Teachers need to practice “off-stage,” too


My three-year-old daughter just started dance classes and so she loves to watch ballerinas on YouTube. Recently, we watched a day in the life of a ballerina in the Royal Ballet.  After warming up with a half hour of pilates, the dancer had an hour and a half class in the morning, then rehearsed for four hours in the afternoon, all before a performance the same evening.  That’s 6 hours of practice every day before the performance!

Why practice so much?  They want to optimize the ballerina’s chances of a successful performance the first time and avoid injury.  It’s a cycle that allows the dancers to operate at their peak at all times.

What if teachers had the opportunity to practice “off-stage” just a fraction of the time that dancers, or professional musicians, or professional sports players have?  How would it impact their “onstage” performance with with students?

In their book Practice Perfect, Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi estimate that about $20 - 30 billion is spent every year on professional development for teachers in our country. “It is an investment that yields questionable results” they write. “In other words, what we do to train teacher fails to make them better teachers.”

But why?  Unlike the ballerina described earlier, teachers have very few opportunities to practice their art. The average teacher receives just three observations with feedback per year, and some even less than that.  Professional development for teachers often sounds like this: “Try out X strategy in your class” or “Tips for writing a good lesson objective.” Don’t get me wrong, good objectives and instructional strategies are needed are needed. However, I can’t imagine even someone as talented as Lionel Messi getting told a new play without practicing it repeatedly with a coach’s feedback before being asked to implement it in a game setting.  So let’s make space for teachers to do the same.

Students deserve the best lesson in every class, everyday.  Teacher professional development often involves trying something out in the classroom, researching to see what works best.  Not that there’s no room for creativity and research, but far too many of the kids in our classrooms aren’t on grade-level, so we have to deliver the best lessons we can - the first time.  By practicing “off-stage,” teachers significantly increase their success rate of powerful instructional strategies the first time.

We have a concept of what practice looks like in the ballet or in soccer, but what does it look like for teachers?  One important role of instructional leaders and coaches is to provide space for teachers to role play instructional strategies with feedback, practicing the skill so many times it because automatic for the teacher.

Here’s an excerpt from a teacher’s practice session with an instructional coach on delivering crystal-clear directions.  The coach has already name the criteria for good directions, and modeled what it sounds like in her “teacher voice.”

Let’s do it!

Instructional leaders:

-plan your next feedback conversation with a teacher to include 10 minutes of practice on one skill by: 1) Listing the criteria to do the skill/strategy well, 2) give a model of it in your “teacher voice, 3) ask the teacher to try it out in the same way, and give one piece of feedback for change between each time the teacher practices

-Read Practice Perfect


-Get with a fellow teacher and design practice sessions for yourselves on a particular skill, giving each other feedback as you practice out loud in front of each other