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.