Times are changing: Reflections on teaching outside your specialism

Everyone has been affected by this hard financial crisis, creating a massive impact for schools and teachers. No longer do we just teach our specialised areas imparting outstanding subject knowledge onto our students, but we are now faced with teaching second subjects. This challenge may seem daunting but I am sure it’s a challenge that most of us have faced.

The first term of teaching the core subjects of English and Maths as second subjects (which is a far cry from teaching Physical Education and Dance) made me feel like an NQT again (rabbit caught in headlights). It was completely out of my practical comfort zone. I knew I had to adapt and change the way I taught! Students were now in a classroom, sitting at tables: they were no longer in a practical space; I no longer had a whistle; I no longer had my vast subject knowledge. I found myself with access to many resources at the tip of my fingers (something that I wasn’t used to). I had to re-learn skills and topics that I hadn’t used or personally accessed since I was at school and some of these methods had evolved.

I took a moment and stood back to evaluate my first term. I actually surprised myself with not only what I had achieved but also what my students had achieved. Admittedly, I had outstanding and supportive colleagues who always had their door open to answer questions, offer advice, share their resources and point me in the right direction to ensure I had all the tools needed to succeed. Sometimes, it was just reassurance that actually, I was doing a good job!

My reflection on my first year of teaching core subjects was to spend time thinking about the journey I had been on and what would I take from the year to inform me to be successful for the following year. The advice I gave myself:

I can adapt my teaching to successfully teach additional subjects. I already have the skills of a good teacher. I just have to work a little harder to gain subject knowledge. I must ensure I am always one step ahead of the students whilst ensuring I am providing students with a thriving learning environment ensuring pupils have the opportunity to develop and learn.

It made me think about the key parts of success from the year. The most fundamental skill of successful and effective teaching was scaffolding. I knew this was important but I didn’t realise just how important scaffolding was until I had to relearn subjects myself. Have you ever wondered what it is like for a student to miss a lesson and then come in and pick up where you are? I can! The student has to work quicker than anyone else in the class to get to the same point as the other students. They will have gaps in their knowledge as they have missed a step in your scaffolding. Whist catching up with the other students in their class, they will miss other key information or steps. This will continually put them at a disadvantage and create a learning barrier for the student.  

I focused on the use of scaffolding within my lessons –  not only to provide a clear foundation for the students but to also ensure that I gave the students every possible piece of knowledge for them to succeed. I felt that I would be able to do this effectively to aid the students’ learning as I had to continually develop my skills of scaffolding to ensure my full understanding of why a formula works or how to create a sound structure to a piece of writing using key subject specific vocabulary.  Scaffolding has allowed me to simplify areas that students find challenging and this has built students’ confidence and belief that they can achieve. Scaffolding has been most effective as my students and I succeed as we create solid foundations to develop learning and grow our subject knowledge together.  I understand and empathise with students who find certain topics or areas of writing challenging, thus equipping myself with the skills needed to scaffold effectively. When scaffolding is effective, you give every student the opportunity to thrive and succeed with students gaining in confidence every step of the way.

Although, I have found this time challenging, I feel I have had invaluable support, guidance and belief from colleagues. When I feel I may not be doing something right, colleagues have always given me positives which has given me confidence with teaching my non-specialist area.  I have tried to give students continual reassurance as it had such a positive impact on my teaching and self-belief that I wanted to pass it on to my students. I have found that most pupils will adopt an ‘I can’ approach to learning and gain a strong belief that they can do anything when they approach learning successfully and positively.

As time has passed, teaching second subjects is no longer daunting. I no longer feel out of my depth. My subject knowledge has grown; the use of subject specific vocabulary now appear more often within my lessons. I now have the added benefit of informed knowledge of what works and what does not, drawing on previous experiences. Each class can still surprise you as you try to understand how one lesson can work for one class but not another! This is a continual reminder that knowing your students is another key area to success in the classroom. Through this knowledge and mind-set as a teacher, you are able to evaluate making informed judgments on how to adapt and improve to ensure the students achieve their full capabilities.

Throughout this time in my career, it has reminded me that we are all capable and adaptable to any teaching situation. We just need to stop and remember the key aspects to the success of teaching which are so important. I believe students thrive through teachers ensuring they continually think about scaffolding, effective planning, clear structure of lessons (to suit the needs of the students), resources, subject terminology and develop their own subject knowledge. I feel as though this challenge has reignited my teaching and I have developed, adapted and continually improved my teaching giving myself a gentle reminder of what is important along the way. It is clear to say I now understand the concepts of resilience, determination, adapting skills to any situation and striving to succeed.    

Toni Walton    

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