Associate Professor Linda Hobbs
Teaching out-of-field is a contentious practice in most Australian schools. Teachers are regarded as out-of-field if their specialisation does not match their teaching assignment. The ACER report defines a teacher as ‘in-field’ if they studied the subject at second year tertiary level or above and/or trained in a teaching methodology for that subject at tertiary level. Out-of-field should not be confused with ‘unqualified’ – Australian secondary teachers are highly qualified as they have an undergraduate degree and a teaching degree. At present, teacher registration in all states except for New South Wales recognises their teaching qualification but does not record their specialisation as a ‘teaching method’. Despite this, common language is used to refer to teachers as, for example, ‘maths-qualified’ or ‘physics-qualified’, to recognise the disciplinary background and expertise of the teacher. In comparison, in New South Wales, which has the lowest levels of out-of-field teaching, teachers receive ‘approval to teach’ particular subjects in order to recognise the disciplinary expertise of the teachers.
With the recent spotlighting of out-of-field teaching through the media and government announcements, it appears that Australia may have reached its ‘Tolerance Threshold’ of this practice, especially for mathematics and science subjects. In Australia, as in a number of other countries, the practice of teaching subjects (mainly at secondary level) without the corresponding background has been a tolerated response to not having the necessary mix of teachers in a school.
The issues of teaching out-of-field are compounded further for qualified Science teachers as they are often teaching science discipline content for which they have no background. For example, a Physics trained teacher will be required to teach General science in years 7-10, which includes Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Earth science content, yet their undergraduate science degree may not have included any Biology or Chemistry units. This reality was illustrated by the ACER report, which showed that, at the time of completing the survey, more teachers were teaching a science discipline that did not correspond to their discipline background than those teaching in their area of expertise.
If there is to be action on the ‘out-of-field phenomenon’, then it needs to be research informed, multi-layered, and responsibility needs to be distributed. The locus of change and action should not fall only on the classroom teacher. How we deal with this issue is complicated because of the complexity of the issue itself. Different ‘stakeholder groups’ have different perceptions about the phenomenon, and this influences how they respond.
For teachers, out-of-field teaching is a practice and identity problem, where teachers seek to overcome the challenges of teaching in a new area. Teacher learning is needed, but how teachers engage in this learning depends on many factors, including whether it is a temporary assignment, or they see the out-of-field subject as an ongoing part of their overall load. Different attitudes of teachers lead to different patterns of uptake of professional development. In the absence of a systemic response to this issue, teachers are often left to ‘work it out’ for themselves. And the task often falls to novice teachers, with 37% of teachers with 1-2 years of experience being expected to teach out-of-field at least part of the time.
School leaders can often see it as a solution to the problem of teacher shortages and a dilemma for resourcing. As one member of a principals association reported in relation to the constraints imposed by limited funding:
“We make things work. Instead of saying ‘this is trying to make strawberry jam out of pigshit here’, what we do is make things work”.
In response, principals play a pivotal role in creating a culture of support so that collegiately and teacher learning is normalized. Also a culture of respect is needed so that teachers have some agency in their teaching assignments; and culture of recognition that appreciates the difficulties involved in teaching a new subject, and the demands that it places not only on the teacher but also on those in support and mentoring roles.
Researchers and academics see it as a research problem that needs to be understood in order to inform and influence change. Researchers play an important role in both generating and communicating the data needed to inform policy. This data should highlight the realities of out-of-field teaching, including incidence and distribution data to raise the pervasiveness of this issue, and the effects (both positive and negative) on teachers, students, schools and the disciplines more widely.
Researchers play a critical role in providing a language for talking about this issue that does not erode public confidence in the teaching profession. Also language that is context dependent is needed that recognises that the nature of the phenomenon changes depending on certification, accreditation and registration requirements.
Subject and discipline associations see it as a potential threat to the integrity of their discipline, and they are often prompted to provide or fund professional development for teachers, they advocate for teachers and their subject, and they play a fundamental role in informing policy and inquiries of the need for more teachers, greater support for teachers, and better data to inform decision making.
Universities can sometimes see it as a problem for the profession, with those working in initial teacher education feeling constrained in how they can legitimately respond given that teachers are prepared for their in-field subjects. Some universities offer programs for re-specialisation, and some provide professional development programs. The funding of these programs can come from the university, special and short-term government initiatives, philanthropic or industry sources, or from schools and teachers. Many universities in Australia, however, at present do not see professional development courses and supporting in-service teachers as part of their mandate. This position needs to be reconsidered.
Teacher unions have a dual perspective on this. On the one hand, they see it as an industrial issue where a flexible teaching workforce is enabled by policies that do not tie registration or teacher appointments to particular subjects:
Industrially nobody is appointed in a secondary school specifically on the basis that they will teach a specific method area. They might apply for a job in response to a vacancy in a particular subject area but upon appointment it's not confined to what they've applied for. (Teacher Education Union leader)
On the other hand, they see it as a practical and pedagogical issue that relates to the well-being of the teacher, potential impact on students, a particular strain on early career teachers, but also the potential for teachers to develop professionally into an out-of-field role:
You will achieve more for students if you make sure teachers are adequately trained … That view can't be a hardline view because it has to be balanced with the reality of what occurs. Equally, you've got people who have developed expertise in subject areas that thirty years beforehand they may not have been trained in. (Teacher Education Union leader)
The unions are concerned with the public perception of the teaching profession, with members being concerned that the presence of out-of-field teaching inadvertently undermines the profession, while at the same the unions fight to maintain a system that hides its existence from public critique. For example, in some states (e.g., Victoria), the teacher union has played a role in ensuring teacher specialisations are not recorded as part of teacher registration so as to avoid public critique of individual teachers.
Policy makers and government departments see teaching out-of-field as a resourcing and supply issue. In some states of Australia, policy makers recognise that there are too few of some teachers, prompting recruitment programs and incentives to recruit the ‘brightest and best’ into teaching. Also in some states there is unequal distribution of teachers, with higher incidences of out-of-field teaching often occurring in hard to staff schools or in disadvantaged areas. Some governments have been prompted to provide incentives for teachers to move into these hard to staff areas. Critical, though, is the inequity created given that all schools are held accountable to the same set of criteria. More attention and funding needs to be given to supporting teacher learning to both improve teacher quality and to reduce the incidence of out-field-teaching.
While we cannot abolish out-of-field teaching, the challenge is to maintain teaching quality when it is needed. It should not be accepted as the norm, although it is. It should not be the initiation of novice teachers who are desperate for work and who lack the agency to say no. If knowledge of content and how to teach it is considered fundamental to good teaching, then out-of-field teaching without supported, formalized and remunerated teacher learning should be deemed unacceptable. Part of the challenge is to ensure that everybody plays their part.
What are your thoughts?