Are out-of-field teachers just hole fillers?

How beginning educators teaching high school mathematics out-of-field in regional Australia develop a professional identity

A multi-hued leaf sitting on a wet black slate ground.

Dear reader: I’ve plunged into writing about out-of-field teaching for a post-graduate degree in education research. Here’s my foray into sense-making of this phenomenon.

Up to one in three beginning secondary school educators in Australia teach outside their specialist areas (Vale 2019, Weldon 2016). Scratch below the surface of the label, ‘out of field teachers’ (OOFT), and you’ll find 12-plus ways of measuring their numbers here and internationally (Ingersoll 2019:25).

Often, OOFT are assigned to teach Year 7 to 10 mathematics. Some 21% of such teachers lack university mathematical subject and pedagogical training (Weldon 2016:7) to support student learning (Bennison 2016:2), and 12% of that cohort are early career teachers (in their first five years of their careers) (Weldon 2016:7). In addition, they can lack “flamboyance” as a teacher (Hobbs 2012:21).

Why is this happening, and is it an issue?

Out-of-field teachers are essential to fill holes in “unsympathetic” school timetables (Hobbs and Törner 2019:4). But, there are widely held assumptions that their supposed deficits in teaching quality and insufficient numbers of subject-qualified teachers are to blame for poorer student learning outcomes, posits Ingersoll (2019:23).

But, is OOFT a problem if experienced teachers front classrooms?

Two key indicators for student learning often cited are the performance of Australian students in the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).

In a quest to boost student performance, there is much scholarly and public focus on the incidence and impact of OOFT. This is in the context of discussions about:

  • educational policies (Du Plessis 2020)
  • rubbery figures about teacher attrition within the first five years of their careers (Weldon 2016)
  • the paucity of official detailed workforce data (Weldon, 2016, Weldon 2018, AITSL 2021, Hobbs and Törner 2019, Ingersoll 2019, O’Connor and Thomas 2019, Du Plessis 2020, DFAT 2019, Vale 2019)
  • teacher ‘bashing’ (EducationHQ 2021)
  • the need to boost students’ STEM (science, technology, and mathematics)
  • future workforce skills (Finkel 2020), and
  • education departments’ curtailing of teachers’ voices in the debate (Reid 2019).

Cutting a swathe through this cacophony is data showing out-of-field teaching happens in schools or fields without teacher shortages (Ingersoll 2019:23).

Is it just a rostering issue — an easy ‘fix’?

No, there are many levels of complexity, particularly in mathematics teaching.

The NSW (Australia) education department acknowledges a high demand for teachers in non-urban areas and a decreasing supply of mathematics teachers overall, creating a “persistent challenge” for “attracting and retaining teachers” to non-metropolitan areas (Holden and Zhang 2018:52).

Despite various initiatives involving Federal and state governments, professional associations, and university education faculties to tackle this issue, the shortfall of mathematics-qualified teachers will take at least three decades to solve (O’Connor and Thomas 2019:9).

The Australian education system is in a state of flux, and this is what the beginning OOFT of mathematics are walking into — they’re hole fillers in an education system minefield.

How do they form a professional identity that benefits themselves and the system, and what does that identity look and feel like internally and externally?

Sometimes, as an out-of-field casual-relief or temporary teacher, your students think their school has just plucked you off the street

Framing one’s professional identity: ‘Miss, are you a ‘real’ teacher?’

This literature review has explored professional identity development through the lens of OOFT, but is limited to Australian and mostly First World research in English. Where possible, the review was refined to papers about those who teach secondary school mathematics out of field.


For seven years (until April 2019), I was a primary-trained educator who did many CRT stints of out-of-field high-school mathematics teaching in regional NSW schools. However, as a casual, relief, and temporary teacher, I had no mentors nor frameworks for developing my professional identity as a teacher because no school would supervise me from a provisional to proficient teacher as per the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (AITSL, 2018).

Was my identity based on which subjects I taught (and where in the K-12 paradigm) or based on what I did, that is, teach? My students would regularly ask if I was a ‘real’ teacher. I couldn’t call myself a ‘maths teacher’, nor would a school’s mathematics faculty do so because I wasn’t mathematics qualified despite my enthusiasm for mathematics, a “language we can use to interpret the world” (Woo 2018:17).

Yet, in my recent interviews with out-of-field early-career high school teachers (Australian Educator 2021), when I asked how they identify, they replied, “I’m a teacher”, without a need to qualify that. Had I found a new breed of educator proud not to specialise?

Thus emerges my research question: How does one build a professional identity as a beginning CRT educator teaching high-school mathematics out of field in regional schools? This school context emerges from my ‘lived experience’ (Oxford 2021:para.1) as an embedded teacher and narrows the literature review’s scope, although rural and remote schools also prove challenging to staff (DFAT 2019:15).

Theoretical underpinnings

While debate ensues about whether education is a ‘field’ or ‘discipline’ (Bridges 2017:15, Wyse 2020), educational researchers cherry-pick from a diverse range of theories and frameworks. They include the categories of social sciences and humanities from which emerge disciplines of:

· psychology

· sociology

· anthropology

· sociology

· psychology

· history

· philosophy

· leadership

· economics

· literary studies, and more (Bridges 2017:18).

Therefore, this literature review has revealed a multitude of theoretical approaches that attempt to unpack the concept of ‘teacher professional identity’ spanning my search terms of pre-service or beginning teachers, to mathematics-qualified teachers, to OOFT, and the latter who teach mathematics.

Figuring out the mathematics teachers’ identity

Darragh (2016), who delved into identity in mathematics education in her literature review of 188 articles, found the area lacked consensus in defining identity, and sometimes research was “theoretically incompatible” (Darragh 2016:19). She found most research placed the concept of identity as either a sociological ‘action’ or psychological acquisition (Darragh 2016:19).

The most oft-cited was social learning theory (Wenger 1998, Lave and Wenger 1991 cited in Darragh 2016:23), which holds that learning happens as a process of negotiating meaning through participation, relationships, and social dimensions, such as communities of practice rather than an “accumulation of skills and information” (Wenger 2012, Wenger 1998:215).

Indeed, one’s identity as a teacher and their actions, ie. teaching practices, are assumed to be linked and ‘situated’ in a context (Wenger 1998). I concur with Darragh (2016:19) about Wenger’s (1998) influence in identity research, having also found mentions (Rø 2020, Mercieca 2018:323, Sterner 2015:2963).

How can and does an out-of-field teacher have a ‘presence’ in the classroom?

A perspective on identity

More broadly, the concept of professional teacher identity is complex, having personal and social aspects spanning knowledge, beliefs, emotions, relationships, “contexts and experiences” (van Putten et al. 2014: 370). I propose that a professional teacher’s identity is about their:

· disposition

· actions

· performance

· self-perception

· reflections

· sense of belonging to the ‘tribe’ of teachers

· others’ perceptions of them in the school contexts, and

· that identity is remade or shattered every day (writing from my ‘lived experience’).

The research examined was patchy on CRT OOFT experience (kind, duration, and verification) and a quality rating of instructional practices, as well as differences between CRT OOFT of mathematics and mathematics-qualified teachers.

Navigating methodologies and methods

However, I did find a range of methodological approaches in published research applied to micro, meso, and macro levels (Neuman 2009 in Cresswell and Cresswell:53), respectively individual case studies, communities of practice, and school contexts as well as international education system comparisons. Darragh’s (2016) review found the most common methodologies were qualitative, including these methods: “interviews, observations, video analysis, autobiography, and document analysis” (Darragh 2016:23). Qualitative research also predominated in my smaller-scale literature review.

Why can’t a study look at two or more of those levels?

I questioned the sole method of case studies to achieve reliability and depth, mainly where a handful of teachers were profiled (Rø 2020, Bennison 2016, Arslan 2018, van Putten et al. 2014, Charteris et al 2017, Lutovac 2020, Valoyes-Chavez 2019, Heyd-Metzuyanim 2019, Nolan 2016, Sternberg and Maaranen 2021) and at most their mentors, too (Mosvold and Bjuland 2016).

Hobbs (2012) demonstrated a more comprehensive approach by involving principals, assistant principals, a teaching and learning coach, as well as a mix of early career and experienced OOFT of mathematics and science, as did Mercieca (2018) using the lens of a communities of practice for her research. Meanwhile, another study tested my quality expectations. It involved a group of former casual teachers reflecting on their experiences in an “evolving feminist post-structuralist research method” (Charteris et al. 2017:517). In short, this “collective biography” (Charteris et al. 2017: 516) amounted to a kind of historical navel-gazing. While it did take a Foucaldian lens to CRT teaching to delineate power structures (Charteris 2017:516), it missed capturing other voices in teaching contexts in identity meaning-making.

My bias is towards deeply and widely researching an issue, not just one chink, because identity is not a construct residing in one’s head, it’s a social and psychological paradigm.

Other gaps I noted in the research were in exploring the developing a professional teacher identity from the perspectives of teachers’ gender, age, prior non-teaching career (if any), disability, culturally and linguistically diverse community background or geographic location (such as a city-dweller who moves to the regions to teach), and offer comparisons.

Equity for developing teachers: differentiation

As well, no research was found comparing how early career mathematics qualified teachers develop their identity compared to their peers teaching mathematics out of field.

How can these factors influence identity formation?

How do education system supports for early career CRT OOF teachers of maths differentiate for their learning needs as teachers themselves must differentiate lessons and assessments for their learners?

Could school rostering software, such as Sentral, tally and analyse the data on who’s teaching what, where, when, and why? It may show, for example, an OOFT has taught the equivalent of three years of year 7–10 mathematics classes, and, with supervisory signoff about their performance, could achieve a microcredential, credit, or more towards mathematics-qualifications?

Why can’t educators’ teaching experience count towards qualifications?

A promising approach to differentiating supports for identity development is the Teacher of Mathematics Identity (ToMI) Framework by Lynch et al. (2020). It aims to attract and retain mathematics teaches — infield and OOF — to regional, rural, and remote contexts. ToMI places the teacher at the centre within a professional collaborative network, school leadership supports, and a professional affiliate — the Mathematical Association of NSW.

The proponents are testing the framework and hope it will be adjustable and applicable to different contexts, particularly STEM, to help develop a robust and enduring professional teacher identity (Lynch et al. 2020:21). The framework acknowledges one size does not fit all.

That is why I took umbrage with another framework that oversimplified mathematics teacher identity into three types: traditional (teacher-centred), new (reformist, i.e., favouring student-centred, inquiry-based pedagogies), or resistor (having undergone professional development as a reformist, but failing to adopt those practices) (Zimmerman 2006 cited in Valoyes-Chavez 2019). This research has evolved from the school mathematics reform movement or “eruption” (Valoyes-Chavez 2019: 179), which are multiple discourses with “structure a space of possibilities of being, feeling and acting as a mathematics teacher” (Valoyes-Chavez 2019:179). Interestingly, this movement was not mentioned in any of the Australian research reviewed.

Valoyes-Chavez (2019:188) raised the fascinating notion of a mathematics teacher undertaking training that foregrounded inquiry-based, student-centred instructional strategies but resisting adopting them whole-heartedly in his classroom. That’s because they rendered that educator “invisible” (Valoyes-Chavez 2019:188) as he had to “step down” to stay at the rear of the classroom as students were given agency to steer their learning (Valoyes-Chavez 2019:188).

There’s a parallel to CRT teachers’ situation as ‘faceless’ hole fillers who students challenge by asking, “are you a real teacher?”.

But, I question whether an educator can be pigeon-holed as traditional, new, or resistor because teachers will differentiate using explicit instruction, modelled-guided-independent learning approaches to inquiry, or project-based learning depending on the lesson, day, student cohort, and school context.

Conclusion — summary/way forward

In summary, the literature review of about 40 items revealed research gaps for me to explore. There is a ‘sweet spot’ to comprehensively study early career CRT OOFT of mathematics working in regional Australian schools.

For example, no research was found that focused on:

· a large cohort (30, as a suggestion) of early career teachers over their first three years of teaching mathematics OOF and as CRTs in regional Australia taking a mixed-method approach of:

o surveys;

o interviews;

o reflective autobiographical journals;

o classroom video analysis;

o an occasional embedded observer in the classroom, staffroom, and online communities of practice;

o analysis of teachers’ proficiency documentation;

o involving to different degrees the teacher, their mentor, the mathematics faculty head, a senior leader such as a principal, and students’ feedback (on instructional quality) at different points in time (such as every six months)

to arrive at a contemporary cohort-community definition of professional teacher identity and how it can evolve.

Marrying up this data with that from the schools’ databases detailing the number and type of mathematics classes those teachers fronted and when would also be useful to see if it influenced their identity development.

Student voice is flagged because it helps show what students aren’t learning and why, so offers insights into the quality of teachers’ instructional practices (Ingvarson and Reid 2018:para.2), a component of teacher identity.

Importantly, what world views, ‘lived experiences’ (i.e. social and cultural capital they bring to the profession (Bourdieu 1977)), and understanding of ‘signature’ pedagogies (core teaching practices) from their subject specialisations do they bring to their roles (Darby 2010)?

The depth and richness of this sociocultural approach could highlight processes and outcomes such as a normalisation or strengths-based rather than deficit view of CRT teaching OOF in mathematics — possibly an ‘ah ha’ realisation.


AITSL: Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

ATWD Australian Teacher Workforce Data

CRT teachers: Casual, relief, and temporary teachers

NAPLAN: National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy

OOF: Out of field

OOFT: Out of field teaching (or teachers depending on the context)

PISA: Programme for International Student Assessment

STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

ToMI: Teacher of Mathematics Identity


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Margaret Paton, Aussie-based education writer

PhD student at Deakin University, Australia, using netnography to explore out-of-field teaching. GradCert Ed Research MTeach|GradDip Comm Mgmt |BA Journalism.