The out-of-field teaching phenomenon

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.

Beginning teachers are the most vulnerable when assigned to positions for which they are not suitably qualified.

“This difficulty with depth and sound knowledge construction impacts students’ learning experiences and achievements within their current year level and can have ripple effects on their learning in following years.”

Research has also indicated that students who are in junior technical classes with an unqualified teacher are less likely to pursue that subject in later years.

Managing out-of-field teaching

Many researchers agree the phenomenon of out-of-field teaching will likely remain, but how it is managed will make the difference between it remaining an issue as opposed to creating a positive learning environment in out-of-field taught classes.

“Acknowledging the occurrence of out-of-field teaching practices, the implications they have for classroom and school contexts and what they mean for out-of-field teachers’ lived experiences and students’ learning experiences is a step towards effective management of the phenomenon,” Du Plessis said.

“My belief is that acknowledging and noticing the out-of-field teaching phenomenon should also entail actions that address its implications.

“The particularly high expectations for teachers to deliver quality teaching and to be quality teachers are not unreasonable.

“However, if teachers continue to be assigned to teach subjects or year levels outside their field of qualification or expertise without access to well focused support or professional development opportunities, out-of-field teaching will continue to create issues for any improvement of quality education.

“This is because the issue is closely linked to strategic workforce planning, improvement of which involves a critical look at the demand and supply needs of the workforce and teachers’ professional development for our school leaders.

“The issue of out-of-field teaching in schools also needs development regarding how school leaders and out-of-field teachers and their colleagues are enabled to invest in guiding and professionally developing teachers who are out-of-field.”

Research shows that school leaders who demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the challenges and implications of out-of-field teaching for teachers’ lived experiences and students’ learning experiences tend to engage in ongoing one-on-one discussion with these teachers.

“These professional interactions offer out-of-field teachers a safety net within which they feel recognised, valued and can maintain their professionalism,” Du Plessis said.

“On the other hand, research also indicates that out-of-field teachers often feel isolated and are left to ‘swim or sink’.

“Research shows that existing ‘generalised’ professional support and development sessions or workshops rarely address out-of-field teachers’ specific needs.

“Employers’ acknowledgement of the out-of-field phenomenon as a complex, demanding and challenging teaching situation will pave the way for targeted action to be taken, such as focused professional development and mentoring opportunities specifically designed for teachers in out-of-field teaching positions.”

There are reports of positive experiences linked to out-of-field teaching, but these are only made possible when a variety of factors combine, such as the teacher’s interests and passions as well as the support they are offered by their school and school leadership.

“Teachers who have a passion and interest in subject areas outside their field of qualification demonstrate positive dispositions towards these out-of-field teaching situations,” Du Plessis said.

“In these cases, despite being assigned to teach out-of-field, their own passion and interest in the teaching area stimulates their full engagement in professional learning and development and gives them motivation to grow into an expert or specialist in that field.

“It is noteworthy that teachers admit that it takes between three and five years before they feel like or perceive themselves as an expert in a field for which they did not have ITE training.

“An ongoing effort to have our ‘finger on the pulse’ of the out-of-field teaching situation in our schools will support the strategic planning of a stable teaching workforce.

“In my view as a researcher, the out-of-field teaching phenomenon will probably always be part of the education environment, but how we manage the phenomenon will make a tremendous difference to the improvement of quality education for all students.”

References (2019) (2016) (2017)