Out-of-field teaching is out of control in Australian schools. Here’s what’s happening

By Anna E. du Plessis

Assigning teachers to teach in positions outside their field of qualifications or expertise creates complex and multi-layered challenges, yet it is happening in many Australian schools.

I believe out-of-field teaching can affect the quality of teaching we provide in our schools, and the wellbeing of the students, teachers, parents and school leaders involved. So it is important to talk about what is happening and what we might do about the implications of this phenomenon.

The idea that ‘any good teacher can teach anything’ is harmful for the profession

The expectation that ‘any good teacher can teach anything’ harms the professional identity and image of teachers, their employment and the quality of our education systems. I see it as a misconception that condones out-of-field teaching without considering the sociocultural and educational implication of the practice. It also influences how this phenomenon is defined and the validity of statistical information regarding the out-of-field phenomenon, by helping to mask it.

If we are going to change policy around the out-of-field teaching practices in our schools we first need a clear idea of what is happening in this teaching and learning space.

What is out-of-field teaching?

I define out-of-field teaching as qualified teachers, (often highly qualified), assigned to teach subject fields or year levels for which they do not have appropriate or suitable qualifications; these qualifications include content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (subject specific methodology), or teaching expertise.

First, being suitably qualified for the specific subject areas, fields and/or year levels entails tertiary training at a ‘major’ or a ‘specialisation’ level. Second, developing ‘suitable expertise’ involves in-service professional learning and development for at least three years in the out-of-field subject area, field or year level as evidenced in research.

Teachers choose their field of tertiary study based on their interests and strengths

Prospective teachers mostly choose initial teacher education programs that relate to their motivation to make a difference and the choice of programs reflect their interest in a specific field or age range of students. The careful placement of teachers, our greatest educational resource, is therefore important if we want to build a strong, stable and high-quality teaching workforce.

How widespread is the practice of out-of-field teaching?

Research evidence shows 20 to 24 per cent of teachers in Western Australia work outside their field of qualification and 25 to 30 per cent of teachers in Victoria feel unqualified for their teaching position. Data from the Staff in Australia’s Schools (SiAS)  commissioned by the Australian government, based on research during 2006–07, 2010 and 2013, offers more evidence of the frequency of the out-of-field teaching phenomenon in Australia.

An Australian Council for Educational Research policy insights report says 21 per cent of mathematics teachers, 40 per cent of geography teachers, approximately 15 per cent of English and language teachers, and 21 per cent of teachers on average teach students in Years 7-10 while assigned outside their field of qualifications.

Out-of-field teaching practices affect interdisciplinary quality improvement efforts across the board in primary and secondary schools. The problem is evident in  Queensland where the former minister for education, Kate Jones’s, suggested recruiting talented mathematics and science teachers to Queensland from other countries. (Of course this would open up a whole range of new challenges for our schools and these teachers.)

The number of school students in Australia will increase by 26 per cent by 2022 yet student enrolments in teaching courses are decreasing, which is likely to exacerbate out-of-field placements. The problem will only get worse for students, teachers, parents and school leaders if we don’t act on finding a solution to effectively manage this phenomenon.

How we rely on the resilience of teachers

There is a culture in Australia of assigning beginning teachers, more often than experienced ones, to teach outside their qualifications or expertise (often without tailored support). Yet there are high expectations for their performance and their students’ achievements, which develop workforce concerns.

Teachers, however, are resilient and they want what is best for their students.  As I see it, out-of-field placements’ effect on quality education can be contained if these teachers’ interests and skills are considered and supported in their placements.

Listening to teachers who teach out-of -field

This raises the following questions: “Are the voices of out-of-field teachers and their school leaders being listened to?” and “Do educational policymakers, authorities and employers hear the valuable knowledge that these voices share?” If policymakers acknowledge out-of-field teachers’ lived experiences, and the impact it has on their teaching practices, this informs knowing. Knowing is fundamental for decision-making and tailored action.

The voices of parents and teachers on out-of-field teaching

Out-of-field realities in classrooms have implications for students, parents, teachers and employers. Parents are concerned about the demands and expectations that await their children if there are gaps in their development.

As one parent of a secondary school student shared during my research study, “Concepts do not get tied down―students struggle…; it is fundamental, the basis, because the next step follows on from the previous content, and so it continues…”

A secondary school out-of-field teacher verbalised the dilemmas, “I can’t convey information I know nothing about. I asked a colleague to do certain areas. It is part of her field, but for me, it is just a piece of work we need to read through.”

A qualified primary school teacher assigned to a pre-primary position shared the complex reality of not knowing how to approach initial literacy and numeracy development.

A beginning teacher assigned to teach a language without suitable qualifications said, “I told the principal, I cannot teach some of the subjects that were given to me. He [the principal] replied that anyone can teach the subjects on this level. He doesn’t care about it.” This teacher further added, “Children’s lack of discipline and respect for me is also a huge problem,” and explained lived experiences, “I made my worries known―nothing was done about it. I sometimes get angry and depressed…”

Expectations for out-of-field teachers to perform at the same level as their specialist colleagues or achieve the same results for their students leave out-of-field teachers, often already lacking much-needed support, disillusioned with teaching, feeling isolated, exposed, vulnerable and burnt-out.

The issues involving out–of–field teachers

Out-of-field teaching at primary and pre-primary level

Education systems, regulatory authorities, employers, school leaders and teachers are accountable for providing quality education in all subjects offered.  Yet at primary level and pre-primary there is a perception that out-of-field teaching has a less severe effect. Students’ learning and development can become vulnerable with out-of-field teaching, especially during initial literacy and numeracy building.

Teaching load out-of-field increases with more teachers leaving the profession

Concerningly, a teachers’ role in loco parentis (where they are always to act in the best interests of the child, as would a parent) has become taken-for-granted, while their professional load keeps increasing.

Teachers are leaving the profession at a concerning rate. Now around 53 per cent of individuals with a teaching degree do not currently work in education. In addition, the Australian government estimates that in 2014, 20 per cent of education graduates did not register as teachers. This increases out-of-field teaching and the likelihood of teachers being given large student cohorts, despite out-of-field assignments.

Professor Craig Craven, Vice-Chancellor and President of Australian Catholic University (ACU) stated that teachers matter and warned against looming teaching workforce problems stating, “There is a structural shortage and it’s going to get worse”. While university enrolments in education are declining, the demand for teachers is increasing which closely connects with out-of-field teaching. Out-of-field teaching practices impacts students’ achievements and their development. It further impacts employers’ efforts to develop a quality workforce that is strong and stable.

Beginner teachers are given out-of-field teaching positions

Research carried out for the Australian Council for Educational Research by Paul Weldon in 2016 indicates that beginning teachers (in their first five years) are the most likely to be placed in out-of-field teaching positions. At the same time a report by the Queensland College for Teachers suggested 8 to 50 per cent of beginning teachers leave teaching. The range of these figures is alarming.

Out-of-field teaching can compromise quality

The prevalence of the out-of-field phenomenon relates to teacher quality, the quality of teaching, school leadership styles, school improvement strategies, professional development opportunities, content and pedagogical content knowledge, classroom management strategies and the effective implementation of curricula and policies.

Out-of-field teachers admit unfamiliar subjects challenge their ability to offer deep or sound knowledge, comprising knowledge of a specific field, awareness of students’ needs, and teaching practices that reflect the schools’ cultures and communities.

An Australian educational director described the contrast between a suitably qualified and an out-of-field teacher: “The major difference is that the qualified teacher doesn’t have to think about the content,” adding that “It comes naturally, [and] any question a student might ask, any track that the lesson might take, a suitably qualified teacher is able to take the students down the path.” The director continued, “In the case of the unsuitably qualified teacher, as well as thinking about their classroom management, they have to think about the actual content that they’re teaching.” Then the director admitted, “This creates stresses in relation to the amount of preparation they have to do, but it also puts the effective management of the class at greater risk.”

Out-of-field teachers and their leaders report feeling isolated managing these implications.

How out-of-field teaching can affect our future

Students’ futures and their passion for certain subjects depend on their access to expert teachers who can bring these subjects to life. Research has shown that students, especially in Years 11 and 12, shy away from subjects when they perceive that the teacher lacks subject specific competencies or struggles to control the class.

Current global concerns about the quality of teacher education focus on the quality of initial teacher education (ITE), often overlooking beginning teachers’ workforce placements. Assigning beginning teachers to out-of-field positions impacts their preparedness for the workplace and hampers the development of their professional identities and affects their perceptions about the teaching profession.

Out-of-field teaching can be strategically managed

Research demonstrates out-of-field teaching success stories, in which school leaders are aware of the impact that their pedagogical accountability and pedagogical thoughtfulness have on the teaching and learning space. These school leaders showed a clear context-conscious understanding of what the out-of-field teaching phenomenon means for teachers in these positions and quality education.

A school principal in the Australian independent school sector explained the leadership team follows a philosophy of “growing people,” adding that “we all jumped in when we saw the [out-of-field beginning] teacher was struggling.” Leaders concerned about out-of-field teachers’ and their students’ wellbeing try to stay informed about what happens inside these classrooms while focussing on specific needs of teachers and students.

Out-of-field teaching practices are ongoing at the global level and it is certainly a problem here in Australia in metropolitan and remote schools.

However it is possible to address and confront some of the complex challenges for teachers and students when we share information on out-of-field teaching: the strategies, decisions, policies and actions we are undertaking to minimise the effect the phenomenon has on our students and teachers.

I believe targeted support embedded in connectedness, awareness, needs analysis, negotiation, leadership action and support can enhance the effective management of out-of-field teaching’s effects on our classrooms.

Anna E. du Plessis is a Research Fellow at Institute for Learning Science and Teacher Education at the Australian Catholic University. Anna has more than20 years’ experience in teaching across different international systems and curriculum frameworks.  She has been integral to the development, pilot and trial of the Graduate Teaching Performance Assessment (GTPA), an instrument designed to influence evidence-based and industry-informed changes to teacher education and tertiary-level curriculum development for professional experience of preservice teachers. Anna has two PhDs, focussed on the implications the out-of-field teaching phenomenon has for educational leadership, continuing professional development as well as the lived meaning of out-of-field teaching practices for quality education. Her current research focuses on beginning teachers, their school leaders and strategic rethinking of retention. Anna is on Twitter  @plessis_e

Anna’s book Out-of-Field Teaching Practices What Educational Leaders Need to Know is available on Springer.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

12 thoughts on “Out-of-field teaching is out of control in Australian schools. Here’s what’s happening

  1. Trent says:

    It is a conundrum. At school-level there are real challenges in accessing trained and qualified staff in some of the disciplines listed in this piece, and frequently the recruitment processes for vacancies in these areas turns up few or no candidates with expertise in those areas.

    Alternatively young staff, keen to get a start in education have always, (not just in recent times) honed their skills as casual supply teachers or sought roles outside of their academic specialisation to get a career underway in a tight job market. There are cases where it does not work, but there is a difference between working between the broad areas of academic specialisation (a history-trained teacher in a mathematics class) compared to a teacher applying their broad skill-set to a subject they had not specifically trained in (for example within the breadth of the humanities or sciences). There are far more examples of teachers who, having worked in areas where they have built their content base in unfamiliar areas who have become specialists than not, and my experience is that to argue otherwise diminishes the work that teachers do every day.

    In another context, (and I recognise not the focus of this piece) I would be interested to know how it can be used strategically to refresh and challenge mid-career practitioners who have experienced little change in their career to rethink pedagogy and their personal practice.

    No-one at school level would argue that it is preferable to have out of area staff in classrooms. The complexity of a very diverse curriculum, staff movement, and managing those things all at scale in large environments creates a practical imperative. However, across all the schools I have worked in it is highly unusual to see a teacher entirely out of context, but far more common to see one with a small proportion of their load in a differing field. In other professions there is an expectation of deep content learning and retraining after entry to work depending on their context.

  2. If teachers consider themselves to be professionals, then the problem of teaching outside their field of qualifications or expertise is easily solved: they should refuse to do it. That will be difficult, but being a professional is not easy.

  3. Anna says:

    Research indicates that teachers agree to teach in out-of-field positions because school leaders ask them to help out – our teachers are loyal, want to help and are willing to accept challenging out-of-field teaching positions when schools experience difficulties to fill certain positions.

  4. Commercial pilots now routinely receive training in “crew resource management”, which includes when, and how, to refuse to comply with unreasonable instructions from their superiors in the cockpit. Perhaps trainee teachers should receive similar training, in how to respectfully, but forcefully, refuse requests from superiors to work out-of-field.

  5. Sherryl Saunders says:

    The difficulty is that many teachers are appointed as ‘Teacher’, not as ‘Geography Teacher’ or ‘Mathematics Teacher’ on their contracts of employment. This gives schools the maximum amount of flexibility in allocating teachers to classes. Thus, the deployment into out-of-field classes may be considered a reasonable and lawful direction. And as noted, the use of fixed term, rolling contracts may make for less than ideal conditions in which a teacher could test whether it is a reasonable and lawful direction and a direction to be refused (no matter how respectfully, yet forcefully).

  6. Karl says:

    Teachers on rolling contracts cannot refuse to do it as they may fear it may jeopardise future employment.

  7. Sherryl Saunders says:

    Teachers may not have the option to refuse to teach out-of-field. In some cases, their employment is as a ‘Teacher’, not ‘Geography Teacher’ or ‘Drama Teacher’. To refuse the deployment across whatever teaching area, as directed by their employer, may be seen as a refusal to follow a reasonable and lawful direction. And as noted elsewhere, the use of rolling fixed term contracts can exacerbate the issue, making teachers unwilling to test whether the direction is reasonable and lawful and what happens if they actually DO refuse.

  8. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:

    Dear Anna, thank you for your well researched and logically presented evaluation of the significant impact of this common practice. as a head of Humanities, I resented the manner in which Math and Science classes were filled, followed by English classes and then watched as under-load teachers with Art HPE or Drama backgrounds were assigned to 7 to 10 History and Geography. While these were often highly effective teachers who, as professionals, tried hard to build their pedagogical understanding, I witnessed the heavy toll it placed upon their energy, motivation and self esteem. It is no coincidence that two of these teachers have left the profession. the impact on professional teachers teaching out of field can be emotionally and professionally crippling!

  9. Anna says:

    Thank you Sue. We also need to keep a close eye on special education.

  10. Paul Weldon says:

    Thanks Anna. This is such an important and under-discussed area. I noted the government response to the recent NSW auditor-general’s report suggests that more data on teachers in subject-specific fields will be collected. This will at least help to better identify the issue.

  11. Anna says:

    Thank you Paul. Your work in this field supports the development of necessary awareness. Acknowledging the occurrence of this phenomenon in our schools and fully understand the influence it has on teachers and their students mean we can engage in tailored strategies to effectively manage the phenomenon.

  12. Linda Hobbs says:

    Hey Anna,
    Great summary of the issue of teaching out-of-field in Australia! The quotes are certainly poignant. It is a complex issue with such different experiences and views by those who have been out-of-field, and those who have a stake in it. Of course, teachers can feel out-of-field in their own subject, like biology teachers teaching physics as part of General Science. Also humanities teachers usually have to teach geography and history and are usually out-of-field in one or both of these areas!

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