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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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Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA


Jackson's book was one of my favorites because she describes ways to avoid what many teachers do---not expecting enough of their students and essentially doing the learning for them. I suggest you give it a chance!

As for the idea of a Master Teacher, the term is one of my least favorites. Calling someone a 'Master' suggests that they have learned all that they can and have reached their peak and have no room for growth. I would use the word 'exemplary' rather than master.

I think an exemplary teacher builds learning experiences based around how the brain learns and based on his or her understanding of his or her students as learners and individuals. He or she also, as you state, gives good feedback and foster an environment for learning.

In your example, an exemplary teacher would have watched the film a number of times and would know exactly what s/he wanted his or students to glean from the movie and how he or she would lead them down that path.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

Brendan Murphy's picture

When I worked summer camp many years ago we would always take the kids on an overnight camping trip in the woods. When packing to go on these trips I would always take the heaviest pack, water, food, first aid kits, big tent. When we got to camp I took the lead in setting up camp. Building the tent, clearing out the fire pit, and generally working my butt off. By 9 o'clock I was dog tired while my kids were bouncing off the walls and usually trying to burn the entire forest down.

Then someone told me I was doing it all wrong. Let the kids carry the heavy packs, nothing in mine but first aid kit and my own personal stuff. When we get to the camp site I should delegate all the jobs to the kids and make sure they are done right. I know how to do all this stuff I should let them learn.

Teaching is the same way. I know how to do the math, I need to let the kids do it. Do I learn along with my kids? You betcha. I learn how they think and see the world. I learn how to ask questions. I learn where to look when observing students. I learn what examples are useful and which give away the answers.

I do a lot more work than my students before class in preparation and after class in reflection, but during class it's usually best if I do as little as possible, at least as far as math is concerned.

Vicki Caruana's picture

A master teacher is a teacher who has already successfully completed the apprentice level and the journeyman level. The teacher whose reputation follows him or her to each teaching assignment. The one other teachers voluntarily seek out for advice (not whining) and the one who is always on the hunt for new and better ways to meet the needs of the children in their charge. The master teacher is the one whose name comes to mind when you ask "Who is an effective teacher at your school?"

dnbailey's picture
High School Visual Arts from Kingsport, TN

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

Debra Nign's picture

I love your list of 7: create, establish, train, inspire,establish, check, and celebrate. I am not completely convinced that all movie showing is lazy and bad. There are bad movies and wasting of time, or should I say filling of time. I did a field experience in a class where a film was shown that was so old most of it was squigly lines running through the picture. I could not concentrate on the historical story as an adult, and I know the 2nd grade students had to be horrified if they were even awake. I was embarrassed for the teacher. I think though that professionals in particular fields may be the best to explain or act out their expertise.

Sandra Litzenberger's picture

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.

Making a Difference's picture

An incredible amount of research and practice has led us to the attributes that define a master teacher. However it seems, less study and observation has been given to how an "administrator/principal" can "accommodate" the abilities and talent of master teachers without showing signs of sabotage or insecurity. Given the legislation passed in Wisconsin, Ohio, and soon, Tennessee, there will be administrators who need the exceptional training and guidance, in a hurry; as master teachers evaluated by individuals who may or may not possess and recognize the characteristics of a masterful teacher. As it stands, at least one of these talented teachers has been harassed as a result of under-learned leadership.

Lov2Teach's picture

great post. Love the idea that we need to respect the students' time. The first comment below strikes me as off topic -- needs a thumb down vote.

Jacque Verrall's picture

I have to agree---nothing more irritating, as a teacher or parent, than seeing students spend an inordinate amount of time watching movies. This last week before spring break, I had 5 students who missed 3 or more days in order to begin their break earlier....I refuse to change my schedule of learning because some families choose to pull children out early....and I am not going to not start new material just because it's close to the break. I think this is what has caused many parents to think it's okay to pull kids out early, "because you're not doing anything anyway, right?"...WRONG! We should continue our normal schedule and students who are gone will have to get assignments from peers when they return or take zeros.

Now, that said, I do show some excellent Scholastic dvd's that print the words to stories underneath and light up each word as it's read--I use this as yet another dose of Listening Center time. But...I do this at lunch time. This is the best time to show a dvd or video to kindergartners and I limit it to just about 10 minutes so that they also have some time to just eat and socialize. The old Electric Company is also very good to show them--this time of year my kindergartners are reading everything that comes on the screen.

There are responsible ways to use dvds and videos. I think one needs to keep in mind, "what is the affect on student learning" when showing one...I don't want to waste a single minute of their time or mine.

P.S. I have copyright approval

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