Don’t assume out-of-field teachers are UNqualified — they could just be teaching across boundaries

My latest installment as I delve into the phenomenon of out-of-field teaching as part of my Graduate Research in Education Research at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.

Stitched up?

Child’s quilt designed and made by Lydia Jakovac

Patterning out-of-field teachers using representational and textual tools

Quilters sketch, stretch, cut and stitch, much like the process Australia’s K-12 education system undergoes to craft its ‘patchwork quilt’ of in-field and out-of-field teachers (OOFT) into an ideally cohesive workforce every school day. This research will assemble a mini OOFT version of that quilt using a mixed-methods research approach. It will comprise a scoping review (sketch) by methodically prising out OOFT mentions (‘scraps’) from the fabric of public-domain Australian and overseas online content. I will trim and ‘stitch’ them into well-designed patterns (i.e. codes and themes) to highlight media representation(s) of the OOFT phenomenon.

The result will be a ‘verbal’ quilt, such as a heatmap, that analyses the underpinning conceptualisations, and seeks to posit the impacts as a time series stitched “toward (re)new(ed) compositions of [OOFT] selves” (Park et al 2019). Adding a temporal element lifts the phenomenon from a two-dimensional media representation (stereotypes) to a more nuanced and multi-textural fabric that is three dimensional (figuratively, appliqué work). The time series parallels that this phenomenon has existed for at least five decades and has increasingly become a global problem (Du Plessis, interview with author, 5 June 2021).

Pulling a single thread will not cleanly unstitch the phenomenon — out-of-field teaching. Hobbs et al. 2020 describe it as complex and multilayered and even permanent teachers often teach OOF (Du Plessis 2020) rather than ‘in field’, the subject(s) for which they are university-degree qualified. The edges or boundaries tend to fray, which is why a scoping review as ‘reconnaissance’ to delineate working definitions and conceptual boundaries is a useful tool (Peters et al. 2015:141). Defining OOFT encompasses educators teaching outside their expertise or degree qualification (Du Plessis 2020:xi) or specialism (Vale et al. 2020:1). They are considered unprepared to teach a subject (Vale et al. 2020:1), less-qualified (Vale et al. 2020:4), “out-of-their-scope, out-of-their-confidence and out-of-their depth” (Du Plessis 2020:280) and yet, “unsuitably assigned” (Du Plessis 2020:73). These definitions focus on the teaching qualifications before an educator enters a classroom, while subsequent teaching experiences, achievements, professional development and learning are not counted (Hobbs et al. 2020). In the US, OOFT can be college graduates teaching science out of discipline without teaching qualifications (Stanley et al. 2021). As well, teaching assistants are considered OOFT, at least in Israel, where that country’s Ministry of Education recently recruited its second annual cohort to address its teacher shortage (Donitsa-Schmidt 2021). OOFT is a simplistic label and, on its own, is “insufficient as a definition” (Vale and Drake 2019:211).

Therefore, Hobbs (et al. 2020, Hobbs et al. 2021) offer four “multi-faceted definitions” drawing on workload, qualifications, capability, self-reports, school structures and a time series. That definition is gaining currency through academic circles, such as the online OOF international symposium (OOF-TAS 2021). In essence, ‘out-of-field’ teaching sees an educator teaching in an area or stage for which they are not degree-qualified. That includes a primary-trained teacher taking high-school classes, a high-school teacher appointed primary-school principal, or a science high-school teacher at the helm of mathematics classes, etc. So, the latter might be regarded as teaching ‘close to’ their qualification rather than crossing over a [subject] boundary (Hobbs et al. 2020) or unrelated, i.e. ‘other’ Bose and Törner (2017:6). A core issue is OOFTs’ presumed poor grasp of the relevant content and pedagogical content knowledge (Carpendale 2021).

A roll of soft synthetic padding used for the backing of quilts

Unravelling OOFT from within education systems

Critically discussing the problem within an educational/social/political/environmental context

Quantification — measurement — helps understand and track a phenomenon. However, Australia suffers a paucity of workforce data about teachers’ qualifications, what they teach where and the duration (Weldon 2016, Weldon 2018, Hobbs and Törner 2019, Ingersoll 2019, O’Connor and Thomas 2019, Du Plessis 2020, DFAT 2019, Vale 2019). Confusion reigns globally because more than a dozen measurement approaches are used (Ingersoll 2019:25), so Australian and global OOFT numbers are largely unknown.

However, there are some rudimentary figures. Like quilters, teachers in Australia are mostly female comprising more than eight in 10 primary and six in ten secondary teachers (Australian Bureau of Statistics:2021). There are almost 300,000 full-time equivalent teachers in all Australian school sectors (ABS:2021), with a third of beginning high-school educators teaching outside their qualification areas (Vale et al. 2020, Weldon 2016). In NSW, education department figures show one in six (15%) high school and one in seven (14%) primary school teachers work outside their area of expertise (Baker 2021a:para.4), with that state expected to “run out” of new public-school teachers by 2026 (Baker 2021b:para.1).

One area gaining much media attention for teacher shortages is science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), particularly the latter (Weldon 2016), but would need at least three decades to resolve (O’Connor and Thomas 2019:9). Finkel (2000) highlights that fundamental to the future workforce are STEM foundational skills developed in Year 7–10 (Weldon 2018:76–77). STEM occupations in Australia will increase by 11.6% compared to 7.5% for all other jobs in the three years to May 2024 (Harvey-Smith 2021). Meanwhile, geography, religious studies, and history — the subjects with the greatest teacher shortages (Weldon 2016:16) — attract less online media attention.

In practice, schools appoint OOFTs due to “unsympathetic” school timetables (Hobbs and Törner 2019:4), indicating a mismatch between teachers’ qualifications and schools’ requirements. This is my lived experience as a primary-qualified OOFT working in 7–12 NSW regional schools for seven years and shapes my epistemological view about OOFT from a deficit perspective. That is despite appreciating some teachers have carved successful OOFT careers, so multiple realities exist. My truth is not the universal OOFT truth. Importantly, OOFT occurs globally even in fields or schools without shortages globally (Ingersoll 2019:23).

Therefore, OOFT lacks international consensus on a singular definition, precise workforce data about its occurrence (Du Plessis 2020:69), insights into its causes and impacts, yet persists due to a misalignment of education policies and school funds (Vale and Drake 2019:196). Hence, Du Plessis (2020:76–77) describes it as a “widespread and global epidemic in education”, negatively impacting quality teaching and education, “diversity management, teacher and student well-being and social justice in teachers’ work and students’ learning” (Du Plessis 2020:xi, Van Overschelde 2021). (OOFT was demoralising and insecure work that shrank my confidence and sense of professionalism.) It appears the media have tapped into OOFT as an individual and education system deficit partly to blame for Australian students’ bumpy NAPLAN (National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy), PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) results. Such standardised testing of learning outcomes focuses on performative measures and sits within the predominant neo-liberal underpinning of education policies (Reid 2020) which work to further narrow teachers’ collective professional autonomy to “obsolescence” (Netolicky et al 2019:4). OOFT is problematic due to its repercussions for multiple stakeholders, systems, schools and individual teachers.

Reassembling the problem through OOFT representations

This research seeks to systematically examine national and international, mainstream and education-specialist online discourses that are public, i.e. not those behind a paywall or from fora. The research will do this by analysing publicly accessible online content for explicit or implicit insights into the impacts upon the OOF teacher, particularly in STEM. This brings to the fore ‘teacher identity’ and ‘lived experience’, acknowledging media representations may hoist, harm, or heal OOFT individually and collectively.

A socio-cultural rather than psychological lens will be used to view ‘teacher identity’ because teachers operate in contexts such as OOF, in-field, and within a community(ies) of practice (Bosse and Törner (2017:159–160). I acknowledge identity comprises personal and social aspects that include knowledge, beliefs, emotions, relationships, “context and experiences” (van Putten et al. 2014:370). As well, following threads of OOFT ‘lived experience’ in media mentions is important for offering insights into the life-worlds of individuals, their emotions and contexts (Van Manen 1997:36). To gain a more three-dimensional representation, I must also stitch into my ‘quilt’ others’ representations to better understand conceptualisations and impacts of the OOFT phenomenon.

In a sense, then, I look to OOFT as a disparate community of practice, or a subset of the education system, even though OOFTs as individuals themselves may not always feel they ‘belong’ to a community. I pose an ontological or philosophical query about the relationship between three key threads of my research — online representation, identity formation and community participation. These underpin the conceptual framework of Wenger’s social learning theory (Wenger 1998, Lave and Wenger 1991 cited in Darragh 2016:23), a relevant lens for my research. Smith (2006:619) describes social learning theory as foregrounding identity to link the individual within the contexts of learning as experience, doing, belonging and becoming. Wenger’s theory has relevance, too, for being the most influential in the study of identity within mathematics teaching — part of STEM — as a review of 188 scholarly articles in that areas has found (Darragh 2016).

Social learning theory has four premises — humans are social beings, equating knowledge to competence in valued enterprises, knowledge built through active engagement and that learning produces meaning through that engagement and experiences (Wenger 2018:219). Learning is social participation that includes the “process of being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities” (op. cit.). In this sense, I seek to sketch the OOFT as ‘learning to become’ an OOFT through their own and others’ perspectives. Online media mentions of OOFT can open chinks of light onto how OOFTs ‘learn’ to form their identity under the gaze of those who write about them.

View through a wrought iron gate to a country street

Patterning my research methodology and design

Research question:

How are the impacts of out-of-field teaching represented through online content?


How does online content conceptualise the impacts of teaching STEM out-of-field on educators’ professional identities, their lived experiences, and others?

First, an overview of my approach:

My world view: constructivist-interpretivist (Creswell and Creswell 2018:7–8) with multiple participants’ meanings, yet this may shift as I move from qualitative to quantitative in my mixed-methods approach (Cresswell 2009:102)

Philosophical view: Leveraging off my journalistic background and bias, having a simplistic, deficit view of OOFT, yet keen for a more holistic understanding of what teaching in out-of-field contexts can mean for teachers and the education system

My theoretical approach: socio-cultural, in particular social learning theory (Wenger 1998, Lave and Wenger 1991 cited in Darragh 2016:23)

My data: non-scholarly online articles (see Appendix 1) OOFT conceptualisations, experiences, and identity of OOFT of STEM.

My methodological approach: mixed methods

- a scoping review (Tricco et al. 2016) of public online sources using mixed methods — qualitative and quantitative (Creswell and Creswell 2018:65–6)

- Critical Content Analysis (Utt and Short 2018) — quantitative — and

- Reflexive Thematic Analysis (Braun and Clarke 2013) — qualitative

My methods: post-structural framework of the problem representation process (Bacchi 2009)

Panning back, undertaking a scoping review (Tricco et al. 2016) which allows me to map relevant online content, identify knowledge gaps and recommend future research areas (Peters et al. 2015). My data sample will be public sources — mainstream and specialist education content published online over the past five years — from which I will draw concepts and pave the way to identify themes underpinning OOFT and its impacts and may prompt a hypothesis for later testing (Tricco et al. 2016:2). My data will be prised from online content because of its role in mediating and constructing identities of self and others (Goldstein 2011: 545) to better understand OOFT as a phenomenon. Online content is “public-facing representations with the opinions, perceptions and personal/professional identities” (Southern 2018:585) that can shape and influence perceptions and narratives about phenomena (Gentz and Kramer 2012:5).

My epistemological positioning directs me to view OOFT as a problem in education, so apt here is the post-structural framework of ‘problematisation’ (Bacchi 2009:vi). On this, Bacchi’s (2009:xii) provocation, “what is the problem represented to be?”, guides me to unpick what is implied, assumed, and the effects of this representation. How a problem such as OOFT is represented “carries all sorts of implications for how the issue is thought about and for how people involved are treated and are evoked to think about themselves” (Bacchi 2009:1). Problematisation could hold that OOFT practices current realities “open to challenge and change” that are hierarchical and inequitable (Bacchi and Goodwin 2018:4). Problematisation also extends to teachers not being simplistically OOFT or in-field, but some possibly timetabled to do both in a single workday.

I will use a mixed-methods methodological approach, combining qualitative and quantitative approaches, techniques and ideas within a single study for a “better understanding of research problems than either approach alone” (Cresswell & Plano Clark 2018:5). It will allow me as a fledgling researcher to better understand the three predominant research paradigms.

My approach uses two forms of analysis — Critical Content Analysis (CCA) and Reflexive Thematic Analysis (RTA). In using CCA, I should be explicit about my “stance and critical frame”, informing “every aspect of the research process” (Utt and Short 2018). CCA will be used as a quantitative approach to unpick key terms, concepts, or themes in the fabric of online content, their proportion to the rest of the article (by words), and frequency to measure and codify their representation for meaning-making. I will also harness RTA to qualitatively categorise and code the words — data — (Braun and Clarke 2013:3) through multiple re-readings for deeper insights, interpretation, and integration. To do this, Braun and Clarke (2021) point to induction, deduction, semantics, latency, critical realist and constructivism to see patterns or meaning that will help in unpacking the OOFT phenomenon. Mixing methods lets me triangulate my data for greater validity, richer insights and to build coherent findings (Creamer 2018:24).

A sewing drawer — needles, thread, scissors, buttons and measuring tapes

Fine-needlepoint work: the research design

My aim with this procedure is to construct and compare a prevailing narrative and a counter-narrative (Hobbs et al. 2014), which could be nuanced to each particular publication. Informed by Bacchi’s (2009:2) approach, I will scope the content by:

1. Framing the problem — OOFT as a “global pandemic” (Du Plessis 2020:76–77)

2. Appreciating and conceptualising how the problem is represented in online media

3. Pondering how the problem came about

4. Denoting unproblematic or silenced aspects/cohorts in the problem’s representation and whether including them creates a different perspective

5. Drawing insights into the effects the problem representation creates, and

6. Identifying and analysing the production, dissemination, and defence of the problematisation and ways of questioning, disrupting and replacing it (Bacchi 2009:2).

On a more granular level, I will collect, analyse and integrate data by:

1. Cutting and pasting online text about OOFT from the past five years into tables in publication-specific Microsoft Word documents

2. Creating heat maps or word clouds from each individual document

3. Combining those heat maps to create an overall heat map using these as one guide to develop themes

4. Harnessing CCA to quantify mentions of relevant keywords, phrases, terms, variables and context as well as the heat map themes, then tabulating and ranking each into a matrix

5. Drawing insights from this quantitative exercise to refine these into a list of key conceptualisations and representations of OOFT

6. Using the matrix as a guide, I will revisit the texts using a RTA lens to draw out themes and codify the data into a second matrix, in particular relating to OOFT teacher identity — implied and explicit mentions — and lived experience

7. Integrating the two matrices using NVivo software or a Google spreadsheet to further refine, interpret, and analyse the data before writing my results, and

8. Liaising throughout the process with my supervisor and the Deakin research community as needed.

As for key OOFT representations, Vale et al. (2020:4) offer these categories or broad dimensions to guide my research to collect my sample of data:

· “Teacher shortfall

· Hard-to-staff schools

· Less-qualified teachers, and

· Teacher quality”,

to which I will add ‘lived experience’, professional identity, teaching STEM OOF, among others, as I re-read and integrate the data. To be included in the sample, the content must mention OOFT explicitly or infer it or mention impacts of OOFT/synonyms even if it does not refer to it directly. I will refine these protocols during the project.

Variables to be used include noting:

· Publication/website

· Year and month of publication

· Source/country of origin

· Implicit or explicit binary — i.e., deficit or positive [even neutral]- view of OOFT

· OOF teacher attributes

· Change(s) in representation/sentiment, prominence/placement of content over time

· Teachers being centralised or marginalised

· Implied and explicit impacts of OOFT and on whom or what (a key component of my research)

· The correlation (causation if possible) of the impacts of OOFT on educators’ professional identities and lived experience, particularly in STEM, and

· The demographics/role of commentators (where revealed and appear to be bona fide), including gender, age, geographical location, job title/role, school sector in which they work if they are teachers, OOFT, etc.

Exclusion criteria includes:

· Content behind a paywall

· Comments and discussion fora

· Content not in English

· Quality of the evidence i.e. accuracy, objectivity of the representation because a scoping review does not assess quality (Peters 2015:142)

· Government/Catholic/Independent school sector policy documents

· Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc., and

· STEM content that does not mention OOFT, its synonyms, nor infer it.

Ethical considerations and approach

I will abide by the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (NHMRC:2018) and conventions and regulations as a student member of the professional research community at Deakin University. That is why I will only use publicly available online content — not behind paywalls, nor comments. This approach minimises the risk of harm to humans as participants. These ‘participants’ would not be aware of taking part in my research, but they have consented to the online platform’s terms and conditions, which usually has clauses on third parties’ access and reuse of the data (Salmons 2014). I will check each site’s terms and conditions to verify using their dataset to extract my sample. Where the conditions are ‘muddy’, I will not include that site in my data collection. Using the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (NHMRC 2018:21), I posit that a human research ethics committee (HREC) may be satisfied that there is no known or likely reason for thinking that participants would not have consented if they had been asked. Following advice from the Deakin research community, I believe I will not need an ethical application waiver.

Limitations of the study

My OOFT experiences and three decades as largely an education writer leave me biased, seeing OOFT as a deficit. As well, I am a fledging researcher embarking on doubling my workload in choosing the mixed-methods research approach. The time series of five years falls short of five decades, which is how long scholarly researchers have tackled the OOFT phenomenon (Bosse and Törner (2017:157). As well, First World representations in English will not give insights into other education systems. The research plan’s lack of qualitative surveys or interviews with OOFT, capturing comments on fora or social media reduces clarity and opportunities for further questioning about their ‘lived experience’ to understand the OOFT phenomenon (Ranse et al. 2020: 946). Therefore, the quantitative analysis will not be inferential or statistical, but mostly descriptive. As well, the scoping review could be enhanced if it included education department policies and how underlying tensions, premises, assumptions and discourses (Bacchi 2000) manifest in how schools implement those policies. Also, the study will not compare gender-based representations/conceptualisations.

A problem framed: a quilt emerges

Using the OOFT teacher — particularly in STEM — as a unit of analysis, I will create a rich, insightful representation of the OOFT phenomenon and its impacts. The research results could help “identify implications for policy or practice” (Tricco et al. 2016:1) in a transformative sense, although that is more likely to emerge through a comprehensive PhD rather than this graduate certificate research activity.


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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.