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How do you teach a subject that is not your specialism?

By Alan Peters,

24 Jan 2020

The chances are that some point in your career you will be teaching a subject that is not your specialism.

 You know the sort of chat the curriculum leader initiates – to the History teacher a desperate plea to take, for one year only, Year 8 English.  To the scientist, a sob story about a shortage of maths staff.  To anybody capable of getting to the playing fields, a rugby ball left in your pigeon hole. Of course, if you are a primary school teacher you will almost certainly be delivering a curriculum featuring a range of subjects about which you have only the most rudimentary grasp.  That reasoning is sort of based on the idea that as the knowledge required is low, anybody can deliver it.  Well, while a good teacher is a good teacher, some of the maths and English in Year 6 is anything but straightforward, especially the work the most able should be covering. I have seen many children mixing up their simile with their metaphor, or with a mental block when it comes to mathematical equations.

 The blame can be traced back to a well meaning but uninformed Year 4 teacher.

 And, dear Year Seven class, whatever you might think, hyperbole is not a venue for important American Football games.  (It is pronounced hi-per-bol-ee).  But then again, why should you be an expert on every topic under the sun? It also passed me by, right through my career, as to how a love of music could be instilled in young people by teachers who have neither knowledge nor skills (nor, indeed, interest!) in the subject.  Or, how a love and ability for, say, cricket can be imparted when the teacher simply does not know the technique of a cover drive.  It is not, despite the best intentions of local authority courses, something that can be learned in a morning session at the local teachers’ centre. But, notwithstanding all of the above, teaching a subject that is not your specialism, is not as daunting as it might first seem. Seize The Opportunity A positive mindset can turn what looks like a lot of hard work into a really exciting opportunity.  There is something refreshing about learning new skills, new knowledge.  And, that set of English among your week of History teaching can be something to look forward to, its very difference to what you normally do highlighting it in your week. Remember:  A Good Teacher Is A Good Teacher We forget, and current trends in education to throw all and sundry in at the deep end do not help, that teaching is a profession.  It is built on pedagogic theory; not absolutes but nevertheless concepts and frameworks that help our classes to learn.  Whether Geography or History certain tenets hold true.  Insisting on quiet when the teacher is speaking is a non-negotiable not abandoned because you are in the sports hall rather than the classroom; ensuring lots of pupil activity is still the way to make a lesson interesting and worthwhile whether the lab is a language one, or a science facility. In other words, those skills that make you a strong teacher will mean that you are still a strong teacher whatever you are teaching.  Yes, subject knowledge plays a part, but is not the most important element of being a successful pedagogue. Ensure You Have The Capability To Learn The Skills Having said that a good teaching is universal, whatever the subject, there are some occasions where a teacher should not allow themselves to be forced into teaching something that is beyond them.  Especially when student safety could be compromised. The most obvious subjects that come to mind are in the science, sports and design fields.

 That machinery is seriously scary.

 But equally, being asked to teach music when you are a non-musical person is unfair to you, but even more so to the pupils.

It takes a lifetime of love and commitment to become a musician, not a weekend course and half an hour on a computer.  Naturally, most head teachers would not entertain this kind of short cut, but with the growing financial pressure on schools, increasing numbers of heads who are not educationalists but businessmen and the unprofessionalism not unusually found in the worst independent schools, who knows? We qualified as teachers, not child minders. Agree To A Level With Which You Can Cope I taught maths a couple of times in my career (I’m better now); once was OK because I could manage the content, the second was a disaster because the level of work was just beyond me.  Lesson preparation consisted of frantic calls to my brother (a maths teacher) and far more time that was sensible trying to master techniques that I did not understand. So, I would advise, be positive when approached, but make it clear the level to which you feel able to deliver good quality teaching to your students. Less Opportunity To Wing It Maybe this is a down side, or an up side of teaching a subject that is not your specialism.  There is less opportunity to get away with inadequate planning.

 There’s nothing wrong with delivering the occasional stock lesson but it’s tough if the ingredients making up the stock are not readily to hand.

Anybody who has been following my blogs will know that I am a firm advocate of planning for oneself, not potential OFSTED inspectors or senior managers looking to find room for criticism.  Perhaps when tackling planning in the case we are considering here, a little more time is needed. It can be guaranteed that Matilda with the braces will ask the question you did not want to be asked…and knowing where to find the answer can make or break our legitimacy. Observation – how to see success Here’s a question.  Who gets the most out of being observed?  The subject, because they can have useful feedback and probably spend a bit of extra time getting their lesson as close to perfect as possible?  The observer, seeing good practice and picking up tips?  Perhaps the students, having their most interesting lesson of the week!  Whichever, watching an expert deliver the second subject you have been asked to teach can only be of help. So, there are some thoughts on how to teach a subject with which you are not as comfortable as you might be.   But please, if you have ideas of your own, or experiences that have worked (or not) share them with us.  Contact details are below, and the more we can spread the wonder of best practice, the better the outcomes for our students will be. Personally, as an English teacher, I loved teaching other subjects.  I could treat this as an opportunity to develop my own teaching skills, further my own knowledge and offer variety into my working week.  I hope I am not alone..