To Be a Professional, Act Like an Amateur

Printable Version

During vacation along Lake Michigan, my stepfather wanted to watch the fishing tournament nearby. I declined to join him (it was raining). Nevertheless, he brought back video of the anglers showcasing the walleye they caught.

“That guy there, he’s a professional. He brought in three fish weighing almost 20 pounds.” As I watched the footage on his iPhone, I asked him if only professionals could compete. “Oh no,” he responded, “there were several amateurs there too.” When I asked how the professional anglers were separated from the amateurs, he explained the difference.

  • “The professionals’ entrance fee was a lot more.”

  • “The professionals spent a few days prior to the tournament scouting out the prime spots.

  • “The professionals had the better boats, like Johnsons, which have Styrofoam inside their hulls.”

The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals

The distinctions between professionals and amateurs seemed small. For example, most competitors – professional and amateur - had their boat sponsored by Cabellas or some other major outdoor franchise, even if the brand of boat might be different.

In other words, the difference between amateurs and professionals is thin.

What is unique about education is that the opportunity to be an amateur does not seem to even exist. Once we accept a new position, we are considered “a professional”. Our prior education and experiences are seen as our time to be amateurs.

This is concerning. Most of our previous learning opportunities and time to apply our skills were either in somewhat artificial situations (see: student teaching, principal practicums) or absent, if you consider what we actually encounter on our jobs (see: student discipline, building culture and climate).

Treating Our Positions as a Practice

Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a writer, worried that he had plateaued in his practice. After learning more about the role of coaching in other professions, including education, Gawande hired his own coach. It was his mentor, a retired surgeon. As the mentor observed during surgeries, he had to sheepishly explain who this person was (“this is my coach”). But the humility he embraced was worth the insights his coach provided him.

“He saw only small things, he said, but, if I were trying to keep a problem from happening even once in my next hundred operations, it’s the small things I had to worry about. He noticed that I’d positioned and draped the patient perfectly for me, standing on his left side, but not for anyone else. The draping hemmed in the surgical assistant across the table on the patient’s right side, restricting his left arm, and hampering his ability to pull the wound upward.”1

Preventing one problem in a hundred might seem small, unless you were that 100th patient.

Example: A Third Way?

In my 20th year as an educator, including fourteen as an administrator, I too was feeling like I had plateaued. In response, I also reached out to a colleague to serve as my coach for the 2020-2021 school year.

While he could not see me in action due to the pandemic, we were able to facilitate monthly conversations around the challenges I faced. For example, I was planning to have a conversation with one teacher team. I needed to communicate feedback regarding a resource they were implementing during the literacy block.

I shared the tension I was feeling.

“If I don’t say anything, then I am allowing it, even giving tacit permission. If I disapprove of the use of the resource, then I may be preventing them from reflecting on this decision and developing better internal capacities for choosing curriculum resources in the future.”

My coach responded:

“You seem to have identified the crux of the issue here. Working with other principals, this is something they also regularly deal with in their worlds.”

He paused, then asked if there might be a third way to engage with the team. I thought for a moment, then shared, “I can acknowledge that their intentions are positive, that they believe they are doing the right thing for kids. I could also ask about their thinking process that led to this decision-making. But I should also be upfront about my concerns, so they are clear on where I stand as the building leader.”

My coach affirmed this approach and asked me to let him know how it went when we met next.

During my conversation with the team, it went well if not perfect. There was some initial defensiveness when I questioned the use of the resource. Yet I clarified that I wanted to simply learn about the decision-making process that went into selecting it. By the end of our conversation, we found common ground. “We agree on the what and the why here,” I summarized, “and it is really a matter of how.”

These shifts seem small, yet the outcomes could be large. Can one conversation change the trajectory of a team’s collective instruction? Maybe, maybe not. But it began when I recognized that I did not need to have all the answers, but rather to be curious, empathetic, and transparent about my beliefs and values. This humbleness, to act like an amateur – as a walleye angler, as a surgeon, as a teacher or a leader – is what it means to be a professional.

Enjoyed this article but not subscribed? Sign up below - most content, including the 2021 Summer Book Study - is free. We will be reading and responding to Culitivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad in July.


Gawande, A. “The Coach in the Operating Room” (The New Yorker, 9/26/2011)

Leave a comment