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Six Steps to Master Teaching: Becoming a Reflective Practitioner

Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute
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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.

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Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Cary Mallon's picture
Cary Mallon
high school math teacher Hood River OR

I loved this. I'll refer to it often. I'm glad you included the sixth step. It's often overlooked. That and the notion that when you interact with students and parents in the community, you're still a teacher.

Marian Desrosiers's picture

Dear Peg,
I enjoyed your article! I was reading my NBPT newsletter and came across your work. It is so good to hear of your new activities.

I am still on the Cape. I would love to sit down for coffee with you some day this spring!

Robert Butler's picture
Robert Butler
From a support employees perspective

Thank you for this article. I read it from a support employees perspective and feel all of the same qualities needed by the teacher are also needed by them that support the classroom. Daily asking yourself am I getting stale or too comfortable in my role will challenge you to staying current and relevant.

Carrie Deahl's picture
Carrie Deahl
High School English teacher from Phoenix, Arizona.

Thanks for your sound advice. I love that #1 is: Understand Your Reasons for Teaching and the activity you suggest with this. I plan to do some reflection before I begin working on National Board Certification in February. A colleague of mine has a bulletin board in her classroom that reads: Why I Teach with pictures of current and former students, pictures with colleagues, etc. I'm in the process of creating my own, and I can add my reflection to it as well. I think it's important for our students to know that many of us became teachers because we were inspired by great teachers.

One thing I'd like to suggest to your list of 6 is: Make the Time Count. Whether it's five minutes to write a quick reflection about something that worked, something that didn't, a practice that needs refinement, or connecting with a student, I think we're often so busy in our practice that we forget the simplicity and importance of simply taking the time to reflect.

Or, make the time to "play" with students. On those days we finish up a little early (or, recently during a lockdown), I play a round of Uno with some of my students. Not only do they get to see my competitive side, I get to know a different side as well. From my subtle, humble students to those who are just as competitive as I, we always seem to have a great time.

And, finally, make the time for professional development that best suits your needs and who you are as a teacher. One of your strongest points is finding PD that's outside of one's district (or state). While I can't get PD hours for this, I've maintained a positive relationship with former district consultants. This has provided me some unique opportunities. Their continued support has allowed me to re-think how I want to really push my practice, share it with others, and build relationships along the way.

Again, thanks for a great read!


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