In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell presents the idea that it takes 10 000 hours of practice to master a skill. This equates to 20 hours a week for ten years. Interestingly, the pay scale for teachers in Ontario public schools maxes out at the ten-year mark.

But, there’s more to this idea than simply practicing a lot. Talent plays a role in someone’s ability to succeed in a particular area. Focussed practice is also an important factor when developing a skill. In a video uploaded to YouTube, which I’ll link to in the description, Gladwell provides some clarity around the notion of 10 000 hours, saying that it’s more symbolic, in that it is meant to convey the notion that developing a complex cognitive skill to a point of mastery is going to take longer than you think. In the same video, he says that people are starting to achieve mastery at less than 10 000 hours because of more efficient learning methods. Gladwell says:

The people who practice in a focused way, where they’re getting ample feedback, and they are working in a deliberate way on improving their areas of weakness, those people will tend to see far more improvement over their 10000 hours than those who don’t.

If you watched The Last Dance on Netflix, you’ll know that Michael Jordan put in a lot of work to become the successful basketball player that he was. He spent a lot of time practicing a skill he knew he was good at. He also believed in himself.

About 1/6th or 17% of a teacher’s time is allocated to preparation, “prep time.” It’s an important part of any teacher’s day and all teachers feel it, deep within them, when this time is taken away. It’s the time during the school day that we can use to plan, mark, and just generally prepare for teaching.

20 percent, or there abouts, isn’t a lot of time to prepare. It’s not a lot of time because teaching requires a lot more than just teaching.

Professional athletes, musicians, and artists spend a lot of their time practicing. They spend significantly more time preparing for a game or a gig than they do actually playing that game or performing at that gig. Their greatest efforts are put into their preparation.

In addition to their talents, these professionals have teams of other professionals around to support them. They could be coaches or medical professionals. These people observe them, critique them, provide targeted support for growth in specific areas. Professional athletes and artists have access to resources that most people don’t because they have enough money. They can make their ideas a reality. All of this is done in order to support a performance that makes up the least amount of their time spent doing their jobs.

It’s the 80/20 rule: you spend 80% of your time preparing or doing things you don’t enjoy so that you can spend 20% of your time doing what you do enjoy.

Teaching is a bit different because you spend 80% of your time doing what you want to do but have only 20% of your time to prepare yourself for it.

Let’s imagine that professional athletes spent 80% of their time playing the game that they love, leaving only 20% of their time for practice. The games would look a lot different and probably be a lot less interesting. Their growth would be appraised differently, as would their value to any team. They would fatigue earlier in the season, injuries would go up significantly, and profit margins for teams would go down. The game might not be worth playing anymore.

Now, let’s imagine that during the 20% of their time that they get for practice, they also have to complete the following tasks:

  • preparing a game schedule
  • putting together various plays and updating their playbook
  • critiquing their teammates and providing targeted feedback for improvement
  • acquiring resources to play games
  • sourcing materials and personnel to support their own athletic and psychological development
  • sourcing materials and personnel to support the athletic and psychological development of their teammates
  • documenting the whole process, creating a file for each player

And, they have to do this while maintaining a fairly conservative budget.

The game would look a lot different. Players’ focus would be distracted, at best, nonexistent at the extremes. They wouldn’t be able to play the game that they have the strength and skills to play and at the level they’d like to.

For teachers, most of their time is spent playing the game – teaching. While they are teaching, they are learning who their teammates are, coming to understand the strengths and weakness of their, not opponents, but students, are supporting the development of the whole team by working with individual team members, and they are also learning what they can do well and what they need to improve on.

During that 20% of their time, they are trying to get through the rest of everything else, the planning, marking, preparing. It’s only outside of their 100% that they can focus on things like professional development, mental health, and personal growth, things that are necessary for them to perform well.

This is why teaching is a practice. It’s about growing and developing while you’re on the job, while you’re playing the game. It’s about making mistakes, identifying them, learning how to fix them, and then implementing new strategies. This cycle is constantly repeated. Teachers are often working on more than one muscle group at a time. They are prioritising not only their success, but the success of the entire team. They are doing all of this while remaining responsive to the changing needs of their teammates.

We can’t forget that teaching is a craft, it involves the exercise of a particular skill, one that has to be honed through constant practice. A craftsperson learns through doing. They develop a talent by focusing effort on specific areas of their craft. It’s like sushi masters who spend the first three years of their careers learning how to wash rice. They can only take the next step once they have mastered a fundamental skill.

There is a certain artistry to teaching. It’s not something that can be taught but can be learned. Repetition helps with this learning. This artistry takes a lot of time to develop, growth is incremental, and it requires a commitment to continually reinvest in the craft.

Feedback and reflection are important but often neglected or avoided. With so many things to do, how will we ever make time to get better? This is really where teaching distinguishes itself from professional sports or arts.

If we treated teaching like we do professional sports or arts, we’d find that teachers’ professional growth would see a dramatic increase. If teachers had regular access to feedback and the support necessary to address shortcomings, they would have the opportunity to deliberately practice a necessary skill required for their success. If teachers had more time to reflect on their own practice, review their own work, and prepare for what’s coming up, they’d feel more confident in their abilities and perform at higher levels. Imagine what would happen if they had the same reverence that professional athletes and artists do?

The Practice of Teaching
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