When You Need to Teach a Subject You Hate (Or Don't Feel Qualified to Teach)
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We've all been there: You've finally graduated, and your dream is to teach one specific subject area... after 101 interviews, you are finally offered a job at your dream school, teaching EXACTLY the subject you dread or could never imagine teaching. So what do you do?
Let's talk about how taking that job could potentially help you become the teacher you've always dreamed of being.
If the content is difficult or challenging to you, that’s when you are offered an opportunity to do some of your very best teaching.
I’m going to tell you a story that you’re going to think has nothing to do with teaching, but it actually has everything to do with teaching – so just stay with me! One thing you don’t know about me is that my husband was the captain of the Cal Berkeley Rugby team, and he led his team to a national championship.
The crazy thing is that he had never played rugby before going to college, so the fact that he not only became captain of this team in his junior year, but then led them to a national championship, means that he was one of those guys who was incredibly gifted athletically. He also played football for Cal Berkeley, and when he was playing football, he ended up breaking his neck.
So, now we have an athlete who was unable to do pretty much anything because he was in a neck brace, right? So, he decided to try his hand at coaching. He’s a really gifted athlete so the thinking goes, he would be an incredible coach, right?
Wrong. He was a TERRIBLE coach. Because he had never had to break things down before – because it just came naturally to him, he didn’t have any idea of how to teach other guys how to do the things he just did naturally. He expected that it would be easy for them, that they should just do what he asked them to and that they should just “know,” like he did, how to execute the things he was asking them to do.
But what he didn’t realize was so hard for other athletes who maybe this didn’t come naturally to, were all of the necessary steps in order to break down the moves required in order to get the same results he did. It was so frustrating for him, and he just couldn’t figure out – or didn’t really want to figure out – all of the tedious, small steps that would have been required for them to be able to do what he wanted them to. He would get so frustrated with the guys and would say, “Just do it! Just do what I’m asking you to do!” and they would look at him with these blank stares and say, “How?” Like, how do you actually do what you’re asking us to do?
This may be something you run into when you’re teaching a subject that comes easily and naturally to you. Although it seems counter-intuitive, you just may end up being the best teacher in the subjects you feel least qualified to teach… because you won’t take anything for granted. You will be more likely to offer step-by-step instruction because you’ll likely teach it the way you had to learn it. You’ll be able to explain and teach concepts much more clearly because they will need to be crystal clear to you first, because you’ve just learned it yourself.
Also, when a subject is easy for you, you have different assumptions than you do when something is really challenging or foreign to you. When you assume something is complicated or difficult, rather than assuming that something is simple and easy, you have a lot more natural compassion for your students and tend to be a lot more patient because you naturally assume that it’s challenging. And that’s when you can become an even better teacher – when you learn how to break down difficult concepts and teach them in a way that makes sense, in small, digestible, bite-sized pieces.
You may tend to celebrate student success more when your students DO learn the concepts that you find challenging or difficult.
Let me explain what I mean by that. Math and science were the subjects that I felt the least confident in when I was in the classroom, and so in science, I started marking the completion of each unit into a little celebration. (Mostly because I was so flipping happy when we finally got through another unit 😂).
For example, when we were studying small crawling and flying animals in science (and note that this is a subject that many kids are very naturally interested in, but I wasn’t especially enamored by bugs), I celebrated the completion of this unit with what I called a bug sundae party.
I would supply the vanilla and chocolate ice-cream, but then I would invite my students to each bring in a half-cup of some kind of topping that they imagined to be some kind of bug. So, of course, kids brought in the typical gummy worm candy, but then they also brought in other items that were a little more creative and imaginative, like mini chocolate chips that they called ants, and mini marshmallows that they called spider cocoons.
On the day of our bug sundae party, my students just loved seeing the row of bug sundae toppings come in from their classmates, which we lined up with clear labels all across the back counter of our classroom, so kids could plan what kinds of toppings they might want to try on their sundaes.
The point is that I probably wouldn’t have gotten this creative around a topic that I wasn’t so happy to be done with, and that’s one of the hidden gifts of being asked to teach a subject or topic that you aren’t especially interested in.
Because the subject is uninteresting to you, you may assume it’s also uninteresting for your students... so you may take special care to make it fun and interesting.
I first started using centers in math in my classroom to help my students learn their basic facts in 2nd grade and to learn their multiplication facts in 4th grade because I assumed it would be so boring for my students to learn them – and yet, my students continually begged for time to do these centers.
Why? Because I had made them so flipping fun! Because my students got to constantly move around the classroom, because they got to spend time with their friends while they were learning – because I had put so much effort into making this a great and positive learning experience for them BECAUSE I thought the topic was so boring, they just lit up. And can you imagine how much MORE fun this was for my students who already loved math and numbers?
In science, because I had an underlying assumption that this subject probably wasn’t the most interesting for a lot of students, I got a white lab coat and an Einstein-inspired wig, and sometimes when we were going to do an experiment in science, I would put on that lab coat and that wig and I would ask my students, “Who would like to be my victim, I mean my volunteer, today for my science experiment?” They absolutely ate it up and I never had a problem getting volunteers for my experiments. 😊
The point is that sometimes, when you find the subject or topic uninteresting, that’s when you may become even more imaginative and creative than you would be otherwise.
You’ll likely do more online research and come up with ideas that you otherwise would never have found.
I don’t know what we did before we had the internet, but now, there are just so many ideas at our fingertips that the problem is more in narrowing down what we’re going to do than looking for ideas. It’s almost like we have too many choices.
When I first started teaching 4th grade, NOBODY at my grade level wanted to teach art, and I had never taught art before. I had always loved crafts, but I had never taught art, nor had I taken any art classes in my entire life. So, when my team let me know that I was going to be teaching art for not just my class, but for my entire grade level, I was freaking out. I mean, not only did I not know what I was doing – I had never even looked at an art curriculum – but I also knew that art could be a classroom management nightmare.
So what did I do? I turned to the internet for ideas, which, may I remind you, was more than 20 years ago because I’m so old. And even then, people were sharing their ideas online. Of course, it wasn’t nearly the way it is now – there was no Teachers Pay Teachers or anything like that – but there were still some really cool ideas out there. And as I started experimenting and trying different ideas, my colleagues started taking notice, and they kept asking where I was finding these incredible ideas. I looked like a superstar for using Google.
But the point is that I would never have even gone online to look for ideas if I already felt like I had a clear handle on how to teach art. It turned out that I was a really good art teacher, and I became the resident art teacher at our school over the years, teaching all of the art for whichever grade level I was in – something I never could have imagined happening when I first starting a subject that I had no education or background in.
Because you’re not confident in that subject area, you’ll likely ask your colleagues for more help and guidance.
Because I was so uncomfortable with teaching art in the beginning, I started reaching out and asking for help within our own school. I found out who the resident art teacher was at our school – who was kind of “the expert” when it came to art, and it turns out that it was a teacher by the name of Marjorie Andrews.
She was amazing to watch with students, and she had such a quiet and gentle nature. I started to volunteer as part of her lunch time art club to learn – especially because I was so concerned about the classroom management aspects of teaching art – and I learned SO MUCH about how enjoyable and easy it could be to do art with students through her example.
I found not only someone who would teach me all I needed to know in order to become an art teacher, but I found a mentor who would support and guide me for many years at that school. So much so that when she retired, I was named the resident art teacher at our school and was responsible for making the art order for our entire school when she left.
So, teaching a subject that you are uncomfortable in and that you have no experience in can offer some incredible hidden gifts.
Because you’re not confident in that subject area, you’ll likely ask your colleagues for more help and guidance – which is really going to help develop those relationships… and will contribute to your overall feeling of acceptance on a new staff, and eventually, may lead to mentorship and friendship down the road.
When you are asked to teach a subject you are not comfortable with, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, and don’t believe that you are supposed to be an expert in all things.
I think the main thing to keep in mind is to stay humble. That’s why you’re a teacher: You believe in the power of learning, and hopefully, you will always be a learner. I know I am.
I am absolutely convinced that the longer I live, the less I know. Every single week, I am amazed by you incredible new teachers when I see the wonderful things you are doing inside your own classrooms as you share ideas and examples of what you’re doing in your classrooms inside our Private Beginning Teacher talk Facebook group. I am absolutely convinced that we have the very best group of teachers anywhere on the internet.
You are not only amazingly supportive and helpful to each other, but you are so smart, and so creative. I encourage you to remember that whatever you’re struggling with, I guarantee that someone in our group absolutely lights up at the thought of the subject you’re dreading. SO I strongly encourage you to reach out and ask your colleagues, the amazing members of our group, for help and guidance when you need it. We are all learners, and we are all in this together.
I hope that was helpful for you, and before I go, I just want to remind you, as always, that just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there's no need for you to struggle like one.
P.S. I just created this very special freebie that I designed especially to help you start feeling more confident about your teaching. Grab your copy now by clicking the pic below - it's what I used to help myself start believing more in my own teaching abilities, and I'm confident it will help you as well.
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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