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Teaching more than one subject

By Mary Bigelow

Posted on 2016-06-30

I’m a recent graduate. A school district where I would really like to teach has an opening for a secondary science teacher. But when I read the job description, the position requires teaching five classes of two different subjects (general biology and an environmental science elective). During student teaching, I just taught biology. Is it common for teachers to have more than one subject? How can I do this? I felt overwhelmed with just one! –L., California

I’ve worked with many schools where teaching more than one subject is the rule rather than the exception. In smaller 7-12 buildings, there may be only one or two science teachers for all of the classes! Even in larger schools, it’s very common for teachers to have multiple preparations, based on student enrollment in required courses, the scope of electives offered, the teacher’s area(s) of certification, and sometimes his or her seniority.

In my own experience, I taught both life and physical science for several years, and at the high school I once had three different preparations, plus mentoring independent study. Even at the university level I taught two to three different courses each semester. I understand your concern.

And don’t forget elementary teachers who routinely plan four or more subjects (reading/language arts, math, science, and social studies) every day!

As you learned in student teaching, the obvious advantage of teaching one subject is you can concentrate all of your time and effort on a single preparation. You’ll have one lesson plan, one system of assessments, and one set of lab activities. The disadvantage is the time you’ll need to evaluate student work with the same due date. When I taught six classes of life science, I often spent Saturdays at school grading 150 projects or lab notebooks, in addition to the paperwork I would take home or review electronically.

A disadvantage to teaching more than one subject is the preparation time. You’ll need separate unit plans, lessons, and lab activities for each. But an advantage is that with careful planning you can schedule separate dates for tests, projects, lab investigations, student presentations, and notebook reviews, spreading out the evaluation work and preserving some of your sanity!

I actually enjoyed teaching more than one subject. When I taught six sections of life science, I found that by the end of the day, it was hard to remember what we discussed in each class. I had to have the energy to make the last period as engaging as the first, and I had to remember that even if I had heard a question five times already, to a student in the last class it was a new idea. I found that teaching more than one subject was intellectually challenging, and I appreciated the opportunity to update my own content and skills in more than one area.

There are many strategies you can use to keep yourself (and the students) organized. Try not to set up and conduct two different labs on the same day. Divide your bulletin boards and shelves into two separate areas so that students know where things are and where to turn in their assignments. I used a different logo for each course, putting it in the upper right corner of handouts, quizzes, or other documents. I used separate folders (with the same logo) on my laptop and separate three-ring binders for each course to organize lesson plans and other resources. I also had a tote bag for each course to keep materials from getting mixed up.

It also helps if the subjects are in consecutive periods (e.g., bio in the morning, the other class in the afternoon), so that you can keep lab materials set up—a question to ask during the interview. Otherwise, you will have to secure the materials when the other class comes in.

As a beginning teacher, your first year or two will be overwhelming, no matter how many subjects you teach! But as many of our veteran colleagues will attest, after a year or two it gets becomes more manageable. I’m hoping you would have a mentor or supportive administrator to help you, and NSTA’s e-mail lists, discussion forums, and publications can provide support and suggestions.

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