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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

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

Kristine Walker's picture

I use films to help students understand the literature we study better, and I always have. In our province, the curriculum now defines 'text' and articulates what it means to be a critical reader AND viewer. To flippantly dismiss viewing movies as a waste of time is smug. We should not beat ourselves up because we show a film or pretend we are martyrs because we work harder than students.
This is silliness.

Making a Difference's picture

Apologies if I seem off-topic, just as the administrators who make evaluations and judgments regarding teacher performance based on 4-6 lesson observations, we can see what happens when we form judgments based on limited information. We tend to become self-righteous and finger pointers. I'm cynical because I live in Ohio, and the leaders of our state just passed legislation directly influencing how teachers work and what they are paid.
Just like the use of media in the classroom, there are strong and weak educational purposes behind its use. A master teacher has to work harder than the students. The preparation, diagnosing, and discovering or developing strategies that move students from the comfortable acquired knowledge, to a more demanding task requires a high degree of trust (student with their teacher) and a master teacher that is willing to devote the time to meet these challenges; this learning is the most critical thoughtful work that a master teacher can do for her learners.
My worry is that administrators/evaluators will not be trained to recognize the difference between a teacher who wastes time, yet "shows" tricks and gimmicks, from the master teacher who works harder than his/her learners, instead of wasting time.

englishteacher1205's picture

I hate that this article turned into a movie-bashing segment. Ben Johnson is really onto something that I wish my district would evaluate. Many administrators and most politicians do not know how to effectively critique and question text - in whatever form it's given. Johnson obviously does when he questions and argues with the idea that master teachers somehow have a classroom of hardworking students without the teacher working even harder.

I do, however, take issue with lumping all teachers who show movies into the same category, and that is exactly what will happen with powers that be entertain this anti-movie idea. Macbeth, for example, is much too dfficult for my students to grasp through class study and activities - or even clips alont. We read two act of the play and then watch the play for better understanding,not only of the play, but also of the changes that Hollywood, or Foldgers Theater decides to bring to the play in the interest of our current culture. More often than not, because I know that students sign out the day before vacation anyway, I PURPOSFULLY PLAN to show the final acts the day before a break. This way the students are still learning. Never forget that we must adapt and change with the times and this generation of students are highly visual.

I will agree that I have a hard time seeing where movies in a math class, for instance, can be linked to an effective lesson plan, but I know that many teachers could possibly use this mode of education as effectively as I utilize Foldgrs Theater versions of Shakespearean plays. For example, a student struggling with math - or school in general who watches a movie in which the protagonist makes a believeable life-long change from having given the subject a chance might be the thing that creates intrinsic motivation for the child to give the teacher another chance at teaching math concepts.

Although movies are an important topic that should be addressed - and defended I agree that many need to be educated on how to effectively use movies in the classroom, I wish the conversation could turn to the more important picture. Students must take ownership of their education and master teachers know how to make that happen. Having students who are living in areas of high poverty, and having students whose parents can give them all of the benefits in the world take a new look at owning their own education takes a lot more work than than many students know how to give. It takes a team of caring, master teachers who know how to build relationships to make that happen - and those teachers do work harder than their students. If they don't, they'll lose them.

We are making a difference. We need to unite to make a larger difference.

Twangmeister's picture
Survivor of LA Unified

Sorry, but the valid points about master teachers are obscured when the piece turns into a rant about using movies in class. If this had been turned in by a student I'd send it back for revision for going totally off-topic. One would think, ipso facto, that a "master teacher" knows when/where to utilize media appropriately to meet the needs of the students and the standards of the course. The fact that the author is a consultant on the use of technology gives immediate insight into the author's point of view. Also (and it may be a quibble), will professional writers PLEASE refrain form using "they" when referring to a singular antecedent. To wit: "Of course a master teacher is working harder than the students, or they would not be considered a master teacher." My rant over.

Lawrence Adler's picture

I haven't read Robyn Jackson's book, but have often discussed "not working harder than your students" with fellow educators. This comes with another slant on "master teaching." In classes that I have observed, the most "effective" (let's eschew "master") teachers appear to work less intensely than their students in making everything seem effortless. The intense work is in the preparation- being able to visualize what students will do in the coming class, and what the learning outcomes will be.

Maria's picture

I am exhausted from the amount of work I do the entire school year, and I expect my students to work hard, as well. I have no idea where your children go to school or where you work, but I know of no teacher who would show a movie without it supporting curriculum -on any day of the school year. It would not be tolerated in our school district. As an English teacher, there is good reason to support literature with showing movies. The movies that relate to text are wonderful for English Language Learners and anyone with a processing problem with reading. It inspires and motivates students to read good literature.
I'm not sure what a "Master Teacher" is because as far as I'm concerned, teachers are constantly honing their craft and I don't see how they reach that mastery completely. I think then, that the most important factor is that teachers care enough to work toward mastery. If I were to list qualities, caring would be at the top of my list.

Paula M. Kirifides's picture

I sometimes tell my students I expect them to work harder than I do. They know what I mean: I am not going to stand in front of the class and tell them what to think. In my room, kids read, write, think constantly, while I walk around and question, prod, applaud. They are working harder than I am. Did I work a lot harder before class to develop involving lessons? You bet! I show movie's and movie clips, too, because I expect them to be able to analyze a film as well as I expect them to be able to analyze a novel. Both lists of traits of a master teacher are good ones. This author is trivializing another professional's work unnecessarily.

Leland B. Nicholson's picture

I believe that the comment about not working harder than your students relates to making sure that students are doing the thinking, creating, problem solving, extrapolation, etc. vs. having the teacher do all of this for them in "teacher directed" mode. I currently have some high school AP students who are at the top of their classes. It amazes me that they are more focused on parroting back the correct memorized answer than they are understanding the meanings or applications behind the topics at hand. In other words, someone has done all of the hard thinking for them in the past, and they expect this to continue. Such "learning" is a disservice to students in the long run, and the book's author is trying to help us avoid the mistake of providing all of the answers -- even if this sometimes makes us feel really good about giving one of the world's best speeches about subject x.

Regarding the use of movies, it would be wonderful if students could become as exited about math and science as they are about entertainment, CSI, and sports. Maybe we should use even more short movies to make sure that our subjects are relevant to students' interests -- especially in math. So few students want to become engineers, doctors, scientists, economists, accountants and IT professionals! Have we spent enough time selling our students on the relevance, exciting careers, and financial rewards associated with our subjects? While I don't condone wasting a day on Nemo, I think we need to take the "establish a reason to learn" ideal very much to heart.

Randi Brennon's picture

I think it's great to challenge the quick sayings we come across and re-think what we mean when we say them. I can see "not working harder than the students" as making sure the kids are showing up and actively learning, not watching the Master Teacher Show. I can also see the phrase as shifting the focus of what teaching really is. Looking at it from both sides helps me to look at my own teaching, make sure my efforts are visible and getting the returns I want, and readjust as necessary. Thanks for the opportunity for a good think!

John Middleton's picture

You are correct when you say it is inexcusable to show films instead of teaching. You are wrong, however, to imply that full films cannot be shown as part of the curriculum. I teach a class called Film Arts, in which the entire curriculum consists of cinematic study, and I show full-length films in my Language Arts courses and use them to meet Listening and Speaking standards and to integrate VAPA/Visual Arts, VAPA/Theatre, and CTE standards (two of my classes are Arts, Media and Entertainment specific). Showing "10 minutes of a film" and expecting thorough analysis is akin to reading one scene of a Shakespeare play and expecting students to understand the play in its entirety. What you suggest is a meaningful exercise, but it does not lend itself to complete learning.

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