Australia’s teacher shortage is stunting students' ability to learn critical maths and science subjects, sparking fears of the impact to their future careers.
A Deakin University report, co-written by other Australian universities and organisations, examines the long-running issue of out-of-field (OOF) teaching and its ramifications for educators and students.
OOF teaching is when teachers are forced or willingly assigned to teach subjects or stages of schooling they are not qualified to teach.
The report proposes 22 actions and 46 recommendations to assess the extent of the nation-wide issue.
Deakin School of Education Associate Professor Linda Hobbs, lead author of the report, Australian National Summit on Teaching Out-of-field: Synthesis and Recommendations for Policy, Practice and Research, said staff shortages meant classes in vital science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects are among the worst affected by teaching out-of-field. History, geography, and English are also impacted.
Teaching OOF for science and maths was of particular concern given STEM industries were expected to record some of the biggest job growth in the coming years, she said. The first step to address the problem was to form a better understanding of the extent to which staff shortages affected Australian classrooms.
"There is evidence that shows students learn better and are more inspired when taught by in-field teachers, but schools are being forced to plug gaps in their staffing and assign teachers to classes they are not qualified to teach," Associate Professor Hobbs said.
"When history teachers take over science classes, or English teachers are forced to teach maths, it's only natural that the quality of the education may suffer, especially if the teacher has little knowledge of the subject matter and limited support."
Chief among the report’s recommendations is the development of a nationally accepted definition of OOF teaching that can be used by all states and territories. This will help to measure how entrenched OOF teaching is within those jurisdictions.
The report also calls for more comprehensive data on the long-term impact of OOF teaching on teachers and students, as well as better support systems to assist OOF teachers, and strengthened career pathways into teaching, including re-training for mid-career professionals hoping to switch careers.
Associate Professor Hobbs said Victoria's Department of Education and Training launched its Secondary Mathematics and Science Initiative (SMSI) to help upskill educators to teach some STEM subjects. But she said its success was hampered because it relied on qualified teachers already in the workforce to take on extra study while juggling their existing heavy workloads.
"There are three main causes for teacher shortages that result in the need for out-of-field teaching," Associate Professor Hobbs said.
"These include a lack of teachers available at the school who are qualified to teach certain subjects. The second is that there is an unequal distribution of teachers in a geographic area, meaning suburbs, towns or cities just don't have enough teachers to meet demand. The third reason is recruitment practices by the school that preference qualities other than teacher specialisations when making their hiring decisions.
"What this report shows us is teaching out-of-field has become an increasingly critical issue. We believe it is something that urgently needs to be addressed to mitigate any impact on students' education and teacher wellbeing."
Melbourne science teacher Amanda Peters, who taught at a secondary school in the city's east before taking a recent career break to undertake her PhD at Deakin, said she taught classes out-of-field for most of her 20-year career. During that time, she was asked to teach everything from driver education to sport, maths, physics, and geography as out-of-field subjects.
While teaching out-of-field gives educators an opportunity to stretch their skills, she said most find the experience stressful.
"Students can sense when a teacher doesn't feel passionate or confident in what they're teaching, and this can become clear pretty quickly when an educator is teaching out-of-field," Ms Peters said.
"Most teachers during their careers will have to teach out-of-field at some point, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. If a teacher is supported by their employer to learn the material, that can make a lot of difference."
This article originally appeared as a media release from the Deakin University’s School of Education.