Friday, January 25, 2013

Trying to avoid the plateau

Here's a quick summary, because you're all busy people and this is the internet where distractions are bountiful
  • Teachers don't know how to get better past their first few years.
  • Even teachers who think that they're getting better aren't really.
  • I'm committed to searching for ways to introduce hard practice into my teaching life.

My Piano Skills

I took piano lessons for 5 years. I kept on getting better. I played harder and harder pieces. My teacher helped me train my ear. I wasn't winning awards or anything, but I was clearly on the upswing. 

High school started, and I dropped out of lessons. I stopped getting better. Sad face.

 I made some friends in high school. Some of these friends played music together, and they invited me to join them. They were into rock, and I played an electronic keyboard.

I sucked. All I knew how to play were sonatinas and Czerny's "Finger Exercises for the Weak." They were handing out chord sheets and politely requesting that I try something that sounds less awful. ("Let's take it from the top. Michael, could you turn down your volume?")

The biggest problem was my ear. They would make changes in the song in the middle and I couldn't pick up on them. One person would start playing a song and everyone else just played along. I couldn't do that. We'd have to stop in the middle of songs so that someone could explain to me what we were doing.

I started sitting down at the piano, outside of practice, and trying to play songs that I'd heard from memory. I'd try to improvise in ways that sounded a tiny bit like that thing that Elton John does on this one song. (Lots and lots of Sus2 and Sus4 is half of most rock piano.)

After I got over that bump, it was awesome. I could play with these guys, and I could keep up with them. I played all the time now, at home and with friends, just for fun. I would play by ear, I would play my favorite songs, and I learned more and more songs.

But a funny thing happened: I still couldn't play the harder songs. I sort of assumed that as I kept on practicing -- and at this point, I was playing songs pretty much every day because I enjoyed it so much -- that I would be improving. And I was improving, sort of. After all, I knew way more songs that I ever did. But I couldn't improvise any better than I used to -- I still didn't sound anywhere like the people did on the songs I listened to. 

Why did I stop getting better?

Learning to Teach

The first few years of teaching are truly difficult. With little support you get thrown into a classroom and you just have to figure it out. Teachers get so much better during those first few years of teaching. 

And then there's this plateau in teacher growth that creeps up on teachers, some time around years 3-5.

What's the cause of this plateau? 

I think teachers plateau for the same reason that I'm no better at piano than I was five years ago. I got good enough to get by, and improving past that point requires a focused, systematic commitment to improvement that I didn't have. Or, as Cal Newport puts it, "if you just show up and word hard, you'll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better."

Practice and Hard Practice

How can I avoid the plateau in teaching quality? It's not about practicing more. I was practicing piano all the time but not getting better. Well, that's not entirely fair. I was getting better in some misleading ways that hid from me the fact that I was plateauing. After all,
  • I was learning new songs
  • I was slowly picking up new tricks
Maybe this is just the way progress has to be after the first few years. Maybe progress is about expanding your repertoire and slowly picking up some new tricks.

And maybe mid-career improvement as at teacher is the same. You learn how to teach and then you expand your repertoire. You teach courses that you've never taught before, and that's pretty difficult. After all, it's awfully time-consuming. You make tweaks to your lessons. You take on leadership roles.

But that can't be right -- after all, there are musicians who become great at a much faster pace than I was moving at. They have systematic ways of practicing that are much more difficult than what I was doing. They drill themselves. They sit at the radio and transcribe solos. They seek feedback on their playing from people more accomplished than their high school bandmates.

There's a difference between practice and hard practice. Hard practice makes you better quickly. Practice lets you, essentially, plateau.

Most teachers plateau because they don't do hard practice.

Ah, so blogging and sharing on twitter is the key. That's hard practice, if there is any, right?

Reading and writing blogs and tweeting is* not hard practice. Having deep conversations about teaching and math is* not hard practice. Learning a new technology is* not hard practice.


Blogging and tweeting is like expanding the list of songs that you can play. You read blogs and become aware of things that other people are doing. There isn't enough time to read everything deeply, so you are drawn to people whose work is consistently useful to you. Inevitably, these are the people whose approaches most closely resemble your own. You write blog posts to share work that other people can benefit from. Inevitably, these posts reflect the things that you're already good at, because those are the lessons that tend to go well. 

Blogging and tweeting are great for many, many things. Sharing is good. Expanding your repertoire is good. But they don't constitute hard practice.

Put it like this: do you feel like you're a 1st year teacher when you blog? Does your brain hurt? Do you feel as if you're lost, unsure how to proceed, confused? 

If not, you're not engaged in hard practice.

Hard Practice for Teachers

A lot of my work over the past year comes from the idea that hard practice matters, a lot. I worry about whether my students are practicing hard enough. I worry that online learning lets kids off the hook. And I've been searching for ways to avoid the teaching plateau, though I think that my initial attempts have mixed results.

It's time to redouble my efforts. I'm half way through my third year, and this would be a great time for me to ease into a comfortable routine of expanding my repertoire without improving my skills.

I'm going to commit to finding things that are intellectually taxing that are central to my teaching. It's going to require experimentation to find the right combination, but I think this search itself constitutes a sort of hard practice.

Here's my starting set of exercises:
  • Last year I would often start planning my lessons by spending several minutes thinking about where my students would get tripped up by the topic of the day. I eventually dropped this practice, because I didn't need it to get by. Now I'm thinking that dropping this practice was a mistake, and the fact that I lazily dropped it is evidence that it's the right sort of thing for me to be doing. So I'll be journaling daily about what my students are going to have trouble with in the day's topics and lessons.
  • Writers read great novels. Musicians hear great music. Craftsmen apprentice under master craftsmen. But I stopped consuming teaching several years ago. On the analogy of other crafts, I need to consume more great teaching to get better. I'm going to commit to watching experienced teachers twice a month. Watching a teacher will sometimes involve watching a video, though I hope to get myself into some actual classrooms, both in my school and out of school.
  • Blogging isn't usually a difficult exercise, but I think that it could be. I'm going to attempt to flip the usual blogging process by writing about at least one failed lesson a month. I'm confident enough now to post my worst work for the world and attempt to come to grips with why it failed and why I thought it would work.
One last tentative thought: Teacher training programs tend (tend!) to be poor. Teacher improvement past their 3rd year tends (tend!) to be poor. Is this a coincidence? If we knew how teachers can become great, would that transform our ability to systematically improve the quality of beginning teachers?

Share exercises that you've used on yourself or your students in the comments, please. And, as always, please let me know if you've think I've gone wrong here.


  1. Michael,
    First of all, you write like a veteran teacher, not a third year. I'm only in my fourth year, but this resonated with me for a couple reasons.

    1. I had a fantastic cooperating teacher when I was still a student back in the fall of 2008. She made me begin the habit of reflecting on *everything* I did in class, both good and bad. She also gave me rich feedback on everything I did. She was attentive and could speak to nuances I didn't even notice in my teaching. Now, as a result, I crave that kind of feedback.

    2. Now that I'm in my own classroom, I don't get that kind of feedback on a regular basis. Blogging helps me think through some of that reflecting that Mrs. Anderson drove into my practice. At the same time, I'm still craving the deep, difficult discussions surrounding why I do what I do.

    I really appreciate the goals you're setting for yourself. I really need to make time to do the same. I'm good at opening up my door for people to come in, but like you said, it isn't taxing my brain when I'm the one showcasing.

    Have you spoken to colleagues about sitting in? What's the culture of teachers in your building? I'm curious about how to take that first step and begin moving my thinking away from the web and into the classrooms more.

    1. Finding a partner in training would be ideal, but I don't want to rely on that. The extra step involved in relying on someone else for feedback is just enough to give me an excuse to delay the hard work. I think, until I'm able to find someone who shares my mindset, this is going to be something I do on my own.

  2. Love Cal Newport & love how you're trying to incorporate his ideas into teaching practice. Learning to do this well is hard. It does make your brain hurt.

    Finding people who can support you and push you is so, so important. It's hard to see your own blind spots.

    1. Agreed, but I also think that the strongest strategy is to figure out a way to regulate your own blind spots. Thinking visibly is something I find helpful, and, for me, that usually involves writing things down.

  3. I would like to watch some amazing teachers. There are many different kinds of amazing teachers, and I don't know whether I'd get more out of ones who are similar to me or ones who are completely different.

    I think my participation in math circles these past 4 1/2 years has done some of what you're talking about. I definitely felt like a beginner. (After 20 some years teaching.)

    1. What I *really* want to do is find a great teacher to teach me more math. I think that would be the ideal way to consume more teaching. I'd be willing to pay for a tutor, if I could find a good one within my price range.

  4. Hi. You have some interesting ideas.

    Hopefully as teachers we want to improve, we communicate, we study, we self-evaluate, and so on. We certainly tell our children and our students that there's nothing they can't do, if they put their mind to it.

    But like the piano, aren't there some things that we just sort of asymptote out at? No matter how much we practice not all of us are going to become professional musicians, or professional athletes, or even Ph.D's in math. We would accept this, right?

    So how do we decide which things we truly can continue to improve at, and which things we have reached our limit at?


    1. I agree that I won't become a pro basketball player, no matter how much work I put in. But I do think that I'll keep on getting better at sports and basketball as I put in more hard practice.

      There may be a limit on how good a teacher I can be, but I see no reason why I can't keep on improving. After all, there's so much that I can't do.

  5. Hi Michael,
    Those sound like some great ideas, especially writing about your failures. It makes me think about a 2013 New Year's resolution that I heard of setting one's self up for failure. Because if you avoid failure, then you're not taking any chances.

  6. Your posts always get me thinking. I'm going to pick apart a couple of aspects, which might be called "excuses", but then again might not be.

    First, this idea of "hard practice" and musicians who are always striving to make themselves better - it seems a bit all consuming. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but teaching is not the be all and end all of my life. I like to write. (Fiction, not just blogs.) I like to play D&D. I don't have kids, but if I did, I might want to spend more time with them. Would I have as much time for things like that if I focused extra efforts on teaching? (Maybe.) People who aim for true "greatness" in their occupations usually have to make sacrifices elsewhere, and without balance there's the danger of burnout.

    This doesn't necessarily mean I'm settling for mediocrity or plateauing (though I could be), but I've reached a point where I think what I'm doing is sustainable. I know I'm of little use to anyone curled up in a ball in the corner.

    Secondly, we don't want to miss the forest for the trees, as it were. If I focus too much on the teaching aspects of my life, I might miss where I could make external connections. To wit, one day I'm watching anime, then I'm creating a website, and next I'm singing concepts to my class. (Yes, this happened.) I find it very unlikely that I would have arrived at point C there by merely observing other teachers. (Though it's possible, because now that I do it, I've found others who do, though none in my local area.) Also what works for others I know wouldn't necessarily work for me.

    Which, by the way, is probably all the more reason why we should mention some things that fail. What fails for me might work for someone else (somewhere else?), or vice versa. Though I grant I don't do that my end either, except maybe within the school.

    Thirdly, I suspect there are a lot of external variables affecting teachers after their third year as well. Once you don't have to spend quite so much time preparing lessons, you can turn more attention to, say, extra curriculars (like starting a math club), or union issues, or incorporating more technology, or helping develop boardwide exams, or the new department headship, et cetera. Just because a teacher isn't necessarily more effective in classroom teaching or lesson delivery, doesn't mean they can't be a more effective teacher in other aspects of the job. (So... many... aspects...) Can't speak for certain here, of course, I didn't go through all the details of the gathered data.

    To conclude, not disagreeing or saying we shouldn't try to observe more "great" teaching, just thinking that we need to maintain some perspective. There's something to be said for sustainability - and sanity. Or maybe I'm making excuses? Or maybe I'm just being me. ^_^

    1. re the time commitment involved in hard practice:

      It's not about quantity, it's about quality. Focusing intently on what my students will trip up with is a way that I'm going to spend my prep time. That's time taken away from transcribing exercises into a worksheet. I blog anyway -- I'm just committing to focus on my failures more than my successes.

      Admittedly, I'm very influenced by Cal Newport's writing on this. I'll send you to his post, Henri PoincarĂ©’s Four-Hour Work Day.

    2. Thanks for the link. Point taken. (Poincare taken?) If you're swapping productivity for something less productive, that's good. I suppose for me, I know there are times I simply lack focus, while other times I hyperfocus, and it's very much a mood thing rather than conscious effort... so I'd need to deal with (harness?) that first.

  7. Just to play devil's advocate... that graph isn't necessarily a graph showing that teachers stop getting better. It's a graph of student achievement. What if there's a maximum amount that a student can improve in any given year (or semester or whatever)? A limit to their rate of skill development?

    Then the graph *could* be showing that teachers on average approach this limit. The teaching could be getting even better -- but the students are "maxed out".

    Again, that's a devil's advocate position -- I don't really suppose we're all teaching to "max out" all learners. But I think this exposes some ways in which teaching might improve without actually showing measurable gains.

    Another example: What if the teacher is getting those gains every year, but with less effort every time? So the teaching is getting more efficient? Doesn't that count as "getting better" in some sense?

    1. That's a distinct possibility, but given that a performance plateau is well-documented in other skills and professions I prefer to see the teaching plateau as just a part of that trend.

  8. I'm in the same boat of trying to avoid the plateau. This year is my fifth year of full-time teaching, and while I have had the opportunity to teach a variety of classes over the five years, I still feel a bit like I'm on cruise control for most parts of my lessons. I have taken to redesigning my Calculus lab assignments, but without others doing similar things (so that I can get new/different ideas), I fear that I'm not doing much more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    1. If you try any hard practice experiments, I sure hope that you'll share them with us all.

  9. I found all these ideas to be "soft." What is hard for me is taking classes in a subject that is not primarily mine. Our school district as had a collaborative MSP grant with Michigan Tech, through their geology department, and I was lucky enough to be able to insinuate myself into their midst. After 3 years of that program, a few of us took their summer course in the Geology of Utah, with educators from all over the country. It kicked my butt.
    I've taken courses in coral reefs from NOAA and in Belize, because I like to SCUBA. They're completely out of my field, and it's not like recreational diving.
    Being a student, in something that is not my field, gives me a lot more empathy for students. Also, Michigan Tech is really trying to teach how to teach by experiential learning. It's all modeling - how much input to give students, how much hands off is too much, what a project looks like.
    It's hard. I'm 55. I started out as a low temperature physicist. I worked in a cryostat company (I got them to buy their first computer). I worked in the fiberoptic and medical industries, I taught adjunct in a bunch of colleges/universities. I've been in high school for the last 11 years. Every job except teaching has required me to learn massive amounts about a new field very quickly.
    You're young. This is a great big country, and there are millions of places and opportunities. I suggest that you look for some experiences that will challenge you in the way that your students are challenged - not in the niche where you are comfortable and good, but in something different. Join the band, but learn to play the drums. You might find you suck, and maybe that band isn't for you, but there are a bazillion bands, types of music and instruments. More experiences will make you more able to relate to your students, and make you more experienced to advise them on what to do in their lives.
    If you have summers off (and especially if you get paid back for courses), start now searching for "summer courses for teachers." There are many free, and many low cost.

  10. Great post, Michael. Maybe it's just because I'm young and am now in only my 3rd year of teaching but I definitely want to keep growing as I have over the past few years.

    You mention that you "want to see great teachers teach" so I was going to sarcastically comment "let me know when you find a video of a great teacher". However, that gave me the idea that we should start a website where teachers from the Mathtwitterblogosphere can submit a video of a class they taught (hopefully a class that is just an "average day" for them) and then other teachers can come and watch the video and comment on it! It would be like having "observations" from your online friends, which would be pretty awesome!

    There might be some hang-ups about being able to show students' faces and whatnot, but of course, you could always set up the website so it is password protected and you had to check a "I will not (ab)use this material" box to get the password, so students' identities are safe. Just a thought!

  11. I'm particularly intrigued by your last thought- that we could improve the quality of teacher training/support if we knew more about how teachers improve- and it raises 2 thoughts for me:

    1) I've found that space/energy is crucial to the improvement process; I actually think I was a better teacher my first year than my second, because my second year I had three times as many preps, three times as many students, administrative duties, no time to observe veteran teachers, etc., and was simply too overwhelmed to do the hard practice it takes to get better, even though I knew I could be and desperately wanted to be better. In my current role as a teacher educator, I find it so crucial to take time between pilot programs rather than scheduling one after another (as tempting as it may be to try out new ideas right away), to reread things I've read before because they might mean something different now that I've had more experience, to read new things, and to reflect. All this is to say I think it's so important to be deliberate about improvement, as you clearly are being-- it won't happen "accidentally" after a while.

    2) I worked on a program last year with novice teachers, some of whom felt like they'd stopped growing due to circumstances like what I described above. We set up a series of monthly "reflective practice protocols," where teachers would engage in deep analysis of something (some months it was data about teacher talk:student talk ratio in their own classrooms, other months it was a particularly rich problem set or an interview with a student about risk-taking) and collaborate with peers to brainstorm- and commit to- ways to get better. The strategies themselves weren't anything mindblowing, and were often things the teachers had always wanted to try but hadn't found the time, but the practice of being vulnerable, doing deep analysis, and pushing forward *together* led to greatly increased satisfaction, retention, and improved classroom practice. I see similarities between what you're proposing to do in a virtual format and what we found effective live :)

    Eager to see where this takes you and to keep learning from your blog posts!

  12. Hi there, here's a maths teacher reading this post from spain ;)

    i'm on my sixth year and i quite agree with almost everything you said. i just found a bit short the list of "exercises" to work hard on our own improvement. it would be interesting to add a few more items to that list, although it might also be a personal thing, and "everyone knows his own list". i dunno.

    good post, anyway!

  13. I love the ideas at the bottom. I look forward to implementing at least one this year. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Your post basically summarizes what I spend most of my time thinking about. Of course, I'm not even at the plateau part of teaching yet.

    I'd like to strongly recommend a book to you that has been exceptionally powerful to me (and was recommended to me by my mentor teacher):

    Never Work Harder Than Your Students (and Other Principles of Great Teaching)

    The author, Robyn Jackson, writes in a clear, compelling way that argues master teachers don't have a bigger bag of tricks or better strategies (although they often do). Instead, they have (re-)organized the way they think about teaching into several guiding principles that allow them to be more effective at helping students learn.

  15. Woof. Well, that was tough to hear, but you're right. I posit that the plateau sits just above "Good Enough" on the Teacher scale. Once I'm no longer writing referrals to screaming students, once I no longer have students mutter "I hate this class" as they leave, and once I can teach each lesson from memory, I feel like I've arrived.
    That's friggin' dangerous. That's the plateau.

    In my own experience, I felt like the kid at the adults' table for the first few years, and observing excellent teachers was expected. It's tempting to quit now that nobody sees me suck.

  16. Sorry I'm late to this party.

    Michael, love the blog, and this post. I'm sorry to say that I exited the math classroom after 3 years (soon to return?). My question for you is whether or not you've identified specific teaching skills/moves that you'll be consciously working on. I think many teachers feel they've plateaued when they've gotten a handle on classroom management, when really that's only the beginning. Sounds like you're well past that. Are there areas of your work in the classroom that you feel you've mastered, and other areas that you know you need to deliberately practice? In your opinion, what are those areas/skills that a teacher needs to master to be a master teacher?

    Like your interest in collecting classroom footage, I'm equally interested in definitions of good teaching from good teachers.



    1. Hey Pat! The party's still going strong, and I'm so glad that you could make it.

      >Are there areas of your work in the classroom that you feel you've mastered

      Nope! But I think this is just about the way that I experience my life. I don't feel as if I've mastered anything, ever. I don't have a lot of confidence.

      >and other areas that you know you need to deliberately practice?

      But what you're really getting at is whether I have some things that I don't really need to work on, and others that I do. So, yeah, there are those:

      I need to get better at creating original lessons and approaches.
      I need to work on satisfying my weaker students.
      I don't need to work on satisfying my stronger students.
      I don't need to work on my relationships with kids. We tend to get along well.
      I don't need to work on my grading system or assessment scheme. It basically works.
      I need to work on finding more time to critically reflect on everything. I need to develop a checklist so that I don't forget what I'm supposed to be doing.

      And the deliberate practice project is in a bit of flux. My first draft failed, and now I've got to figure out version 2.0. I've got some thoughts. I'll blog soon.