All Articles Education Teachers: Finished products or works in progress?

Teachers: Finished products or works in progress?

5 min read


Top performers in any field have one common characteristic: they are always trying to get better. If given a box to check on whether they are “finished products” or “works in progress,” they would check the latter. Carol Dweck’s research would refer to this difference as a fixed and growth mindset.

These top performers accept and embrace performing before an audience because most of their real work is not done in the spotlight; it is done in practice and rehearsal. These top performers are able make sure they are ready and prepared before they step into the spotlight of a performance or event. They are “works in progress” who at a given time, perform publicly as “finished products.”

These top performers persist in their efforts to get better, even in the face of criticism and failure.  More significantly, they also persist in these efforts even after great success and recognition. They tend have an internalized well-defined set of standards of performance that they use to critique themselves. They also tend to seek feedback and invite criticism from other colleagues. Top performers operate on the assumption that if they get better, the results will take care of themselves.

Teaching is another field of endeavor where the top performers view themselves as “works in progress.” Teaching is a complex, difficult and demanding profession and requires a high degree of expertise along with a desire to always get better from those who want to master it. Unfortunately, teaching is not generally perceived this way especially compared to other professions. As a consequence of this, the teaching profession is often not given the same degree of respect from the general public.

There are several other reasons why the teaching profession doesn’t always receive respect from the general public:

  • Almost universal exposure on a daily basis to the profession of teaching makes lay people feel that they know and understand it.It is too easy for anyone to have an opinion on what good teaching is.
  • Many teachers make teaching look deceptively easy.
  • Some teachers can teach for a long time without receiving the feedback they need to get better.
  • Even many of the teachers with great expertise have difficulty articulating and delineating what they are doing and why it works.
  • Many people think teaching is an innate ability and attribute excellence to personal qualities not skills and knowledge.
  • As Andy Hargreaves has pointed out, it is easy for lay people to confuse enthusiasm for competence, so a new teacher often appears preferable to more experienced ones.

My friend and colleague, Barrie Bennett of the University of Toronto, compares teaching with brain surgery and makes a strong case for teaching being the more demanding and difficult job. He describes how a surgeon has a team a people helping him or her and with one patient at a time to think about. In addition, the patient is anesthetized. A teacher, however, has a class of twenty or more students. These students are not there by choice. They come from diverse backgrounds with differing levels of knowledge and skills. The teacher is charged with getting all of them to learn the same thing and to do it in an arbitrary length of time.

If there is any significant difference between the top performers in some fields and teachers, it’s that in teaching, the practice and the performance are almost the same. Each day, each lesson, each hour of practice in the classroom should create the opportunity for increased expertise in teaching. There is no reason preventing all teachers from getting better all the time. The 10, 000-hour rule articulated by Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, “Outliers,” is built into the job of teaching.

Here are some recommendations for a promoting a “works in progress” mindset for the teaching profession:

  • Practice talking about practice. Teachers don’t typically talk to each other about instruction. Schools need to designated time for the opportunity for teachers to have these conversations.
  • View teaching as an individual effort supported by a team. A good analogy is of a professional tennis player who might play alone on the court but whose success stems from working with a team of people.
  • Separate feedback to improve performance from evaluation to sort or rate “performers.” Too often, teacher evaluation in the form of principal observations is the only way teachers get feedback on their teaching. This makes it harder for teachers to accept feedback and more likely to defend themselves against judgment.
  • Attribute low performance more to a lack of skill than to a lack of motivation. The great majority of teachers want to improve their practice. Provide the supportive, safe environment and appropriate job embedded professional development and most teachers will improve their practice.
  • Involve teachers in developing self-evaluation rubrics for analyzing their instruction. The process of developing such a rubric is a great example of embedded professional development but also results in having useful tools for a faculty to use.
  • Teaching and learning can be like karaoke sometimes, not just like a recital. Teaching and learning can and should be fun and exciting even when it involves something challenging. There is time enough for practice, rehearsals and final performances.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at