AITSL The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

Ready-made or made classroom-ready?

It takes about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a field, according to Dan McLaughlin, who has picked up on Malcolm Gladwell’s theory. McLaughlin is applying it to become a professional golfer. On his website, The Dan Plan, McLaughlin describes his experiment as a project in transformation and says that he “hopes to prove to himself and others that it’s never too late to start a new pursuit in life.”

McLaughlin estimates that he should have achieved his goal of becoming a professional golfer by December 2016, having started in April 2010 and having never previously played 18 holes of golf.

On his website, McLaughlin has broken golf down into its requisite skills and has developed a training program focused on improving in all of them. He’s also been willing to drop everything and put in the time to practise all day, every day. He knows what he wants to achieve, he knows the component skills that he needs to improve to reach his goal, and he cleared his diary for six years to have time to do it.

For those among us who are feeling like it’s time for a change, Dan McLaughlin’s experiment provides a ray of hope. But what about those of us who simply want to get better at what we do already? Are there any lessons here for teaching and school leadership?

In the popular imagination, teachers often come to us pretty much ready-made – or in current parlance, “classroom-ready.” Think about films like Dead Poets Society, To Sir, With Love or Goodbye, Mr Chips. The teachers inspire in their students a love of learning; calm troubled waters; know when to speak and when to let the interplay between children run its course; are experts on content, but humble enough to allow students the joy of discovery; are wise and just; and care deeply about the children they teach.

Presently, initial registration as a teacher in Australia requires completion of a four-year Bachelor’s degree. Once teachers have initial registration there is an expectation that they will continue to engage in professional development and improve throughout their careers.

Clearly, there is a recognition in this framework of development that good teachers are not born, but are instead made classroom-ready. Certainly, my recollection of my own career progression is that I got better as a teacher and school leader through experience. I certainly didn’t come to the profession or leadership roles ready-made.

On reflection, my own improvement as an educator seems to have been relatively unplanned. Over the years, my professional growth has been influenced by a range of things:  the policy imperatives of school systems, the focus of the schools where I have taught, the needs of particular students, the interests of my colleagues.

Yes, I became a better teacher over time and I engaged purposefully in professional learning. But if you asked me now, I could not really show you the map I followed to become better at teaching, by how much I improved and what influence my improvement had on the learning of the students I taught.

So what about you? In planning your professional development, have you mapped and targeted the specific skills you need to become a better teacher or school leader?

As an educator, the lesson I draw from the Dan Plan website is that diligent and persistent practice will make you better at your craft. It seems to me that good teachers really are made - and they can be made even better if they can break down and sequence the skills required for development and implement a systematic plan for improvement.

That’s where the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers come in. The Standards provide the framework that I now recognise was lacking during my own development as a teacher. In addition, you can prepare for or enhance your school leadership by learning from AITSL’s School Leadership eCollection, which is a carefully crafted repository of educational wisdom from around the world. 

I’ll confess that a part of me still has a feeling that some truly great teachers are born. After all, teaching is a vocation and to excel you really do have to love what you’re doing. It has to be part of who you are, not simply what you do for a living.

I wonder what you think.


Submitted by Rafah (not verified) on

I've only recently graduated from my masters in teaching, and I don't believe that our education leaves us 'classroom-ready'. In fact, I don't think we're truly ever 'classroom ready' as each class brings with its own unique set of students whom we must seek to understand and engage.

'I could not really show you the map I followed to become better at teaching, by how much I improved and what influence my improvement had on the learning of the students I taught.'

I found that comment very interesting, as I also feel the same way. As a graduate teacher though we are often asked to prove our improvements, which can be tricky. However, the AITSL standards have been useful in mapping out some key features of teaching - though I will not say all as I believe there are some innate characteristics that just make some teachers great. However, what works for one student may not work for another, so I don't believe that there is some universal characteristic common to 'great teachers'.

Submitted by Mark Ash (not verified) on

Nice piece. The comment that development seemed to be relatively unplanned resonates with me. There was no description of standards to guide development in my early career

Submitted by Matt (not verified) on

I'd have to agree. You need to love what you do to be a teacher. To understand that learning is part of the role. To know what it means to be disappointed and to want to go back again, just because of that opportunity to make things different!

Rafah. You might not be able to tell any improvements just yet. Hang in there. They will come if you are honest with yourself and work hard at improving the areas you need.

I love my job (most of the time)!

Submitted by Tom.hamilton@gt... (not verified) on

Fascinating piece and interesting golf project!

Simply deciding you are going to be a good golfer and then dedicating yourself to that goal might (and I stress might) allow you to achieve a reasonable standard but it certainly doesn't guarantee success. There are too many component parts to the golf swing; there are too many psychological variables.

Ditto for becoming a good teacher - a degree and a teaching qualification are good opening components but they are not in themselves sufficient. There are too many components in classroom in pedagogy; there are too many psychological variables in professionalism.

In both golf and teaching it is quite possible to understand the theory of what needs to be done, know all the component parts but be a duffer or a less than successful teacher.

Are there people with a natural aptitude for golf? Undoubtedly yes but understanding the theory, practice and having dedication all help lead to a good level of performance.

Are there people with a personal aptitude for teaching? Undoubtedly yes but understanding the theory, practice and having dedication all help to lead to a good level of performance.

Gary Player's response to someone who said he was a lucky golfer was that the more he practised the luckier he got. Same is true of teaching which is why career-long professional learning is so important.

My qualifications for my views?

A long and reasonably successful career in education. And at one time a reasonable (but never very good) golfer!

Submitted by Wes (not verified) on

In terms of the nature v nurture debate I think that in the right circumstances the school can nurture teacher development through having an effective teaching and learning environment. However, things you can not teach are the intangibles that great teachers have. They radiate teaching, it's their passion, it's their identity and that is something AITSL standards can't measure. That is something which is the responsibility of school leaders to recognise and failure to recognise teachers' intangibles is just inward, selfish "leadership".

Submitted by David Henderson (not verified) on

My experiences parallel those of Margery in that my career as a classroom teacher has evolved without my adhering to a particular plan. A passion for the subjects you teach and a passion for learning have always been key factors; as we well know, students will tend to adopt their teachers' values. However, reacting to student feedback, however overt or however subtle, I believe will always help guide a teacher's professional learning. The circular relationships between teacher and students will mean that a positive attitude in a teacher is likely to engender the same in the students. So, in a sense, a proportion of my professional learning has been guided by the students in my classes. Actively seeking out and reacting to students' opinions, in both quantitative and qualitative ways, can be a very effective means of self-evaluation, and students invariably appreciate the opportunity to have a say in their own educational experiences.

Submitted by Kerry Kasmira (not verified) on

For 25 years I've been practising to be the best teacher I can. Twice I've taken leave to explore alternate careers and twice I've returned to the classroom. I've met many driven, professional teachers. Sadly , some of these will never be great educators. Following a compliance driven career path these individuals feign empathy, collaboration, dedication. Teaching is a vocation you can have a career in. The teaching standards are an excellent tool the when used skilfully open many discussions that change and improve practice. Used without vigour they are just another checklist.

Submitted by Ryan (not verified) on

Hi Margery,

My wife just recently read a book called 'Talent is Overrated' by Geoff Colvin. It essentially explains that even the most extreme examples of what we think exemplify 'natural talent' actually prove to be the complete opposite. To stick with golf for a moment, think of Tiger Woods. He was pushed toward playing golf as soon as he could hold a club, because his father was not only a keen golfer but a good coach too. His abilities and career from that point prove not that he had a natural aptitude but more the opposite - that the earlier you start and the more time you spend skilling up the better off you'll be.

I think the misconception that natural talent exists (and Geoff Colvin admits that some physical capabilities can potentially be classified as natural but very few indeed - and that most can be taught if required) allow people to believe that they can't be as good as the best they've seen - which utterly limits not only that individual's capability but entire industries.

I completely agree with your perspective that we all need to be more in control of our development, and I think AITSL, the teacher and leader standards as well as teacher education, mentoring, structured teacher peer-reviewing and targeted professional development systems are the keys to that happening - with the realisation and mindset that no-one is naturally good and we can all be as good as anyone else with the right skills and training.

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