Supporting science teachers teaching outside specialism: teachers’ views of a professional development programme


Source: European Journal of Teacher Education, 44:5, 706-725

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this study the author wanted to address a gap in literature by
(1) investigating the challenges that Maltese teachers encounter when teaching chemistry topics in the first two years of secondary school and
(2) developing a PD programme that targets the learning needs of the non-chemistry specialist teachers.
This paper presents the results of the second part of this study where it describes the teachers’ views of the PD experience and how it helped them to change their perception of teaching outside their science specialism.
The research questions that guided this part include:
(1) What were the views of the science teachers as they took part in this professional learning experience?
(2) How did this PD experience impact the teachers’ views of teaching chemistry?

The research study adopts a case study methodology and aims to investigate in depth a particular phenomenon within its real-life context (Yin 2009).
As Denscombe (2014) argues, the aim of this case study was to analyse the situation and arrive at certain concepts and prepositions that could explain what is happening and why in a particular setting being investigated.
A call of applications was issued for the science teachers to participate in the summer workshop and 24 teachers applied.
During this call, nonchemistry specialist teachers were invited to voluntarily participate in the research study.
Eight teachers coming from different secondary schools gave their consent.
Since the sample is small generalisations cannot be made, yet the results provide in-depth and rich experiences of teaching outside specialism in Malta.
The teachers had different years of teaching experiences and background in chemistry.
Two teachers believed that they had a good background in chemistry to teach the younger students and they loved the subject.
They still consented to participate in order to improve their teaching since they were early career teachers.
The other six teachers identified themselves as subject specialists and felt weaker at teaching chemistry due to their limited content knowledge and/or because they had poor experiences when learning chemistry during their student days.
These teachers experienced tensions between their multiple identities when teaching within and outside specialism.
In order to gather the teachers’ views about this PD programme, data were collected over a year-long period using semi-structured individual interviews to capture the range and diversity of responses using the participants’ own words and expressions (Braun and Clarke 2013).
Four interviews were held with each teacher; one at the beginning and one at the end of the scholastic year whereas the second and third interviews were held before the second and third workshop respectively.
From these in-depth conversations, the author could access the teacher’s perception of their own reality and ways of thinking.
This was useful to construct meaning from their experiences and interpretation of events so as to generate a rich data source.
Two focus group interviews, that is one at the end of the summer workshop and the other one at the end of the scholastic year were also held to gather the teachers’ collective experience and views of the PD programme.
During these interviews, the author listened actively and paraphrased their explanations to ensure that she was correctly understanding and interpreting their perspectives (Braun and Clarke 2013).
The author transcribed and coded data from interviews by means of an iterative and inductive process.
Following Braun and Clarke (2006), thematic analysis was used to identify, analyse, and report patterns of themes within the data.
Codes pertaining to similar issues were organised into themes.
Data analysis was a recursive process and involved moving back and forth between the data and the themes to refine the themes.
Six themes emerged from the data and this paper focuses on three themes which include ‘professional development’, ‘community of learners’ and ‘improvements’ thereby answering the research questions which explore the teachers’ views of this learning experience and the changes in the teachers’ perceptions towards chemistry.

Findings and discussion
The purpose of this study was to gather the teachers’ experiences of the PD programme and to find out how it impacted their views when teaching chemistry.
This section presents and discusses the findings of each research question.

Q1:Teachers’ views of the professional learning experience
The findings show that in this experience teachers regarded themselves as learners and reflective practitioners since they argued that they
(1) were active learners,
(2) learnt with and from others,
(3) became reflective practitioners and
(4) implemented activities in practice.

Q2: Effect of PD experience on their view of teaching chemistry
Whereas at the beginning of the study many of the participants (T3 to T8) feared teaching outside specialism, as they become more involved in this PD experience they started to change their perceptions and dispositions towards chemistry.
In their final interviews teachers expressed that they had increased their content knowledge and PCK.
Christine (T6) explained that ‘during the sessions we covered some material which the students do not need to know so I feel that I have more knowledge than my students’.
Laura (T5) said that she enhanced her explanations of chemistry concepts because she knew ‘what activities [she could] do to portray certain concepts and the level of detail required in the science lesson’.
A key factor that influenced the teachers’ perception of chemistry was their participation in the community of learners because it not only supported innovation and experimentation, but it also contributed to a shared professional culture that empowered teachers to develop a sense of collective responsibility for their learning.
The findings of the second research question reveal that teachers managed to resolve some of the tensions existing between their multiple identities because they acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to plan lessons, and this effected their self-efficacy beliefs about teaching chemistry.
The teachers acknowledged that the ongoing support and interaction within the community of learners, as well as the recognition of their contributions by others enabled them to make the leap and move out of their comfort zone.
Such results extend the mechanisms of boundary crossing, proposed by Akkerman and Bakker (2011), where it can be said that the collective participation and interaction in a learning community enable the process of boundary crossing and help teachers to bridge the gap between their multiple identities.
The evidence provided by this research suggests that PD programmes for nonspecialist teachers need not only support teachers to improve their content knowledge and PCK but they also need to empower teachers to embark on the process of reconciling the tensions between their multiple identities.
Kenny, Hobbs, and Whannell (2019) also suggest that PD programmes for teachers teaching out-of-field need to attend to the expansion of teachers’ identity.
This will not only depend on the design of the PD programme.
One may argue that teachers need to be open and flexible to transform their beliefs and attitudes towards teaching a new subject.
In this study, teachers voluntarily participated in this project implying that they were ready to embark on this journey; however, they did not know how the programme would develop especially since the ongoing workshops were devised on the teachers’ needs.
Furthermore, this group of teachers had a range of expertise and were at different points in their learning trajectories.
The main turning point in their learning journey that empowered teachers to review their self-efficacy beliefs and expand their professional identity as science teachers took place when teachers realised that they were not treated as knowledge-deficient professionals, but when their contributions and efforts were acknowledged and valued within the learning community.
The evidence from this study suggests that in order to support teachers’ to learn at the boundary it is highly important to provide learning experiences where teachers can draw out their strengths rather than focus on their limitations and weaknesses.

Akkerman, S.F., and A. Bakker. 2011. “Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects.” Review of Educational Research 81 (2): 132–169
Braun, V., and V. Clarke. 2006. “Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology.” Qualitative Research in Psychology 3 (2): 77–101
Braun, V., and V. Clarke. 2013. Successful Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide for Beginners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Denscombe, M. 2014. The Good Research Guide: For Small-scale Social Research Projects. 5th ed. Berkshire, England: McGraw-Hill Education.
Kenny, J., L. Hobbs, and R. Whannell. 2019. “Designing Professional Development for Teachers Teaching Out-of-field.” Professional Development in Education 1–16
Yin, R.K. 2009. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Updated: May. 25, 2022