Too many teachers teaching outside their area of expertise

Due to shortages of subject specialist teachers, too often teachers are having to teach subjects they don’t know about. from www.shutterstock.com.au

Australia continues to be plagued with high numbers of teachers teaching subjects they are not qualified to teach, according to the latest Australian Council for Education Research report.

“Out-of-field” teaching - teaching a subject without specific training in that subject - has for many years been a taboo practice that all teachers know of, many have experienced, but few have spoken up about due to its ubiquity.

Knowing how big the problem is

For mathematics, the situation at the lower secondary level is dire – although, without clear and comparable data, it is difficult to track whether the figures are changing. For example, figures quoted by the Office of the Chief Scientist reveal that 40% of year 7 to 10 students were taught by an out-of-field mathematics teacher in 2012.

Contradictory data from the 2013 international Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) report states that only 5.3% of mathematics teachers had received no formal training in the subject.

In comparison, the recent ACER report based on the Staff in Australia’s Schools Survey showed 20% of mathematics teachers were out-of-field. This report claims that there was a general drop in the incidence of out-of-field teaching from 2010 to 2013.

It’s not clear what ACER’s definition of out-of-field teaching is, and the presentation of the data has changed slightly. Commentary on the 2012 report says that a teacher was deemed qualified if they studied a subject for at least one semester at second-year tertiary level OR undertook “methodology training” for that subject as part of their teaching degree.

This definition is different to entry requirements to a teacher education degree; that is, either a major or minor in a subject is required to be considered for methods training in that subject area.

While teacher education degrees are closely monitored and regulated, once in schools teachers are subject to the complex array of conditions that lead to out-of-field teaching: a lack of teachers in some subject areas (such as mathematics, languages, geography), constraining school funding models, poor school leadership practices, and a history of governments, teacher unions and school leaders ignoring or reducing out-of-field teaching to “just part of what teachers do”.

As a result, until recently little attention had been given to the effects of out-of-field teaching on teacher well-being and retention, and on student attainment and participation.

Also neglected were the effects on discipline leaders and mentors who devote time and energy to support the teachers, the broader school culture and the teaching profession generally when teachers leave out of stress and disenchantment.

So what’s wrong with out-of-field teaching?

While some studies show that out-of-field teachers produce lower student achievement gains than in-field teachers, other studies are inconclusive.

Despite no consistent relationship between student achievement and teacher qualifications, research has shown that highly effective teachers have a deep understanding of the subjects they teach. They value both the subject and students engaging with the subject at a deep level.

Research has shown out-of-field teachers can be concerned about the negative impact their teaching might have on student learning, such as lower achievement scores. They have also shown concern that they are unable to demonstrate content is relevant to everyday life.

Teachers might rely on teaching methods that are traditional and ineffective, such as solely using the textbook in mathematics. They might be less able to help students in their learning. It can be devastating for a confident and competent teacher to be suddenly incompetent because they’re having to teach unfamiliar content.

Out-of-field teachers can be overstretched and stressed. Take Colleen for example, a Chemistry and Biology teacher who, in her first year of teaching, was appointed as the “Physics person” in her school and was expected to teach Year 11 Physics.

Within her first year of teaching, she was admonished by a frustrated parent for not knowing the content. Without the support of the principal — whose initial response was to state: “All I asked you to do was to stay in front of the students, couldn’t you even do that?” - Colleen left teaching.

Support can make all the difference

Out-of-field teaching is a reality that many schools must manage. Increasing the supply of teachers to meet demand, while critical to ensuring we have the right sort of teachers in the schools in most need, provides no immediate relief for teachers currently filling in. Support and retraining for these teachers is the key.

The difference between a negative and positive experience is the level of support a teacher receives, as well as recognition that it is actually quite difficult to teach out-of-field.

Real learning in an out-of-field subject – where there is improved capacity and confidence to teach – requires support from colleagues and school leaders, as well as time to extend content knowledge and teaching approaches.

Not all schools make these allowances. Not all governments provide the necessary funding for supporting the retraining of teachers. However, some do, and they need to be looked to as examples of best practice.

Out-of-field teaching is not going to go away immediately, even with funded programs for increasing the supply of teachers. But with targeted funding for retraining, professional development programs and mentoring of less specialised teachers, it would be possible to provide opportunities for committed teachers to extend their teaching expertise and maintain high-quality teaching. This would reposition out-of-field teaching from a negative to an opportunity for professional expansion.


Correction: This article originally stated the 2010 ACER report did not give a definition of in-field teaching. ACER contacted The Conversation post-publication to point to the definition in supplementary material.

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