Teaching more than one subject

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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16 Responses to Teaching more than one subject

  1. Marcia Chamberlain says:

    I was skeptical at first when I started to read you reply, however you did not disappoint! I thought your advice was sound and do able. You did not soften the brutal first year of first year teaching with multiple classes. GREAT ADVICE!

  2. Susan Cook says:

    I once taught Geometry, General Math and earth science mini courses such as Ecology, Meteorology, Geology and Astronomy. Planning, of course, will make or break you. But if you schedule the class work so that paperwork turned on by students is staggered, you may not feel overwhelmed. The second year teaching the same classes will, as you have already been advised, will be easier. It will give you a chance to introduce new ideas in science. Good luck! You are about to embark on a trip of a lifetime!

  3. Emma Baker says:

    I am the only high school science teacher at a small island school off the coast of Maine. As the only teacher in my department, I have to teach every course offered. Traditionally we have had alternating A and B years, but we have moved away from that to offering each course every year. In the fall I will have 6 different preps, with one planning period. I am also the NHS adviser, Prom Committee advisor, high school lead teacher, and on multiple other committees. Small schools are well known for teachers having to wear multiple hats. I really enjoy having a variety of classes, for the same reasons presented in the article. I once taught 4 sections of biology at a different district and I too would have a hard time keeping track of what conversations happened in each class. Having so many preps can be challenging, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world! I love seeing my kids for 4 years, watching them grow and learn!

    • Mary Bigelow says:

      You have a great opportunity to really get to know your students and to coordinate your subjects! Thanks for responding!

  4. Janet Mead says:

    It is very common in high schools to work as part of a collaborative team and teach more than one related subject. As a new teacher, reach out to colleagues, be certain you are assigned a mentor in your department. Do not hesitate to use the resources provided by the curriculum department either at your district or county level. And of course you personal professional reference is NSTA! You are on an excellent adventure.

  5. Bryan Scheider says:

    It has been my experience to teach several preps each year. I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who only teaches 1 prep a year. In my 11 years (in 2 states) I’ve taught physics (both ap and college prep), physical science, bio, enviro, astronomy, chem (ap and cp), materials science, and probably more. There are 5 in our department, some administrators like to change it up for the fun of it, sometimes things change because of number of kids. My current normal is 3 preps each semester, which do not often repeat. (I teach in a smaller district on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio)
    Planning and sharing are key, I also do a lot of work on Saturdays.

  6. Suz Bay says:

    Although I would not consider it desirable, it is common for first year teachers to teach more than one prep. See what you can accomplish this summer. Contact the department chair to see if there are others teaching your same courses. One of the best qualities of the teaching profession is the willingness to share lesson plans and more. See if your district has standardized the curriculum in terms of pacing or common assessments. And of course, online resources can be a great help too. The more prep you can do now, the better you will feel as the year begins.

  7. Marie Mackey says:

    As others have stated, this is not uncommon but can still be overwhelming. Time management is obviously key, but having taught 5 different classes each year in a private school setting and then teaching 2 -3 college classes(both lecture and lab) for 20 years, I can promise one can survive. Teaching different classes kept me from being bored, and it actually gave me the opportunity to develop ways to help my students understand how all sciences are connected and reinforce concepts across several courses. It also gave me a wealth of experience that I still rely on 25 years later and made me very marketable as a teacher.

  8. Ekon, Esther says:

    it is a common thing to teach more than one science subjects in secondary schools. what you need do is, prepare yourself mentally and health-wise to face the challenge and you see yourself succeeding. Go ahead, be mentored and display your skills.

  9. Sarah Wonders says:

    I almost had 3 preps my first year, but ended up with 2. Going into my 4th year now, I’m down to 1 prep because of the switches we’ve made to ensure we’re getting the earth science standards in. I’m honestly the opposite of this new teacher and agreeing with some of the response of the writer! I’m scared I’m going to fizzle out by the end of my 6th section of chemistry and not have the memory of what was covered in the previous classes. Hoping for a good year regardless and hoping for lots of extra patience!!!

  10. Michele says:

    I teach in the 3rd largest county in VA, and I’d say that teaching only 1 prep is rare. Even the people who teach “only Biology” have multiple levels- honors, average, and collab- which is really at least 2 preps. While it may seem advantageous to teach the same thing all day, Ms. Mentor is right; by the last period you will be so sick of saying the same thing over and over you will want to pull your hair out. I inevitably left out a key piece of information to at least one class because I’d swear I’d already explained it multiple times. Hopefully you will be in a school where collaboration and support of new teachers is the norm. Ask for common planning time with at least one other teacher of your subject(s). Offer to share lab responsibilities with another teacher; one sets up the materials and the other cleans up and puts away. Teaching is not an easy profession, but the emotional and intellectual rewards are great! You will find your groove after the first few years. Best wishes for a successful first year!

  11. Judy Licht says:

    As a teacher in a small private school I have 5 different preps (at least) every year. I honestly wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have to switch hats pretty much every period, I’ve been doing it so long. Yes it requires you to be organized, especially around labs and yes I do do some work on the weekends but I think that I would anyway. After a few years you will definitely wonder why you were so nervous meanwhile take the advice of the others and enjoy the ride. Have a great first year.

  12. Maria says:

    The amount of preps (classes you will teach) that you are ‘allowed’ to have is governed by your union contract. If you are assigned more preps than what has been negotiated in your contract, you will not have a teacher prep (planning) period and should be compensated for teaching during your (teacher) prep period.
    Also, another commenter said that you should ask for collaboration time with other teachers. If the school to which you are applying is not collaborative, you are not going to get extra collaboration time by simply asking for it. Collaboration is something you either figure out on your own, at lunch or after school, or your district is collaborative, meaning that all schools have collaboration time built in to the schedule. This could be under the guise of PLC time (Professional Learning Community) or could simply be called teacher collaboration time.
    For example, I have worked at three school districts that have different configurations of planning/collaboration/PD (professional development) time. One school only had weekly PLC time that was spent, at times, in teacher collaboration, in addition to a regular daily prep/planning time. My present school has a 1 & 1/2 hour time slot weekly devoted solely to teacher collaboration time in addition to PLC/PD time & daily prep/planning. The best model was at San Francisco Unified, where we had weekly staff meeting/PD time (2 hours), one regular daily prep (planning) periods, in addition to one regular daily collaboration period. It was GREAT to have that time built in to our schedule!
    Ask to speak with one of the union reps at your school or ask for a copy of your union contract. All teacher planning/prep/PD/collaboration time will be spelled out in your document.

  13. Sue Ransom says:

    I teach at a small rural Texas school. I have at least 6 preps daily. This is the first year I have had consecutive classes so that is a bonus. As a new teacher you will need to rely on your fellow teachers to help with the first year shock. We don’t have unions, but we do have guidelines which all good administrators keep. The secret to multiple preps is good preparation. Days seem to fly by when you are moving from subject to subject. Make your grading clear to all and not overwhelming to you and your personal life. Teaching is a calling not a job. The rewards are as immense as the challenges.

  14. Rebecca Hansen says:

    It is very common in my area for middle and high school teachers to teach more than one subject. In fact, I teach MS life science and language arts! I actually like it because it gives me the opportunity to create cross curricular units that build relevance for my students. Yes, I have two preps and yes, I have to be cognizant of standardized testing in both areas. However, the benefits for me and my students outweigh the extra work – life does not exist in a one-at-a-time, compartmentalized fashion.

  15. kevin seeley says:

    I am currently in a very poor situation for effective instruction as a High School SPED Teacher. I teach 12 subjects within 5 periods. Thus, I teach 3 different subjects at none time. For example, in one period I teach World History, Government, Health and English. I have about 15 students in total in that class. I have been teaching for 28 years and have given several presentations on the state level in Multi-Sensory Instruction. Yet, any type of effective Direct/Multi Sensory Instruction in this set up is virtually not possible.. Not to mention the prep time needed to [prepare an effective lesson. I truly can not believe the law allows this. I have several students whom are interested in taking World History in the regular ed classroom. And instead of having a teacher teaching just that one subject during class in a Direct instruction/Multi sensory model, they are required to take my class while I teach 3-4 subjects simultaneously. Not to mention, I have 8 other subjects to prep for…. Is anyone else in the country doing this? I certainly hope not….

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