As a species, the NQT is a self-critical beast. She will admit to falling behind in her marking, or to not quite mastering differentiation for the EAL child. She may experience problems with behaviour management and, without shame, copiously fill out incident reports and referrals for detention. But, on the whole, while all other props may fall away, they will cling on to that reliable handhold: their subject knowledge.
So what might happen when the handhold is less firm, the crutch unsteady?
For some time now I have taken an enquiry approach to NQT induction at my school. Over 3-5 week cycles I set up a question or theme (it might be AfL, or independent learning) with an introductory ‘input’ session; the NQTs then spend some of their reduced timetable allocation watching others for these skills, or consciously planning their own lessons to try out a pedagogical technique. Finally they blog the results of their enquiries so that their colleagues and others can comment.
We started with a fairly classic definition of subject knowledge. My English teacher, linguist, Health and Social Care specialist and geographers are all happy with what they know about their subjects, and are becoming more secure with how to prepare their students for how to succeed. They can swot away questions about Dickens and volcanoes with aplomb. Subject knowledge? They have it sorted.
But just how significant is this to their overall effectiveness as a teacher? What is left of them in front of a class, when they are stripped of the atlases and bilingual dictionaries that they carry in their heads? Dropped into the alien environment of someone else’s subject, how well would they cope?
NQT induction programmes (indeed, pretty much most professional development) concentrate on the wider teacher attributes and pedagogies such as behaviour management, marking and feedback, differentiation and the like. Mine too. The theory goes that, by improving in these areas, any teacher can be effective. More than most in the profession, NQTs are supremely conscious of this, as they hoover up advice from colleagues and submit themselves to observation feedback. My NQTs are as keen as the next, so I wanted to know how far they could rely on those ‘non-subject’ skills, if they were teaching outside their own discipline.
So my English teacher, linguist, Health and Social Care specialist and geographers swapped their lessons – just one – and blogged their findings.
Ali Tan is a geography teacher, just hopped off a plane from Canada. She took on Health and Social Care for her enquiry. “Would you still consider yourself as a qualified teacher without deep subject content? My geographical knowledge was thrown out the window the minute I walked inside Room AP1. What can I possibly say to these prospective students about the learning objective: to explain the physical and psychological changes which may be associated with ageing? No longer can I talk about facts, diagrams, and maps on one-child policy, on battle of biosphere, and on volcanoes! It is now about being able to discuss how can we as citizens help an elderly person maintain their self-esteem.”
She found the experience unsettling. She handled the discussion, relying on her common sense, but she found herself counting down the minutes to the end of the lesson. “My reality is we live in a society instilled with the idea that teachers should know more than students. Isn’t that what makes confident and competent teachers in the first place?” And yet, she found the students engaged, happy to answer questions and to offer suggestions to fill in the gaps in her own knowledge.
mnoursite made the reverse swap, from Health and Social to Geography. “Being able to effectively plan and teach well structured lessons, differentiation, AFL, strong behavior management, creating a positive climate for learning, that’s just a few to name. However, I do think that the securer you are in your subject knowledge, the clearer you are of how you expect the students to progress.”
She was impressed by the students’ awareness of China’s one-child policy, and with their ability to answer questions orally. Her own questioning skills were on display, but she quickly noticed that her own shallow grasp of the subject prevented her from probing them more deeply. She could manage them well enough, but she could not challenge them much.
agiacopazzi swapped his French class for a Geography one. He had earlier spent a year as a cover supervisor, teaching mainly MFL and History, so he was more confident than the others that he could cope with the unfamiliar.
“As the lesson progressed I enjoyed the experience more and more”
He felt the students were very well behaved, and that they were able to discuss the topic (trans-national corporations) fully. He got feedback telling him that his questioning had promoted deeper discussion. As the students were able to reach a conclusion, he felt that he had moved their understanding on.
There is no doubt, from this short enquiry, that subject knowledge does make a difference to a teacher’s competence. They are more confident, they can probe more deeply with their questioning, they can set their expectations higher for their students. But on its own it is not enough. Skills of questioning, of managing behaviour and of structuring learning can come from a different place. So, even without the crutches, a good teacher can walk confidently.