The 10,000 Hour Rule – Excellence and the Teacher Retention To-Do List

The 10,000 Hour Rule – Excellence and the Teacher Retention To-Do List

So, what’s the big deal with retaining teachers?

Recently, I found myself skimming through the oh-so-trendy but undeniably fascinating Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The excerpt I found most intriguing proposed the following: becoming great at something takes a significant amount of time, which Gladwell frames in the principle of the “10,000 Hour Rule.” This rule claims that the key to being truly great at something takes more than 10,00 hours of practice.

Curious, I crunched my own numbers. My first year as a teacher, I spent about 60 hours a week working on my practice, logging around 2,000 hours. Then I joined a team that started a new charter high school, and my hours went up to about 65, largely due to a focus on data-driven instruction, a longer school year, a dean position after the first year, plus the challenges and growing pains of a new school. We are entering our fourth year; I have just exceeded the 10,000 hour mark.

Am I a great teacher yet? I still have a LOT to learn – but I am not longer the nail-biting, idealistic mess I was my first year. While each year I learn more about how to challenge and grow my practice, I do feel like my ability to be an effective teacher has solidified, and I am no longer unsure of my ability to make a difference in the achievement gap and in the lives of my students.

I love being a teacher – it won’t be hard to retain me – but the statistics on teacher attrition are staggering. More than 30% of all new teachers, whether traditionally or alternatively trained, leave the profession after just three years, and nearly 50% leave by the 5-year mark, before they can move into the 10,000 hour range.

Teacher attrition is also incredibly expensive, costing the US over 7 billion dollars a year in recruiting, hiring, processing, and training replacement staff – money far better spent meeting the needs of the teachers who are in the classroom.

Great teaching takes training, but it also takes a lot of on-the-job practice – the development of systems and structures, the ability to manage time and prioritize tasks, the skill-set needed to form relationships with kids and exert professional power over a classroom. These are not innate talents. They take time. Our country must begin to retain our hardest working, highest achieving teachers for the long term, by providing a meaningful and concrete support system every step of the way.

What decisions must be made to retain teachers?

According to various resources, some of the reasons fledgling teachers cite for leaving are :

  1. Inadequate pay
  2. Dissatisfaction with administration and school conditions
  3. Pursuit of a new career path
  4. Stigma surrounding teaching
  5. Lack of professional training/evaluation and feedback
  6. Stress and time management

How can we ask our best and brightest to graduate from college and enter a career that doesn’t pay well, provides little to no effective on the job training, has permanently dysfunctional environmental conditions, and a myriad of other challenges that appear to be insurmountable to even the most idealistic graduate?

  1. PAY TEACHERS A COMPETITIVE SALARY. As idealistic as our recent college graduates are, they are leaving college with an average of $24,000 in debt, which is predicted to continue rising at about 6% a year. Unless we make the pay scale for teachers competitive, we will not retain our strongest and most excellent candidates.
  2. STANDARDIZE AND EVALUATE ADMINISTRATION ANNUALLY and eliminate the administrative staff that are not meeting and exceeding yearly goals. Without a highly-skilled administrative staff, developing teachers are not receiving the observations and feedback they need.
  3. ELEVATE THE STATUS OF TEACHING AS A PROFESSION. In countries with the highest academic performance, teaching is a professional that is coveted as well as respected. High quality teachers should be put in the public spotlight, praised nationally for their achievements, and teachers who are not pushing themselves towards these high standards should be eliminated.
  4. STANDARDIZE EVALUATIONS AND EVALUATE TEACHERS ANNUALLY. Mediocre teaching clumps even the best teacher into an unfair and humiliating stereotype. It devalues the profession and harms our children. It is past time for our policy makers, parents, and educators, and the media to demand excellence in all of our classrooms, regardless of the population they serve.
  5. PROVIDE EFFECTIVE, CONCRETE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT. Teachers have become disillusioned with the idea of professional development because they do not view it as helpful to their classroom practice – whose fault is this but the creators of such mundane programs? Teachers are architects and should leave professional development with content-specific, concrete tools that they can immediately implement in their practice. They cannot afford to have their time wasted, because their time belongs to children.
  6. DEVELOP A MENTORSHIP PROGRAM–Incentivize longevity for veteran teachers by providing them a monetary bonus and the chance to mentor a newer teacher. This would also decrease the amount of time new teachers spend reinventing systems, structure, and ideas, creating instead established, concrete resources and guidance.
  7. PROVIDE TIME MANAGEMENT TRAINING that helps new teachers navigate the enormous to-do list that is the job of teaching. Training should include a system for providing feedback on what they can do to improve.

As I move into my 10,000 hour stride, I can look back on my path and see the paces where strong guidance, effective professional development, an involved administration, and transparent, rigorous evaluative measures have molded me into an excellent teacher. Until all new teachers have the benefits that I did, our educational system will continue to bleed our newest teachers with the greatest potential, and the teaching profession will continue to carry its stigma of mediocrity and ineffectiveness.

Kaycee Eckhardt, who was the Louisiana Charter School Association’s Teacher of the Year in 2008-2009, teaches 9th grade reading in New Orleans. She lived in Japan for four years after studying literature and Eastern Religion at Louisiana State University. After Hurricane Katrina, she returned to Louisiana and prepared for the classroom through teachNOLA, an affiliate of The New Teacher Project. She taught within the public school system for a year before joining the founding staff of Sci Academy, a charter school in New Orleans East. Sci Academy has one of the highest special education populations in the district, yet still manages to achieve the highest scores in the district for open-enrollment schools on state exams. Kaycee participated in the NBC Education Summit in New York City and is a member of the Education Champions Network.

The views expressed herein are the author’s own.

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