K-12 Science Teaching as a Professional Career

Rocky is a 4th-year biotechnology teacher at South San Francisco High School. He earned his B.S. in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a California credentialed teacher in biology, chemistry, and biotechnology.

Despite teaching in a distance learning environment, I still love teaching biotechnology to my high school students. I would like to share some of my experiences as a beginning career science teacher. If you are interested in pursuing a career in science teaching or teaching in public schools, ask yourself these questions.

Question 1: Are you qualified to become a teacher?

All prospective K-12 teachers must earn their teaching credential through a four-year university. In California, these programs usually require at least one year of coursework and one semester of student teaching experience in the classroom. Some programs like SFSU’s MA + credential earns you a state credential and a Master’s degree. You must pass courses that train you on how to develop a curriculum, provide instructions, and create assessments. In addition, you also have courses that teach you about intercultural education, subject methods, and other related pedagogical courses.

Personally, I went through CSULB three semesters (1½ year) program. In this program, I took the aforementioned courses and graduated debt-free due to teaching scholarships. I would highly recommend applying through the university’s scholarship programs. They are easy to apply to and obtain as long as you are committed to teaching. Throughout your studies, it is possible to be a full-time student and work part-time as well. In fact, I had two part-time jobs while I was earning my credential to supplement my income. However, I would proceed with this option with caution since the student teaching semester will occur during your own school hours. In my case, I had to stop working when I student taught.

Question 2: What is your financial goal?

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality and Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, teacher lifetime earning are $1.8 - 2.2 million dollars, relatively low compared to other occupations with similar education levels.

Teachers earn less during their lifetime because they do not get paid for the summer. For example, I get paid 10-month with full-year medical/dental benefits. Some teachers take this time to rejuvenate, while others find another summer job to supplement income. For me, I travel to my hometown in Hong Kong to volunteer and to visit my family.

My financial goal is to become independent and stable. Teaching is a very stable job. For example, I became tenured after just two years. Tenured means that it’s difficult to dismiss the faculty without a fair hearing with the union and district. Even in this pandemic, tenured teachers are safeguarded as long as schools are open. In addition to high job security, the California teacher pension provides teachers with a monthly stipend (about $6,000-$10,000) after retirement. Even though teachers are paid relatively low, the pension plus other savings can be an incentive to be financially stable.

I also want to highlight that teachers should not rely solely on their pension for retirement. Personal savings and smart investments will generate higher lifetime earning. In my case, I have a separate Roth IRA account in addition to a Wealthfront investment account. These accounts are doing relatively well with a small and steady increase each year. Over time, these accounts will generate more as the gains are compounded. A young educator should take advantage of the power of compounding.

Having a STEM degree does not guarantee you a job. However, having a STEM degree combined with technical skills like molecular biology lab techniques (cell culture, PCR, aseptic technique) and/or computer skills (Python, C++, Java) will most likely get you the $3+ million lifetimes earning range. Since I learned these skills, I could transition into the biotechnology industry relatively easily. Having a backup plan also grants me the choice to choose my job. I chose to teach because I love what I do.

Question 3: Why do you want to go into teaching?

From time to time, I question myself with this as well. There will be times that I will work overtime, attend professional development on the weekends, and have countless meetings with community partners, peers, and students. Teaching is an occupational marathon. I do feel tired trying to balance work and personal life. However, at the end of the day, I circle back and answer myself why I want to go into teaching: because I love working with young people. They inspire me every single day through their stories and passion.

All the teachers that I have met love working with students. If you are also empathetic, holistic, and able to actively listen, then I think teaching is a great profession for you. Despite us being underpaid, I wake up every morning feeling excited, blessed, and humbled to be a teacher. And this feeling is very satisfying.