This article was first published in EducationHQ on July 12th 2021

It is ironic that the fields of literacy and numeracy, which are debated endlessly and sit at the base of NAPLAN and PISA testing, are the subjects in schools most likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers.

That is, teachers whose initial teacher education (ITE) or undergrad work did not include the subjects they are asked to teach.

This is not a new phenomenon and there have been a number of studies and articles dealing with it. A recent EducationHQ article drew on a study that claimed that around 21 per cent of Year 7-10 maths teachers had never trained in mathematics.

Citing the same study, Trevor Cobbold writing for Save Our Schools in May last year, claimed that 20 per cent of mathematics classes and 21 per cent of English classes are taught out-of-field.

Out-of-Field Teaching

In February 2019, Anna E. du Plessis wrote in a paper for the Australia Association for Research in Education (AARE) that research evidence shows 20 – 24 per cent of teachers in Western Australia work outside their field of qualification and 25 – 30 per cent  of teachers in Victoria feel unqualified for their teaching position.

Some studies have put the numbers of teachers teaching out-of-field as high as 40 per cent.

What is it?

Out-of-field teaching happens with all subjects, but I am going to talk about English because that is the subject I know and the only one that is compulsory at every level in every school in the country.

Indeed, I chose Melbourne University to complete my Grad.Dip.Ed(Secondary) because it was the only institution that would allow me to do a double English method. My undergrad majors were literature and media studies, but I had worked in film and radio and definitely didn’t want to teach it.

English and literature were the subjects that most excited me and in which I felt most capable. It was this excitement that allowed me to win over students who often did not want to do English and were only there because they had no choice.

Why does it happen?

There are equations that are used to work out how many teachers a school is allowed in public education. That is to say, how many the budget will allow. It usually has to do with the number of students, but includes qualified teachers who are working in administrative roles.

The problem arises when we ask schools to offer an increasing number of subject choices for students, many of which require specialist skills. I can assure you that having me take a class in food technology (usually cooking) or manual arts would not be a good idea. Having energetic teenagers, in close proximity to hot stoves and power tools, under my care would be a disaster waiting to happen. Much the same for physical education.

You need to have specialist teachers in these classes, even if there may not be many students who want to take them in the higher years. Thus, there will be teachers in the school who do not have full teaching loads in their specialist subjects.

On the other hand, every student in the school must do English every year. It is compulsory. And if you wanted to have specialist English teachers for every class you would have to cut your subject offerings quite harshly. Those teachers who have gaps in their timetables are then assigned to take English or maths classes, often in the lower levels. The exact levels that NAPLAN assesses.

What is the result?

I cannot count the times I have been told that if you can speak English, you can teach it! Or as Du Plessis argues, that “any good teacher can teach anything”.

I have taught out-of-field three times in total over a 25-year teaching career and it was awful. When I am in an English class, no matter what mood the students are in, or what questions they ask, I can respond positively and helpfully.

I can name books, plays or poetry that meet the interests of the most diverse of students, because good English teachers read widely and continually. But in a Canadian history class, or a social studies class, I can’t. I can’t enter the room confident that I can provide the students with what they need.

Teachers who are continually given out-of-field subjects to teach are at risk of losing faith in their own ability, which will translate to a feeling that they are failing students.

Sadly, this will often lead to them leaving the profession because no one can continue to teach while their aspirations and purpose is ground down.

This can be exacerbated by the prevalence of short-term contracts. A young teacher who is only offered term by term, or semester by semester contracts is unlikely to want to retrain, even if they have the time.

What happens next?

What happens next is happening now. Committed, idealistic teachers who entered the profession with hopes of nurturing the next generation have lost faith and are leaving.

And they are not being replaced by new teachers, because the profession is increasingly seen as too hard and so we have the current state of impending teacher shortages.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has established the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Standard 2 of the seven is all about knowing the content of the subject and the ways of teaching it. Something that is simply not there for out-of-field teachers.

Furthermore, a system that is already struggling to stop the flow of attrition, can’t provide the time needed for these teachers to gain the skills required to succeed in a new subject.

Targeted professional development can help, but schools need the money to cover and support teachers while they are learning

Schools do what they can. They understandably believe that their specialist English teachers must be assigned to the senior classes. Thus, out-of-field English teachers are given junior and middle school classes – the very classes that teach the fundamentals.

We need to do better. When the discussions around NAPLAN and PISA, literacy and numeracy, don’t have the effects of out-of-field teaching as a central issue it dooms them to perpetual failure.