What It Means to Be a 'Proficient' Teacher?

05/29/2015 05:22 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016
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How people introduce themselves is always interesting. When I was living in Washington DC, people introduced themselves as "hi my name is ____, and I work for ____." As an educator, people often introduce themselves as "hi my name is _____, and I've been teaching for ____ number of years." While I find it admirable in this era that people have persisted in one profession for a number of years, I'm always curious as to why we quantify that specific characteristic, oftentimes over all others.

Does the number of years in a particular profession always equal proficiency?

Back in 2008, Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success introduced the concept that it takes 10,000 hours to be considered an "expert" in a particular field, sport, or skill. I'd like to try to deconstruct and apply that concept to the discourse surrounding public education.

Imagine if instead of introducing ourselves by the number of years we have taught, we introduced ourselves as the number of students we have helped educate and prepare for life? How would the discourse surrounding public education change if we focused on these outcomes as opposed to simply a matter of attrition or number of years in the classroom?

While there is a significant value to experience (I would argue both inside and outside the classroom), simply adding up the number of years performing a particular task does not always equal proficiency. I could spend 20,000 hours practicing basketball, but I would never be Michael Jordan. I could play my fingers raw for countless hours, but I would never become B.B. King. In order for there to be a greater appreciation for the teaching profession, it is critical that there be an honest public conversation about the significance of the relationship between number of years in the classroom, and how teachers influence curriculum, pedagogy, student persistence and student performance.

There are hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators who do exceptional work and have not only achieved the requisite number of years and hours to be considered proficient, but also have demonstrated the qualitative measures of being able to demonstrate their proficiency as well. In a Time magazine article from 2013, the author highlights the work of Zach Hambrick at Michigan State University, whose research found that there was a large discrepancy in the number of hours one practiced chess and music to achieve mastery. Another researcher mentioned in the article, Scott Barry Kaufman at New York University highlighted the need to move beyond the "simplistic questions" of practice versus talent. I would argue that when it comes to education, perhaps more so than physical undertakings such as playing a sport, or an instrument (although there are significant psychological factors which contribute to ones success in each activity), it is incumbent upon educators that we begin to examine what Hambrick concluded in the goal of his research, that there is a need to "expose some of the complexities of the interaction between practice and proficiency." Intrinsic upon this is the value placed on a particular profession, how we are reflective concerning our own practice, how open and receptive we are to feedback as well as professional growth opportunities, and how frequent and meaningful those opportunities are.

So what does it mean to be a "proficient" teacher? While I think the jury is still out on building a concrete definition, number of years in the classroom alone should not be the sole measure. As educators, we need to remember the adage of teaching being both an "art and science." The art should include the reflective components that occur from within -- such as internal motivators for improvement and evaluation, as well as engaging in reflection with colleagues both inside and outside of the profession. Perhaps most importantly, self-care in the form of becoming more prepared, relaxed and open to constant change is an essential component to being successful in this profession. We must also remember the "science" component of teaching, which includes external evaluations on content delivery and markers for improvement (e.g. administrator evaluations, student evaluations, and other quantifiable measures). When we lean on one side more than the other, we create a critical mass of resentment and perhaps even anger that the other side is not being attended to.

So does it take 10,000 hours in order to become a "proficient" teacher? Maybe. We need to spend significant time adding value to what we do, in more nuanced and meaningful ways than simply counting how long we've been doing something. We need to transition towards creating a narrative that highlights the art to our profession as well as the science. We need to be stronger in reclaiming the narrative and focus on the intersection of both the art and science of teaching in order to more accurately reflect what it is that we do. As Taylor Mali said in his wonderful poem, What Teachers Make:

You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A- feel like a slap in the face....
You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read....