At work, practice puts perfection in reach
By KATIE YEZZI
The New York Times | November 25,2012
New York Times Photo
Katie Yezzi, the founding principal of Troy Prep Elementary School, is shown at the school in Troy, N.Y., last month. Yezzi has said that practice is one of the most powerful ways to improve performance in teachers and students.
In 2011, I started a public charter elementary school as the principal. My organization, Uncommon Schools, manages charter schools for the bottom line, which in our case is student achievement. Some 92 percent of my school’s students live below the poverty line, and the urgency of our faculty’s work is what motivates us to be great every day.
But the overwhelming need to be great can also swallow people up. If teachers are underperforming, or if student achievement appears to be plateauing, teachers can become paralyzed and fall prey to self-doubt or frustration.
We have found an antidote to this sense of defeat: practicing and preparing outside the classroom. Practice, I have found, is one of the most powerful ways to improve performance.
In March, as I was preparing to conduct midyear reviews with the teachers, my managing director, Doug Lemov, asked me if I wanted to practice any of them in advance. I immediately took him up on the opportunity to practice one review of a teacher who was struggling. I was dreading the review. I didn’t want to be harsh, but I also didn’t want to water down the message and give this teacher a false impression. I knew that I wasn’t ready to have that conversation, so Doug and I practiced.
Doug demonstrated some language I could use, and I rephrased it and tried it out, and then went over and over the main pieces of the conversation. When it was time for the review, I felt confident and calm, and was able to be entirely present and to listen. I said everything that I needed to say, and found the balance between directness and compassion. Practice had helped to make something difficult much easier.
Feeling good about the situation, I jumped into a second review, with one of my stronger teachers. This review would be mainly positive, so I didn’t think I needed to practice. I was surprised when the meeting, far from going as expected, involved lots of tears (hers) and awkwardness (mine) when I went over some areas where she could improve.
As I handed over the tissue box, I realized that I had imagined practice mainly as a tool for dealing with poor performance. But it can also be important for strong employees, who stand to give so much back. A well-conducted review, practiced in advance, has a better chance of making them feel happy and valued.
In other performance professions, like music or sports, the top performers always keep practicing — alone and together. It’s understood as crucial to staying at the top of their game. I had fallen into the trap of assuming that practice was a tool to avoid disasters, as opposed to a way to maximize positive outcomes. Now I see it as one of the only things that will keep helping me grow as a professional and add value to my organization. With our students, we never accept that some won’t ever “get it.” We know that intelligence is not a fixed trait; with the right instruction, and lots of well-constructed practice, all of our students can achieve at high levels.
Interestingly, not all of our teachers initially apply this thinking to themselves. One came into my office the other day, saying she knew that her class wasn’t going well and that she didn’t think she could ever help her students improve. I rejected that idea and noted two small changes she could make. She still wasn’t buying it. Then we practiced, with me demonstrating alternative teaching methods and her trying them out. Her whole outlook changed. She felt the difference.
Five minutes later, she was performing in front of her students, doing what we had just practiced. I could hear the difference. I checked in with her later, and she was beaming. She still had a long way to go, but she had already proved to herself that she could become better — and that the improvement was under her control.
When I read reports of low teacher morale across the nation, I believe them, but I don’t see much of that in our workplace. We all work hard in a very demanding environment, but our teachers love their jobs. The key to workplace satisfaction is doing a job well, and our most powerful tool for ensuring that is practice.