Borrowing and loaning expertise: why straitjacket ourselves to a single subject?

While many of us in the school teach more than one subject (particularly within the Social Sciences, Modern Foreign Languages and Junior Science) we certainly all have more than one A level, pool of knowledge, area of interest or even degree subject. There are times when being confined to a particular subject area can be frustrating when there is more we have to offer. Conversely, changes to the curriculum mean that there are times we are faced with teaching something completely new to our subject or a topic in which we didn’t specialise at university and of which we consequently have little knowledge or experience. This is why I’d like to promote and encourage the ‘loaning’ of expertise and the sharing of teaching.
With the re-introduction of ‘la politique’ to the A level syllabus, an aspect of life in the Francophone world which is in constant flux and for which I had to ‘mug up’ considerably, I felt a little daunted. When it came to teaching the topic I soon realised however that my pupils had little understanding of key political concepts such as socialist, fascist, legislation, president and more and that it would be necessary to teach these before diving into the language or specificities of politics in France. As a non-specialist in Politics I floundered uncomfortably whilst trying to answer some of the questions raised by pupils, and I was also keenly aware of the one A level politics student in the class who knew at least as much as I did!
So for the first time I have recently started ‘borrowing’ a teacher from another faculty to help me introduce A level French topics which necessitate a specific content or conceptual understanding. Faced with the challenge of teaching the history of France during the occupation in WW2 in order for pupils to understand the context of their literary set text I was at a bit of a loss. A quick conversation with a History teacher threw up numerous inspiring ideas, which I tested the following lesson and which worked very well. This led to a team-taught lesson in which the ‘expert’ Historian answered questions and clarified misconceptions while I provided the necessary linguistic input in French. Brilliant. Buoyed by this and how much I also learnt from it, I planned another lesson of this kind with a different group.
This week when I was embarking on the topic of Trade Unions in France I sought the help of a Politics specialist. We created some resources together in English that would help the students gain the important background understanding of the topic and then team-taught a lesson in which ANY question, however basic could be asked. I learnt a lot, the students were well-taught and everyone left feeling confident.
All of this has caused me to reflect upon the nature of secondary school teaching and subject specialism. I am first and foremost a teacher and secondly a French teacher. However, the methods and skills I have honed over the years have been adapted to the successful teaching of MFL (short activities, lots of teacher input, how to break down teaching the past tense…) and I assume that this is more or less the case in every subject. So, what to do when we have to teach something that is beyond our immediate comfort zone in the midst of a busy term?
Traditional routes to QTS focus very much on learning to teach one’s own subject but qualifies its holders to teach any subject at all at primary or secondary level. The basic skills of classroom management, planning, engaging and communicating with young people are transferable across all subjects after all. Indeed, many of us coach sport because we know about it, enjoy practising it and not because we have trained as PE teachers. However, when I began teaching ToK four years ago I soon realised that I needed to develop my style and change my methods to suit the subject area and material I had to teach – ToK is a very discursive and pupil-led subject whereas few pupils can have any conversation in French without significant teacher-input and scaffolding. Teaching outside my immediate subject area has been an educative and a liberating experience for me. It is also one which I think many of us could benefit from.
There is naturally a lot of cross over between subjects which I have given little thought to in the past, but which now seems obvious. For example, in the upper school in my department we teach the French political system, a period of French History, challenges to the environment, the ethics of cloning, the demographics of francophone north Africa, the prison system and some existentialism… which overlap with at least five other subject areas in which we are not specialists.
Not only does sharing your expertise take out outside of your department, but it is extremely helpful to others! Planning a lesson with a colleague from a different department or even team-teaching as I did is something I strongly endorse. It both helps us develop strategies for teaching that are different from those usually used in our own subject and can help pupils make links across the curriculum. In addition to this, the benefits of having input from someone more knowledgeable than you in a particular area are obvious and can help deepen pupil understanding.

JAS

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