Can you make a success of a subject switch?

It’s common to be asked to teach outside of your subject, but can it end up being beneficial? One teacher tells us how the switch set her off on a dazzling career trajectory

Grainne Hallahan

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James’ new timetable dropped in his inbox and, at first glance, everything looked normal. Until he got to Thursday.

On Thursday, instead of teaching in his classroom, he saw that he’d be over in the science block. A closer look at the class codes told him that this wouldn’t be a humanities class. He’d be teaching science.

Teachers are asked to teach outside their subjects for a variety of reasons, and schools are increasingly relying on teachers to be prepared to leave their specialism and deliver quality teaching in a subject they haven’t thought about since leaving school themselves.

When one of the most common reasons given for going into teaching is a love of the subject, does it mean that by swapping to a different subject you’re going to reduce your enjoyment of the job?


Combine and conquer

Sarah Ruffell trained as a PE teacher, but when she applied for the job, they offered her PE combined with maths.

“Right from day one I knew it would be maths and PE combined, but only key stage 3,” she explains. “At first I was petrified. I hadn’t done maths since my own A level.”

Ruffell’s fears were borne out of a worry that she would not be able to keep up with the students but, when she started to deliver the lessons, she found that acquiring the subject knowledge wasn’t the problem. Rather, she found the challenge was the change in the physical learning environment.

“My biggest challenge was teaching in classroom-based lessons and developing my pedagogy,” she recalls.

“When I first started, I tried to deliver lessons where the students moved around a lot, but now my style has totally changed and I’m much more comfortable having them sat down and in their places.”

But how do you go from delivering practical lessons in shooting balls to squaring roots?

For Ruffell, it was helpful to watch other maths teachers, and she also had a supportive mentor.

“My mentor was amazing,” she says. “I observed him, and a range of different teachers, and this was incredibly helpful.”

Times change

The ability to offer a second subject has changed the trajectory of Ruffell’s career.

Where many schools struggle to recruit teachers of specific subjects, there is an oversupply of PE teachers, meaning progression is much harder, as competition is tougher when it comes to jobs with responsibilities attached.

“Changing to a core shortage subject has meant that I’ve been able to look around at different promotion opportunities and find a school that is right for me,” she explains.

“There is so much more choice when it comes to maths because it is a larger department than PE, and more schools need maths teachers. I’m now second in maths, in a large department, and I wouldn’t have had this chance as a PE teacher.”

But does leaving the sports fields behind ever make Ruffell feel sad? Not at all, she says.

“When I got into teaching, I never imagined I would be delivering maths,” she says. “I think times change. I enjoyed PE at the time, but I’m so pleased I made the change and I’ve never regretted it.”

Here are our dos and don’ts for teaching outside of your speciality:

1. Don’t rely on being ‘just one chapter ahead’

Subject knowledge is absolutely crucial for confidence in the classroom, and part of a teacher’s expertise is being able to make connections between different parts of their subject’s curriculum.

Make sure you’re secure with your subject knowledge by seeking out CPD.

2. Do be honest when you need help

Just as we tell our students, there is no shame in saying when you are in need of guidance.

The best place to start is with a member of your own department (but don’t ambush people). Arrange a time that is mutually convenient out of respect for the person whose help you are seeking.

3. Don’t feel like an outsider

If you’re serious about changing subject, then go all in. If there is a subject-specific association, join it. Call yourself a teacher of the subject, and tell yourself you belong.

Feeling like a fraud is totally normal when you first switch, but half the problem is in your own confidence.

4. Do the tests...and all the rest

Yes, past papers are helpful, but there is so much more on offer on the exam board website. Use your department log-in to have a look at all of the teaching materials available.

You’ll find model answers, exemplars with commentaries, and examiner reports: everything a newbie could wish for.


Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan is Tes recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

Find me on Twitter @heymrshallahan

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