Looking in from the outside: how teaching outside of your specialism could reinvigorate your love of the subject

Paul Woodward
7th March 2019 at 17:19

I grew up obsessed with creativity and, following graduation in a subject area I genuinely loved, the idea of teaching it for a living seemed like a dream come true. For the two decades that followed I honed my teaching and classroom skills and became what I believed to be a good teacher, learning new syllabus after another, getting far too little sleep and never really taking the time to look at what I was doing.

For much of that time I established departments and faculties then enjoyed many years of successful teaching to the point where it almost became second nature. It seemed effortless and in turn I got very comfortable. But nothing lasts forever and faced with potential redundancy, I decided it was time to move on. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how much things had changed in the world of design and technology teaching (and not for the best). Disillusioned by the dearth of opportunities to teach in my specialist subject, I hesitantly accepted a job teaching a more "academic" subject which I had never taught before…and it's probably one of the best decisions I ever made.

I won’t go into detail here about how natural I found the teaching of this subject as that is not the point, but the real revelation was seeing my "old" practical based subject area as an outsider for the first time and perhaps more importantly, how my colleagues perceived it. At first it was intimidating, uncomfortable and a little scary but over the following months, as I worked with supportive staff in a subject area that had always interested me, I found the clarity with which I perceived my "old" specialist subject to be almost frightening. It was like having a book pressed up against your face in a dark room for years; you can be familiar with its shape and form but until someone turns the light on you can never read the story inside.

I not only gained a clarity of thought for the future of the subject but also the past and I saw that I had become comfortable in my previous role and taken my "foot off the pedal". Success had bred complacency and taking success for granted but the adage "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" isn’t always true especially when it comes to professional development.

With this new found lucidity I was inspired to write about design and technology for the first time and I found numerous topics that I had wanted to discuss for all those years but either didn’t have the time to do so or was so wrapped up in the job itself that all my thoughts and ideas just slipped away with each pile of marking. You are reading just one of many blogs and articles penned during this time and I was so keen to put my money where my mouth was in terms of what we are preparing students for that I took the plunge and returned to industry into a role I never thought I would be able to do after so many years teaching. If you had asked me five or 10 years earlier if that had been a possibility, I would have thought it was preposterous, but it was also one of the best decisions I ever made.

I now have a very different approach to teaching a subject I once believed I knew well. Achieving successful results in other subjects taught was rewarding and also reminded me that a good teacher can make learning possible in nearly any subject they have a knowledge of…or are willing to learn about. What I did learn is that design and technology is a very demanding subject that requires a wide range of skills and knowledge for it to be taught well. When teaching other subjects, I often forgot just how hard it is to teach well.

If you do get the opportunity, teaching a different subject to the one you have become comfortable with could be just what you need to gain a fresh perspective, and I would go as far as to advise that you make the effort to teach a different subject at least once in your career if you are able to. If you are feeling stuck in a rut and have the skills and knowledge necessary to do so, teaching in another subject area may allow you to see if you really were giving your 'old' subject your very best.

If I have learnt one thing, it’s that this is a subject that can very easily consume you. From the many extra hours taught to the extensive training undertaken to keep up to date with what is a rapidly changing subject in a world where technology never stands still, you can simply get lost to design and technology. Looking at it all from a "distance" and with a fresh perspective can be very enlightening. If such a break is not possible, try to take some time to ‘step out’ and reflect on your profession and your chosen subject and look in from the outside. In doing so you might find that you rediscover a love for the subject that you might have since lost.

Young teachers new to the profession may still have that sense of wide-eyed wonder but we more "mature" teachers have the benefit of experience and hindsight. If we can be rejuvenated in our approach to teaching, bring that wealth of skills and experience and greet the classroom with a fresh pair of eyes, wouldn’t we be an unstoppable force for education and reinstate this subject back at the forefront of a modern and forward thinking educational system where it belongs?

Paul Woodward has taught design and technology in a variety of schools as well as working as a musician, artist, designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the Head of Creative Arts at a large independent school in the North of England