Changing the subject: going beyond your teaching specialism

Oct 25, 2013 by

As teacher shortages hit, many schools ask staff to switch departments or take on additional subjects. But how do teachers cope with the workload?

With reems of planning, marking and regular lesson observations, it’s well known that teachers have a hefty workload. But what about those who take on more than one subject area – or teach outside of their specialism?

Despite being required to train with a specialism in a particular subject or phase of learning, once teachers have gained qualified status, they’re free to teach any subject or age group, says John Howson, a teacher recruitment expert.

“It’s fairly common for teachers to do so, especially in large secondary schools. It might be that the number of students who need to be taught and the number of qualified teachers doesn’t match. In languages, people may be teaching a second or third language that they are not as competent in, or in the sciences, you might find biologists teaching basic physics and vice versa.”

Statistics released earlier this year show that less than half (45.1%) of maths teachers have a degree level qualification or higher in the subject they teach, while 20% have a PGCE specialism. Among French teachers, some 50.1% have a degree in the subject and 19.3% a PGCE; 52.9% of German teachers studied the language at degree level and 13.1% at PGCE level, while 33.3% Spanish teachers have a degree in their subject. Of those teaching physics, 55.4% have a degree and 7.4% a PGCE. Only 18% of engineering teachers have a relevant post-A-level qualification.

The other big anomaly areas are modern subjects such as media studies, where 18.5% have a degree in the field, and ICT, where 25.8% hold a degree. “These were introduced without a pool of qualified teachers,” explains Howson. “In ICT, one of the biproducts of the teacher shortage is that we now have a curriculum that is based on applications rather than programming, because none of the people teaching it were qualified.”

Teachers aren’t necessarily paid extra for teaching more than one subject, unless they persuade their head to give a teaching and learning responsibility allowance or use the new performance-related pay arrangements to negotiate a rise. But for many, the opportunity to take on an additional subject or switch departments is a welcome challenge.

Rebecca Middlehurst began her career with a specialism in art, but now also teaches photography, fashion design and has previously taught geography, textiles and PSHE.

She enjoys the variety that comes with working in more than one subject area. “By teaching various subjects you get to work with wider teams, share more experiences and ideas as well as learn from people you may not have got a chance to otherwise. It also shows my versatility when looking for further jobs.”

Adopting a new subject isn’t easy, she adds – even if it’s closely related to your current specialism. “Some would say that because they are all art-based, they’re all very similar, but I would disagree. Art is a practical subject with very little writing, while photography is very theory-based and requires a lot of writing and a lot of technical information. Planning has to be done to get the success rates. Fashion is a whole new ball game in terms of my skill set and I do spend more time planning these lessons than anything else.”

Taking on a new subject can complement a teachers’ main specialism. When Emily York began teaching media studies alongside her main subject, English, she found useful overlaps in the curriculum. “Aspects of my media lessons have filtered back into my English teaching. Examples of gender representation which I teach in media I now use in English lessons to illustrate how we use spoken languages and how gender affects that.”

“I do find it more difficult because I’m new to it,” adds York, “I’m very aware that I haven’t taught it before and I’m constantly questioning ‘Am I doing this ok?’, but I think that’s true of anything you do that’s new, even within your own subject – if you get a new text you’ll need to start afresh.”

Collaborative planning and a gradual introduction to the subject – she only teaches media studies to one year 10 class – have helped York get to grips with the syllabus.

“A good department head will recognise that it’s very difficult to teach a subject that they’re not a specialist in,” says Marianne Cutler, director of curriculum innovation at the Association for Sciene Education (ASE) adds that mentoring and training is essential to help teachers take on new fields.

But such measures, says Cutler, are no replacement for a teachers who have studied a degree in their subject alongside a teaching qualification, or who have industry experience: “If you’re going to engage students and really develop their understanding then you need to be top quality in your knowledge”

“The difference between someone who is embedded in their physics – and someone who specialises in biology but is taking a physics class, for example – is clear in the classroom when difficult questions come up and children are exploring their learning.”

Faced with a teacher shortage, however, heads have limited options, says Howson. “One is to supress the vacancy by getting the subject of the timetable – so if it’s optional you drop it or reduce the number of groups who can take it. Or you can find a teacher who is qualified by bringing them from overseas. This is more difficult than in the past because there’s a tension in policy between recruiting teachers and reducing immigration.”

“The third alternative,” he adds, “is that you find somebody else in the UK – someone who is qualified in the subject but untrained as a teacher, or you find somebody who is trained as a techer but unqualified in the subject.”

via Changing the subject: going beyond your teaching specialism | Teacher Network | Guardian Professional.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Posts


Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.