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What Makes for a Master Teacher?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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I looked up the reference of one of my students who quoted some things from Robyn Jackson's seven principles for a master teacher, explained explicitly in her book, Never Work Harder than Your Students. While reading it, I was surprised by the list provided as the seven characteristics of master teachers:

Master teachers: start where their students are; know where their students are going; expect to get their students to their goal; support their students along the way; use feedback to help them and their students get better; focus on quality rather than quantity; and never work harder than their students.

Never work harder than your students? Of course a master teacher is working harder than the students, or they would not be considered a master teacher. One of the fallacies evident in the principles presented in the book is that the student is a product of education. The reality is that the student is a vital participant and partner in education. The master teacher must work much harder than the students, and work shoulder to shoulder with the students to achieve success.

Defining Effectiveness

The list does have some good points, but I wouldn't call them the essential seven characteristics of master teachers. This got me thinking and I came up with my own list of seven things that I think master teachers do:

1. Create an atmosphere, an environment, and an attitude for learning

2. Establish a reason to learn

3. Train students how to learn

4. Inspire students to achieve

5. Establish accountability for learning

6. Continually check learning gains

7. Celebrate new learning

Master teachers understand that it has to be the student's unwritten goal to keep up with the master teacher, primarily because the master teacher has effectively become the role model for all of the students in the classroom. The master teacher leads and students follow.

The flip side of this statement, "Never work harder than your students" is that if the students are coasting along, doing the minimum, the teacher is probably coasting also. We have way too many educators already in this erroneous mode of thought. For example, what happens in nearly every school in America the day before a vacation? Movie Day. I spoke with one principal the day before spring break and she admitted that she knows that showing movies is ineffective teaching, but she allowed her teachers to show movies that day because was more concerned about keeping the students contained.

On the day before a vacation, my daughter in middle school and my son in high school both came home from school having watched four movies each, and both of them had been shown the same movie: Finding Nemo! Aside from copyright violations, this is a violation of student and parent trust.

In many cases, there are students who have to take care of their siblings in the morning, get them ready for school, feed them, then hop on a city bus or subway, and then after school doing everything in reverse, and then they have a part-time job and go to work all evening to help the family income. Many students make significant sacrifices to even get to school every day. We need to honor their sacrifices by honoring their time with real learning.

Movies are an escape. For teachers, they mean one less preparation and delivery to worry about. And even though the practice of showing movies instead of teaching is rampant in schools, it is not excusable.

In the Classroom

So let's talk about effective teachers that use film appropriately as a learning tool. And there are many teachers who will only show a segment that inspires discussion and deep thinking. The College Board has produced a curriculum called Spring Board that uses video segments of many popular movies to teach literacy, critical thinking, and critical writing (copyright allows the use of less than ten minutes of a movie to be shown for educational purposes).

These excellent teachers prepare lessons around short documentaries and factual movie segments and have activities where students analyze and engage around very specific information from the film clip.

Why have I discussed this issue so thoroughly? One of the major tenets of a master teacher is that she always honors the students' time and effort for coming to school and she will do whatever it takes to give students the very best education possible that day and every day.

Now it's your turn: What are some things you think master teachers should do?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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Ryan McGinnis's picture

As a 7th year teacher, I too believe that movies are an escape plan for some teachers who just want to coast into the holiday season a day early. I think the master teacher list from Jackson's book is agreeable to me, even the one about not working harder than your students.

If we look at this from the "in the classroom" mentality, then this is true. Once inside the classroom during lesson time, the students should be assisting in moving the learning along throughout the day: presenting ideas, asking questions, figuring out answers and making the essential correlations that they need to facilitate their learning growth to be successful learners.

Yes, we put more out of school time in then most students do with planning, grading, preparing, but in terms of inside the classroom, a master teacher should just be the learning guide, helping the students work harder and harder to create understanding and meaning with the lessons presented to them.

Getting back to the movie topic, they should only be shown when it relates to lessons covered in class. If students just read a novel, for instance, then the students should be permitted to watch the feature film version and then write a paper tied to the comparing and contrasting ideas/moments from the book versus the film. Things like this help give the movie a purpose and something for the students to focus on while watching it, instead of just wasting valuable instruction time with today's hard-to-keep-focused youth.

Dawn's picture

As I was reading your list of seven characteristics of master teachers, some thoughts came to mind. All effective teachers should create, establish, train, inspire, establish, check, and celebrate. Teachers are constantly learning through experience. Therefore, at what point has a teacher reached mastery? Teachers care tremendously about their students and diligently work toward mastery each day. I would not consider myself a 'master teacher'; however, I display these characteristics. In respect to watching videos/movies during class, I believe there are many videos that are educational and thought-provoking. However, on the flip side, there are those that fill time and "give teachers a break". I have pulled up clips from Discovery Education and United Streaming for my students. I have also used DVDs that go with our social studies curriculum that take you around the world to experience different cultures. There are others that I have used, but they are all educational and provide reason for viewing. As teachers, we should be thinking about the effects on student learning. We are there to teach and help the students learn and grow, and the students are there to learn valuable and useful information. Parents are trusting us with their child, knowing that we have their best interest in mind. I look for every way possible to use both their and my time effectively.

Linc Jackson's picture

Interesting discussions. Clearly we can agree that movies can be abused.

As to what makes a master teacher

A master teacher:

1. Has balance in their life. It is great to strive for goals but don't lose sight of what is really important. (this is where the don't work harder than your students fits for me.)

2. Maintain high expectations for how people should treat each other. Have reasonable conversations and consequences around this. Don't put up with bullying.

3. Manage to admire something wonderful about every student and see that every student feels celebrated by their community every day. Master Teachers celebrate the gifts that each child brings to the table.

4. Bring to life the philosophy that we are all learners and all teachers. Kids need to teach us and we need to appreciate their places of expertise.

5. Don't teach from the book. Teach in ways that are creative and inspirational. Content is not nearly as important as process. Find wonderful ways to make the process of learning really cool.

6. Find ways to have kids develop ownership in their own learning process. Either as a group or individually kids should feel empowered and celebrated for determining and following through on their own learning.

7. Inspire kids to be authors and reflectors of their learning process. Master Teachers provide avenues, venues, means for sharing what they have learned. Master Teachers are not caught up in a score that a student must reach, but instead are focused on the progress that should be celebrated when discoveries and growth does occur.

My two cents

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I am a fan of both Ted Sizer and PLC's. I will be looking up your website to see what you have to say about them. The thing I like about both of them is that the quest of excellence in education has a voice. We need personal commitment that Ted Sizer talks about, and we need the professional rigor that competition/collaboration with peers can bring in PLCs. Thanks for your insight.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

If we want students to be active learners, that requires that we be active teachers. In fact, teacher might not be the right word. Facilitator is so worn out and trite-- coach maybe...director of learning possibly...how about learning leader? The word teacher is so steeped in racial memory that if you give someone the title, the default is the traditional "talking head, I know more than you so you should listen because it's on the test", type teacher. The focus has to be on learning, not on presenting content. A learning leader that can get the cooperation of the students in the learning process will be an effective learning leader.

Thanks for the post

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]While I definitely identify with the frustrating habits of lazy teachers, I do believe that Jackson is on to something with the idea of not working harder than the students. It's not that students should be coasting, and the teacher should join them. The idea is that teachers should be pushing their students to be active learners.

I have observed classrooms where the students are treated like vessels that the teacher is frantically working to fill up. The teacher should be facilitating the learning not doing it for the students. I think that's part of the reason so many students are bored at school. Whether you're lecturing or showing a movie, the results are less that is possible if the students are active participants and not just active listeners.

As for what I think it means to be a master teacher, I believe a master teacher is someone who has move past the need for the rules of teaching. They have spent so much time following the rules and then breaking them experimentally, that they don't need them any more. For a master teacher, a lesson comes as naturally as breathing. They don't need lesson plans or standards any more than a master chef needs a Better Crocker cook book. A master teacher is an educator in all aspects of their life.

"Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person."

Albert Einstein[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Thank you so much for your post. You are so on-target! Watching a movie is a passive learning activity. Reading a book, amazingly is an active learning activity. A creative "teacher", with a little bit of planning, can have so many fun and enjoyable learning activities with students that will last much longer in the student's memories and build into other learning opportunities. Even the traditional games, or competitions would be better than watching a movie. Wait, what about having the students create a movie about what they are learning? What used to be far fetched technology, most students can do with their phones.

Thanks for the thoughts!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I agree that teachers should be working harder than their students. If we want them to work hard we need to be a model of how hard they should be working.

I feel that movies are often used as a time filler for those "rough" days. I see movies being used all the time in school. I try to stay away frm the movies because there are many other activities that can be done in which learning takes place. These activities can also be fun for the students.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


In my blog I spoke about the College Board Spring Board curriculum for English. It is an inquiry based curriculum that uses popular books, music, and clips from movies to spark discussion, and more importantly, literacy, writing and thinking. I was impressed by your comment, "what ever it takes" because that is the attitude of a master teacher. My students will learn, what ever it takes. I will do what ever it takes to inspire my students to learn, even if I have to show a movie, but that won't be the end of it. When I was a Spanish teacher, we were learning about South America and I found a movie that encompassed the history of the colonization, The Mission, with Robert DeNiro. We did not watch the movie all at once. We did radio theaters, history reenactments, and Spanish newspapers about the period in time as we watched segments of the movie. In these segments sparked and inspired the creativity of the students and we learned about the indian cultures, the Spanish Missions, the Difference between the Spanish and the Portuguese colonization/conquests. Used appropriately, a movie can make a passive experience an active one. Kids can be entertained at home, but the come to school to be enhanced. If that is what you are doing with the movies, lockdowns aside, then I am all for it.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I find it helpful to use a variety of resources when teaching. I am a subscriber to Discovery Education. They have thousands of educational videos, and I can always find a video to reinforce my teaching. Being knowledgeable of multiple intelligences, I understand that I need to use a variety of strategies to reach all learners and using videos is one way to potentially reach everyone.

Additionally, Discovery Education has several cartoon series that focus on character building. I work in an inner city Title 1 school where violence is everywhere and lockdowns are common. Three times per week at the end of the day I show one of the 30 minute cartoons. We spend 10 minutes after the video discussing what happened. Students are getting a lot out of this. So yes, films, videos, and whatever else it takes to reach the students is fine with me![/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I am curious about your irritation. Does it hurt? When do you feel these symptoms most? Are your irritated when parents tell you how to deal with their child? Do you feel this irritation when the pastor speaks? Do you feel irritated when you read the Dear Eloise in newspaper? Do editorials cause you to itch? Or does this irritation only flare up when you feel the other person might have a good point to make?

The idea of cognitive dissonance is that if a person is irritated enough about what they see, then they are more willing to take some sort of action to fix the irritation. How irritated are you?

Are you irritated enough to add something to the conversation?

I know there is no way to sum up in a nice neat package what an expert, world-class teacher "does and is" in seven easy steps. But trying to do this forces us to look at what the priorities are and how far we have to go to reach our ideal. I gain a lot from putting my ideas out there for people to comment on them, and I think they gain too--oh that is what blogging is all about!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]What irritates me about educational writers, upper level administrators, and other educational consultants is their idea that one simply observes a master teacher, identifies their behaviors and characteristics, and then packages the list in an instruction manual for others to follow.

Master teachers are often complex, gifted individuals whose skill is based on decades of experience, practice, reflection and superb self awareness.

These skills are not readily packaged for mass distribution.[/quote]

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

A Master Teacher has at least a master's degree in some aspect of education, a state certification in their content area, and evidence of continued credits to maintain certification.

What makes Pennsylvania great is that every five years, a teacher must earn 180 credit hours to maintain their certification(s). Thankfully, there is no such thing as a "permanent certification" here.

Corissa Jones's picture

As a result of going through the process of becoming an educator, I have been inundated with all of the aspects of a great teacher, some presented by educators, whom themselves, I would not consider "great". Instead of giving my own opinion to this question, I decided to ask my husband, a computer engineer, who had never really thought much about the qualities of teachers that make them masters. After pondering the question for a couple of moments, he responded, "someone who presents information in innovative ways. Powerpoint does not work for me anymore. I get so bored by professors who read straight from the slide. It is a waste of my time AND money, as I can read the exact same thing at my home". At first, I was a bit surprised by his answer, thinking that he might say "someone who gives me A's" or "someone who lets me eat in class". After thinking about his answer though, I would totally agree that the way information is presented by an educator makes all the difference to a student who is sitting in the classroom.

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