Supporting out-of-field teachers: the how and the why

Out-of-field teaching is commonplace in secondary education.

Out-of-field teaching is commonplace in secondary education. In fact, one in four Year 7-10 teachers are teaching a subject that they have not specialised in. And mathematics is no exception. 

Despite perceptions that it is a ‘difficult’ subject, approximately 20% of Australian maths teachers are out-of-field. That’s among the highest of all subjects. 

But, out-of-field teaching is a reality in Australia. Less teachers (particularly in maths) leaves leaders with the challenge of filling roles as best they can.  If that means a Biology teacher needs to cover some Year 7 maths classes, then that’s what needs to happen.

Actually, that’s really likely to happen. Because the pressure to achieve good results from Year 12 students means leaders will often place the most experienced and competent teachers with senior students. 

Research shows that graduate teachers are more likely to be teaching out-of-field. 37% of Year 7-10 teachers with one to two years of experience are teaching out-of-field compared to 25% of teachers with more than five years of experience. 

With so many teachers placed in subjects they don’t specialise in, leaders need to know what support they should be providing. 

Positive maths experiences 

The goal for supporting out-of-field teachers shouldn’t be to make them subject matter experts. It should be about giving them the resources they need to provide positive and productive learning experiences to students.

This is particularly true in maths. The number of students electing to study mathematics in Year 11 and 12 is declining. According to this 2017 study, the proportion of Year 12 students enrolling in senior mathematics is not at a 20-year low. This is confirmed by NAPLAN data, which shows a decline in the overall number of students studying maths. 

This suggests that it’s more important than ever to provide students with a positive experience of the subject from early on. And the best way to do this is to ensure every teacher feels supported and confident in their role. 

Supporting out-of-field teachers

If out-of-field teaching is inevitable in Australia, then schools need to make sure they have effective support plans in place. We want these teachers to succeed, so that students can too. Therefore, we must take the time to really think about what each teacher will need.

To help you support out-of-field teachers at your school, we’ve put together the below actions that you can take to help get them off on the right foot.

Mentors and collaborative planning

In a study by Monash University, out-of-field teachers rated mentors as one of the most valuable forms of support provided by their schools. They stated that the relationships gave them a ‘friendly expert’ that they could rely on to talk about content, practices and student questions. 

These same teachers spoke about the value of observing their mentors in class, as they were able to see how new topics are introduced or how concepts are explored.

By providing a mentor, leadership can ensure that the out-of-field teacher not only has a person to discuss content with, but someone they can actively learn from through observations and practice advice. 

Similar things were said of collaborative planning. When out-of-field teachers participate in collaborative planning, they become more confident in their knowledge of the curriculum faster. It creates a space where content experts can share their knowledge, questions can be asked and challenges worked through.

For schools where there is no subject matter expert, consider reaching out to a specialist based at another local school. You may be able to arrange regular catch-ups for your team. 

Mentorships should not be set and forget, however. These relationships will take time to grow, so it’s important to build time into schedules to allow formal discussions to take place. Overtime, more informal conversations are likely to happen and less time may be needed.

Having a mentor is as much about the content knowledge they can share, as the emotional support they will give. Teaching out-of-field can be tough, but the ongoing support of even one colleague can make a huge difference.

Build in extra time for preparation 

Handing over a textbook and some slides is not the way to prep out-of-field teachers. Above all else, they are going to need time. This report says that preparation time should be at the centre of the support structure — because it takes time to understand the content, to prepare for lessons and to consider new teaching strategies.

Make sure that out-of-field teachers are given additional room in their schedules for preparation, even if that means getting creative to find it. We really can’t expect great results for students if we don’t allow teachers to adequately prepare for their classes.

Consider the way you deliver content

For out-of-field teachers, delivering content they are not experienced in is really daunting. Becoming familiar with the curriculum is just the first challenge. They then need to learn new skills and teaching practices to deliver it effectively. 

The thought of personalising learning is almost out of the question. But is that fair for students?

As mentioned above, many out-of-field teachers are placed in earlier year levels, like Year 7 and 8, so the experienced teachers can support students at senior levels.

One huge problem with this approach is that research shows that the average Year 7 class has an eight year spread of ability. Students will vary from those who can barely count to those already beyond their age-based content. This is a challenging classroom for any teacher, let alone an out-of-field one. 

The gaps these students have in their learning are likely to grow without a personalised approach to learning. Meaning that by the time these students get to their senior year, they won’t actually be ready for it. 

Our data shows that traditional ways of teaching maths will see an average of just 9% of students reaching or exceeding the expected curriculum standard for their year level. This means that by the time these students enter Year 10, the vast majority are unprepared to continue their studies in maths related fields. So the experienced teacher that’s there waiting for them will have 5 years of knowledge gaps to try to close in 12 months. In most cases, that’s not going to be possible.

In schools using Maths Pathway, out-of-field teachers are also personalising learning. By using our Learning and Teaching model, out-of-field teachers have access to content, student data, lesson plan videos and ongoing support from their School Consultant. This increases their impact in the classroom and ensures they can support each individual student’s needs.

The model works by first using advanced diagnostics and ongoing formative assessments to provide granular data on each student’s gaps and competencies. By identifying each students’ learning profile — what they have mastered, what they are ready to learn next, and what gaps may exist — Maths Pathway gives students the curriculum mapped content they are ready to learn.

Research shows that targeted teaching works and data from Maths Pathway students is consistent with this. Students using the model master twice as much curriculum in one year as they would in a traditional classroom. This progress is being sustained by students too.

Anecdotal data about increased enrolments in Advanced Maths courses suggests that students learning with the model have the skills they need to pursue maths as they move into senior school. At Lavalla Catholic College, for example, teachers report a 25% increase in enrolments in Maths Methods among students who’ve been using Maths Pathway since Year 7. The school’s NAPLAN results have also improved, with students beating the state average.

Galen College also reported an increase in demand for both the Year 10 preparatory program and Year 11 Maths Methods classes, while the demand for basic numeracy classes has halved. 

By teaching maths in this way, students receive the same level of personalised learning that they would with experienced maths teachers, even when their teacher isn’t a content expert.

With support, out-of-field teaching can be a great challenge

Out-of-field teachers are going to need support. But when they have it, and when it’s good, the skills these teachers learn can be invaluable.

It’s a big challenge, sure — but it’s one that provides many opportunities to learn and grow. And that can be a really positive experience in any teaching career.  

We’re here to help

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