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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Six Steps to Master Teaching: Becoming a Reflective Practitioner

Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute

Becoming a master teacher takes continuous effort. To avoid the loss of enthusiasm or static practice, teachers need to focus on their own professional development. Notably, the single most significant indicator of student success is an excellent teacher; nevertheless, no one can be professionally developed without his or her consent. To remain vitalized, teachers need to spend time outside the classroom with other dedicated individuals. The educational mandates from state, federal and local legislators are not targeted at improving teaching and learning. Although many are well-intentioned initiatives to assist school success, they are not sufficient for improving teaching excellence throughout an entire professional career.

The Need for Mentors

Over the course of a lifetime, master teachers are continuously improving their craft, listening to their students, re-tailoring lessons and finding the gaps in instructional practices. The myth that some people are born teachers is simply not true. They may begin teaching with the high motive of generosity toward their students, their colleagues and themselves, but maintaining this over many years is a challenge. Without contemplation and retreat, teaching can become simply a series of lucky habits rather than a profession through which one can grow.

Think of great athletes. Many show extreme promise early in their careers; however, they depend upon other great athletes and coaches to improve their performance over time. If they find themselves at a plateau in their performance, they look for mentors to push them beyond it.

But in teaching, a promising young professional can fulfill that expectation without sufficient coaching for years. Of course, there is always teacher evaluation designed for that purpose; still, how often does it truly improve anything to do with the classroom? Even dedicated supervisors have precious little time to devote to the continuing development of teacher excellence. Teachers can be deceived by what is appealing, habitual and popular with students. Effective teaching is an acquired talent.

Professional retreats offer teachers the opportunity to dedicate time to those qualitative steps that result in ongoing development. The six steps to becoming a master teacher include:

1) Understand Your Reasons for Teaching

Identifying those who influenced you to become a teacher is a fundamental exercise in continued excellence. Almost everyone can name two or three teachers who changed the course of his or her life. Some found elementary school teachers who discovered their talent and promise. Others discovered their confidence through recognition of their potential in a specific subject. By discussing and defining the qualities of those exemplary teachers when they were students, professionals begin to define the roots of their own teaching.

2) Cultivate Ethical Behavior in Your Students and Yourself

Although many schools of discipline exist, a teacher can achieve harmony in the classroom, but the real focus of student management lies in instilling ethical behavior. Authentic responses to classroom interactions as well as logical consequences for transgressions can be improved through collegial dialogue. These cannot be found in a manual; but rather, can be cultivated in seminars and observance of other master teachers.

3) Pool Both Patience and Perseverance

Stamina and endurance are needed for the long haul of teaching. This means finding ways to remain healthy and able-minded through the stressful days. By connecting with others who have discovered methods of physical and mental renewal, teachers have a better chance of staying enthused about teaching despite the many inevitable setbacks during the school year.

4) Design Curriculum That Works

All good teaching requires excellent design and redesign, beginning with a strong curriculum that outlines the most essential ideas. Without a forum for the continuous re-tailoring of their curriculum, teachers are often left to work from a textbook or on-the-fly lesson plans. Spending time in retreat with other professionals allows teachers to lay a strong foundation for each course they teach.

5) Perfect Instructional Practices and Assessment Skills

The ongoing development of instructional methods and feedback skills are critical to excellence in teaching. Only through the careful examination of activities and assessment can a teacher guide all students to succeed. Teachers need time with their colleagues outside the classroom; the temporary success of "fun" activities can be a hindrance to the development of a master teacher. By crafting performance tasks and assessing them with their peers and mentors, teachers can refine their teaching.

6) Connect Positively to the Whole-School Culture

Over time, the master teacher has the capacity to improve the whole-school culture through excellence in teaching. Because master teaching has as its foundation the generous impulse to assist students and colleagues, the teacher is able to fundamentally influence others without generating resentment. The master teacher is consistently working to benefit the school, so he or she is not in competition with colleagues or administration.

In the end, only way to stay the course throughout one's teaching career is by discussion with great teachers who motivate, inspire and remain connected to the classroom. In the company of others, teachers can uncover the best work being done in our schools. Dedicated to their own professional development, they are capable of improving teaching and learning despite the many other mandates. This is critical to their continued enthusiasm.

Through the retreats and professional learning communities, colleagues enhance their own teaching and further the practice of others. In this way, they sustain and improve instructional practices, passing the torch of inspired teaching to others.

Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute
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