,000 (2002). According to the AmericanFederation of Teachers (AFT), one of two major teacher unions, the averagesalary for all public school teachers of grades kindergarten through 12th was$44,367 (2001-2002). That includes people who have taught for 35 years and areat the top of the salary scale. One need not wonder about the apparent surplusof lawyers, and the shortage of teachers.

Today, new science and mathematics teachers arerequired to complete an academic major in the discipline they will teach. Therequirements of "No Child Left Behind" demand increased academic preparation ofteachers based on the need to improve pre-college education. I have nocomplaint with higher standards.

My question is whether the teaching professionwill be able to attract the science and mathematics majors into pre-collegecareers when one considers the simple economics of the situation. Individualswho complete degrees in mathematics and sciences have other options. (All statistics from BSL, 2002 or 2003)

Career Annual Median Income (in thousands, rounded off)

K-12 Teacher


Zoologist/Wildlife Biologist


Environmental Scientist




Computer Programmer




Environmental Engineer




Chemical Engineer




Physicist (BA/BS level)


Astronomer (PhD level)


Physicist (PhD level)


The old argument that "teaching is a part-timejob" and so has a "part-time salary" does not hold up. Teachers are employed185 to 200 days each year, not including school breaks during the academicyear. Many teachers move from the classroom to summer employment to pay the bills, or to coursework to sustain their teachingcredentials or licenses. There are no lazy days of summer for most teachers.

Most high school science teachers are trained inbiology, and find themselves teaching all of the sciences. Certainly, many arecompetent to teach courses besides biology. High school physics, chemistry, andearth science teachers that have discipline majors are rare. The lack of trulyqualified people is, in part, due to teaching salaries that are not competitivewith industry, research, and other government employment, plus workingconditions. Few scientists would expect to provide their own supplies, make duewith out-of-date texts, and old equipment. But, this is often the case inscience classrooms. We can't educate for the future without well-educatedteachers and proper materials and equipment. I believe that we need to raiseteacher salaries and provide them with the tools to teach.

If you read this, thank a teacher. If you arestill excited about exploring the universe from the realm of the atom to themost distant galaxy, thank a science teacher. If you use mathematics in dailylife, thank a mathematics teacher. Ifyou enjoy your personal computer, your cell phone, your pace maker, etc., thankthe teachers who prepared all the scientists and engineers that work in technology.

But that's not enough. Next week, attend aschool board meeting and ask for better classroom support for science andmathematics instruction. The week after, write a letter to your representativein state government asking for better support for science and mathematicseducation. Write and email your Congressional Representative and Senator askingthem to restore the education funding to the National Science Foundation thatsupports science and mathematics education. It's been drastically cut over thepast two years.

Teachers work for us all, and they needmore than thanks. They need our support.

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Edna DeVore
Edna DeVore

 Edna DeVore is a science and astronomy educator and the former Director of Education and Public Outreach for the SETI Institute. She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pacific followed by a master's degree in instructional technology from San Jose State and a master's in astronomy from the University of Arizona. In 1992, Edna joined the SETI Institute, where she wrote features on space exploration, astrobiology and more, some of which appeared on She was among the first principal investigators to propose projects to NASA's Office of Space Science and receive funding for educational programs. Edna went on to work on education and public outreach for NASA's Kepler space telescope and SOFIA flying telescope missions. Edna received numerous awards during her tenure at SETI, including NASA Honor Awards for her work on Kepler and SOFIA, and Aerospace Awareness Award for Women in Aerospace in 2005. Edna retired in 2013.