Most Australian primary school teachers can be described as ‘generalists’. They are typically responsible for teaching a broad range of subject matter areas to a particular year level, with an emphasis on the core subjects of English (literacy) and Mathematics (numeracy).
The default assumption has been that being a generalist is what primary school teachers prefer, or else they would have become secondary teachers. Alongside this, it is often taken for granted that primary school teachers should be responsible for teaching all subject matter areas because this is what is best for the students they are teaching.
In the words of one principal: ‘If you say to me that you are a primary teacher and you don’t have an interest in maths then I think there is a major problem. I’d say to go to high school and be an English teacher… their classroom teacher should be teaching the basic skills,’ (Ardzejewska et al., 2010, p. 209-210).
However, with ever increasing expectations about the level of pedagogical content knowledge required for primary school teachers to be effective, as well as the often-noted challenges in relation to teacher retention and teacher burnout, we thought it was worth asking primary school teachers themselves – would they rather be subject matter specialists?
We collected questionnaire data from 104 early years primary school (Foundation to Year 2) teachers to explore this issue. They were all currently employed as generalist teachers in Catholic primary schools in Victoria and New South Wales. Most participants were female (96%). We were interested in early years primary school teachers as a participant group because of the oft-made assumption that early years primary school teachers in particular both need to, and want to, be subject-matter generalists, due to a desire to focus on educating ‘the whole child’.
What we found surprised us. Around two-thirds of these generalist teachers expressed an interest in exclusively teaching into one subject matter area, and specialising in either English, Mathematics, and, to a far less extent, Science (Russo et al., 2022).
The main reason teachers provided for wanting to become more specialised was that they were particularly interested in, and often-times passionate about, either the content area or simply the experience of teaching this particular subject to students. In addition, many teachers perceived themselves to have relative expertise when it came to teaching this particular subject, and viewed the opportunity to specialise as a chance to deepen this expertise.
It was interesting that almost all teachers described this preference to become more specialised in positive terms (e.g., ‘I have a love of literacy and always have’), with very few teachers mentioning the difficulties with being a generalist teacher (e.g., ‘It's very hard having so many hats as a generalist primary school teacher’).
It was also interesting that teachers were just as likely to indicate an interest in becoming a Mathematics specialist as an English specialist, despite the stereotype that many primary school teachers teaching in the early years are actively trying to avoid teaching more difficult mathematics.
Finally, we also found it noteworthy that teacher motivations for specialising often connected to the idea that this would enhance the learning experience from the student perspective, rather than simply preferencing their personal expertise in a content area in a manner disconnected from the student experience.
When the remaining one-third of teachers were asked why they would prefer to remain as generalist teachers, the reasons they gave clustered around 3 main themes:
- the greater variety in teaching experiences, including self-development opportunities as an educator;
- the opportunity to teach from a whole child perspective, including building relationships;
- opportunities to integrate learning experiences across curricula areas.
We are, of course, not advocating that all generalist primary school teachers should become specialists because our research suggested that most would be potentially interested in doing so. We are the first to acknowledge that further research is needed in this space to see how robust and generalisable these findings are across different contexts.
However, our findings do imply that many teachers would be open to primary schools and school systems at least experimenting with greater specialisation in core instructional areas than is currently the case. It may be that there are hybrid models that could capture the ‘best of both worlds’, allowing for greater content expertise and more streamlined planning, whilst also maintaining strong relationships with students, and allowing for content integration across different subject areas.
For example, one might imagine a scenario where 2 teachers are collectively responsible for 2 classes of 25 students. One of these teachers specialises in English, and is responsible for teaching each class writing, reading, spelling and grammar, whilst the other teacher has corresponding expertise and responsibilities in Mathematics and Science. The teachers work closely together, share their notes and perspectives on children’s learning, and perhaps even incorporate opportunities to team-teach in their remaining instructional time.
This is obviously just one example of what is a rich landscape of possibilities for greater specialisation. However, at least one thing seems clear to us at the conclusion of this research. It should not be assumed that teachers themselves will be the obstacle to finding creative local solutions to what are thorny problems within education. On the contrary, we can learn a lot simply from asking teachers what they think about things.
Ardzejewska, K., McMaugh, A., & Coutts, P. (2010). Delivering the primary curriculum: The use of subject specialist and generalist teachers in NSW. Issues in Educational Research, 20(3), 203-219.
Russo, J., Corovic, E., Hubbard, J., Bobis, J., Downton, A., Livy, S., & Sullivan, P. (2022). Generalist primary school teachers' preferences for becoming subject matter specialists. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 47(7), 38-57. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/ajte/vol47/iss7/3