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What Does It Mean to Be Experienced at Teaching?


One of the few findings in education research on which everyone seems to agree is that when it comes to teacher quality, experience counts. Teachers who've been on the job at least three years tend, on average, to spur bigger learning gains among students than their colleagues fresh out of education school.

But, as blogger Aaron Pallas points out in a post last Friday for Gotham Schools, there's a difference between years of experience in the classroom and experience teaching a particular grade or subject. To illustrate his point, Pallas breaks down data on 2,800 5th grade teachers in New York City's public schools. He shows that although only 7 percent of those teachers are in their first year of teaching, 27 percent are teaching 1st grade for the first time.

I'm curious about the implications here. Most of the research that I've seen on teacher effectiveness focuses on how many years teachers have been on the job and not on how long they've been teaching math or Chinese or 1st grade. Does anyone know of any studies that look at teachers' performance in their first year of teaching a new grade level or content area? And how does it compare with the effectiveness of teachers who are completely new to the profession? If you've got an inkling, let me know, and we can share the results here with readers.


I find this question fasciniating. I recently read an article titled "Becoming Expert Teachers" by Robert J. Garmston. His article discusses the continuum of novice to expert teachers and what characteristics a teacher must have to be considered "expert." Garmston(1998) states "...the teacher's practice (expert teacher) is characterized by fluency,automaticity, and efficency. This is achieved not so much as a result of experience, but due to reflection on experience." He also believes there are six areas an expert teachers must be knowledgable in. Interestingly, only one of the six has to do with knowing subject matter well. The remaining five focus more on how students learn and personal reflection and growth. This article does not address your question directly, but my interpretation of it is that teachers are more effective if they have a deeper understanding of how people learn, use best teaching strategies to deliver instruction, and are willing to challenge themselves professionally to learn and grow.

Garmston, Robert, J.(1998). Becoming Expert Teachers (Part One). Journal of Staff Development,19(1)

Thanks for the reference. I'll check it out. I wonder if this equation for an expert teacher differs in high school, where subject matter might start to be more important than pedagogical issues? It's an interesting question.

I think that there is also the category of relevant experience in other fields. I recall a teacher that my son had. She had some real weaknesses in mathematics and writing. However, she was very strong in social studies (and particularly broad application of social studies concepts, such as living in a democracy, etc). Her particular background was as a recreation leader--with some teacher training (she was actually on a temp license while she was in school). I did regret her lack of facility in teaching mathematics. At the same time, my son learned things in her classroom that he did not get anywhere else in his school career. He also had a "teacher" (not in school, but through a rec program) who was able to utilize her adaptive PE skills to work very effectively in an afterschool care/tutoring situation.

I have frequently thought that the teaching profession would be well-served by recruiting fom the ranks of social workers--who frequently have a great deal of very practical experience with both children and families--and work in low-paid situations that would make a teaching job look like a step up. In then end, I think that the profession would benefit from such hybridization efforts.

At the same time--some teachers may very well benefit from seeing their skills as applicable to positions outside the school system. A teacher with a few years outside the classroom may find that either they prefer to stay outside--or return with a far greater appreciation for the gifts that come with teaching.

Thanks for introducing a new wrinkle on what it means to be an experienced teacher. Career-switchers in teaching do seem to bring different, and valuable, experiences into the classroom.

I also find this an interesting topic because I just completed my third year of teaching and I do not consider myself an expert teacher. I taught first grade for two years and last year I moved to fourth grade. I believe my effectiveness has much improved from the time that I began teaching, but the change in grade level presented all new challenges that sent me right back to being a novice teacher. Most teachers have to be open to change because we may need to adapt to many different roles in our schools. Each new experience will require different methods and practice to begin taking steps toward becoming an expert teacher. Any grade level or position change for a teacher should be taken into consideration when determining what constitutes that person as an expert teacher. However, I do believe that the variety of experiences a person has in education qualifies them as an expert in their own right.

The following web address highlights a study about the development of novice physics teachers during the first three years of teaching. It states that it is “pedagogic reasoning “rather than the level of understanding content matter that sets expert teachers apart.


As a mentee of David Berliner, Ph.D.
I reference his work on "expert" teachers in my writing and teaching. Dr. Berliner's research has much to offer scholars, practitioners and policy makers today, more than ever.
David notes that at the end of year three one is considered 'an advanced beginner.' Nuances and subtleties of teaching are beginning to be integrated into one's practice. Advanced beginners can tap into their own prior knowledge base, but not to the level that their more seasoned colleagues can, who are deemed "proficient" somewhere around year five-seven. Then there are the "experts" who can seem to remedy every situation, right there when it happens. They integrate natural abilities,experience,and action, seamlessly.
Dr. Berliner's work chronicled years of observations and holds significant implications for not only our work today, but society's in general.
While we are living in an every changing society, evidence supports Berliner's warrants; just ask passengers who were fortunate to be on an USAIR flight captained by a pilot whose "knowing" contributed to a heralded landing in New York's Hudson River this year.
In the state of Arizona and Texas (among others), cosmetologists must work for two years under a licensed mentor, after they complete their nine month program. Then they are subjected to unannounced visits by state licensing examiners.
Many countries around the globe value experienced educators. However in the U.S.,we have teachers who have no experience,outside of their own schooling and a few short weeks of training.
David suggested to me, when I inquired, that this group should be deemed apprentices or novices, because they are learning the culture of schools,curriculum, communities and site-based realities on their own, without an expert to guide them.
While one might argue that our leaders are often elected to office as junior members of Congress, they are guided by experienced professionals who are proficent in their own particular arenas.
Dr. Berliner also noted in our many discussions, that longevity alone does not make for either proficiency or expertise. Further, we had many interesting debates as to what makes a sports legend an excellent player, but lousy coach.
Some experts cannot teach what they know and execute seamlessly;perhaps its because they never question their natural abilities or feel comfortable in breaking down the steps (patiently) to novices.
Few of our new-to-the profession teachers are naturals. But those that are, have often noted that they were been guided or mentored by relatives who are/were teachers.
To that end, we as a nation need to examine how to caplitalize on those truly extraordinary experts who can and do teach what they know to the next generation of educators.
The problem is.... that while a hairdresser can have the freedom to mix color and 'know' what will work for individual clients, some of our best and most devoted teachers are having to subvert the system in order to teach what they know, because the narrowing of the curriculum has othern devalued what they know. Elliot Eisner, who also had personal conversations with me as a doctoral student,noted that there is a distinction in "knowing what" and "knowing how."
An expert teacher grows into knowing how and applies that knowing into practice, often without fanfare or recognition.

I am SO going to become a regular reader of this column--which has become a topic of discussion over at the Teacher Leaders Network lately. We all agree that translating research into practice is a fabulous idea that people have been endorsing-- then not doing-- forever.

Aaron Pallas is right. Teaching is not a generic activity. And pedagogical content knowledge and responsive pedagogic reasoning are very real things. The range of pedagogical skills has long been seen as "soft" by policymakers and those who'd like to pin all of our problems on ed schools, but there are distinct technologies in pedagogy.

I taught HS and MS instrumental and vocal music for 30 years, with a great deal of success. In my 31st year, I took over a maternity leave for a K-4 music teacher (a job for which I was fully certified and highly qualified). Talk about your steep learning curve. I had all the content knowledge in the world, but I had no idea how to make 22 kindergartners sit in a circle on the floor. Fortunately, my K-4 colleagues were great, and I probably hit my stride somewhere around Christmas. Pedagogic reasoning indeed.

Re the value of teaching expertise. I retired after 35 years of teaching grades 4 - 6 in mostly self contained classes. That remains my expertise area with a little spillover on either side. When substituting, I limit myself to grades 2 to 8, self contained but am really comfortable only with grades 3 - 6. Even though I hold a K - 9 credential, that doesn't mean I know how to teach all those grades.

Thanks for all your thoughts. This has been such an interesting conversational thread and it's still going strong!

Hello to all... I am currently enrolled in an on-line master's program for Elementary Education Reading and Literacy specialization. The course I am currently enrolled in has been discussing this exact topic. What is the continuum from the novice teacher to the expert teacher? And, what is an effective teacher?

The article I just read, Becoming Expert Teachers, (Garmston, 1998) states that the teacher is a novice the first year, competent in the 3rd to 4th year, and only a modest portion make it to the proficient and expert stage. The expert teacher is characterized by the fluency, automaticity, and efficiency in their teaching. It was also stated that expert teachers need knowledge in six areas: content, pedagogy (complex understanding of many teaching strategies), students and how they learn, self-knowledge, cognitive processes of construction, and collegial interaction.

Another great book I am reading, On Being a Teacher, emphasizes that a great teacher possesses many personal attributes. While content knowledge is very important, a teacher that has charisma, compassion, egalitarianism, and a great sense of humor are essential in commanding their student's attention.

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