Non-Specialist Teaching… it’s dangerous!

I haven’t blogged for a while and I’ve now finished work to have my baby. I’m sorry people, the blogs that have been in my head for a while are probably all going to come together!

First of all, I want to discuss the dangers of non-specialist teaching. This time around I was the non-specialist teaching History and Geography and I was the only teacher, teaching the whole school RE.

I have not particularly enjoyed teaching this year and I think a lot of that is down to the fact that I have taught more non-specialist subjects than RE. My RE curriculum was always well thought out and planned and I could differentiate for my classes because I have clear knowledge and experience in RE to allow me to do this. It was never a concern to me on a week to week basis as I was confident in my abilities in this area and could manipulate the curriculum I had planned in whichever direction was necessary.

However, I relied on someone else’s planning for History and Geography. It was sold to me as I wouldn’t need to worry because all the lessons were planned. I’d already been hired before I found out my timetable would actually be non-specialist heavy so it was too late to say no.

In the beginning, I taught the lessons as they were. I have a little more knowledge in History than Geography and also we had a Historian in school so I could use her if I was desperate. Geography on the other hand was a cause of great stress. The lessons were weak and with no Geographer on site, it meant that I became solely responsible for re-planning the lessons I had been given and making them relevant to our kids and then re-planning again specifically for my own classes.

I had a mixture of sets and year groups, top and bottom, year 7 and 8. This meant that I couldn’t just think in terms of one or two classes. I was planning Geography lessons to stretch the top year 8’s and then planning completely different Geography lessons for the set of EAL students who were very new to English, all with no knowledge of Geography! I had great needs in my classes that are hard to plan for full stop. Planning a subject I had no idea about was a disaster.

I made some great mistakes such as drawing graphs incorrectly and then having to back track and re-teach it correctly. Silly mistakes, based on the fact I had misunderstood someone else’s lesson plans.

When assessment and data entry comes around, there’s a stark realisation that you’re not just doing a ‘favour’ or ‘filling this hole until someone qualified comes along’. You are actually responsible for this curriculum. I put my effort into those lessons because of the children but I did not necessarily do them the justice they deserved. I planned lessons I thought were adequate for Geography but I am an RE specialist with not even as little as a Geography GCSE to aid me.

Differentiating non-specialist assessments was difficult too as you need knowledge of how to grade in those subjects as well as knowledge of the content and this was another massive glitch in my teaching this year. They say that you can teach ‘anything’ when you’re a teacher and whilst I know I did teach something in those lessons, the level of expertise and craft that one applies to their own subject was inherently missing. This was clearly obvious.

In lots of schools, non-specialists teach RE and we think that they’ll be okay because they’re teaching lessons we’ve planned and thought out. We have to put up with it or face having no teacher’s at all in RE sometimes! But without that background knowledge, it can all go to shambles in the classroom. Or without that knowledge when planning for specific needs such as G&T or new to English it can become a bit of a joke. Also, without confidence in that subject the children can take advantage. I had to say ‘I’m sorry I’m not a Geographer I’ll look that up and get back to you…’ too many times this year.

Schools have to fill the gaps, I understand that, but surely at this level in education it’s important for the children not to have non-specialists teaching outside of their comfort zone. It’s also important for GCSE as the foundations are laid at KS3 and without them, teaching GCSE is going to be so much harder than necessary.

If I was ever to manage non-specialists in RE, I would offer so much more support with planning than I initially would have thought necessary. Although, ideally I would say we should be teaching where our expertise lies.

 

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