What is a Master Teacher and How Do You Become One?

Master teacher
Master teachers develop over years of practice and reflection.

Exemplary Teachers is a topic we grad students are writing about this weekend, and exemplary as a term is certainly complicated, especially since it’s used as part of State Board of Ed accountability standards for schools. The term I usually hear about individual teachers in my building  is “Master Teacher.”

These folks tend to be characterized as strong managers, firmly in grasp of curriculum and instruction, and unusually empathetic toward students. Each one of them presumably started out as a young teacher surveying his or her classroom and the relative chaos that tends to exist in that first year, and worked hard to develop the three areas of skill: management, curriculum, and empathy. Classroom management will come to most who earnestly seek it, born out of the teacher’s desire to implement the curriculum that appears necessary but which can not be effectively taught without routines and procedures.

At some point in every young teacher’s development, he or she will “hit the wall:” The student or students cannot or will not do what is expected. At that point, the teacher faces a choice: either blame the student or change the teaching approach.  Perhaps this is where the master teacher is truly born.

When we decide to change our approach, it almost always involves the way the student is spoken to. The idea of how adult speech drives childhood development is familiar to me. As a young mother, I read about how children develop cognitively. An older friend emphasized to me the importance of honoring young children’s feelings as a way of helping them cope with life difficulties of all types. It’s important to listen closely and fully and respond with interest, especially when a child perceives there is a problem. In the classroom, remembering to use this skill with the children who need it most is difficult and it is something I can work on. Because, ironically but perhaps naturally, the students who deeply need this practice are the hardest ones  to apply it to. As I was taught in my alternative certification course,  “we will be judged  not by the students who are highest-achieving, but by what we did with those who struggle most.”

The Master Teacher can teach the difficult students well.  In my mind, it’s almost that simple.

6 thoughts on “What is a Master Teacher and How Do You Become One?”

  1. Interloper here, adjunct mathematics professor at the university. But …

    … I cannot help observing that a key part of your message here is … approximately … “respect the student.”

    Fromm teaches that “love” means respect, understanding; also care and responsibility. The teacher works to connect with the student, and then also may take action or at least monitor, as needed. The thoughts and feelings of a student are not assumed or reduced or overlooked.

    Er, but back to mathematics (and back to a little more off-target, university teaching) … but I was struck, when I was younger, that under “Guiding Principles,” the great Steven Krantz once wrote

    1.1 Respect

    and then

    1.2 More about Respect

    His thoughts on the matter are avail on “Look Inside” at Amazon.com fwiw. [link below]

    My “micro” version was always: you had better respect the math; you better have some fair self-respect; and above all, you better BELIEVE that it matters if THESE kids learn THAT math.

    If Possible.

    Otherwise what are we doing here?? And your attitude will be highly contagious, transmitted to the kids.

    And thank you for another fine piece ! I will ponder the three-point plan of “curriculum, management, empathy” …

    (*) And most importantly … but yes, blame the student? maybe. Okay sometimes the student is letting the class down. They could do better.

    But : that is not the end of the analysis. Even if so: Is there some way I can teach better? Is there anything we could do as a group which would help? … What about the design, the lesson plan … the curriculum …

    … Any room for improvement?

    Good teachers keep getting better.

    — Alex


    1. Thanks for your excellent thoughts. Respect. And then more respect. I looked at the book, it appears to be a gem. Would it be relevant to teaching math in first grade?

      I like this part you wrote very much:

      “My “micro” version was always: you had better respect the math; you better have some fair self-respect; and above all, you better BELIEVE that it matters if THESE kids learn THAT math.”

  2. Another perceptive piece, Sonja. I have actually come to prefer the “difficult” students. For if you can win them over, the allegiance and enthusiasm they can express is unbounded. I frankly find too many of my honors students jaded and/or entitled. Give me the knuckleheads any day. I’ll have them transfixed by a great book in spite of themselves!

    1. You know there is an arrogance in some intelligent children, but I try to be patient and loving to them too … because I know that was totally me and I didn’t get a lot of love from my teachers. I have one student this year, he’s super-GT and he’s a handful. Basically he just wants attention and I give him as much as possible. But in general I give my best efforts to those most at risk.

      1. Coming back again — the truth is, GT’s can be some of the students most at risk. We tend to forget that.

        1. Very true. I guess it all comes back to your point of being attuned enough to every child that you can attend to their (often ever changing) needs. We can’t do it all, but it does make a huge impact when a kid knows that you truly see and hear them. It’s a start…

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