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Luring Scientists Back To High School Lab Could Be Key To Filling Teacher Shortage

Mark Schisler, a biology teacher, helps students prep a lab at Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience. Schisler was a chiropractor before switching to teaching.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Mark Schisler, a biology teacher, helps students prep a lab at Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience. Schisler was a chiropractor before switching to teaching.

There are pros and cons: Much less pay. But summers off from work.

As schools across the country struggle to fill science teacher positions, some educators say it’s time to persuade trained scientists and health care professionals to switch careers and come back to school, this time as teachers.

“It's going to be vital,” said Christina Hughes, the president of Science Teachers of Missouri, a nonprofit advocacy and development organization. “If we want to sustain the teaching profession, we really need to look at the entire pool of applicants and population.”

Five of the 11 most in-demand teaching roles in Missouri are in the sciences, according to a report from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The department is rolling out a plan to increase the teacher workforce through recruitment and salary raises.

There are 45 open science teaching jobs currently listed on the Missouri Regional Education Applicant Placement online job portal.

Some hard-to-fill roles, such as those in special education, require additional certifications. To be a science teacher, a candidate must earn good grades in science courses taken as part of a major in education. But the rub is, if a person is good at physics or biology, there’s more money to be made outside the classroom working in labs or engineering firms. 

“Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is it's a difficult financial jump because teachers are not very well compensated,” said high school biology teacher Mark Schisler.

He made that jump a decade ago, selling his chiropractic practice and earning a teaching certification. His body wasn’t up to the demands of chiropractic work anymore, he said, and his wife earns enough money to support the transition.

Schisler, 55, teaches AP biology and human body systems at Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, a gifted magnet high school in the St. Louis Public Schools system. 

“I have a lot of love for education,” he said. “So hopefully I can instill a little bit of that in some of these kids, because they’ve got a long way to go if they really intend to be in the medical profession."

Mark Schisler became a teacher 10 years ago after closing his chiropractic practice.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Mark Schisler became a teacher 10 years ago after closing his chiropractic practice.

The teaching part was an easy transition, he said; handling “adolescents and teenagers is the hard thing.” 

Two of Collegiate’s four science teachers are second-career educators, including Schisler. Principal Fred Steele said he gets a number of applications for science teachers and doesn’t struggle with high turnover that plagues some other schools in the district. He lays out the pay and benefits early on in the hiring discussions, though, to try not to waste time.

“Sometimes it'll come down to, all things being equal, salary and benefits package,” he said. “And so we've dealt with that a little bit in the past, but thankfully, we've had some stability with our science teachers.”

Science educators are trying to lure more people like Schisler and convince them that the financial trade-offs are worth it.

“I talk to people all the time, and it's really putting that bug in their ear that this is also an opportunity for them to let me give back to society, you know, a little bit I've been given,” said Hughes, who is also the science coordinator for the Hazelwood School District.

There are accelerated second-career teaching programs, such as the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Teach in 12 program, in which a candidate can earn a postgraduate degree in a year. SLPS and KIPP charter schools are in their second year of using a teacher residency program geared toward second-career teachers.

Katherine Chval, the dean of education at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said it needs to be easier, and faster, to earn a teaching certificate for second-career educators to make it more enticing.

“That can be a strain for someone. A brand-new teacher hasn't had a lot of training, and they're going to school at night and they're trying to take care of their families,” she said. “You know, we're asking a lot of people to do a career change like that.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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Ryan is a reporter on the education desk at St. Louis Public Radio, covering both higher education and the many school districts in the St. Louis region. He has previously reported for public radio stations WFYI in Indianapolis and WRVO in upstate New York. He began his journalism career working part time for WAER while attending Syracuse University. He's won multiple reporting awards and his work, which has aired on NPR, The Takeaway and WGBH's Innovation Hub. Having grown up in Burlington, Vt., he often spends time being in the woods hiking, camping, and skiing.