Navigating the School as a Smaller Fish: Research-Based Guidance for Teachers of Less Commonly Taught Content Areas

Navigating the School as a Smaller Fish: Research-Based Guidance for Teachers of Less Commonly Taught Content Areas

Maggie Broderick
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6803-3.ch005
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Beginning teachers face a difficult and steep learning curve, and teachers of less commonly taught content areas must navigate a unique path. A resulting problem is that many talented teachers who could bring unique and important programs for well-rounded students and schools struggle to adapt to the typical school culture and expectations. This chapter provides research-based and evidence-based strategies for navigating those waters. Anecdotes from the experiences of teachers of less commonly taught content areas are included.
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Being a new teacher is difficult. There is so much to learn on the job while simultaneously working to inspire students and impact their success. Teacher preparation programs try their best to train and educate aspiring teachers, but the reality is that the most crucial skills are learned from practice and over time. The first few years of teaching are crucial for ongoing career success. Statistics illustrate the serious concern of attrition and retention of new teachers, especially in particular environments, such as urban and rural schools, as well as schools that serve high numbers of students who are most at-risk and underprivileged (Will, 2018). An alarming 40-50% of new teachers leave the job completely within their first five years (Will, 2018). All new teachers of all content areas face universal challenges, such as classroom management, effective teaching, student engagement, communicating with administrators, collaborating with colleagues, and balancing various on-the-job demands.

One thing that can make those initial years of teaching even more difficult is the feeling that you are alone and do not have necessary support. Some teachers may feel as if they are a small fish in a large school, due to the unique nature of their content areas and roles. As the only teacher or one of very few teachers of a specific content area at your school, having to figure things out as you go can be uniquely challenging! The artwork in Figure 1 below depicts the unique situation and feelings that teachers of less commonly taught content areas often experience. When most of the fish in a school of fish are all traveling together, it is important to reflect on what it is like to be the lone fish, finding and navigating your own path at each step of the way.

Figure 1.

Artwork of a school of fish with a school building

Broderick, A. (2020). Fish School [digital].

The title of this chapter refers to Less Commonly Taught Content Areas (LCTCA). How LCTCA is defined may depend on the context, and will certainly differ between a small, rural elementary school and a larger suburban high school, among other aspects. This chapter includes the following as LCTCA: the arts (music, visual art, and other even less commonly taught subjects, such as dance and theater/drama), P.E./health, vocational and technical education programs, newer concepts such as STEAM, gifted and talented programs, foreign languages (especially less commonly taught languages, such as Mandarin Chinese or Arabic, for example), ESL, specialized areas of specific content areas (such as engineering courses at the high school level or highly specialized Special Education content areas), and many more. This chapter centers around a United States context. However, much of the information within is relevant to a global context in many ways because schools and school districts are often organized similarly. Simply put, if you are in the group of teachers, you know who you are and what unites this group.

It may be surprising to consider certain content areas as less commonly taught. For example, most Americans would consider Physical Education to be commonly taught. However, Physical Education classes in US schools have been on the decline and have sometimes been pushed aside over the past few decades, due to stronger emphasis on what policy makers have defined as core academic subjects. Teachers of Physical Education and Health may find themselves teaching extremely large class sizes, sometimes traveling between buildings, and serving a large span of grade levels. Just like other LCTCA, these teachers’ roles are dependent on the type of school and the school and school district culture. Thus, Physical Education teachers may absolutely relate to being included as teachers of LCTCA, depending on their unique situations at their schools. In the current landscape of accountability and assessment driven public education, most content areas that are not Mathematics, English Language Arts, and perhaps Science can be included in the wide umbrella of LCTCA.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Teacher Burnout: Teachers’ feelings of hopelessness and fatigue, due to stress and related issues.

Teacher Support: Programs (either formally organized or organic) that offer help for teachers, such as mentoring and relief, which would help to prevent and remedy teacher stress and burnout.

Advocacy: The practice of justifying and increasing awareness of something to the community.

Accountability and Assessment Policies: Decisions common in schools and in education policy during the first two decades of the 21st century, regarding the high usage of and reliance on testing and evaluation (both for teachers and students) to inform policy and practice in education.

Emotion Labor: Unseen and unnoticed work that a teacher or other member of a helping profession does, especially regarding advocacy within the community and the need to justify their programs.

Teacher Attrition: The phenomenon and rate of teachers leaving the teaching profession.

Less Commonly Taught Content Areas (LCTCA): Content areas taught in US K-12 schools for which there is typically only one to a few teachers in that content area when compared to the more popular content areas that are always taught (i.e. core content areas).

Content Area: The school subject, such as math or music.

Teacher Collaboration: Teachers working together toward a common goal, such as co-teaching a class or informing each other’s practice, either within a specific school building/situation or beyond.

Teacher Retention: The ability to keep teachers teaching in schools from year to year, as opposed to leaving the profession of education.

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