Teaching Physics in the Czech Republic

On Monday, I had the opportunity to visit the physics classes of Dr. Irena Dvořáková. Irena teaches physics at ZŠ Červený vrch, which translates to English as Red Hill Primary School. When not teaching at Red Hill, Irena sits on the faculty in the Department of Physics Education at Charles University. That makes us colleagues for the next four months!

For those physics teachers in the USA, you’ll notice something interesting. Irena teaches physics at a primary school. Here in the USA, when I visit physics classes, I’m always sitting in a room with students ranging from 16-18 years old in an American high school. When I taught physics in Virginia secondary schools, my students were all about one year from university. So what’s different about the Czech (and most of Europe!) public school system and the definition of a “physics teacher?”

First, let’s talk about the Czech public school system. Much like the USA, schooling in the Czech Republic is compulsory. Students must attend school through what they call primary school, which ends around the age of 15, or the equivalent of 9th grade in America. Here’s how it breaks down:

The Czech school system in bullet points:

  • Preschools – (from 2 to 5 years old)
  • Primary – (from 6 to 15 years old, mandatory)
  • Professional secondary schools, grammar schools (gymnasium), vocational schools
  • Universities (the university system is a little different, too, but I’ll save that for later.​)

After primary school, Czech students have a few options: (1) they can stop school all together, (2) they can attend a professional or vocational school, or (3) they can attend gymnasium. Gymnasium would be equivalent to an American high school and is intended for students looking towards university. Gymnasium lasts four years, which takes students to what we would consider the 13th grade. That’s one extra year compared to American students before university. However, a B.S. degree is designed to only take 3 years as opposed to the US 4-year degree, so it all works out.

Now, back to Irena, who is a physics teacher in primary school. She teaches students from what we would consider 6th through 9th grade. This is American middle school. In the US, we train teachers very differently at this level than they do in the Czech Republic.

First, what’s it take to teach the US equivalent of Irena’s classes? Let’s say you want to teach science at this level in South Carolina, so you attend my home university Coastal Carolina University. You’re going to major in Middle Level Education and follow a content concentration in Science. You will take exactly ONE semester of a physics course. One. That’s it. Graduate, get your license, and you are now a Middle School Science Teacher. Middle school students will take about 6 hours per week of science with you throughout their middle school career, and you will teach all the topics (biology, chemistry, and physics) even if you absolutely hate your physics class (as many middle level pre-service teachers will happily tell you).

Students in Irena’s school (and all the other Czech students in upper-primary levels) will take the same 6 hours per week of science, but they will have three different teachers teaching 2 hours each: a biology teacher, a chemistry teacher, and a physics teacher. To teach physics in Irena’s school, you will need to go to university and get a master’s degree in physics education that is offered by my host department, the Department of Physics Education.

So, the Czech system produces actual physics teachers at the US-equivalent middle school level and above. We don’t make the distinction in the US until high school, which is why all my physics teacher friends are high school teachers.

This sounds awesome, until you realize that we have a very difficult time recruiting middle school science teachers in the US at all, much less those that would have the slightest interest in physics. We can’t produce enough high school physics teachers in the US. Now imagine convincing that same small group to go into a classroom of students that are raging through the beginnings of puberty. If we can’t meet the demand to teach what is often an optional high-school course that only the college-bound even bother with, then we’d have an even worse time getting middle school physics teachers.

Not surprisingly, the Czech Republic has the same problem. There are some parallels with America. Science can pay well above the national average, while teachers make at or slightly above the national average salary. There is a constant shortage of physics teachers in both countries, and a real big problem in the Czech republic getting good physics teachers in the lower levels.

Here’s a question for my high school physics teacher colleagues: would you teach physics in an American middle school?

What do you think?