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‘Ask for help’: how to improve if you are teaching out of area

Most teachers have had the experience at some stage in their careers. With a teacher shortage looming, chances are that if it hasn’t happened to you yet, the day is coming when you will be asked to teach a subject that you haven't been trained to teach.

In my first year as a qualified English teacher, I was employed to teach English in a country school and was also assigned an Information Technology class.

Luckily, in 1998, IT was not as advanced as it is now, but I was far more passionate about literacy and literature than I was about binary codes.

As a young, inexperienced teacher, I was flying blind in every class, just hoping that I was getting it right.

A decade later, I taught in a school where secure relationships, not subject expertise, were the indicator of effective learning for the students.

This meant that not only was I teaching subjects that I was knowledgeable about and experienced at teaching, like literacy, but I also had to embrace subjects like personal development, art, science and work-related skills.

The real problem for me, though, was mathematics.

Numeracy is an important element of every student’s education and to rely on me to teach it seemed (and was) ridiculous. Not only was my subject knowledge limited, but my understanding of the methods used to teach maths was non-existent.

According to the VIT, if you are a registered teacher, as long as you are registered to teach, it is up to the employer as to which specific subjects you are allotted.

Schools prefer teachers who are experts in their subjects and are well-trained in teaching them, but sometimes principals and timetablers have no choice but to assign teachers from the pool of staff they have.

So what do we do if we find ourselves teaching a subject we know nothing about? Education Review spoke with Sally Trotter, an experienced secondary school teacher who has taught in Victorian secondary schools for over 30 years.

Here are her tips for improving your practice if you are teaching out of area:

Look first within your own school.

Find the resources that already exist at your school. There should be study designs, past exams and lesson plans if the subject has been taught before.

“Teaching should be a collegiate experience,” says Ms Trotter.

”Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You should be able to find people within your own school who can help you be your best. Look to the learning specialists and leading teachers to help you in a practical way.”

Find a mentor

If you’re not assigned a learning area leader or a mentor that you connect with, find one.

With an internet connection available almost everywhere, there should be somebody, somewhere, that you can connect with who has the expertise you don’t.

When you quake or falter, check in with them, debrief and work out a course of action for going forward with your teaching.

Ms Trotter says that her methods lecturer from her Dip Ed days remained a mentor for her for many years, giving her invaluable advice, not only on the curriculum but also on classroom management.

Professional Development

Attend professional development activities, both online and in person and join subject associations.

One effective way to learn about teaching a different subject is to observe a class or two at another school as a PD activity. This is a good place to find a supportive professional network too.

 Professional reading

Do not fly by the seat of your pants. When teaching an unfamiliar subject you can’t rely on your natural intelligence.

Read, a lot, build a professional library, and research the topics you are teaching.

“You need to know what your subject is about. Find out about it and learn it yourself,” says Ms Trotter.

Putting in the extra effort will help you approach the work with confidence.

Plan your lessons with rigour

Be clear about your teaching and learning. Set learning intentions and articulate them for your students.

This ensures that students know what they’re meant to be learning during any given lesson.

They also need to know how this knowledge will be assessed, so clearly state how they can demonstrate their knowledge too.

Ms Trotter also suggests that taking the pressure off yourself as a teacher by encouraging students to be more responsible for their learning is a good way to approach teaching an unfamiliar subject.

For example, plan small group tasks using the Think, Pair, Share technique or the Jigsaw ‘experts’ method.

Be prepared to make mistakes

You will get things wrong but if you can acknowledge your errors gracefully your class will respect you for it.

You don’t have to know everything. Use these times as teaching moments and encourage students to help you find the correct answers together.

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One comment

  1. How about a survey asking all teachers first what subjects (options 1-3) they would be comfortable to teach before delegating the work load?

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