Jill Brown

What to do when our schools run out of the teachers they urgently need

When faced with a teacher shortage, often schools need to ‘make do’ and ask teachers to teach away from their area of expertise in order to staff classes. That’s called teaching out-of-field and sometimes teachers, put in that position, can feel unsupported and overwhelmed.

The issue of teaching ‘out-of-field’ persists in Australia and internationally –  and has for some time. Out-of-field teaching refers to when teachers teach subjects they are not ‘qualified’ (or specialised) to teach (Weldon, 2016; Hobbs), that is, they do not have the undergraduate study recognised by the state registration/accreditation body nor the teaching methods. 

The question of suitability of a teacher to teach a subject or group of students can be a tricky one in schools. Quality teaching can occur when teachers have gathered expertise over time to teach a subject even when they do not have the relevant ‘qualification’. However, teachers with qualifications or specialisations and a background in the latest teaching methods for the subject are more likely to provide quality teaching.

Faced with an inadequate teacher supply, how do schools address this problem?

In Victoria, the State Government has committed funds to the Secondary Science and Mathematics Initiative (SMSI). We at Deakin have been contracted to design and deliver graduate certificates in secondary mathematics and science. The courses are being delivered online because of COVID restrictions through intensives and offer a mix of content and discipline-specific pedagogy. Supports are provided for teachers as they are challenged to return to study and complete the course while continuing to teach in their schools.  

Teachers from Government schools who are teaching out-of-field in mathematics or science are funded to undertake the graduate certificates. This ‘upskills’ them, makes them qualified, and therefore no longer ‘out-of-field’ but ‘in-field’. 

Why are upskilling programs like the Victorian SMSI important?

1. Research shows that teaching is a ‘learning profession’, where teachers are constantly undergoing professional development, often want to be challenged to try new things by learning ‘on-the-job’ and want to have some agency as to how their career progresses (Hobbs, 2020). Research also shows that teachers who have a background in a subject often lead to better outcomes for their students (Shah, Richardson & Watt, 2020). Some research has shown quite negative impacts for some students and teachers when teachers are given teaching duties beyond their fields of expertise (Du Plessis, Gillies & Carrol, 2014). 

Teachers can feel as if they are in a holding pattern until they can teach what they are passionate about (Hobbs, 2020) and teacher confidence and expertise can be challenged. Students can feel unsupported, and student achievement can be negatively impacted.    

2. Teachers generally feel valued when they are remunerated and recognised for professional learning (Hobbs & Törner, 2019). It is essential funded Government initiatives, university programs, or subject association initiatives deliver outcomes for teachers and schools that make a difference in the classroom and in the professional lives of teachers. The SMSI will focus on contemporary science or mathematics pedagogy, knowledge and practice as integrated, and will be firmly based in teacher practice. The design of the courses and funding arrangements acknowledge the busy lives of teachers and attempts to support schools as they release their teachers. 

3. Upskilling programs specifically designed for out-of-field teachers are not common, although they are available at some universities (e.g., University of Melbourne [https://handbook.unimelb.edu.au/2021/courses/gc-mthed10], Queensland University of Technology [https://www.qut.edu.au/courses/graduate-certificate-in-education-stem-in-education]) and sometimes through professional associations as professional development programs. 

Often teachers receive no recognition or renumeration for undertaking additional qualifications. Therefore, there is little culture of formally upskilling by teachers in some states and territories. Also, research shows that teachers tend to prefer to undertake professional development in their in-field subject (Hobbs, Campbell, Delaney, Speldewinde and Lai, 2020).

The New South Wales teacher accreditation system is such that teachers gain approval to teach subjects when graduating from initial teacher education. These approvals can be updated as teachers undertake studies and meet the requirements for additional subjects. Victoria, however, has no similar mechanism as teachers are registered as ‘teachers’. As with other states and territories in Australia, teachers are required to undertake professional development to renew their registration, although most teachers will choose their in-field subject as the focus of this development. Thus, the value of the SMSI is that funding is provided for teachers to undertake the Graduate Certificate and schools are renumerated for having their teachers out of the classroom while studying. This incentive is needed for teachers to see that the benefits outweigh the costs.

How will a program like SMSI create change?

Two ways. 

  1. The first relates to the fact that the Victorian State Government (like the Tasmanian State Government in 2015) is funding teachers (especially from rural areas) to gain qualifications in out-of-field subjects. This illustrates that there is formal acknowledgement that out-of-field teaching occurs, that it needs to be attended to, and that schools and teachers need to be supported through funding in order to build the pedagogical and content-related expertise. The Victorian Government has applied this strategy with the STEM Catalyst program and the Primary Mathematics and Science Specialists (PMSS) program, illustrating a commitment to upskilling teachers in the ‘STEM’ areas [https://www.education.vic.gov.au/about/programs/learningdev/vicstem/Pages/schools.aspx].
  1. Secondly, such acknowledgement and commitment will have the effect of generating conversation around the ‘out-of-field’ issue more broadly. Whole of system engagement is required, including those responsible for setting policy, school leaders who enact policy, teacher/discipline/principal associations that inform policy and curriculum.  Additionally, teacher unions that represent and protect the rights of educators and school leaders, and universities and academics who provide teacher-ready candidates and support teachers and schools with professional development and research must be engaged.

Change can be created through a national conversation about:

  • system pressures and mechanisms for responding to the issue of teacher distribution, teacher supply and school leadership practices that lead to out-of-field teaching;
  • our expectations for our teachers and schools in terms to teacher ‘qualifications’ versus ‘experience’;
  • developing school practices that minimise the need for out-of-field teaching, and assesses and reduces the potential risk implicated in teaching out-of-field; 
  • how to present this issue to the public; and
  • the data needed to monitor who is teaching what and under what circumstances.

Ultimately, upskilling teachers is one response. The challenge now is for all relevant stakeholders to work together to develop strategies with coordinated actions that demonstrate how Victoria and Australia can lead the world in responding to this pervasive issue. 

Declaration: Deakin University has been contracted to provide the Graduate Certificates in science [https://www.deakin.edu.au/course/graduate-certificate-secondary-science] and mathematics  [https://www.deakin.edu.au/course/graduate-certificate-secondary-mathematics ] and will do so alongside a rich research program that will evaluate the participating teachers’ experiences throughout their qualification.

From left: Associate Professor Linda Hobbs is a Science and STEM educator and has researched in the area of out-of-field teaching for over 12 years. Professor Russell Tytler is Alfred Deakin Professor of Science Education at Deakin University, and has published widely on student and teacher learning, and interdisciplinarity in STEM. Dr Peta White is a science and environmental education senior lecturer at Deakin University with research interests including science and biology education; sustainability, climate change, and environmental education; and collaborative/activist research. Dr Jill Brown is a mathematics educator and researcher and Course Director of the Graduate Certificate Secondary Mathematics


Du Plessis, A. E., Gillies, R. M., & Carroll, A. (2014). Out-of-field teaching and professional development: A transnational investigation across Australia and South Africa. International Journal of Educational Research, 66, 90-102. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0883035514000457 

Hobbs, L. (2020). Learning to teach science out-of-field: A spatial-temporal experience. Journal of Science Teacher Education. Published online 29 Jan 2020 https://doi.org/10.1080/1046560X.2020.1718315 

Hobbs, L. & Quinn, F. (2020). Out-of-field teachers as learners: Influences on teacher perceived capacity and enjoyment over time. European Journal of Teacher Education, DOI: 10.1080/02619768.2020.1806230  Published online: 01 Sep 2020. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02619768.2020.1806230 

Hobbs, L. & Törner, G. (2019b). The out-of-field phenomenon: Synthesis and taking action. In L. Hobbs & G. Törner (Eds.), Examining the Phenomenon of “Teaching Out-of-field”: International Perspectives on Teaching as a Non-specialist (pp. 309-321). Dordrecht: Springer. https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9789811333651 

Shah, C., Richardson, P., Watt, H. (2020). Teaching ‘out of field’ in STEM subjects in Australia: Evidence from PISA 2015, GLO Discussion Paper, No. 511, Global Labor Organization (GLO), Essen. http://hdl.handle.net/10419/215639