Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Building Airplanes

"Being a new teacher is like trying to fly an airplane...while building it."
(Rick Smith- Conscious Classroom Management)

I first read this analogy as a student teacher.  I remember laughing at it then, and felt I mostly understood what it meant- at least, I could relate to the feeling. But it is only now, as I'm more than half-way through my first year of teaching, that I really understand how it feels to be doing just that on a daily basis. 

These past several months have been so full of "live and learn" moments. There are times when everything goes just right, and times when everything goes perfectly wrong. I find myself in a constant state of tweaking--trying out new ideas, sprucing up old ideas, throwing out failed ideas, making things and then re-making them a little better. I definitely feel like I'm trying to build my own airplane, and sometimes it feels like such a slow-going process! It seems that no matter how much work I put into building my plane, there is always something more to do and improve to make it fly more smoothly. I'll be honest- there are days when I feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the whole process because my daily progress seems so small.

However, I recently read the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell that has given me a slightly different perspective. In one of the chapters, he talks about experts, and discusses that while raw talent can play a role in someone's success, what really makes a difference is practice. He quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin as saying that "the emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert- in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again...It seems to that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery." (p. 40). In other words, those people who are really successful and become experts in their field, work really hard to get there. They put in 10,000 plus hours to reach that level of knowledge, experience, and expertise.

As a part time teacher, I am only teaching an average 2 .4 hours a day. That's about 432 hours a year, which means at this rate, it will take me about 23 years to have 10,000 hours of teaching practice.

Full time teachers at my school teach about an average of 6 hours per day or 1080 hours per year, which amounts to a little over 9 years to have 10,000 hours of teaching practice.

While to some those numbers might still sound enormous and discouraging, the idea means something a bit more encouraging to me. It reminds me of this quote:

"The expert in anything was once a beginner." -Rutherford B. Hayes

As much as I wish I could be an amazing, master teacher right now, I have to remember that I am a beginner. I can't expect myself to be performing like an expert teacher because the fact is that I can only gain experience and knowledge one day, one hour, one lesson at a time. I would never expect my students to become master readers in one maybe I should stop expecting myself to be a master teacher without the necessary incremental learning that, by all accounts, takes years to acquire.

 In other words...building an airplane takes time. There's no way around it.

When I look at my job with that perspective, it reminds me that teaching is a learning process. It would be nice if it were the kind of job where you could be an expert once you have a degree and a bit of on-site training--but it's not. As John Cotton Dana says: "Who dares to teach must never cease to learn." But isn't that one of the exciting aspects of teaching? There is always something more to learn, and every day is an opportunity for improvement and growth.

So, instead of feeling frustrated by the knowledge that I'm not a master teacher and won't be for a very long time...I want to enjoy the learning process. I want to celebrate the successes and strengths that I do have right now, even if they might seem small. I want to remember that every day is one step closer to where I want to be, and that the more I practice, the better I will become.

Do I still feel overwhelmed by it all?  Of course I do. (I think that feeling is in the fine print of my job description.)

But I try to remember this quote from Abraham Lincoln:
 "The best thing about the future is it comes only one day at a time."

Thank goodness for that. 


  1. I found your blog! Cute design. It's my 4th year teaching and this is the first year I feel like my airplane is about 1/4 built! It is a good feeling! I bet your students love you!

  2. you should look at the blog mrs jump's class. Kindergarten ideas