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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?

Was this useful? (1)

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (51) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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

[quote] "I know more than you so you should listen" type teacher. [/quote]

This is no different than being the proper parent, who often has to remind disrespectful kids who's the authority figure. I find that in today's society, too many kids think they are on the same plane as adults without having any record of life achievement or having paid their dues. This the residue of the post-Dr. Spock/post-Purple dinosaur obsession with building self-esteem. What's happened is that too many kids have far too high an opinion of themselves and think they can take on adults morally and intellectually.
When they hear the word "no" in the classroom they have difficulty handling it.

Ashley Cannington's picture

I agree with your 7 characteristics of a master teacher, but think that you are missing one important characteristic that is essential to any teacher in any context. Self-reflection, in my opinion, is at the very heart of good teaching and I think this is a characteristic that should be included in what defines a "master teacher.

I have also read the article titled Never Work Harder Than Your Students, and think that it brings up a valid point when stating that students get bored when teachers hand them a cookie cutter presentation that they have probably spent hours developing. Instead, I argue that students should create their own knowledge and be in charge of their own learning in the classroom. I am an advocate that, in situations where it allows, teachers should act as facilitators while students engage in meaningful learning practices. Now, I'm not saying that teachers shouldn't ever present students with information, but I do think that we have reached a point where the information we present students should be innovative and engaging. Students who are engaged are more likely to internalize content. I am an avid believer that teachers, in some aspects, should be entertainers; drawing students' interests into their content and making it personally relevant to their lives.

sryan's picture

Which states offer "permanent certification"? I have never heard of this.

[quote]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.[/quote]Which states offer "perm

Ryan Siegle's picture

While I understand where this blog is coming from, I also understand the context in which the book states teachers should never work harder than their students. I look at this statement with a wider perspective that while ultimately, yes, teachers do and must work harder than their students throughout preparation, instruction, and reflection, teachers must not work to the level that they are doing everything while the student sits passively to the side. Master teachers would agree that there needs to a be a level of trust that goes beyond words. Students must feel like they are respected enough to be vulnerable. This in turn drives learning. This learning drives motivation and this motivation drives a desire to grow. A master teacher get their students feeling like they are working harder than the teacher because they want to better themselves. Students become intrinsically motivated.

This makes me wonder, how do master teachers get to the point when they are able to guide students to such a level of learning depth? Can all teachers get to this level?

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

[quote] I also understand the context in which the book states teachers should never work harder than their students. [/quote]

The day that an adult isn't working harder than the kids the are in charge of is the day that adult should turn over their responsibilities to a more capable adult.

Why in the world are adults looking for ways not to work hard? What a sad commentary on our society. The traditional American work ethic is dying. Our ancestors would be ashamed of how it is deteriorating.

Adam's picture

Great post! Your insight, I believe is right on. Teachers should always work harder than their students. If a teacher does not want to work harder than their students and just want to sit back and cost, I say find another job. I know that if or when the day comes that I do not feel the urge to teach students then I will lead myself out to pasture and find something else to fill my time. My thoughts are that a teacher must constantly work and struggle to find new ways to reach students. Some people are better than others at being spontaneous and being able to adjust on the fly with new methods, while the rest have to plan and plan some more to keep up with their students. I would like to know how many programs out there make teachers aware of this aspect of teaching? Too many teachers seem to get into teaching for vacation time and think that it is a more advanced form of babysitting. I am not saying all teachers are this way and I am not saying it is a large percentage. I am just saying I think one teacher that thinks this way is one too many.

nnnjjjbbb - 626611's picture

To know what a master teacher is, it requires you to be able to acknowledge who a master teacher is. I'm, now, providing the means for learning knowledge from the perspective of the master of the Fine Art form of painting and the athletic discipline of Tennis. I'm providing a unique opportunity to learn relevant knowledge, relative to two relevant disciplines.
If you don't have a reference to the masters of either of these two disciplines, and would like to begin to learn it and know it, let me know.

James Rolle's picture

"copyright allows the use of less than ten minutes of a movie to be shown for educational purposes" This is inaccurate. Copyright law says nothing about fair use, and fair use is a doctrine that does not define how much of work you can use.

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

Thanks for your comment, James! It's very common for educators to be confused about how copyright and fair use are connected and what each actually means. In fact, I wrote a blog post with a playlist of videos and resources intended to help teachers sort out this complicated stuff last year -- check it out here:

Five-Minute Film Festival: Copyright and Fair Use for Educators

Stanford's Copyright & Fair Use resources are also fabulous:

Hope that helps anyone who is confused about this complex issue!

mistacey75's picture

I feel like the author spent too much time on the issue of movies and the concern of lazy teachers. I think that it is okay to sit back with your class once a semester and make connections. I use these days to have thorough conferences, skill checks, etc... with my students. Trust me, no teacher out there is simply putting in a movie and sitting back relaxing! I feel that this article implies that teachers by nature are lazy! I have taught for 7 years and have yet to come across a lazy or uncaring teacher. I think with the high demands, long hours, and even higher is okay to have a de-stress day with the kids. Just FYI usually these days are days after conferences where we have had a full day of school, went straight into conferences and worked a 13 hour day. We are human and once in a while a day less of planning (but still using time productively) helps!

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