In his first year on the job, Scott, like 37 per cent of his early year counterparts, has been thrust into a role for which he has no specialist training.
Teaching ‘out-of-field’, he joins the growing tide of beginning teachers sent out into unchartered waters, as they bear the consequence of unspoken staff hierarchies, stretched school resources and, in some cases, a blinkered focus on Year 12 results.
The situation at a glance
Defined by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) as any “secondary teacher teaching a subject they haven’t studied above first year at university and for which they haven’t studied teaching methodology”, instances of out-of-field teaching are on the increase, and it seems early career teachers are copping the brunt.
The research paints a clear picture. ACER’s 2016 report Out-of-field teaching in Australian secondary schools reveals that 26 per cent of teachers of Years 7-10, and 15 per cent of Years 11 and 12, are teaching in subjects outside their specialisation.
For those with just one to two years experience, this rose to 37 per cent. By comparison, just 15 per cent of educators with more than five years up their sleeve were teaching out-of-field.
The subjects most affected were media (41 per cent), geography (40 per cent), religious studies (38 per cent) and IT (34 per cent).
The report’s author, ACER senior research fellow Dr Paul Weldon, says the findings raise questions about the treatment beginning teachers face at the bottom of the staff pecking order.
“For me [it] suggests … and I am only going by the evidence of the data, in a lot of schools you still have that hierarchy where teachers that are new to the school, and therefore don’t have any power and aren’t in a position to say no, are the ones that are given the classes that nobody else wants…
“If they have that one Year 11 class that they can’t find a replacement for, it’s going to go to one of the new teachers,” he says.
Weldon says out-of-field teaching is, by nature, a “difficult” area to define - let alone analyse and address – and it’s prone to being “swept under the carpet” in the system.
“…even in terms of registration, teachers aren’t qualified by the subjects that they are qualified to teach in, they are registered as teachers and a lot of the time they do end up teaching something outside of their direct fields,” he adds.
Dr Linda Hobbs, from Deakin University’s School of Education, has long been interested in the staffroom politics that drive out-of-field teaching.
Through her research, which unravels the professional identities early career educators form with the subjects they teach, Hobbs has concluded that when it comes to the allocation of unmanned classes, recent graduates are often used as a fallback.
“There’s a political thing happening within schools, and it is a leadership decision … there are a number of reasons and some are worthwhile and some are just a product of having to get teachers in front of a classroom,” Hobbs says.
“Often the more experienced teachers will get the senior subject allocations and so basically it’s just filling in the rest down below,” she notes.
For Scott, an early career teacher from Western Australia, this experience certainly rings true.
Having trained in HASS and mathematics, the young educator was called upon to act as his school’s new STEM coordinator – a prospect that induced both nerves and excitement.
“[I was] definitely nervous, because I kind of find teaching a bit like driving, I think down the track you get the hang of it and you don’t think about it much, but in those early stages every time you add one extra variable it tends to complicate it…
“So knowing that there was one extra thing that could mess with me was a bit intimidating, but it was also exciting because it’s such a good area, STEM, that I’m delving into at the moment,” he reflects.
With his foot now firmly wedged in the school’s staffroom door, Scott says he understands why early career teachers might be an obvious plug for empty classrooms, but that this sends a message to graduates that they are simply not as worthy or valuable in the classroom.
“I definitely feel like there’s a pecking order and I do feel that I’ve been denied some of the more academic classes,” he says.
Job-hungry uni graduates are also vulnerable.
According to AITSL figures, just under half of graduate teachers are employed full-time in schools in the year after graduation. Another quarter are able to secure part-time employment, although it’s not clear how often this leads to full-time or permanent employment.
Keen to please and happy to accept any position on offer, Scott was quick to put up his hand for a role he really knew nothing about.
“I know that when I was offered the job outside my subject area I said yes because of this idea that I wouldn’t be able to get a job otherwise…
“I think there’s that early resilience to teaching outside your subject area for graduate teachers because they are so desperate to get into the field…”
While it might be second nature for school admin to turn to early career teachers in times of timetabling desperation, academics warn the potential effects on new teachers need to be made known.
With up to 50 per cent of educators fleeing the profession within their first five years, Hobbs points towards out-of-field teaching as a major source of stress and burnout.
She notes how the experience of teaching out-of-field as a newcomer is very different to that shared by more experienced educators.
“Because you’ve so many things that you are learning, you are sort of navigating this very complex learning landscape as a new teacher,” Hobbs explains.
“Whereas when you are an experienced teacher you can sort of focus on the ‘new-ness’ of the new subject area; it may not necessarily be the content knowledge, it might actually be the different expectations that students have for learning or the different ways that students learn in the new area.
“So the experienced teacher can really reflect quite deeply on their practice, whereas a new teacher has just got to learn so much, and so the notion of being out-of-field just adds too much complexity to that learning landscape.”
Weldon agrees that the demands of having to teach a subject in which one lacks a depth of knowledge and confidence, might be too much for some early career teachers to manage.
“They’ll have all that pressure of coming to grips with a new job, that they understand but haven’t actually had to deal with at that [professional] level, including all that planning that they all have to do, I think that is already a considerable amount of pressure in fields that they are entirely comfortable with,” he says.
“If they are then asked, in addition, to working in a field they know, to take a class in a field where they really have no experience at all, and may well themselves have done no more than Year 12 … I would imagine that would cause an additional layer of stress.”
As Scott notes, however, having his toes dipped in multiple subject areas might be “exhausting” (to the extent that he feels he’s “working two jobs”) but it also packs a welcome punch of stimulation.
“For me it was really was a chance to get my head out of the ground … it was just so nice to have two different subject areas.
“The source of burnout for me is doing the same thing over and over and over again,” he says.
Implications for students
The exact effects out-of-field teachers might have on students’ learning and academic outcomes are still hazy, but both Hobbs and Weldon agree there might be cause for concern.
“I mean this is the argument that a lot of academics would have, that, yes, you might be a good teacher in general, but if you don’t really have a handle on the subject, that deep knowledge that you get from studying it over time, then how well are you able to teach your students?” Weldon poses.
In her PhD research, Hobbs discovered a marked disparity between educators’ enthusiasm and confidence for their own subjects when compared to those taken out-of-field.
“…teachers who were teaching out of their area, they talked about a flamboyance in their own subject area, they knew stories, they could refer to prior experiences, whereas when they were out-of-field, they have to do more preparation and there is no sort of flamboyance with what the teachers were talking about.”
For Scott, the inability to answer questions in-depth leaves him feeling vulnerable in front of students.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed about when I teach in maths, is that if a kid has a question that goes outside of the area, I’m very quick to jump on it because I’ve studied university-level maths, I do know that content quite well, but I can’t do the same with STEM.
“So if a kid asks me a big question about space or the concept of infinity, I’m actually not that good at explaining how those came about,” he says.
For schools desperately shuffling timetables as they face funding shortfalls and/or resourcing and staff shortages, it’s not all doom and gloom.
As Hobbs points out, with the right support systems in place, early career teachers can flourish and even excel in unfamiliar subject areas.
“There’s also the more valid ideas that sometimes the new teachers coming in can have a lot of energy, they can have a lot of new ideas, and also a lot of capacity and interest in learning new things, and so they can actually embrace that challenge and they can actually be quite fantastic in that type of role, as long as there is good support.
“So support is the key, and all the research coming out about out-of-field teaching, looking at teachers’ experience, all really pushes this idea of support.”
The onus falls on school leadership to recognise the challenges out-of-field teaching presents and to build a “collegiate” culture of shared practice, reflection and feedback between all staff, Hobbs says.
“If you want to maintain teaching quality, that’s teaching quality not teacher quality, because I think that is already high, that collegiate nature is really important,” Hobbs says.
“Another thing is teachers having that disposition of accepting that teaching is a dynamic profession that requires [continual] learning…
“So actually having that time and space for that learning is very important for early career teachers, there is actually provision for early career teaching to have a reduced workload, but not all schools or leadership will actually give that to teachers.”
As Scott reports, the creative licence and freedom to shape new content has been an unexpected bonus of his out-of-field gig.
“STEM is a very openly interpreted word in education at the moment. I think my school’s approach has been ‘let’s just get the grad teachers to teach it who have never written curriculum before’, so it’s a bit all over the place to say the least, but it’s very exciting because I do get to do whatever I want.
“And there is full support for it because there is this acceptance that STEM is this big important area, so making it up as I go actually isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
* Name has been changed for privacy reasons.