Why Switching Subject Areas Was the Best Thing to Happen to Me

Many of us teachers have a subject area preference. We tend to be hyper-aware of our strengths and weaknesses, and our teacher preparation classes have taught us to be highly reflective. As a result, we also know how we learn best and what methods of study work most effectively for us. Additionally, we have interests and hobbies because we are, in fact, humans. And as is human nature, we gravitate toward those things that spark our interest and hold our engagement. We also are more attracted to those subjects or skills in which we excel. When all these factors weigh in, it results in a preference for a particular content area. If you are brave enough to teach high school, or, like myself, enjoy teaching chimps to knit and have the pleasure of educating middle schoolers, you are fortunate to teach only that content area. (Elementary school teachers are incredible unicorns who teach all subject areas, and for that, I greatly admire them. That and their courage in choosing a life surrounded by tiny humans.)

For me and my infinite wisdom (hah), that subject area was always math. Numbers were my game, and there was nothing more satisfying than completing a multi-page geometric proof that worked out perfectly. I declared my concentration early on in my college career, knowing full well that math would be the area I would most enjoy, and in which I would excel. Thankfully, I had chosen to pursue my degree in the elementary education program at Bradley University. Their program is phenomenal, and all students who complete the El.Ed. bachelor’s are endorsed for language arts in addition to the concentration they chose. I am still incredibly grateful that was the case during my education, because had it not been, I never would have been able to find my true passion.

Even before college, math had always been something that had come naturally to me. I had a knack for solving problems, and there was just something about the organization that came along with it that I enjoyed. There was a right answer, and if you knew how to manipulate the numbers, you could find it. I signed up for any math class I could take during high school, and focused on geometry during college. Each one of my clinical or field experiences was in an intermediate or middle school math class, which allowed me to become well-versed in teaching math in addition to doing it. I had narrowed my focus, and was starting to develop a confidence.

I was fortunate to be offered a job teaching 5th grade the day before I graduated college in 2014. This would be a huge change for me. Not only would I be teaching elementary school, I’d be teaching all content areas. That year was tough, as the first year of teaching always is, but with a lot of guidance and support from colleagues I survived and found success. The following year, my school implemented a departmentalization style in 5th grade, so I was back to teaching just math. To say I was excited was an understatement. I couldn’t wait to get back to where I felt most confident and start to hone my skills. That year was great, but I couldn’t help but feel that I still wasn’t in the right place. There was just something that wasn’t quite right. In all my experience, I had truly enjoyed teaching middle school. Those students are at such a pivotal time in their lives, just starting to find their independence, and the opportunity to influence them was exciting. Not to mention, they are absolutely hilarious. I had entertained the idea of requesting a move to the middle school in my school district, and in January of 2016 I had a conversation with my principal about making that change.

My first First Day of School

After talking with a few people and making a final decision about moving to 6th grade, I was told that no math positions were available, and that I would be teaching language arts in the coming year. My first thought, was How in the world am I going to do this? It was daunting, frightening, and an area in which I felt less than confident. The summer came and went, and I started this school year excited and nervous to be so far outside my comfort zone. Looking back now, I can’t believe how much that changed my future.

As this year comes to a close, I’ve found myself reflecting rather frequently. I have known my students so deeply through their writing and reading preferences, and have fallen in love with teaching language arts. Guiding students to develop as writers and find joy in discovering new books has been so incredibly rewarding. Don’t get me wrong- watching a student finally understand a mathematical concept and have that “lightbulb” moment was amazing. Those moments always make this job worthwhile. But having a student review the first writing response they wrote and compare it to their most current is a truly incredible experience. Listening to a student describe the book they just read and how it changed their perspective is so meaningful. Watching their faces light up when they learned that they earned an honorable mention in a statewide letter writing competition is heartwarming. Seeing their confidence in public speaking grow is an absolutely fantastic reward. They’ve found their voices this year, in more ways than one. And I got to be the facilitator of that!

I have found such meaning in this content area. Though math was always an area of strength, in the past (and now) I could also usually be found with my nose in a book or discussing my most recent read with a group of my friends or my sister. I never quite made that correlation that I loved language arts. I just knew that I enjoyed books, and that reading was something I found fun. I had wonderful English teachers who pushed me and prepared me well, and I still remember the senior year Literature teacher who taught me to write. I am thrilled to be able to play a part in facilitating my students becoming writers and lovers of literature. I have found a passion and an excitement for language arts that I never intended to discover. Without my moving outside of my comfort zone and switching content areas, I may never have made these important discoveries.

If you are one of those teachers who is expectedly or unexpectedly switching content areas, embrace the change about to happen before you. If you are a teacher who has become an expert in a particular content area or grade level, welcome new ideas and be willing to try them. Education is constantly changing, just as our students are, and it is our job to change with it and with them. By trying something daunting, frightening, and a little overwhelming, you may just discover a new passion that was unknown to you before. I know I did. Lean into it. You’ll be glad you did.

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