The elephant in the room: Why the subject specific training of beginning teachers matters

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A number of years ago, I watched a lesson where the beginning teacher had been schooled in a set of systematised generic teaching strategies. They had diligently practised and tried to implement these strategies in their lessons, but they were struggling. They were also frustrated. They felt like no one was really able to help them work out what the problem was. Their mentor, who had a background in a different subject specialism, was supportive and generous with their time but they were also frustrated. They didn’t know why the strategies weren’t working and couldn’t work out how to move this beginning teacher on. Was it just that the beginning teacher wasn’t really up to it?

“They’ve made some progress” the mentor reported when I arrived to observe, “but there is still something missing”. They were right. The class was reasonably settled, although still probably not quite where you’d hope they might be given the beginning teacher’s textbook implementation of the systematised approach to lesson management and behaviour. The beginning teacher was also ticking the boxes by following the expected lesson structure. However, the illusive ‘something’ was still not there. And the challenge of diagnosing why this was the case, and then knowing what to do next, remained. Any progress that had been made was fairly superficial because there was a huge lack in subject specific thinking supporting this process.

The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room was that the children weren’t really learning about the subject the teacher was meant to be teaching. There were tasks and activities which needed to be completed by reading/listening and inputting subject knowledge information but, if you had substituted that information for another subject, the moving parts of the lesson could have remained largely the same and the outcomes not dissimilar. Essentially, there was nothing distinctively connected to the subject discipline happening in the classroom, nothing to reveal to the casual onlooker, or even the pupils themselves, about the way the subject discipline works with its ‘factual’ substantive knowledge. The classroom had become the ‘realm of uniform compliant pedagogical behaviours’ which had ‘[lost] touch with subject identities’ (Whitburn, 2022).

The lesson lacked the much needed coherence, direction and purpose that comes from a teacher understanding how the lesson fits in the wider sequence and curriculum, and why this element is such a vital piece of the puzzle in that context (in fact, the exact opposite of the lesson I talked about here). It also lacked an understanding of the pedagogical tradition underpinning the subject. Activities were compliant with the required generic whole-school lesson structure, but they were completely divorced from the pedagogical theorising of the subject community. Paula Lobo Worth’s brilliant blog illustrates beautifully how a lesson ‘activity’ takes on a completely different life when it is selected or designed to support disciplinary thinking and not just the acquisition of substantive knowledge; the creation of paper dolls during this enquiry asking, ‘Who challenged the Church?’ is ALL about the historical reasoning that pupils are engaging with as they mobilise their substantive historical knowledge to answer a crucially historical disciplinary question. In stark contrast, the activities and tasks included in the beginning teacher’s lesson lacked this subject specificity. It could have been about pretty much anything , a common feature of all the lessons they had been planning and teaching to this point

But this is just an anecdote about one beginning teacher. Perhaps this beginning teacher was just not really suited to teaching. Perhaps it was due to their implementation of the techniques, not the techniques themselves. As a novice, you would expect the beginning teacher to struggle to translate generic approaches into their own subject discipline. Perhaps they just needed to become more confident and fluent in their application of these strategies so they could then have the mental space to think about all this subject specific stuff.

Why is it worth drawing attention to this situation at all?

What this scenario demonstrates so acutely, is a reliance on an approach to beginning teacher development where the beginning teacher is not being systematically supported take their academic subject ‘content’ knowledge and develop a knowledge of the theories and methods of their subject, what Schulman (1986) describes as specialised pedagogical content knowledge. Please don’t hear me wrong. It was a positive that they had been expertly supported in developing an understanding of routines which can aid classroom enaction. Beginning teachers find running a classroom efficiently and effectively really hard, and of course they need to learn how to run a room and create positive classroom environment. However, this approach had left them without the sufficient training to enable them to engage with how to plan for and teach their own subject effectively. Their day-to-day mentor was not able to induct them into the rich tradition of their subject community. The subject specific training sessions they did have comprised a tiny proportion of their training and, consequently, the input mainly focused on immediate priorities (for example mobilising their own substantive knowledge for managing the teaching and assessment of the exam specifications). The majority of the feedback they received from more experienced colleagues was concerned with the ‘surface level ‘symptoms’ of the lesson’ rather than ‘the actual ’causes’ of those symptoms – causes which often reside in [the] framing of the subject itself and the curricular thinking which underpins the lesson’ (Crooks & London, 2022). There was simply no capacity to provide ongoing subject specific support for either the beginning teacher or their mentor.

This young teacher had begun to construct their teacher identity around a framework that involved ‘bolting on’ their subject discipline to their teaching practice, almost as an afterthought. The very thing which had drawn them into the profession – a love of their subject – ended up playing second fiddle to the processes of classroom enaction. Their classroom enaction, however well they managed the classroom, was trapped in a cycle of misconceptions and misapprehensions about how pupils could and should be supported into understanding the subject. Critically, they were not a unique case. And this is what has real implications for the profession.

What are the implications of basing beginning teacher development upon generically focused programmes?

Predicating beginning and early career teacher development almost exclusively upon classroom routines, management strategies and generic pedagogies, and which cast the beginning teachers as deliverers of predesigned curriculum materials, poses real challenges for schools in both the medium and longer term. It may be tempting to assert that matters of curriculum and planning are issues for middle leaders rather than novice teachers, but where

do the middle leaders of tomorrow come from? In the scenario explored in this blog, the mentor was not a subject specialist because there was no subject specialist to be had – the only subject expertise in the school for that particular discipline was that held by the beginning teacher. As the recruitment and retention crisis deepens, this is becoming a reality for more and more schools. Additionally, as a generation of teachers who have not been inducted into the disciplinary thinking, debates and practical theorising of their subject community assume the roles of mentors themselves, the kind of deep engagement with subject that is the mark of expert subject specific mentoring (as seen here in Jonnie Grande’s blog on ‘coaching’) becomes more difficult to achieve consistently in school settings. Not privileging subject specific training as an integral entitlement of teacher preparation feels very risky indeed.

Subject specific training matters

It’s not a case of one or the other – it really can be both. An integrated, holistic view of teacher development will recognise the value of developing effective classroom practices alongside subject specific thinking. But being able to deconstruct and then reassemble the building blocks of knowledge in your subject to develop pupils’ meaningful engagement and ability to reason, understand and make meaning from that knowledge is complex. It requires an appreciation of the what, why and how of the disciplinary tradition of the subject. Beginning teachers need to be systematically exposed to these ideas, traditions, and ways of thinking. They need to be provided with rich subject specific opportunities to try them out in the classroom. Reducing the training of beginning teachers to generic principles does not help them to achieve this; it weakens the expertise in our profession and may be creating a self-perpetuating problem.

If you are a history teacher or mentor you may find the following interesting for thinking about ongoing history specific professional development:

This is a great place to start if you are a beginning or early career history teacher or a mentor and would like to supplement the history specific elements of your professional development.

This blog gives some suggestions for how an early career teacher might continue to develop their subject specific practices and understanding.

This programme is specifically designed for early career history teachers (in years 2,3 and 4 of teaching) and is intended to help ECTs re-focus their attention ‘into better, more ambitious and rigorous history teaching’.


Crooks, V. (2022) The magic of teaching a history lesson with coherence direction and purpose, Becoming a History Teacher.

Crooks, V. & London, L. (2022) Avoiding the Observation Trap: Interpreting generic mentoring approaches through a subject specific lens, Becoming a History Teacher.

Grande, J. (2022) #10 This week, in history… I’m trying to improve my coaching*, Curricular Pasts: Reflections from a History Classroom.

Lobo Worth, P. (2019) Peter and his paper dolls: low-attaining Year 8 make and break groups to explain why the Church was challenged in the early 1500s, lobworth.

Shulman LS. (1986) Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(4).

Whitburn, R. (2022, November 29th). A Rosenshine Reformation: in search of pedagogy for historical thinking. HTEN Conference.


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