One in four teachers of Year 7-10 students in Australian schools are teaching outside their specialist subject areas. For graduate teachers, this number rises to one in three. But what’s the best way school leaders can provide support?
Monash Professor Colleen Vale breaks down the results of her three-year study.
More time needed for planning and learning
Out-of-field teaching happens when teachers are required to teach a subject they have not studied or specialised in.
For example, a physical education teacher is asked to teach mathematics, a science teacher is required to run digital technologies classes or a humanities teacher is needed to teach a language other than English.
Teachers of general subjects such as humanities or sciences may also feel out-of-field when teaching content such as geography or physics if they do not have the content knowledge.
Either way for teachers in our study, their positive experiences and improvement in knowledge, teaching practice and confidence were directly linked to the level of support they received in their school.
Finding a way to increase time for out-of-field teachers for additional planning and learning was central to this.
A tough situation, especially for teachers just starting out
In our study, we found giving out-of-field teachers a text book, curriculum outline, handouts and presentation slides was not enough to build knowledge and confidence.
Teachers we spoke to said resources provided or the material planned by other team members were often not clear enough. And that they spent a lot of time practising new skills and strategies, or writing new materials from scratch.
We found school leaders were aware of the challenges, especially when it came to trying to improve the performance of “less-qualified” teachers.
“We tend to put our less able teachers in the situation where they are required to teach out-of-area because that’s the only way the timetable falls."
"We give our least able teachers their baptism by fire."
The problem of out-of-field teaching is also exacerbated in schools that struggle to retain and attract staff. For school leaders, it’s an on-going administrative challenge that can lead to less-than-ideal circumstances.
What does a supportive culture look like?
Critical friendships and mentors are highly valued
Teachers in our study really valued the support they received from mentors and more experienced teachers.
These relationships were particularly helpful for the out-of-field teachers as they had a friendly expert to call upon if challenged by content, teaching strategies or student questions.
Out-of-field teachers who observed an experienced specialist teacher in action in the classroom found this experience very helpful. Others wanted to do this rather than learn on-line.One teacher reported, “I’d like to see people who are considered really effective in practice. How [do] they introduce a lesson. What cues do they use? What resources are they using in practice?”
For first-year teachers working out-of-field it was important they were assigned a mentor with knowledge and experience of the out-of-field subject as well as the graduate teacher’s specialist area.
Creating opportunities and time to build relationships
Both time and opportunities needed to be created for their out-of-field teachers to regularly meet and work with more experienced colleagues.
This occurred formally through scheduled discussion and collaborative planning meetings. It also happened informally when staff were brought together from different disciplines in the same staff room.
For some schools in our study, there were no subject specialists available. In this case opportunities for mentoring were fostered for regular meetings with experts from outside the school, or for out-of-field teachers to visit other schools.
We also found the supporting and mentoring role was very demanding for discipline leaders and other members of the teaching team who were working with the out-of-field teacher.
Their contribution needed to be acknowledged, valued and planned for. Allowing more time supported both the out-of-field teacher and the mentor.
Collaborative planning yielded great results
Collaborative practices at schools helped out-of-field teachers develop their confidence and knowledge of the curriculum. This was particularly the case where schools were innovative or took a whole-of-school approach to their teaching style.
One school implemented an integrated curriculum for English, humanities, mathematics and science for Years 7-10. Subject specialists supported their non-specialist colleagues in delivering student-centred learning activities. So when it came time to introduce numeracy into a history lesson, teachers felt confident and supported.
Two small schools developed inquiry approaches to learning. Teachers were actively encouraged to collaborate, and were expected to observe and critique each other, regardless of experience. This practice allowed the focus to shift away from supervision of new or inexperienced teachers to one of genuine professional learning.
For another much larger school, lessons were planned in teams. Time was allocated for teachers to meet and discuss the content in detail. Student tasks for a sequence of lessons were developed and agreed to collectively.
The detailed discussions helped out-of-field teachers develop content knowledge but also understandings about why these approaches would be most effective.
It takes a year for out-of-field teachers to adapt
We found out-of-field teachers who taught the same subject and the same year level for more than a year developed both knowledge and confidence. This was dependant on receiving support from their school in the ways we have described.
They were able to adapt effective teaching strategies from their specialist subject, and use these techniques in their non-specialist subject. For example, teachers could use literacy strategies in their mathematics teaching.
These teachers were also more likely to include innovative approaches in their out-of-field teaching, and were able to adapt and transfer approaches across subject boundaries. For one specialist science teacher that meant offering more opportunities for student autonomy, problem-solving and creative thinking – ideas and insights that were drawn from teaching drama out-of-field.
Allow teachers to have agency over their career and professional development
It is important out-of-field teachers maintain a connection to their subject specialisations, and have genuine say in their load allocation and career planning.
We found out-of-field teachers were reluctant to participate in out-of-school professional development because they were conscious of their lack of knowledge and experience and wanted to develop deeper skills in their area of expertise.
School-based PD, such as working with a mentor or collaborative planning, was initially more effective. Additional support was needed for the out-of-field teachers to identify their learning needs, access programs and to develop local networks.
Making the experience as positive as possible
Some teachers in our study had a negative experience of out-of-field teaching that didn’t improve over time. These negative experiences were linked to change – either with their mentor, with relationships with supportive colleagues or with the subject or year level they were teaching.
The addition of responsibilities on top of their out-of-field teaching also had a negative impact and led to teacher attrition.
A school culture of support that recognises these difficulties and creates a positive learning environment is essential if out-of-field teachers are to stay at the school and flourish.
This study was funded by the Australian Research Council and conducted collaboratively by Colleen Vale along with Associate Professor Linda Hobbs, Associate Professor Coral Campbell and Professor Russell Tytler from Deakin University, Dr Frances Quinn from University of New England and Associate Professor Terry Ryan from Queensland University of Technology.