Student teaching: First 800 hours of 10,000 down toward teaching mastery

Six cards and two gift bags stood atop my desk at Dallas Center-Grimes High School last week.

This was my last day of student teaching and, as usual, my mentor teacher, Desiree Lozada, had gone all out.

Lozada gave me an insulated lunch bag and a carrier for my walker that can hold a water bottle, a laptop, or other necessities as I trundle along the hallways of my future place of employment.

She also wrote a lovely, encouraging card.

Desiree wrote a lot of those notes since we started working together in mid-January. 

I needed every one of them.

Learning how to become a teacher is hard.

Learning how to become a teacher while unemployed and figuring out where rent is coming from each month is harder.

Learning how to become a teacher while unemployed and coping with a new disability that makes movement hard is harder still.

Teachers put their students first. Always. No excuses. No exceptions.

The cold winter and long, wet spring intensified the aches in my arthritic knees and made the trek from my apartment to my car and my car into the building feel like a 1,000-mile journey.

Learning to become a teacher is a mental 1,000-mile journey, uphill, in the dark, on a new moon, and on an unfamiliar trail.

I thought I had an idea of what it was like to be a teacher because I had been taught from kindergarten through four years at Drake University.

This is like thinking you know how to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra because you make excellent Spotify playlists.

I was a newsman for 27 years. I covered the news, features, business, and sports. I was an editor for a while and a columnist. 

The journalist Malcolm Gladwell described the “10,000 hours rule” in his book “The Outliers.” A premise is a person who spends 10,000 doing something masters it. The Beatles, for example, logged hundreds of shows in Germany before they made their first record — an instant smash that can be attributed to the precise musicianship the Fab Four had learned through the practice of multiple shows each night during their time in Hamburg.

I marked my 10,000 hours in journalism a long time ago.

Put in teaching? I am still a raw rookie. I often feel like I am trying to play the piano and have never even seen the instrument before, let alone played it.

Each day for the last five months I have logged my hours and practiced by trade.

I worked every day to try and reach students with the material that we were teaching from “The Crucible” to a unit on nine different writing styles we studied in one unit. 

I learned a lot about how the modern school works. There is much more collaboration between teachers in a discipline than there was when I was a kid.

“When I was a kid“ was a phrase I use a lot with both students and my fellow teachers.

I was 20 years older than my mentor teacher, which is fine except when you make a joke about “WKRP in Cincinnati” but your teacher has no idea what you’re talking about and the other teachers that are in your meeting have no idea what you’re talking about.

If you, dear reader, don’t know what I’m talking about, please write a letter to the editor and I will explain in great detail why the sentence “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly” is the funniest thing ever said on national television.

Because I had my 10,000 hours in another trade, it felt very weird to come to work every day uncertain and insecure about my ability to do the day’s work.

My mentor teacher and my supervising teacher, Ann Bartelt of Winterset, talked me back from quitting multiple times.

I eventually got my legs under me and was able to competently get through daily lessons and develop relationships with the students.

There were at least three days in which I felt like a real teacher who knew what he was doing and had a plan. I would not go much beyond three days.

Yet I made it through to the end. Adults whose job it was to guide me and to evaluate me decided that I was proficient enough to go ahead and get a license and do this professionally.

When the last day came, and those cards were signed by those students that I felt like I had failed more often than not, there were a lot of nice messages about how I livened up the classroom and made things more fun.

I teared up with that because that is the kind of teacher I want to be, but I don’t always feel that way.

But one of the things that I remembered about the 10,000 hours rule is that the researcher who came up with the idea said that it was more than just practice.

Quality instruction — you know, good teachers — is just as important as the hours spent practicing the trade.

In this, I was incredibly blessed. Desiree Lozada is a dedicated teacher who takes on the responsibility of not only helping more than 180 students in her classes but also as a leader in her school’s English department.

Ann Bartelt is a retired teacher who supervised my progress for Drake University. 

And I spent many nights on the phone with her or exchanging text messages just so that I could find some positive nuggets at the end of an otherwise rotten day.

Lest I forget, the entire faculty of the Drake University School of Education was overwhelmingly knowledgeable and supportive.

By my math, I’ve logged about 800 of my 10,000 hours. 

I’ve got another five years to go before I know what I’m doing in the same way that I knew what I was doing in journalism.

I sort of doubt that I will have all the answers by the time my 10,000 hours are up.

But hopefully, I will be asking better questions.

Daniel P. Finney writes a column for the Marion County Express. Reach him at

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.


  1. Nita Brower says:

    I am an 87-year-old retired teacher that started my student teaching at age 42. I have been following your adventure from post one.
    CONGRATULATIONS!! Teaching today is much more difficult that when I retired in l997. I know you will make a difference
    in many, many young lives. Always believe in yourself. You are STRONG.


  2. Karen says:

    Hearty congratulations! We all knew you could do it. Never forget that both your mentor teacher and your supervising teacher believe in you. They are the experts and have seen many successful new teachers. Their assessment means that you will be one, too!


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s