Linda Hobbs is helping out-of-field teachers achieve job satisfaction

In the early years of high school, Associate Professor Linda Hobbs thought she would like to teach PE and English but then in year 11 she discovered biology and fell in love with science. After completing a Bachelor of Science at the University of Ballarat she decided to combine her first love of teaching with her love of science and became a science teacher. A short stint as a high school science teacher was followed by a role as a teacher educator at the University of Ballarat, which led her to a PhD at Deakin University.

Linda’s career has focused on generating new insights and informing new directions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. She is Associate Head of School, Research in the School of Education at Deakin and a member of the Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and Environmental (STEME) Education Research Group. She leads the research component of the Secondary Maths and Science Initiative (SMSI), which has developed Graduate Certificates in mathematics and science for out-of-field teachers. Her PhD highlighted the lack of research in this area and one of her first research projects resulted in a seminal paper on out-of-field teaching that has gained the attention of researchers and policy makers worldwide. Here she talks about her research in out-of-field teaching.

What is out-of-field teaching?

Teaching out-of-field refers to teaching a subject without the necessary qualifications. The reality of education is that sometimes there are not enough teachers to teach the subjects on offer in schools. Shortages of qualified teachers, particularly in mathematics and science, have led to an increase in the number of teachers teaching outside their subject areas. A teacher can be considered out-of-field if they are teaching a subject different to the discipline-based qualification they obtained before enrolling in their teaching degree or teaching a level of schooling that differs from their teaching degree.

Why is this area of research important?

Out-of-field teaching has an impact on the quality of educational outcomes for students and the well-being and job satisfaction of teachers. Teacher retention is a big issue and the stress caused by teaching out-of-field can contribute to a teacher’s decision to leave the profession. Their success has a lot to do with how much support they are given. There is a need to understand this increasingly common practice and provide appropriate system responses.

When did you become interested in this area of research?

My PhD project was part of a Victorian Department of Education and Training funded initiative with Professor Russell Tytler, Associate Professor Susie Groves and Associate Professor Annette Gough investigating professional development for maths and science teachers in the middle years.

I found that some teachers were teaching a subject that they did not have a qualification to teach. My PhD highlighted the lack of research into this phenomenon, and the need to understand what is happening for out-of-field science and maths teachers so that they are supported.

By the end of my candidature, I got a job at RMIT and a small, funded project to do some interviews with teachers at various schools. I found that a teacher’s identity, knowledge and passion can be challenged when they are expected to teach a subject in which they don’t have a background. The paper that I wrote in 2013 has been highly cited because it contained new ideas at the time.

In 2015, I was awarded an Australian Research Council grant to study out-of-field teaching. The project involved three universities and focussed on the career trajectories experienced by out-of-field teachers over time. That moved my focus from the immediate effects on teachers who are out-of-field to what happens for these teachers over time.

How has your research had an impact?

My research contributes to an education reform agenda that promotes and prioritises STEM education.

The STEME research group has been able to provide the Victorian Department of Education and Training with data that informs their decisions around out-of-field teaching. The notion of career pathways for out-of-field teachers is an important issue. In the case of long-term out-of-field teaching assignments, teachers need to develop their skills so that they can teach the subject successfully. Over the years we have worked with the Department to develop two professional development initiatives that help teachers achieve this: the STEM Catalyst Program, which led to the development of a Graduate Certificate in STEM Education; and the SMSI, which led to two new courses — the Graduate Certificate in Mathematics Education and Graduate Certificate in Science Education.

Is it an issue that is unique to Australia?

Out-of-field teaching is a worldwide issue that arises due to supply and demand issues, even in countries where they have strict regulations around who can teach what. I co-lead the Out-of-field Teaching Across Specialisations (TAS) Collective, an international group focusing on research and practice relating to out-of-field teaching, incorporating researchers from Germany, England, Ireland, Canada, Korea, the United States, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Australia. It is a valuable group that allows us to compare and critique different systems. We meet once a year at our annual symposium, and members have so far published their research in two edited books and two special issues. Our latest book is Out-of-field Teaching Across Teaching Disciplines and Contexts.

What are you working on next?

I will be continuing with the research relating to the SMSI Graduate Certificates, which will provide valuable information into how to design and implement courses that meet the varied and changing needs of out-of-field teachers. I’m also undertaking a fascinating study with colleagues from Science, Mathematics, English, and the Humanities to understand why it is different teaching out-of-field in those subjects, and we are developing a framework that can support a teacher’s transition into the new subject. I am also developing a tool to help out-of-field teachers and school leaders determine support needs, identify risks, and map out teacher learning trajectories. This is a challenge that is bubbling away. Finally, I’m also working with colleagues from other universities to investigate the effects of the system policy context and school cultures on teacher attitude towards and uptake of professional learning in out-of-field areas – this evidence base is needed to inform initiatives that cater to the professional development of out-of-field teachers.