More than a quarter of Years 7-10 teachers are teaching out-of-field according to an Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) report, as journalist Mykeala Campanini writes.
Out-of-field teaching is not a new concept; it refers to a teacher teaching a subject for which they have not studied past first year at university, meaning they have not studied the relevant teaching methodology for that subject.
But findings from the Out-of-field teaching in Australian secondary schools ACER report show an increasing concern regarding the effect out-of-field teaching is having for both teachers and students.
Early career teachers are especially vulnerable to these issues as they are the most likely to be teaching out-of-field, with 37% assigned to teach out-of-field in their first two years.
Early career teaching is defined by education professionals as within the first five years of teaching, once completing their university studies.
Anna Du Plessis, research fellow at Australian Catholic University (ACU) and author of Out-of-field Teaching Practices has experienced teaching out-of-field firsthand during the early years of her teaching career and has since dedicated her academic research to this increasingly prevalent issue.
“The issue of out-of-field teaching practices is multilayered and involves not only implications for quality teaching and student learning, but also impact on professional relationships within the wider school community,” said Du Plessis.
“Prospective teachers choose a teaching career because they are motivated to make a difference and because of their passion or interest in a specific subject or specific student age group.
“Preservice teachers begin to establish a professional identity during their initial teacher education (ITE) preparation and, in general, it takes four years for undergraduate degrees or two to three additional years for postgraduate degrees to train and develop teachers in a specific field.
“ITE preparation influences beginning teachers’ readiness for teaching and how they perceive or identify themselves as teachers – as, for example, a science teacher, a physical education teacher, a special education teacher, etc.
“This is their identity when they transition into the workforce, even in the generalised context of primary schools, teachers have preferences for certain age groups and will often identify themselves as a Year 4 or Year 6 expert teacher.
“Teachers are resilient, hardworking and are willing to adjust and learn; however, ongoing exposure to highly demanding and challenging teaching environments, such as out-of-field teaching practices, can impact uncertainties about their self-efficacy, professional identity, competencies, and teaching as a career choice.”
Rural and early career teachers most affected
Research shows that a majority of teachers who are teaching out-of-field are doing so as they were requested by their principals to ‘help out’ in a specific area, regardless of whether that is a subject area they are familiar with.
Respondents of the ACER research report acknowledged taking an out-of-field position because of a lack of suitable positions available in a particular location, so their need for work prompted their willingness to teach outside their qualifications.
There were also clear increases in teachers teaching out-of-field in rural areas, as these locations have more difficulty attracting teachers in subjects experiencing shortages such as mathematics, languages, information technology, physics and science.
The higher proportion of early career teachers working in rural locations is also likely linked to the higher percentage of first and second year teachers having to teach out-of-field.
“Beginning teachers are the most vulnerable when assigned to positions for which they are not suitably qualified; this is not to say these teachers are not fully qualified – they are often highly qualified – but the issue arises when they get assigned to teach outside these qualifications,” Du Plessis said.
“They are still developing confidence to manage the multilayered aspects of the teaching and learning context; their professional identity development is still ‘delicate’ and greatly depends on their lived experiences within a specific position and context.
“Concerningly, research also shows beginning teachers who are assigned to out-of-field positions most often also have to manage larger student cohorts and the most challenging classes, owing to existing staff having first choice of preferred classes or subjects.”
Out-of-field teaching and student learning
The concern about the effects of out-of-field teaching also extends to students, especially those in technical subjects who are being taught by a teacher who is unqualified in that area.
“Teachers teaching in out-of-field positions acknowledge that they do not have the depth of content knowledge, year level or subject specific pedagogical content knowledge needed to guide students towards high-order or critical thinking,” Du Plessis said.
“They shy away from in-depth content knowledge discussion because of their restricted knowledge in the out-of-field subject.
“Out-of-field teachers find it highly challenging, if not impossible, to adjust, develop and implement the curriculum of an unfamiliar subject at the same level they would implement a curriculum in which they have suitable qualifications or expertise.