According to the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), out-of-field teaching is defined 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.” ACER’s 2016 report Out-of-field teaching in Australian secondary schools contained some concerning statistics, namely that 26 per cent of Year 7 to 10 and 15 per cent of Year 11 to 12 teachers were responsible for subjects for which they have no specialist knowledge.
The figures were even more damning for new teachers, with those holding between one and two years’ experience rising to 37 per cent. This is certainly a problematic situation for the education sector, particularly given the trend of young teachers quitting the profession within five years.
So, what is the impact of out-of-field teaching?
Getting into the swing of things is just as tough for a new teacher as it is for anyone starting a graduate job. The extra burden of trying to teach a subject that requires specialist knowledge you don’t possess might not be such an issue for a seasoned educator but it can be difficult for a first-year teacher fresh out of university.
It is a common occurrence to pass the responsibility of filling in for a colleague to the youngest teacher in the pecking order. It might not seem like a big deal but can in fact result in a heightened sense of pressure and a consequential lack of confidence for the affected teacher.
It isn’t much of a stretch to say that having a teacher without expertise in a subject is going to be a deterrent to learning. For starters, a teacher is less likely to be confident and enthusiastic about subject matter if they don’t have a clear grasp on what they are talking about.
Being unable to answer complex questions is also difficult to deal with. If a student has an in-depth query about chemistry, it pays to have a decent understanding of the topic to avoid an uncomfortable and embarrassing scenario.
It’s worth noting that out-of-field teaching can be beneficial on some levels. Some teachers may thrive on the challenge and flourish as an educator earlier than otherwise would have been possible. However, this can only be possible with significant support from colleagues, particularly those with more experience in the profession, and by recognising that the role of a teacher is dynamic and flexible.