Tom Starkey has been asked to pitch in for various subjects in his teaching career, and here he shares his top three tips for taking on an unfamiliar subject

Retro, pop art, man in a suit panicking

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There is particular comfort in being an authority on the subject you teach. However, staffing issues, timetabling and budget constraints can mean teachers often find themselves wandering into the wilds of another subject they are not overly familiar with. In my own 15-year career, I have taught geography, history, religious education, numerous vocational add-ons and currently do a couple of hours of maths a week. My subject specialism is English.

Based on my experiences, I’ve come up with three golden rules for any teachers who find themselves suddenly having to teach a subject that is not their home turf.

1. Forget mastery, just get a step ahead

Anxiety is understandable when faced with teaching an unknown subject. I believe this is because we lose the security we feel from being the ‘expert’ in the room. But attempts to try to achieve the same level of expertise in your new subject are unrealistic and increase anxiety, especially given the likelihood of an extremely tight timeframe. Of course we want the best for our kids, but the best must be realistic given the constraints. So, instead of seeking to gain a wealth of knowledge in snatched opportunities between periods one and two, aim to be no more than three lessons in front of your students. This in itself is not easy, but I have found that it does lessen any feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’. And, if you do it for long enough, you’ll be surprised at how much knowledge you accumulate.

2. Speak to the specialists

If you’re asked to teach an unfamiliar topic, then support from your colleagues should be immediately forthcoming (if it isn’t, it might be time to have a look at the jobs pages). Liaising with those who already teach your new subject is essential, not only to develop your subject knowledge, but to get schemes of work and lesson plans. Ask for insight into what to prioritise, what shortcuts you can take, and what might need an extra lesson – basically, everything that you already know inside-out about your own subject. People are often busy, so I suggest factoring in time for briefing discussions before you start.

3. Prepare for uncertainty

Undoubtedly, someone will ask a question about your new subject that will have you stumped. This can lead to embarrassment, especially if the students then decide to go on the offensive with comments that are the stuff of nightmares, such as the classic, ‘You mean you don’t know, sir? Then how come you’re teaching us, sir?’ I find the easiest way of dealing with this is simply to be honest. I’ve often openly admitted to not knowing the answer and then spent time working with the students to find it out. This kind of ‘co-learning’ has a number of benefits: it can be used to model research techniques; and it’s a learning model where not even the authority in the room gets it right first time, every time. Even so, I’d be judicious in its use: there are classes where, ‘We need to move on, we’ll get back to that’ and then a surreptitious looking up for next lesson can be just as effective.

I hope this advice is of some use when setting out on a new subject journey. Personally, I’ve found that once you get over the initial anxiety, there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Tom Starkey is a part-time teacher in further education-based alternative provision