12 Tips For Teaching Out Of Your Specialism

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Amy Chadderton

Amy Chadderton is an international science teacher currently based in Bangkok. She has previously worked in Shanghai and before that taught for 7 years in the UK. Amy achieved Lead Practitioner status in the UK and is particularly interested in how educational technology is enhancing...
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How do you teach a subject that’s not your specialism?

Sometimes we are faced with a timetable that, at first glance, might not seem ideal. In Primary, it might be that you are most comfortable teaching in upper Key Stage 2 but in your new school, they want you to move to Year 1.

In many cases, this is seen as being good for your CV and often encouraged. But what about if you are a biology teacher and are being asked to teach geography or even to take a role in Primary. It’s not always easy? Here I outline some ways to not only cope, but thrive.  

1. Great teachers are great teachers

Great teaching is going to involve building an excellent working relationship with your students, creating a classroom climate where students feel valued.

Great teaching should include strong questioning techniques, appropriate use of technology and personalised feedback to help the students improve.

Great teaching can occur in your classroom regardless of the content you are delivering, as long as you have confidence in yourself and the support of your school.

2.  Find the common ground

Just like when you have a challenging student in your class, find the common ground. Find the part of the subject that you wish you understood well enough to teach it and start there. Once you are engaged in the learning, your students will start to feed off your enthusiasm.

3. Support from colleagues

Make sure you collect resources and advice from others, whether these are colleagues in the school or online.

Talking about the course content and how to approach it should help you identify your own misconceptions. Online resources by other teachers will be a useful starting point to see how ideas are pitched or how practical work can be incorporated.

4. CPD

Ask your school to support you by sending you on some CPD. Or take a look at websites such at Futurelearn which provide a wealth of learning opportunities for teachers.

One great outcome from a CPD course is the network of support you come away with and when teaching out of specialism this can be a real confidence booster.

5. Manage your increased workload

It is likely that you will be balancing teaching out of specialism with the workload you would usually have. When I taught International Baccalaureate Environmental Systems & Societies for the first time I was also getting to grips with a new school, a new country and the rest of my science teaching workload.

Make sure you have a sensible long-term plan for the course so you are clear about the content that needs to be covered by specific points in the year. Try to be sensible about marking if you can.

6. Stay at least a week ahead

Study the specification closely and try to stay a week ahead in your planning. Using knowledge organisers will be useful for both you and the students. You will both then be able to see clearly how the weeks learning fits into the wider picture of the course.

7. Prioritise coursework

In the long-term plan make sure that any coursework is given sufficient time. Make sure you have read submissions from previous years and have checked the marking guidelines carefully.

Teaching out of specialism is all about making sure you feel confident in your delivery of the course and more knowledge will bring more confidence.

8. Use exam questions to boost your understanding of the required content

In my experience, the best way to really understand exactly what is required is by starting with exam questions. It is good practice to have many low stakes tests in lessons so using exam questions where relevant will solidify your understanding of the requirements of the course as well as give you a regular idea of who needs more support.

9. Admit to the students that you don’t have all the answers

We are all still learning, and we enjoy it. This is such a powerful message and I think it should be shared regularly with the students. It would be beneficial to the students, if you have the confidence, to model how you will find out an answer, or how you could use expertise gained in a similar subject to provide a starting point.

10. Be open to new experiences

It might be that you are suddenly aware that you are mid-way through an impassioned speech to introduce a sustainability topic, or perhaps you are sat on the floor reading a story to five nursery students as a library teacher.

Both might be completely out of your comfort zone but if you welcome new experiences it will only add value to your ‘teacher toolkit’.

11. Look after yourself

It is so easy to feel burnt out as a teacher. Be sensible about workload and try to make sure you have time each week to unwind. Share your concerns with your colleagues; you are not alone. If you are the only teacher in your school teaching one subject, or in one area of the school site, it can feel very isolating. This is only exaggerated when you start to feel out of your depth.

Look out for kindness in others. A message to say you’re doing a good job would go a long way but a more subtle nod in the form of giving you back a free after using you for cover is also hugely appreciated.

12. Celebrate your success

Teaching out of specialism is not easy and should be celebrated. You have worked hard to adapt your teaching strategies to a different audience. Whether they are just much smaller human beings or simply students expecting a history expert before them.

If you can navigate your students through their own learning and provide them with opportunities to succeed then you should feel a huge sense of achievement.

And at the end of it all, I do think that overcoming the challenge of teaching out of specialism will add significantly to your CV. Not that that is the only reason why we do our best in these situations, but it doesn’t hurt.

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