Podcast special: Out-of-field teaching

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Hello and welcome to this podcast from Teacher, I’m Jo Earp. It’s a special episode today on the topic of out-of-field teaching. You may have experienced it as a teacher – maybe you’ve been asked to fill in for a colleague as a short-term measure, or you’ve been assigned a subject on a longer-term basis that’s not the one you specialised in during training. You may a school leader who’s having to make some tough decisions around how to cover classes during teacher shortages, or when you just can’t quite find the right person for the role. We do know that’s a big issue, so I’ve got some great guests lined up to talk about the challenges and possible solutions.

Professor Merrilyn Goos, Adjunct Professor of Education in the School of Education and Tertiary Access at University of the Sunshine Coast, joins me to focus on out-of-field Mathematics teaching in particular. Then we’ll hear from Professor Linda Hobbs, Associate Head of School (Research) within the School of Education at Deakin, who played a key role in a National Summit on Out-Of-Field Teaching that was held in Australia in October 2022. We’ll be talking more about some of the insights, and recommendations to come out of that gathering and what’s happened since.

A reminder that I’ll pop links to all the reports mentioned in this podcast in the full transcript, which you can find at teachermagazine.com. Okay, let’s get started with my chat to Professor Merrilyn Goos.

Jo Earp: Hi Merrilyn, thank you for joining us at Teacher today. Now, before we talk about the paper that you recently co-authored (Barker et al., 2024) and some of the things that are happening internationally, one of the problems, I was thinking, (including in terms of collecting reliable, long-term, consistent data) is actually in the definition. So, I'm wondering from your viewpoint, what is – or perhaps actually I was thinking more accurately to say – what can be meant by out-of-field teaching?

Merrilyn Goos: Well, I think the best way to understand this is fairly broad. So, what it means to teach out-of-field is that teachers are assigned to teach subjects that don't match their training or their education. So, I think that's the easiest way to understand it.

For example, you might have someone who's graduated from university, qualified to teach History and English. So, they get a job in a school, they're teaching History and English, but they can also be asked to teach some Maths classes in addition to the subjects that they've specialised in; so, they're teaching out-of-field in Mathematics. That's what it means.

JE: So, that very kind of simple definition. Because there are other arguments about, you know, what level you've reached, what additional study you've done, what level you’re teaching? But that's a really simple thing to [think about], and I would think that’s simple for, again, principals to think about as well within their school, isn't it?

MG: Yeah, I think it is. Because what it means is that the kind of knowledge that an out-of-field teacher of Mathematics is missing out on, is what the Australian Professional Standards Framework says you have to have. There are 2 kinds of knowledge: you need to know the subject and know how to teach it.

JE: Yep. So, you were a secondary school Maths teacher yourself, and from your experience then and research (you've done a lot of research on this topic as well) how has the situation on out-of-field teaching changed over the last few years? I'm thinking, you know, has this always been an issue going back, you know, decades maybe we haven't talked about it? Maybe it's been papered over by something else that's been happening? I'm not sure.

MG: Well out-of-field teaching of Mathematics has been around for decades. It's not a new issue at all. So, as a country we haven't been graduating enough qualified high school Maths teachers for a very long time, even though Maths is one of the core compulsory subjects in the school curriculum, so it's a high enrolment subject.

So, it's also an issue, it has been talked about for a long time, but unfortunately without much success in making any changes. And I think now, at the moment, with all the attention which is being given to teacher workforce challenges (as it should be), I think there's a risk that we might overlook this very long-term and persistent challenge of out-of-field Mathematics teaching. So, it's really important that we don't overlook it.

JE: And like you said, it's been an issue for years now and we'll kind of get to that a bit later on about why we haven't been doing anything on it. But I'm interested then what are the latest stats then that we've got here in Australia for out-of-field teaching?

MG: Well, I can give you some stats. One of the issues here is that it's quite hard to get very good data. But, for example, the Australian Teacher Workforce Data that's provided by AITSL indicates around 35-40% of teachers who are right now standing in front of Mathematics classes are actually teaching out-of-field.

The problem is that we don't have good ways of collecting that kind of data. Most of the data comes from various kinds of surveys of teachers, so the results are [similar] but it's still a survey, we're not collecting uniform national data.

I know the Australian Teacher Workforce Data also gets information from the teacher registration authorities about the number of registered teachers, but again, teacher registration authorities don't record the subject specialisms [of] high school teachers, except in New South Wales – that's the only state that does so. So, for example, I'm qualified to teach Mathematics and Chemistry; I know that, but it's not written down anywhere.

The other difficulty is that universities are only required to provide data on the total number of enrolments in their Initial Teacher Education programs. So, there's no data on what the subject specialisms are of the students who are graduating from those programs. So, we've got a real lack of reliable data here and that's something we need to do better.

JE: And of course the actual issue itself, that’s a problem for lots of reasons – you know, not having the teachers with the right experience, the subject knowledge and so on. And I was reading one of the papers you've done, you've written a lot about this, but you've also written about self-efficacy beliefs and classroom practices (Goos & Guerin, 2022). And you were saying in there that, for example, out-of-field teachers are maybe not pushing the students enough, they're not challenging them enough, and that they don't believe maybe that they can go further. And some of that has something to do with, they don't really want to push beyond their own boundaries of what the out-of-field teacher, themselves knows. So, there are all kinds of issues that once you get into, you know, the problems in the classroom …

MG: Yes, there are indeed. And I do want to emphasise that every teacher is doing the very best they can for the students that they teach. But, yes, you're right. Certainly, the out-of-field teachers that I've worked with are often feeling quite crippled by a lack of confidence in their own knowledge, clinging to the textbook (quite understandably). And I've even had teachers say to me that they're afraid of allowing students to ask questions in their class because they might not know the answer to those questions. And encouraging students to ask questions is something that every teacher really should be doing and wants to do. So, it's not good to hear that these are the sorts of things that teachers are worried about. So, I think we need to take in account it's not just about knowledge, the knowledge is very important, but there's all these other kinds of things that are going on as well.

So, confidence, self-efficacy and so on and how that impacts on classroom practice are extremely important because we're always thinking about students and their learning, making sure that they can understand mathematics, that they enjoy mathematics, and they want to keep studying mathematics and feel that they can learn.

JE: Yeah, and you make a good point there about, you know, they're all trying their hardest out there and being asked to just … ‘Oh, can you do this? Can you fill this role?’ And I'm thinking, you know, in a day-to-day sort of job, whatever job you do, if you were asked to present on something or give a talk or a Q&A on something, you'd be, that you didn't know about it, you'd be struggling and you'd be a bit fearful of trying to delve too deep as well, wouldn't you? So yeah, that’s a good point. Now your new report suggests that it is possible to fix, though, by training up more existing teachers in Maths education. What are you proposing with that?

MG: Well, first let me explain what we're not proposing. We're certainly not saying that we're going to steal teachers of other subjects and turn them into Maths teachers. It's surprising the number of people who somehow formed that view. What we want to do instead is support those 35-40% of teachers who are already teaching Mathematics out-of-field.

Look, they're already teaching Maths classes, these are the people who deserve our support. They know how to teach other subjects where they have specialised qualifications, they deserve to be properly supported so that they can teach Mathematics well, if that's what they're asked to do. But the centrepiece of our proposal is related to that. So, these are the teachers that we want to work with.

We're proposing a national upskilling program that provides out-of-field teachers of Mathematics with knowledge of mathematics and knowledge of how to teach it well. So, in other words, this program would enable out-of-field teachers to ‘re-specialise’, to add a subject specialisation (Mathematics) to what they are already able to teach.

JE: So, I'm glad you’ve clarified that and set the record straight on that one. What we're not doing is pinching, because I've seen stories on, you know, PE teachers have been trained up and brought across and then people say ‘well, what about the PE teachers? Where are we going to get PE teachers from?’ So, you’re not stealing from other areas, they're already doing it, they just need that support and the upskilling?

MG: That's right, yes. And recognise that they are already teaching Mathematics. So, it's not like we're trying to persuade people into doing something that they're not already doing.

JE: So, are there examples then of successful programs happening in other education systems around the world, then, that maybe we could adapt for our own context here in Australia?

MG: Yes, there is and one I know very well has been running in Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland, since 2012. So, this is a program, it's a 2-year part-time university Diploma and it was commissioned by the Irish Government, it was put out to tender for universities to provide. It's a national program, it's delivered jointly by a consortium of 11 higher education institutions in Ireland, led by the University of Limerick where I used to work. And this program has upskilled, they must be up to around 1,200 formerly out-of-field teachers of secondary school Mathematics, so they're now fully qualified. I was Director of that program when I worked at the University of Limerick from 2017 to 2021.

So, what can we learn from a program like that? Well, we certainly can't assume that you can just pick up a program designed for another country and just drop it down in Australia and everything will be the same. Of course it won't, because the context matters. But I still think that there are many things that we can learn from: How did this program come about? And why was it so popular and so successful? And it's still running.

The first thing is that teachers registered in Ireland do have their subject specialism recorded by the Teacher Registration Authority. So, there's tremendous incentive for teachers who are teaching out-of-field to be able to add Mathematics to that register; so it's official, they want to know that they have this piece of paper, because there are big career benefits for them.

The second thing that was significant was in designing the program, the Teacher Registration Authority itself insisted that this program should give out-of-field teachers the same breadth and depth of knowledge of Mathematics and how to teach it as all the teachers who are already fully qualified from having done a university program. To me, that sends powerful messages about firstly, respect for the kind of professional knowledge that teachers need to have, and also signals parity – so there's no sort of feeling of being a second-class citizen, you know, if you're an out-of-field teacher or formerly out-of-field.

The other thing that was very important was that the Irish Government paid the teachers’ tuition fees; so, the teachers got this program for free, and that is an extremely powerful and visible commitment and investment on the part of the Government.

So, I mentioned before that the program was very popular and continues to be. Before I left Ireland in the last intake of teachers, the Government was funding 100 places that year – we had 600 applications for those 100 places. I had principals phoning me, begging me to accept their out-of-field teachers into this program. So, the demand was astonishing, but also the support by schools and principals was quite remarkable. I would love to see that kind of support happening here in Australia.

JE: So, it sounds like it’s been a tremendous success there. And as you say, you can't just pick up a program and put it (out of the box) somewhere else, so we'd have to think about how we could adapt it for all kinds of different things. But it certainly sounds like there are some good ideas from that one, and it's got a bit of a track record as well.

That was Professor Merrilyn Goos. We’ll return to her at the end of the episode. But a quick bit of housekeeping now. Now, this next section mentions VCAA (that’s the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority), the ARC (that’s Australian Research Council), AMSI (that’s the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute) and MERGA (that stands for the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australia), along with a Policy Insights report from Paul Weldon – and a reminder you can find a link to that, and the other reports mentioned in this podcast, in the transcript at teachermagazine.com. Okay, my second guest for this special episode is Professor Linda Hobbs. Now, as I mentioned in the intro, she played a key role in the National Summit on Out-Of-Field Teaching that was held here in Australia around 18 months ago. I started by asking her about the aims of the summit, and just what had spurred on the organisers.

Linda Hobbs: Well, at the time it was recognised that Australia is a hotspot internationally for research into out-of-field teaching, and I think this is because of some work done by Paul Weldon from ACER in 2016 (Weldon, 2016) that actually gave us some really startling numbers on how many of our teachers are out-of-field and also showing the state-based differences. And so, there was national attention at the time, and in the years since, through the research, through media, through government responses as well. So, for example, the Tasmanian Government jumped very quickly and instituted a Graduate Certificate. And in the lead up to 2020 there was a lot of pressure from subject associations, the principal associations, the Teacher Union and particularly in the STEM areas as well, and really calling for serious recognition and action in relation to the out-of-field issue.

So, we pulled together an organising committee made of researchers, teachers, people from other organisations and we came up with an aim of basically having a national conversation in order to understand the multilayered implications of teaching out-of-field, in order to capture the perspectives of various interest groups within that conversation. And we wanted to focus on the data needed to inform policy, what was happening in terms of school management and leadership, the role of Initial Teacher Education, and then also that important role of teacher registration and accreditation policies, but also what's happening in that teacher professional learning space.

And so, we were wanting to understand what was currently happening, but also what was needed from the perspective of different stakeholder groups.

JE: And before we look a bit closer at the impact on one of the key groups obviously, (schools and the leaders themselves) you said at that summit that there are 3 main reasons essentially that out of field teaching happens, yeah?

LH: Yeah, I mean the most obvious one is that we've got the lack of teachers in a certain discipline. So, actually the lack of teachers within the teaching profession. For example, there's really not a lot of teachers who are qualified to teach Religious Education, for example, and also Technology education.

But there's also a really important dynamic that plays out in terms of the unequal distribution of teachers. So, actually, in some areas around the state there's a glut of teachers, whereas there are other areas that are underserved, particularly hard to staff schools or out in rural and regional areas.

A third issue is schools and principals looking for the right teachers that fit the school – so, this notion of ‘fit’. So, a teacher might be preferred for a particular group of students as well – so, teachers who are who have the qualities needed to be able to meet the educational needs of certain groups of students.

JE: So, rather than just going on teacher specialisation.

LH: That's right, yeah.

JE: I was speaking to Merrilyn earlier and we were talking about Maths in particular, obviously there, is this an issue for all subjects there? Are the certain sort of subjects and age groups – and I'm assuming secondary is where the hotspot is because you've got your specialisations there – but are there particular sort of year groups or anything like that? Where's it happening most?

LH: Yeah, well, certainly junior secondary because there is an understanding or a culture of accepting that the content is a little bit easier for teachers to understand, who may not be from that discipline or background. Obviously, that plays out in lots of different ways, however. If content isn't presented in exciting ways, then it can really impact on students engaging deeply with the subject.

Look, all subjects – yes, it's not just Maths, it's not just the STEM areas. The latest AITSL data shows that between 26 and 40% of teachers from the 4 core subjects are teaching out-of-field, so that includes Maths, Science, English and the Humanities. There are higher levels for other subjects like Technologies, Religious Ed and the languages – though these subjects take up less of the curriculum time in schools, but it doesn't mean that they're not as important.

So, the focus in primary school is generally around building teacher capacity in all subjects, recognising that they're prepared as generalists. However, there are some subject specialisations that are taught in primary school, and so there's a little bit of research coming out in relation to that. But it's certainly difficult to understand how much out-of-field is happening within the primary sector because we don't have a lot of that data. Which is quite different in some other countries around the world where teachers actually in primary years are subject specialists, and so there's a little bit of a tension, for example, in Germany around subject specialisation within primary school.

JE: And I get what you’re saying there about junior secondary because obviously if you've got, say if you've got a limit on the number of qualified Maths teachers, you probably as a principal, you’re probably going to think ‘right, we're going to put those with the VCE students’ (or whatever the equivalent is in your state). So, yeah.

LH: Yeah, that's true. I just maybe will add to that … with the secondary years, it doesn't happen often, but it does happen and sometimes it could be a Chemistry teacher teaching Physics. So it can be at that level, but it's not very well accepted I think, whereas it's much more accepted for the junior levels within the secondary level, secondary school.

JE: So, there were 5 themes at the National Summit then. Data needed to inform policy, which you've mentioned, the school management and leadership, the Initial Teacher Education, we've got teacher registration and accreditation, and then teacher professional learning. I want to talk about the second one in particular, then, with yourself today – so, school management and leadership. I'm interested, what were some of the key points to come out of those discussions around the challenges that schools and teachers and leaders face?

LH: Yeah. What we know is that principals can really influence the nature of the lived experience of out-of-field teachers - and that was clear at the Summit – by making decisions around access to professional learning within and outside of the school, how teachers are allocated to subjects they’re teaching, how they shape a culture of learning by teachers in the school, and the informal support structures that are provided by teachers. But also, what was really evident in the Summit, that the attitudes that principals have about what a ‘quality teacher’ looks like is important. So, how important is it that they have specialisation knowledge, or specialist knowledge? And that they have that disciplinary background and qualifications. [This] can really differ between principals. So the areas that seemed to be critical at the Summit, included: looking at that school leader awareness of the issues associated with assigning a teacher out-of-field; the need for building relationships with staff; system level support for leaders – so it's not just the teachers who need professional development here, it's about school leaders actually understanding the issues; developing middle leaders as well – so, it's not just the principals but it's the middle leaders who usually are tasked with ensuring adequate disciplinary support is provided for out-of-field teachers; but also that notion of teacher support and collegiality in schools, which research shows again and again seems to be the most common support structure for out-of-field teachers.

JE: And the Summit Report, which I'll pop a link into the transcript of this podcast (which is at teachermagazine.com) that has several suggested actions and recommendations in 5 areas. Just as an overview, what are some of the most pressing or important ones?

LH: Yeah. Well, we were calling for cultural shifts, actually in several areas. One is about how out-of-field teaching is defined and understood and responded to. Another is a need for a culture of collecting and valuing systematic and longitudinal data that provides evidence to inform policy. This includes data collection on teacher qualifications, the lived experience of teachers and a way of understanding the impacts.

Also, an important recommendation was the need for a coordinated approach to attending to the issue that's got multiple strategies to address the range of factors that lead to out-of-field. So, credentialing teachers and providing incentives for teachers to enhance and up their subject knowledge is just one of those strategies, but it is a very important one.

Also, a cultural shift in developing and implementing monitoring structures that are actually honest about the out-of-field issues, so that policy can faithfully represent the particular issues. Also, we need a cultural shift in relation to educational leaders, schools, and out-of-field teachers/teachers generally – attitudes towards re-specialising through formal qualifications and professional learning. And part of that is related to the policies of the educational jurisdiction that either does or doesn't expect teachers’ qualifications to be represented somewhere on the system.

The last one I think is a cultural shift in what knowledge is generated about the out-of-field issue, how it's generated, and who generates that knowledge, and then how it's reported. So, we need multiple stakeholders working together to do this – publishing together, collecting data together, trusting each other, recognising the importance of quality research and that it's needed to inform policy. So, we need longitudinal data through strategic partnerships between researchers, governments, subject associations and other organisations that work together on this.

JE: So, as I mentioned in that first question, then the Summit was actually 18 months ago. It wasn't, you know … with summits and recommendations and reports and so on, it depends really what the impact is, what the take up is. Has there been any take up there? Has there been anything that's happened since in relation to your suggestions and actions that you know of?

LH: Yeah. Well, there was some direct response. So, every now and then I do see it being referred to in certain documents from different organisations. So, for example, VCAA [Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority] followed up with me and said that they've taken that idea up of micro credentialing, and actually that notion is becoming an alternative to Graduate Certificates I think, there's sort of flexibility there for teachers. It does sort of limit the integrity I think and the opportunity to go deep into a discipline, however, it is a way that teachers can perhaps engage with this in a way that's sustainable for them, or doable.

I think there has been additional funding for re-specialisation courses, certainly in Victoria, the Victorian Government has been very committed to dealing with this issue of teaching out-of-field. They've basically funded 5 different courses over the years specifically designed for out-of-field teachers. So that's exciting to see.

There's been more work looking at the definition and the experiences of out-of-field teachers. There's also been additional research into the effects in different subject areas, but I do think that’s and area that we need to understand more of.

There's been a greater emphasis, as I said before, in some subject associations in providing the support for out-of-field teachers, and that was a strong recommendation from us, that they do that. I think they were already doing it, I'm not sure it was our report that actually caused that, but that's happened within this time.

There has been some systematic data collection by state government that's involved working with researchers to understand, for example, a profile of graduate teachers in Western Australia. And so, there was some other state governments who engaged with us through the report. Also, there's ongoing work on courses for out-of-field teachers, not just in Victoria but also in New South Wales and some others around the country.

We've also had ARC [Australian Research Council] success, actually. So, we've got 5 universities across 4 different states looking at the ecosystem of professional education for out-of-field teachers and I've no doubt that having that report really did focus our attention. It highlighted the need to understand that ecosystem of professional development, and pathways for teachers to become in-field.

And there's been work done through the Maths area, as you've indicated through Merrilyn’s work with AMSI [Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute] and MERGA [Mathematics Education Research Group of Australia].

You’re listening to a special podcast episode from Teacher on the issue out-of-field teaching, and that was Professor Linda Hobbs. To finish then, I asked both my guests 2 big questions: Where do we go to from here? And what would you like to see happening as a matter of urgency? Here’s Professor Merrilyn Goos.

MG: What I'd like to see as the very first step is, I think the Education Council – which is comprised of Commonwealth, State and Territory Education Ministers – needs to establish an expert Advisory Group on out-of-field teaching, and that group needs to do 3 things.

First, identify what data is needed to understand the extent of out-of-field teaching; and an obvious first thing to do there would to be to have a consistent, comprehensive national system for collecting accurate data on the subject specialisms of secondary school teachers. That could be done through the teacher registration system.

The second thing I'd like that group to do, is to evaluate existing resources and programs for supporting out-of-field teachers. There are some that exist in Australia, but we also need to look at international examples. How effective are they?

And then, the third thing is to develop a collaborative national upskilling program for out-of-field teachers, supported jointly by the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments and delivered by a national consortium of universities, so that universities are working together, there is one program, so there's no confusion for teachers and everyone is working together, rather than competing with each other. It's too important. This requires a national effort.

And we’ll finish with Professor Linda Hobbs.

LH: Yeah, well, I think that capturing what's happening in schools at the moment, as I said before, is one of those things that is quite urgent. I think one of the things that I would like to see is recognising the disciplines and methods within teacher registration processes. So, I think there's some policy shifts; I've been calling for that for some time. It's very difficult to change policy. I understand that.

I think we need more data. So, how we do this without burdening schools and teachers is a little bit difficult, but there are some other models around the world of large databases from certain educational jurisdictions and, you know, I think we need to learn from them about how to collect data and what data is useful.

I think also [there] is always a call for upskilling teachers. I think principals also need to understand the issues, but if we look at the teachers then – actually, what works for teachers to improve their practice? To build their confidence, to improve student outcomes. So, understanding what really works, I think is really important.

I think we need to continue to provide a range of professional learning opportunities for teachers, but we also need to recognise that we offer those to teachers in different contexts. So, there's not just one type of out-of-field teacher, there's teachers who are there for, just for now (like it's a short-term gig), others who are teaching out-of-field and will be for a long time in certain subjects, and it's become normal for them to be part of their teaching load. And so, we need to recognise that there's different types of professional learning opportunities that are needed for those different types of out-of-field teacher.

That’s all for this episode, but we’d love to hear what you think and about your own experience with out-of-field teaching. It’s easy to get involved in the discussion – send in your voice notes to teachereditorial@acer.org and we’ll feature them in a future episode. Thanks for listening and don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast channel wherever you get your podcasts from, so you can be notified of new episodes as soon as they land.

Before you go, are you currently subscribed to the weekly Teacher bulletin? It’s a free weekly wrap of our latest content straight to your inbox. Join the more than 40,000 educators who are already part of the community by clicking on the sign-up button at our website, teachermagazine.com.

References and related reading

Barker, M., Goos, M., & Coupland, M. (2024). Relieving out-of-field teaching in Australian secondary mathematics. Analysis of out-of-field secondary mathematics teacher upskilling initiatives in Australia. AMSI. https://amsi.org.au/?publications=relieving-out-of-field-teaching-in-australian-secondary-mathematics

Goos, M., & Guerin, A. (2022). Investigating the Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Classroom Practices of Out-of-Field, In-Field, and Upskilled Mathematics Teachers. In: Hobbs, L., Porsch, R. (eds) Out-of-Field Teaching Across Teaching Disciplines and Contexts. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-16-9328-1_15

Weldon, Paul R. (2016). Out-of-field teaching in Australian secondary schools. (Policy Insights; n.6). Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). https://research.acer.edu.au/policyinsights/6/

As Professor Linda Hobbs says in this episode, capturing what’s happening in schools is crucial. What’s your own experience with out-of-field teaching? Get in touch with the Teacher team and join the conversation by sending a voice note to teachereditorial@acer.org