Do subject specialists make the best teachers?

Passionate subject specialists can overcomplicate things – but they can also fire up enthusiasm, says Tabitha McIntosh

Tabitha McIntosh

Do subject specialists make the best teachers?

Can being an excellent subject specialist make you a rubbish subject teacher? 

If you’ve ever seen someone promoting Romeo and Juliet for six-year-olds, you will find it instantly easy to imagine how deeply informed enthusiasts can overcomplicate relatively shallow tasks. 

In English, my subject, the current push for knowledge-rich education has led to an arms race of complex specialist terminology that is verging on mutually assured destruction. Scroll down any Twitter literature-teaching feed and you will find a glorious supply of GCSE lesson plans and resources that include such vital concepts as anadiplosis, epizeuxis and hagiography in the core terminology lists for 15-year-olds.

The exam boards, worn down by endless swathes of poorly remembered Greek rhetorical devices, have begun to revolt. AQA announced recently that our hardest-won and most-beloved subject specialist language “doesn’t have value in and of itself”. Step away from the hypophora, colleagues.

The value of subject-specialist teachers

The Department for Education considered the available evidence in 2016, and its report on the subject was sobering for Team Hypophora: not only does it not seem to make much of a difference if young people are taught by non-specialists, but in many subjects, specialist teachers actually lead to lower student outcomes. 

But the headline statistics on student outcomes disguise the complex challenges we face when teaching outside our disciplines, the first and most important of which is reverse imposter syndrome. 

Teachers stricken with imposter syndrome doubt the sparkling range of talents, knowledge and skills they bring to their subjects. Teachers with reverse imposter syndrome lack any such attributes: they are actual imposters. And now they’re standing at the front of the class, pretending as hard as they can. 

Can students tell when we’re teaching from a central scheme of work by the skin of our teeth? As anyone who has ever found themselves saying, “Let’s read the slide again,” to a class of baffled teenagers can assure you, yes – they know we have no idea what we’re talking about. The moment they ask an off-scheme question, we’re lost. 

As one reluctant non-specialist describes it, “I didn't have a clue and the students knew it. I felt like a total fraud: it makes me squirm thinking about it even now.” This is what young people mean when they roll their eyes and talk about “PowerPoint teachers”. 

And reader, I have been that teacher. We’ve all been that teacher at some point. And we’ve all faced the same set of difficulties, the same stage fright and the same sea of sceptical faces staring at us as we struggle to find an answer. 

The single greatest thing we can bring to our classrooms

When Cambridge Assessment asked, “What are the problems non-specialist teachers face?” the results were consistent: classroom management was similar for specialists and non-specialists alike. We’re all teachers, after all. But answering questions, assessing past papers, moderating work, marking work and setting work are all significantly more challenging for people working outside their disciplines. 

It’s 2021: every school in the land has trained its classroom practitioners about the vital importance of managing the cognitive load of students. But no one is talking about managing the cognitive load of teachers. Dear Year 11: if you ask me to explain what hypophora means while I am juggling chremamorphism, I might just lie on the floor and cry.

And maybe, just maybe, measuring effective subject teaching through a dataset of key stage 3 and 4 results is missing the point. Maybe the point is the single greatest thing we can bring to our classrooms: joy. That joy only comes from genuine, giddy, sometimes ludicrous infatuation with our subjects. 

Time for me to come clean: I teach epizeuxis to teenagers in Shakespeare classes for no practical or efficient reason. They will never gain any points from knowing the term for the successive repetition of single words or phrases. No examiner will ever look upon such analysis with a friendly eye. 

But I love words. I love Shakespeare’s words. I love the neurological turn in Shakespeare studies, which puts epizeuxis and polysemy at its heart, and I love laughing at it, too. 

And that deeply silly adoration is highly infectious. My students will get broadly the same sort of results as those of a non-specialist teacher, but mine will apply to do A level. They’ll decide on English degrees. They’ll hang around at the end of the lesson to ask about novels, tell me weird connections that they were too shy to say out loud, show me the subject terminology memes they made the night before that will make me cry with laughter. 

And that is why, whatever the statistics say, I’ll always be flying the flag for Team Hypophora.

Tabitha McIntosh is an English teacher and key stage 5 manager at a comprehensive in outer London. She tweets as @TabitaSurge

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