You can tell an issue has become political when it deserves its own acronym, and out-of-field-teaching (OOFT) has been receiving more and more attention in recent years. But according to Central-West NSW based freelance writer, sometime casual K-12 teacher and part-time PhD student Margaret Paton, OOFT may have been around for a lot longer than anyone suspects.
“One of the luminaries in OOFT research, Professional Richard Ingersoll, from the Uni of Pennsylvania, wrote that another researcher had mentioned it sixty years ago. Then when I interviewed Richard for my podcast, he clarified that, saying it’s been around a lot longer. But that’s where it gets fuzzy – not all countries call it the same thing. In fact, not all journos call it the same thing. My early research just looking at 26 articles from the Australian online media over the five years to Dec 2021 found there were 17 different terms or concepts used,” explains Margaret.
Regardless of how long it has been around, OOFT is when a teacher has been assigned to teach a subject for which they are not qualified, such as a PE teacher being asked to take Year 4 maths, or an art graduate being asked to teach HASS.
“Anecdotally, teaching out-of-field seems to be a rite of passage for beginning teachers. But when you scratch below the surface, it’s about a paucity of data and the way authorities register their teachers.” Margaret Paton
Challenges of being an OOF teacher
“Out-of-field teaching is much more than just teaching a subject which is outside your qualification areas,” Margaret points out. “It’s much more complex and nuanced. I see it as the canary in the coal mine … our education system is broken and OOF teachers are at the pointy end of that.”
There are lots of challenges faced by educators teaching in subjects they haven’t been specifically trained for, she continues:
- A lack of choice or capacity to negotiate about the subjects you’ll be allocated to teach.
- School leaders are unlikely to allocate a budget for professional development in OOF areas.
- While you may need to rely on peers in your school and network to support, mentor, and coach you in the out-of-field area, they’ll have their own crushing workload, so you may only get snippets of time. Therefore you shouldn’t assume you’ll have the support you’ll need. “You’ll probably be doing a lot of ‘winging it,” warns Margaret.
One major challenge faced by OOF teachers can be difficulty connecting with students. “It can be really tricky engaging students if you don’t know the subject nor how to teach it. Students may disengage if they feel you’re just ‘facilitating’ the learning and can’t guide them more explicitly. They may feel like they’re missing out on a more engaging, fruitful learning experience and that their learning outcomes will suffer as a result,” Margaret says.
Perhaps most devastating personally for OOF educators, is the fact that teachers are accreditated against the professional teaching standard.
“The professional teaching standard is that we must know the content and how to teach it, but it’s really tricky if you’re teaching out-of-field as a novice in that area. To gain proficiency, you really need to know the content, develop relationships with students as learners, and know how to differentiate instruction and assessment so they’re accessible and fair for students. That’s a huge suite of skills and knowledge you can’t just pick up by osmosis. You’ll start on the back foot because you’ve got to learn the content before you can teach it. I’ve come to think of this standard as setting up out-of-field teachers to fail.” Margaret Paton
Causes of OOFT
If teaching out-of-field is such a problem, then why are so many teachers caught up in it?
“Two words,” says Margaret. “Teacher shortage. It’s a workforce issue. School leaders have to assign a teacher, and in some cases, it’s any teacher who can cover classes.” But it is more than simple sums at play. Lack of transparency also is playing a part.
“We don’t know exactly how many teachers of each specialism or subject, universities are graduating, and we don’t know exactly where they’re ending up. Even those with qualifications, like me, might not be ‘available’ or active. So how are the education departments supposed to work out what’s needed where if their major metric is principals crying about their staff shortages? [Plus] students often don’t know what subjects they’ll choose when it comes time for electives, especially in the lower high school years, and even senior secondary may dither about what subjects they want to choose. So, how can you plan your workforce with so many fuzzy edges? It’s very tricky!”
So if teaching out-of-field is becoming so commonplace, should teachers just be more flexible? Or should ‘learning to adapt’ become a part of their university training?
“Teachers are already hugely flexible, and they’ll be familiar with differentiated instruction and assessment and catering for learning needs and disabilities in their in-field area already,” says Margaret. “I would love for initial education providers to foreground to pre-service teachers that there’s a good chance they’ll be doing out-of-field teachers and offer them tips and strategies to deal with it. Can it be fitted in? Maybe, but there’s so much else they’re having to add to the courses, and I predict we’ll see more change in this area over the next two years.”
Help for OOFT
Margaret suggests that teachers who know they will be teaching out-of-field for some time, to consider joining that subject’s professional teacher association. There are also Facebook groups and TeachMeets.
“Google is often your best bet to seek out the authoritative organisations in that field as they may have teaching resources aligned to the curriculum of the year level you’re teaching. If you want something more meaty, do a Google Scholar search for recent research in the field to see what’s been investigated.”
Margaret also wants to draw attention to the Out-of-Field Teaching Across Specialisations Collective. The website has many video recordings of its annual international symposium. “The 10th symposium is coming up very soon – 20 and 21 August, 2023. It’s hybrid (online and in-person) and free to join.”
Then there is Margaret’s own podcast, the Out-of-Field Teaching Toolkit Podcast. “I am no expert in OOFT, but I am building expertise. I come from the grassroots.” Margaret welcomes OOFT teachers to get in contact: “I’d love to quiz teachers about their trials, tribulations and successes when they’ve been doing out-of-field. I’m curious if teachers who have been doing out-of-field, but now are ‘in-field’ actually miss the sparkle and challenge of OOFT. But I’m open to other topics about the out-of-field teaching phenomenon, too.”
Margaret points out that while there is a strong deficit discourse about out-of-field teaching, her PhD is instead focusing on the voices of teachers who perceive themselves to be successful, particularly in teaching STEM-related subjects.
“I like the idea of research looking into out-of-field teachers themselves as a resource for how to do it well, build a career from it, keep on your toes, and become the flexible ‘gig worker.” Margaret Paton