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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What Makes for a Master Teacher?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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

Comments (50)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rachel Robertson's picture

As a teacher, I would agree that movies are not excusable even on the last day of school. My principal is very determined that our students receive our best to the very end. Yes, students are restless and unfocused, knowing that spring break or summer vacation begins the next day. Yet, when we show movies and do not relate them to learning, we are doing our students an injustice. They are here to learn (whether they know it or not) and teachers are there to teach, not babysit. I believe movies can be used effectively to teach, but should only be done so on a rare basis. For example, when studying folk tales in second grade, the teacher could show a short folk tale and compare the video to the story. A master teacher is always providing a learning experience where the students and the teacher work hard to excel. I find it that many teachers fail to carry out number seven: celebrate new learning. Students work hard on a project or presentation and they are recognized. But what about the child who finally learned to follow a specific rule or ended his sentences with a period? We must remember to celebrate even the smallest achievements, for it means the world to some of our students.

sryan's picture

I agree with several posts that assert "not working harder than your students" could mean that both teacher and student are putting forth extensive effort. The teacher is putting forth the effort to create an engaging lesson, and hence, the students are also actively engaged in their learning. I think it's more along of the lines of the "shoulder to shoulder" effort you mentioned in your post. It is a vague statement, though, that needs clarification to be helpful.

A question in regards to showing movies - is there any justification for using them? For example, at a former school, we completed all literacy assessments in one day, twice a year. Previously, teachers had been spending two weeks, twice a year, trying to piece together the time needed to administer reading assessments. Further, the time was often fragmented, interrupted, and the testing environment was not conducive to accurate testing. The school decided that for one day, twice a year, students would have an altered scheduled supported by specials staff, parent volunteers, and a few substitutes. Classes were combined so the kids "traveled" to activities in groups of 40-60. They had an instruction block monitored by specialist, parents, and substitutes. It was similar to a study hall. During this time, students from a grade level were pulled by all the teachers in the school (grades 1-5) to be tested. With all the teachers working together, the assessments for a grade level were completed in 1 to 1.5 hours. Then that grade level moved on to a field day block and a movie block, which allowed the teachers to test the other grade levels. It took a ton of planning and cooperation, but it worked well. No, the students did not gain "real learning" that day and did watch a full length movie, but important (and required) data was gained in an efficient manner. Does the ends justify the means?

elementaryteacher's picture

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.

Daniel R. Venables's picture
Daniel R. Venables
Educator & Consultant

The title of this post is interesting and really drew me in. However, I must admit being a bit disappointed to read what I have to say is a naive and hyperbolic essay on what could have been a really good and meaningful commentary on an important idea: What makes for a master teacher?

I agree with the author that Robyn Jackson misses the mark and I rather like the 7 alternate characteristics posed in the essay.

The challenge, of course, is how to actually do these things. Saying that teachers SHOULD do them is of limited value - a bit like DuFour saying schools SHOULD have collaborative cultures. Great. I agree. Now say how (which, in the case of DuFour, he never quite does).

I've spent my recent professional reading time on Schmoker's new book "Focus" and I Skyped with him last week. He's really got me thinking about 'authentic literacy' and 'purposeful writing' in all subject areas (I say this as a 24-year veteran math teacher).

Ted Sizer (to whom Schmoker dedicated "Focus") said it best when he said (back in 1984) that master teachers push kids to "use their minds well". That can happen lots of ways, but clearly it does not happen often enough in most classrooms. To me, it's not a matter of showing a movie or not, it's about making kids "use their minds well", whether the context of doing so is a movie, a piece or text, a true-life problem to solve or something else.

[to reply to me directly go to www.authenticPLCs.com]

Twangmeister's picture
Survivor of LA Unified

@ Daniel R. Venables: Thank you for invoking the name of Ted Sizer, with whom I worked closely in the early-90s. Sadly, even if he were still with us, Ted's humanistic approach towards kids and education would have little traction in a climate where the word "innovation" has been claimed by those who represent the antithesis of creative thought. An article you may find interesting in light of your post (we need Ted Sizer now more than ever):

Nick K's picture

Finding Nemo? Wow! I do believe that movies can be used in the classroom as a great learning tool if it relates to the subject being taught. I have used some of Ken Burn's Civil War in my classroom, but just in 10-15 minute segments. They are so well done and it really gives students an inside look at the war. As far as the list for master teachers, I believe one thing is missing. Master teachers should be challenged everyday. I believe if a teacher is being challenged, they are challenging their students as well. Education is a two way street.

Kelly Donnelly's picture

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!

Jennifer Pierson's picture

I am a pre-service fully licensed teacher who does not have her own classroom but I have spent many hours in many different classrooms and grade levels, in doing so I have seen many presentations of films in the classroom setting. The films were shown in conjunction with the work that the students had finished reading. I think that the use of films in that way is a great way to add a visual aide to the literature that the students have read in class as a whole. The teachers who used films always used the book as a reference point when watching the movie and listed questions for the students as a whole to ponder before watching the movie. I think that if teachers followed that method that they would in fact be using videos correctly and that they would not be just lying back a day. The conversations that were sparked by the questions and how the students interpreted the videos were interesting, thought provoking and I believe a valuable learning exercise.

Sonya Nestor's picture

I loved the point about how it is written that a student wants to keep up with the teacher. That really made me stop and think how many times I go too fast not realizing it. I also agree that showing movies are not a substitute for teaching. I really very rarely show movies. I did read Charlotte's Web to my 3rd grade class and we did follow it up by watching the movie. We then compared and contrasted as part of a reading lesson. Thanks for the post. It really did make me stop and think.

KTbug1508's picture

I agree with your 7 characteristics of a master teacher. I think there is a domino effect is place that implements all of these traits. They go hand in hand, one leading to the next.

As far as teachers are never suppose to work harder than the students? Only in a perfect world would this happen, but the truth is, this world is far from perfect. The students need a role model and we here to provided them with that image. Through our own motivation, we are inspiring the students to work hard. Our inspiration drives us to work the extra hours late into the night, constantly exploring new strategies and techniques, as well as create a learning environment that comforts all students. So in reality, we have no choice but to work harder than the students. We have to so that they will learn to work hard too. After all, they are their to learn.

As far as the movie situation goes, I agree that the movies should be education or at least relate to the topic of class. It may not always be the most interesting movie, but it is relevant. Yes, everyone checks out the day before a school break, but just like you said, if we are going to be here, we might as well make it worth it.

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