How to translate your teaching experience into expertise

|6 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post originally published on February 17th, 2020

You’re an expert at teaching your subjects to your learners in your school. If even one factor changes, are you still an expert? How can you make sure your experience translates into expertise?

Fifteen years ago, when I started teaching, schools could afford to send teachers to a range of Local Authority CPD courses. The picture looks very different now; minimal LA provision, schools struggling to afford CPD, and teachers recognising that one-off courses don’t always mean effective changes in classroom practice.

These days, teachers are taking professional development into their own hands. We’re seeing the rise of #EduTwitter, personal teaching blogs, meetings like Teach Meets, conferences and ubiquitous Facebook groups helping educators take ownership of their CPD.

There’s a huge difference between developing teacher experience, and translating that experience into expertise. So how can you make sure your CPD time is well-spent? And how do you measure the effectiveness of time spent furthering your knowledge?

Know the five stages of teacher development

Some of the most effective ways of increasing teacher expertise are reflection and deliberate practice, education, coaching and working with talented peers.

The work of educational psychologist David Berliner gives us helpful advice and a useful framework to use when reflecting on our development as teachers. Berliner identifies five stages in teacher development.

  1. Novice stage: You make carefully planned, deliberate choices about what you’ll do in the classroom. You follow rules or guidelines you’ve been given and are less flexible in the way you implement plans.
  2. Advanced beginner stage: You have sufficient classroom experience and can reflect meaningfully on learning theories or reading about teaching. You’re developing practical knowledge about effective classroom strategies. During these early years, you still rely heavily on rules and routines, becoming increasingly able to ignore or break them as your experience grows.
  3. Competent stage: After around three years of classroom experience and hard work, you reach the stage where you feel comfortable making conscious choices about teaching. You can make sensible curriculum and instruction decisions (like when to spend additional time on a topic to address learner difficulties and when to move on).
  4. Proficient stage: After approximately five years, you might reach the stage where you can draw on your wealth of prior experience and use it to perform intuitively, without thinking.
  5. Expert stage: Finally, after many years of classroom experience and reflection, you reach expert status, when teaching becomes effortless and fluid.

Not all researchers agree with this description of teacher learning being a series of stages to pass through. However, both as a teacher looking to improve my own practice and a teacher educator working to support the development of others, I’ve found this to be an extremely helpful framework.

Recognise that developing expertise takes time

It makes sense that at different stages in your career, you learn different strategies to improve your classroom performance. Just as learners can tackle increasingly complex maths as they grow in expertise, teachers can use increasingly sophisticated teaching strategies.

At the start of your teaching career, establishing and maintaining classroom routines takes up all of your working memory.

“How much time do I need to allow to get my class to assembly on time?”
“When do I need to draw this activity to a close to make sure I’m not late for break duty again?”

It’s hard to develop expertise when you’re still building a routine — this is where the need for experience comes in. As you grow in experience, your routines become second nature. Now you have the mental space to work your expertise by focusing on approaches such as adapting lessons mid-flight in response to assessment for learning.

The key is giving yourself the time to deepen your experience before accelerating on to something new. If you’re teaching maths mastery, this idea should sound familiar!

Embrace the cycle of changing contexts

Berliner also identifies the importance of context in teaching expertise. You’ve become an expert at teaching your subject to your learners in your school. But as soon as one of those factors changes, you cease to be an expert — this explains why September is such hard work!

Luckily, it won’t always be this way. Berliner suggests that the more often we go through the cycle of changing context, the more flexible our knowledge becomes, and the quicker we regain our expertise.

Sadly, you don’t automatically gain more expertise the longer you spend in the classroom. Some teachers will teach the same year time and again, without adapting to new experiences and the needs of their learners.

How can you make sure you continue to progress and develop teaching expertise?

Incorporate continuing professional development

High-quality training courses are a good place to pick up new ideas to try out in your classroom. If you’re looking to develop maths mastery expertise, check out Maths — No Problem! training courses. The NCETM Maths Hubs also provide free workgroups across England where you work alongside others to develop your teaching over time.

Lots of CPD providers offer a wide range of courses designed to upskill teachers. But this is only one part of the picture.

Collaborate with your colleagues

Another way to develop your classroom skills is working with your colleagues. Watching colleagues in your own school (or teachers from a school nearby), and then discussing the lesson offers rich food for thought.

“Why did the teacher make the choices they made?”
“Did anything expected or unexpected happen, and why?”

You can develop your practice alongside others, try out new ideas at the same time as colleagues and swap notes. It’s worthwhile to go back and try again — always refining the process.

Or develop your expertise alone, by reading or learning new ideas and then implementing and refining them. The key is to reflect on new learning and relate any new ideas to your existing knowledge based on classroom experience — making connections in learning like your learners do.

I think effective CPD is any stimulus that prompts me to think differently about my teaching and gives me new ways of dealing with classroom situations. Still, it’s ultimately up to me to develop my expertise as a teacher. To seek out new learning opportunities wherever I can so I can provide the best possible education for my learners.

Berliner, D. (2004).
Describing the Behavior and Documenting the Accomplishments of Expert Teachers. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 24(3), pp.200-212.