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  • by Blaine Helwig

How Long Until I am Good at this Teaching Gig?

New teachers struggle in the classroom. We all did. When I started, I expected to be much better at teaching kids, and I was 32 years old with almost a decade of mature professional work experience in tow. Unfortunately, I was starting anew in a professional field without a tremendous amount of previous skill carryover from my prior work. I was learning a completely new trade.

It takes about 4 to 6 years to mature into a successful elementary classroom teacher assuming the same grade level is taught – or close to it. If a teacher begins in a kindergarten assignment for two years and then transitions to fifth grade, it usually slows the maturation process. There are carryover skills between the two instructional assignments, but the classroom dynamics are quite different. In general, it is a standard 4 to 6 year mark for most teachers to become highly proficient, and once that magic threshold is met, a teacher is aware that their professional ship has sailed into calmer waters.

The math of teaching experience of 6 years – in total practice hours

There are 174 teaching days in a given school year with 8 hours per day – including the planning period. The multiplication product of 174 and 8 is about 1,400 total hours per year. For six years, the math yields about 8,500 hours total. That does not include the hours each night and weekends preparing lesson plans and resources for upcoming lessons – and in elementary school teaching, there is a slew of preparatory work. Realistically, about 5 to 6 years of concerted effort, a teacher who has put the time in – reflected on their practice and adjusted – has arrived.

What about the 10,000 hour rule on experience?

Malcolm Gladwell proposed that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to be fairly accomplished at a particular skill or task. The calculated 8,500 teaching hours to proficiency is a bit under the 10,000 hour limit popularized in his book, “Outliers.” However, there is debate on the validity of the 10,000 hour principle. Some critics maintain less practice time is required depending on the field and its level of structure. The higher the structure in the professional field, the more the 10,000 principle holds validity. Teaching is a stable employment field, but the daily work and demand may vary greatly depending on the varying classroom dynamics of a school’s socioeconomic setting. Hence, an approximate 8,500 hour high end mark is reasonable, in my professional opinion.

What is the important implications of 8,500 hours?

I realized when I was a young kid that age and experience were key elements to insightful understanding. Now, that I am past half a hundred in age, I realize that I was correct – experience is invaluable, but only if a professional reflects deliberately and deeply into their practice. If not, a professional can work for 20 years in the same field and possess the effectiveness of a colleague with only two professional years of experience. Introspection is key to success!

My first years of teaching were some of the most challenging professional years of my three separate professional careers. In retrospect, I am grateful for those classroom years, but one must be prepared to press through those first two to three years in the education field. After that point, it gets much more satisfying, and at the end of each school day, an entry-level teacher should take great comfort the 8,500 hour mark is 8 hours closer than it was at the beginning of the day – and with a day positively influencing children's lives, it was a day well spent!

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