Teaching is an art form. Educators spend their lives honing their craft and perfecting their approaches until it becomes so automatic and intuitive that they are surprised when someone asks, “How do you do that?” The teacher blinks in surprise. Doesn’t everyone know? Doesn’t everyone do it this way? To watch a skilled teacher is truly to observe a master.
There are four stages leading to that level of proficiency:
- Unconscious incompetence: This is the new teacher coming out of credentialing classes with lots of ideas, stars in his/her eyes, and pinterest at the ready! Blissfully unaware of all the challenges ahead, s/he pictures the classroom full of smiling attentive students who grasp each concept in a timely fashion, allowing the class to move through the expected standards with time to spare. With her class before her, s/he may not be aware of boredom, notes being passed, students checking out, or the unacceptable noise level. Student behaviors fall to the wayside as s/he concentrates on getting through the lesson and delivering the content that was planned.
- Conscious incompetence: Reality check. Now the teacher is beginning to realize all s/he doesn’t know and a bit of stress sets in. “There’s so much I don’t know. How am I ever going to be able to teach like Miss Smith?” The search for more resources and professional development begin. Veteran teachers can play such an important role in this time period by sharing tips, encouraging, and modeling successful strategies. Hopefully, administrators are pairing new teachers with a veteran in the building
- Conscious competence: As teachers gather new ideas and strategies and consciously implement them, their skills grow. They find those particularly suited for different subject areas and prepare the necessary charts, graphs, and tables that they’ll be able to use year after year. They consciously practice the procedures, routines, and strategies that will help increase student engagement, noticing those that students particularly like. Their “withitness”, a term meaning those all important “eyes in the back of the head” increases and they become aware of all that’s going on in the room while teaching.
- Unconscious competence: While teaching is always a challenge and there is always more to learn, teachers will finally reach the stage where it becomes second nature. Though the students change yearly, there are always strategies they love, techniques to keep their attention, procedures and routines that need to be in place. And at this stage, you know what those are! This teacher makes it “look easy”, although everyone knows it’s not.
Why is this important to realize?
For the administrator, it helps to know what type of professional development might be most beneficial. Teachers at the fourth level could be used as leaders to help advance newer teachers to the next level, and thus be groomed for leadership positions.
For the teacher, it is important to realize that the journey to becoming a skilled teacher is just that – a journey. Often the new teacher compares him/herself to the best teacher in the building and can’t understand why her classroom doesn’t look the same! It’s a process during which the teacher is making a thousand decisions as to what s/he wants the future to look like, from management style to the culture of the classroom to keeping up with new strategies. During these formative years, it’s vital for the teacher to have realistic expectations while continuing to move forward.
Just a sidenote – I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon with the advent of Covid 19 and online learning. Those teachers who were very skilled and in the unconscious competence category have all of a sudden moved backwards into # 2. It’s a very unsettling feeling for them to have to wrestle with the mode of delivery for the subject they know so well. Veteran teachers are struggling to learn new areas of expertise and keep up with those who are much less skilled in teaching, but more knowledgeable in the world of technology. This presents an opportunity for true “cooperative learning” with each one teaching in his/her area of strength.