How Long Does It Take To Become a “Good” Teacher?

Asking this question of an artist, musician, actor, engineer, doctor, or lawyer would produce answers ranging from at least five to ten or more years of work in each of these professions. Even assistant professors don’t get tenured before five to seven years.

If you look at world class athletes, scientists, musicians, and other professionals, the empirical finding is 10,000 hours of practice helps to account for their winning awards and being at the top of their game (along with talent, opportunity, and aid from friends and family). (PDF The Making of an Expert).

Of course, one cannot expect every teacher to be world-class so let’s say that it takes half of 10,000 hour rule to be a sufficiently “good” teacher where principals and parents want that teacher in their school. Five thousand hours amounts to 5 to 6 years of teaching experience. Here’s the math: 180 days a school year X 5 hours a day of teaching=900 hours a year X 5 years = 4500 (6 years means 5400 hours of practice).

Yet Teach for America (TFA) and other alternative organizations enlist recruits for urban schools for only two years. The theory behind this brief time, according to Kevin Huffman, TFA Vice-President for public affairs, is:

“That we will bring in great people who will have a tremendous impact on the kids they are teaching and who will go on for the rest of their careers to have an impact on root causes that cause the gap in educational outcomes in this country.”

TFA gives recruits a summer of lectures and practice and then newcomers march into full-time posts in largely minority and poor schools. During those two years, there is very little support for the neophytes so the “practice” they engage in–called daily teaching–is seldom examined by others. No surprise then that sixty-four percent (even higher if you check out the figures) leave the job after their two year commitment is over.

This “burn and churn” strategy introduces cadres of high-energy, idealistic newcomers who exit after a few years only to be replaced by another wave of novices. While such a strategy has been terrific for graduate programs in schools of education, the success of such efforts in helping students is, at best, highly uncertain. Why?

Because signing up for two years means that by the time you leave the classroom, you still have not mastered the craft much less the art of teaching or being able on a daily basis to get students to ask questions, raise issues, and learn beyond what the text says.

Only by the end of the fourth or fifth year of teaching do most newcomers become competent and confident in figuring out lessons, knowing the ins-and-outs of classroom management, and taking risks in departing from the routines of daily teaching. Of course there will be variation among teachers in whether it takes five years or less, depending upon the person and the setting. Nonetheless, by that time, most teachers will have mastered the craft. They will have developed a repertoire of practices that fit their subject and students, and, by the end of four or five years, can make substantial changes in classroom structures and lessons.

By this time, observers can tell whether teachers have mastered their craft, become virtuosos in daily performance or cultivated active student learning and inquiry or some combination of these three versions of experienced daily teaching. None of these is easy to acquire. All take practice and time in classrooms.

Yet the “burn and churn” strategy of attracting newcomers into teaching only to see thousands exit to be replaced with another cadre of novices is hard on urban students. Surely, these neophytes learn the rudiments of teaching in two years but students seldom profit from such turnover.

I am not arguing for newcomers to pledge their lives to a career in teaching. I am arguing for the media savvy entrepreneurs who bring into tough schools many college graduates and mid-career professionals who would not ordinarily try teaching to see that two years teaching is insufficient to have “a tremendous impact on the kids.” These “kids” need teachers who have mastered their craft, who can be virtuosos–professionals who are committed to spending at least five years in classrooms.

I doubt whether the TFA crowd and like-minded policymakers who see two years of experience as sufficient time in urban classrooms will opt for four or five years as a minimum commitment. The present theory of shuttling wave after wave of inexperienced teachers through urban schools is similar to the corporate strategy of bringing in a second tier of employees into restructured businesses who are inexperienced, semi-skilled, and paid less because they are expendable employees. “Burn and churn” is a corporate strategy ill-fitted to improve either academic achievement or learning in urban schools.

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27 Comments

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27 responses to “How Long Does It Take To Become a “Good” Teacher?

  1. Bob Calder

    I know this is off topic but one of the justifications for impact is that TFA teachers have as much impact on learning as veteran teachers. Where does it come from and how accurate is it?

    • larrycuban

      Hi Bob,
      Look at the TFA website–http://www.teachforamerica.org/about/research.htm–and they will give you their take on the study that compares new TFAers and regular experienced teachers. Then take a look at Linda Darling-Hammond’s research on TFA and response to these studies. If you want another take on TFA, see Barbara Miner’s piece in Rethinking Education at: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/24_03/24_03_TFA.shtml

      • robcfisher

        I was recently browsing the net about TFA and I thought that these teachers received ongoing professional learning while they were teaching, and they were critically were reflecting on their practice. Did I misread something? This is the part I thought was most interesting so far about TFA.

      • larrycuban

        To the best of my knowledge–based upon many comments from ex-TFAers–professional support for first- and second- year TFA teachers varies a great deal but is generally minimal, meaning occasional classroom visits, conversations, etc.

      • Bob Calder

        Thanks! I had previously seen TFA’s research page and didn’t realize Sherman Dorn had links and discussion on Darling-Hammond’s history regarding TFA. Sherman as always, is nuanced and kind.

        Miner’s article is a good examination of the available information on motivation and alliances.

        I am reminded of the voucher student scholarship program that uses corporate funding and wonder why people think it is sustainable or that it could possibly scale up.

    • Steve Davis

      Hi Bob,

      Sounds like you’re referring to TFA’s “Teaching as Leadership” study that is cited as support for DCPS’ Teaching and Learning Framework as articulated in DCPS’ IMPACT effectiveness assessment system for school-based personnel.

      TFA claims “Teach For America teachers were more effective than other teachers, including more experienced teachers and those fully certified in their field” (TFA Website). However, a new Harvard statistical analysis (Teacher Employment Patterns and Student Results in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools) concludes “Once we control for teacher experience, there are no significant differences between TFA teachers and others.” Their data also show that teacher effectiveness peaks at four years. At the end of the day, Larry’s qualitative analysis of this issue is more compelling than any “Studies of TFA teachers [that] vary widely in both their findings and the strength of their methodologies” (TFA Website). Teachers get better with experience.

  2. I think TFA teachers get more support than anyone. Remember, the TFA support is in addition to any district support.

    There are almost continuous workshops, visits, contacts. I think there is a lot of support. Perfect? Of course note.

    Yes, I’m an alumni (1991) and I am constantly asked to talk-mentor corp members.

    • I’m also a corp member (2008), and I completely disagree that TFA teachers get more support than anyone. I taught 4 weeks for an hour a day, and then I was alone in a classroom except for a few visits a year and a 2 hour meeting each month.

      My school has a lot of TFA teachers (current and former) and the only TFA teachers that are close to being ‘high quality’ are the ones in their 4th year. The rest of us are doing some good, but not being consistently good teachers.

      If I leave after this year I will have taken a lot more from the district than I gave (part of the reason I’m staying).

      • Matt Stern

        In what must be either a fantastic coincidence, or may be a sign of great things to come, I just came upon this website, and the above post by the guy who literally teaches across the hall from me, Mr. Troy-Regier.

        I, too, am a 2008 corps member, and agree with everything he said, with the exception of the first sentence. If we look at the current corps members in the school vs. non-TFA teachers, I think we get an additional layer of support that others do not. Now, this may be seen as a burden sometimes (certainly), or ineffective (sometimes), but I think that varies by region and staff. But it is still an additional layer of support not offered to other new teachers.

        There is also an excellent, if still emerging, resource currently only available to corps members in our online “Resource Exchange.” Again, it is imperfect but an avenue of support nonetheless.

  3. I worked for the UK version of Teach for America (Teach First) in its first year, as a professional tutor. Speaking purely from the experience of seeing literally hundreds of lessons taught by TF trainees, in really tough London schools, I cannot speak highly enough of the programme.

    TF tried to learn from Teach for America’s early mistakes and their trainees have two professional mentors, one a teacher in their school and one from the teacher training institution. Consequently they receive a lot of support for two years.

    But what I can say, without the slightest doubt based on my experience, is that TF puts many absolutely outstanding teachers into schools and that within their first year they are delivering superb lessons and their pupils are incredibly lucky to have them.

    I also took part in TF’s recruitment programme that first year and one small aspect of it was fascinating and revealing. They asked applicants to “teach” a brief lesson to a small group of assessors, which always included an experienced teacher. I sat in on lots of these and again and again saw people come in who literally within seconds, you knew would never hack it in the classroom without masses of help and support.

    At the same time, I saw people come in who again within seconds (I am not kidding) you knew would be brilliant…and guess what? They were. I saw only one applicant who I had any doubts about who turned out, when I saw actually him teaching, to be superb.

    It is a very mysterious art and I suspect we waste a lot of time and money pretending to understand and teach the skills needed to do it well.

  4. David B. Cohen

    As a teacher in my 15th year, I find myself reacting negatively to various studies claiming that teacher effectiveness peaks earlier in the career (I’ve seen estimates ranging from 4-6 years, if I recall correctly). It strikes me as a research problem – not a teaching problem. If it appears to researchers that we teachers have reached the zenith that early, then maybe the researchers need to ask some different questions, gather some other data. Is it possible that most research tools lack sensitivity, that they can only detect so much growth or improvement? For example, if a student is earning an A in my class earning top marks on every assignment, how do I measure growth? Well, it can be done, but it involves moving the student towards some other measure.

    When I think about my effectiveness now compared to ten years ago, there’s no comparison – but I’m thinking about my ability to communicate better with students and parents, to understand students better, to contribute to the life of my school and my department, to inspire varied types of thinking, to engage students in types of learning that are hard to measure. My students this year led a community book study event that I would argue was effective teaching, something I wouldn’t have thought of or attempted ten years ago – but not teaching that will raise test scores that much, especially those that are already high and have little room for improvement.

    • larrycuban

      David,
      You raise a good point about how some veteran teachers (10-plus years) can take instructional risks in departing from routine tasks that teachers with 4-6 years of experience cannot. I agree.

      Unfortunately, few empirical studies–perhaps readers can suggest some–delve into the precise point you make that some experienced teachers continue to stretch themselves instructionally as they try out new ventures in their classrooms.

      My point, however, in the post is that most teachers who stay 4-6 years in classroom teaching have reached a level of competence and confidence that most teachers who leave with 2-3 years of experience have not yet gained. I did not refer to effectiveness as a teacher. If I implied that the peak of effectiveness is reached by 4-6 years of teaching, that was certainly not my intent.

      • I ran into a page at Edutopia (perhaps) that described the experience a project-based science teacher works gradually into levels of instruction complexity.

        It ran from five minutes to turn a classroom discussion on its head to five years later, extending off campus into the community.

  5. Monica

    Another thing I’ve been wondering about TFA: The organization claims that its recruits will gain some kind of empathy or understanding about poverty and its dire effects and go forth into elite careers carrying this transformative knowledge and applying it for the greater social good.

    However, what if that assumption works in reverse? What if these idealistic, yet extremely privileged and temporary young teachers come away with the opposite view? What if the experience of being placed into very difficult teaching situations with low-income, “difficult to manage” students, reinforces their nascent classism and racism, and they come away convinced of the superiority and entitlement of certain groups over others?

    For nearly 20 years I have worked with low-income children of color, and I still must reaffirm the humanity and worth of my students, and to remember not to pass judgement based on my own white, middle-class perspective. The learning challenges that come with poverty no longer shock me, and I don’t view them as impenetrable barriers. But I came to that realization through years of personal relationships with kids and parents, not through an indoctrination of truisms such as those handed to TFA recruits.

  6. Megan

    Hi Larry,

    I think the debate about the benefits of programs like TFA is a good one. A TFA alum that I spoke to recently acknowledges that TFA’s goal is not necessarily to impact students, but to use the teaching experience to develop a corps of people committed to social justice.
    Not a bad goal in and of itself, but the toll on students, as you commented on, is great. There is also a great toll on school administrators who poor hours and hours into supporting and developing their new teachers, only to have them leave.
    There is a financial cost as well, as districts must spend millions of dollars recruiting for the revolving door of teacher applicants, particularly those who come from alternative routes to teacher credentialing programs.
    At the same time, as an elementary school administrator, I found the teachers I got from TFA were high quality and used cutting-edge teaching strategies. I think TFA’s skill is in developing elementary school teachers. From what I hear, their middle, high school, and Special Education teachers do not get the same level of support or preparation.
    A recently wave of reform has been to use these alternative route to teacher credentialing programs to recruit and develop people who actually live in, and plan to stay in, high need communities. I am excited to see how long participants in these programs stay in teaching, and quality of teaching that they provide to students.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Megan,
      Thanks for giving impressions from an administrative point of view and other costs involved with when urban teachers enter and leave through a turnstile.

    • Barry

      “…acknowledges that TFA’s goal is not necessarily to impact students, but to use the teaching experience to develop a corps of people committed to social justice.”

      When an organization backs from their primary objective to claim a secondary objective, I’m skeptical.

      Second, TFA clearly works against social justice; they’ve become a temp replacement organization for union-busting, and an elite grad resume-building project.

      Third, if they can’t help students as teachers, how can they improve education later by having experience in the educational system? They will not have had enough experience or training to really know what they themselves should be doing, let alone larger problems.

  7. Jane Remer

    Dear Larry Cuban and all respondents on this issue of TFA (and the earlier posts).
    A colleague directed me to your site and I am delighted. Have we figured out how to get each of your posts (and responses) sent directly to Arne Duncan and the president and his teams? They need to know there is strong disagreement with their policies let alone their understanding of schooling, teaching and learning.

    RTTT and i/3 have now put the feds, for the first time in my long life, in a position to affect local education policy, something never intended by the founding fathers. The result is sure to further damage local control and responsibility, especially when the stimulus money gives out and/or the research results are dismal.

    Jane

  8. Booklyn Rose

    I know I have seen formal studies showing that it takes from 5-7 years to become a good teacher, able to keep track of the instructional needs of 30 children at once, and know how to modify instruction to keep them motivated and engaged. Do you know where I can find the citations for this research?

    • larrycuban

      Like yourself, experience in schools and with teachers in different settings has led me to conclude that less than three years of experience is insufficient to become effective insofar as mastering the content and skills necessary to engage persistently one’s students week in and week out. Note that “effectiveness” and “good” teaching are defined differently by academics, administrators, policymakers, parents, students, and teachers themselves. Between 3-7 years of experience is when mastery of both subject and practical skills of managing students occurs, in my judgment. All of this comes from my experience in schools and in working with teachers. I do not know of studies that corroborate that experience or challenge the 3-7 year span. If readers do, please comment.

  9. Pingback: Corporate America wants inexperienced teachers in the classroom : The Bobbosphere

  10. Pingback: Corporate America wants inexperienced teachers in the classroom « Talking Union

  11. lily rea

    it does not take at least 5 to 10 years it takes 3 to 4

  12. Pingback: Corporate America wants inexperienced teachers in the classroom | Brevard Teachers for Change

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