What Makes a Master Teacher

The term “master teacher” seems to get thrown around a lot, but is something that many educators aspire to be. In my ten years in the field of education, I would say that the definition of “master teacher” has definitely changed. When I think of a master teacher, here are the qualities that I would suggest they have:

1. Connects with kids first -For all students to excel, teachers must learn about them and connect with each child.  This is not just about finding out how they learn, but it is finding out who they are.  It is essential that we get to know our students, learn their passions, and help them find out how we can engage them in their own learning.  If you are not able to do this as a teacher, the following characteristics will be moot,

2. Teaches kids first and curriculum second – Teachers must ensure that they differentiate learning and work to meet the needs of each student and understand how they each learn.  I believe that students have different learning styles and if we can best figure out how to help them meet their own needs, students will excel in the subject areas we teach.

3. Ensures that they draw relevance to curriculum – The question, “What does this have to do with real life?”, is something that I would prefer never be said in a classroom.  Not because it is not a legitimate question, but because teachers should show the relevance before there is an opportunity for it to be asked.  As we are obligated to teach curriculum objectives outlined by our government officials, this is something that must be done.  It is not always an easy part of the job but it is something we much continuously strive to do.

Not only is it essential that we draw relevance to the subject matter of what we teach, but it is also essential that we use mediums that are relevant to how students learn.  Disconnecting from devices that WE use as adults and kids use all the time the minute students walk into school is wrong.  A master teachers knows that it is essential  to use technology in the classroom to enhance learning in a way that is relevant to students.

4. Works with students to develop a love of learning – We are obligated to teach curriculum objectives but we are also obligated in our profession to help students find their own spark in learning.  Why do I write this blog?  It is my way of connecting with others and reflecting on my own learning.  It is a way that I choose to share and learn with others.  There is no pay or compensation that I receive from this.  A master teacher will try to tap into those ways that students love to learn and build upon that.  Creating that spark in each student will lead them to continued success and growth.

5. Embodies lifelong learning – A master teacher knows that they will never become the “perfect” teacher since that is unattainable.  They will look at ways that they can grow along with students and develop their own skills.  Education and learning will always change and a master teacher knows that they need to change with it.  I have seen teachers that have proclaimed that they are master teachers but have not changed their practice in years.  Growth is essential as a teacher.  Society changes continuously and so do its needs.  We need thinkers in our workplace and teachers must show that they are on the leading edge of this.

6. Focuses on learning goals as opposed to performance goals – Reading “Drive” by Dan Pink, he talks about the difference between performance and learning goals.  A performance goal would be similar to having students wanting to receive an “A” in french where a learning goal would be a student wanting to become fluent in the language.  Many students are smart enough that they know how to meet the objectives of a rubric and still not grow much in their learning.  A master teacher sets the goals based on learning not on receiving a grade.  This type of assessment is not about understanding what a students knows and reporting on it, but it is a tool used for learning.

7.  Ensures that “character education” is an essential part of learning – Character education is just as relevant, if not more so, than any learning objectives set out in a curriculum.  We live in a world where collaboration is vital to success and working with others is an important skill.  Working with students to teach the fundamentals of respecting others and being able to listen and learn from others is vital.  Students can have the smartest understanding of objectives but not have the ability to share these ideas with others in a respectful way or take the time to listen to other ideas.  A master teacher ensures that students not only grow mentally in class, but also emotionally.

8.  Passionate about the content they teach – If a teacher works in the area of math and LOVES the subject area, that passion will spill over to the students he/she works with.  As an administrator, I work hard to help teachers work in subject areas that they are passionate about because I believe that enthusiasm is infectious. A master teacher shares their passion and enthusiasm with those they work with.  However, if you are a teacher in an area that you do not “love”, it is important that you find ways to spark that passion for yourself.

(UPDATE: Reading through the comments I feel that I had to add a couple of characteristics to my list.)

9.  A master teacher is a “school teacher” - I often talk with people about the difference between a classroom teacher versus a “school teacher”.  It is essential that a master teacher does not only impact the learning environments of the class that they work with, but that they also have an impact on the school culture.  This can happen in sharing their passion through extracurricular activities or their knowledge on strong teaching strategies with school colleagues.  It is important that teachers do not just build connections with students that they teach now, but with students they had in the past or may have in the future.  It is great to see teachers that connect with kids that they do not teach at the time leading to enthusiasm for that student to one day be in that very same teacher’s class.

10. Strong communication skills - Obviously it is important that teachers are able to communicate with the students they teach, but what about their colleagues and parents?  Sharing knowledge, back and forth with colleagues is essential to the growth of the individual as well as the collective.  It is important that these skills are continuously developed.  It is also imperative that you are able to effectively communicate with parents as they have great insights on how their child learns best.  I have learned more and more as an educator the valuable learning that can come from communicating with parents and how important they are to the development of the school and class culture.  A master teacher will effectively draw upon this knowledge.

These are the characteristics that I believe make a master teacher.  I definitely know that as an administrator these are ideals as a teacher leader that I work towards everyday and want to embody.  The one thing that I do know is that my learning is nowhere near complete and I can still grow.  Learning from you, what areas do you think I missed on this list?  I would love to hear your thoughts as I continue to grow.

86 thoughts on “What Makes a Master Teacher

  1. angie

    I love this post. In my district master teacher literally means a teacher with a master's degree. I really like how you included character education. I think that is one area that we really overlook. Teaching is difficult, but the rewards when a student loves to learn, develops into an upstanding citizen, and shows passion for what they learn you, far out weighs the time and energy a teach puts into helping that kid get to that level.

  2. Lesley Edwards

    You've captured the essence of what a master teacher is. I'd add possessing a sense of humour and knowing what really matters and what to let slide. To me a master teacher is also a master communicator with students and colleagues alike.

    1. georgecouros

      I agree with both of your statements. A sense of humour is key to connecting with many and communication with others that you work with is essential. A master teacher can definitely mentor others and would need communication skills for this.

  3. Bonita DeAmicis

    Love this list. I especially like your #1 being about relationships with the students. Factory-business models of schooling seem to forget that schools are a human endeavor and as such emotions (passion) and relationships are key to their success.

    I would add that I want my master teachers to feel a connection to all students of the school and as such work as a team with other teachers to improve learning opportunities across the school. I believe master teachers need to move away from being stand-alone heroes and move into the Professional Learning Community mode.

    # 6 did you mean focus on learning instead of performance goals?

    :)Bonita

  4. georgecouros

    Thanks Bonita! I changed that:)

    Definitely think that connecting with staff is one that I should have put on the list. The best place to learn is with the colleagues that are in the same building and understand the dynamics of those you work with.

  5. Joan Young (@flouris

    Once again you have inspired me to reflect on my teaching to ensure that I strive to be the best teacher I can be. Teaching is an incredibly journey of non-stop learning and it is affirming when leaders validate the myriad of key qualities a teacher must possess to be successful. Your list is very thorough and highlights where our priorities need to be! One thing I also think is key is that master teachers take time to mentor new teachers or peers who need support. Many teachers I work with don't want to have an intern or student teacher because it's so much work, but it's important for us to share our experiences and grow ourselves through supporting each other. Thanks!

    1. georgecouros

      Thanks Joan! If you can connect to one person then you definitely can start to be successful. I agree that we need to take time to mentor newer teachers, especially since it is easy to fall in the trap of teaching how many of us liked being taught. It is important that we differentiate learning to meet the needs of individuals, not just use the overall best technique. Thanks for the comment :)

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    1. Lorraine Richardson

      Effective teaching is complicated. As an instructional and literacy coach, I have watched teachers who were masters of the content and were intellectual fire houses unable to connect with students. As we build a new educational civilization to move students to succeed in a global economy, teachers must change. I would love to see teachers move from the "sage on stage" and the "sole arbiter of excellence" roles. Every time I see classrooms with desks lined up to face the teacher (sage on state, etc) I cringe and think: This teacher is still preparing students for a life in the factory or for the repetitive task of office work – obey and don't challenge authority. 21st century teachers encourage maverick thinking, marching to a different drummer, and risk taking.

  7. Eddie (thompseg) on

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. It's nice to know there are still educators who love to be in the classroom,love learning and love kids. I look forward to learning from you on Twitter. God Bless!

  8. Sweetie Berry

    A Master teacher also understands that the desire to learn is a part of the human spirit, and that when broken, is important to be re-ignited again. That learners who have impairments and learning differences are still dependent upon the ability to learn and grasp to survive. That regardless of home life, race, or culture that every learner before them in the classroom is a gift, a mind to be nurtured, loved, and equipped with the ability to learn and to challenge until they are able to evaluate learning independently in their lives. To encourage the profession by example and by intentional teaching of other teachers, to truly work with administration to improve the "big pictures" not just their own classroom.
    Your definition is so very encouraging..and it is where my heart lives.

    Sweetie Berry

    1. georgecouros

      I love your comment. I think that a being a "school teacher" vs. "classroom teacher" is huge. Teacher leaders can impact the culture of the school in a positive way and they should take that opportunity whenever possible. Eventually you are going to have different students in your classroom so why not connect with them earlier?

      Thanks or your comment :)

  9. Alan Stange

    I have been pondering what it is to be a master teacher this school year. This should always be in the back of our minds as practitioners, but it is particularly important to me this year because this is a year when I need to reflect about my practice with the help of my administrators. Embodying life long learning is much on my mind. As Couros points out, mastery of teaching does not equate to perfection. Like all of us, I feel angst about my failures and struggle for professional growth. This drives my desire for connections. I listen and learn from the stream of my growing professional network. I am humbled by the clarity of thought around me. Thanks to contemporary networking, I own my learning.

    Much of what you have said here focuses on the primacy of our relationship with the young people we teach and learn from. You did address differentiation but I think a stronger statement about what tools a master teacher must be able to bring to the learning moment might be helpful. A master teacher can critically reflect on the efficacy of varied learning strategies, adopt and and adapt.

    Because I know it is one of my greatest weaknesses as a teacher, I think communication needs to be broadened to include the other stakeholders in a child's learning. A master teacher attends to when communication will be effective and when discretion or confidentiality is warranted.

    Despite the discourse I hear on democratic education, I think master teachers must be able to foster self discipline in their learners and this may include unreflected compliance in younger people. This remains a key to providing an environment where students can engage in connected learning.

    Finally, I think there have been shifts in what we want in a master teacher. Today's master teachers need to exemplify the teacher's modified role in learning. This is more than simply applying a different strategy in the classroom. This is a dramatic shift in power. Others speak about it better than I do, so I will leave someone else to comment.

    Thanks for sharing your list. It will find its way into my digital portfolio in some way.

    1. georgecouros

      Thanks for your comments again Alan. You are always reflective in the way you speak which ultimately leads to improved practice. I agree that differentiation is an essential part of practice and we must really understands what that looks like. Does it mean just giving different forms of assessment or is it totally different learning practices at all times? There is an element of adaptation that all of us must encounter as teachers so just doing things "our way" does not always work. Do we sometimes have to have students do things our way or should it always be to what suits them best? I am still reflecting and learning on this.

      Thanks for your comments!

  10. Christopher D. Sessu

    Another item you might consider adding:

    A master teacher is one who takes full responsibility for ensuring a child's educational needs are being met. Teachers who say that a student's educational achievement is their personal responsibility (Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997) outscore and outshine teachers who say a student's achievement is the student's responsibility. While anecdotal evidence suggests that a student's achievement level is associated with the student, parent, teacher, socioeconmic conditions, etc., the reality is the teacher has to take on the majority of the responsibility for creating conditions for student academic success.

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  12. Larry @fliegs

    While it may sound almost too basic, I would add to the first quality an obvious joy of working with children. I have heard about far too many teachers who act as if they do not like the children.

    Thank you for this great post.

    1. georgecouros

      That is definitely something that is needed. If you are not passionate about those you work with, then how could you ever be a master? Thanks for your comment!

  13. Mark Walker

    When I first read the title – master teacher – I half choked. Please don't take offense I have been teaching for over 35 years and a principal for the last 15 and don't think I have mastered it [teaching or principalship] yet.

    Your description of the qualities of a teacher are to be admired – even aspirational. What I have come to learn is that our skills and capacities vary depending upon the context in we we teach or find ourselves in.

    What perhaps doesn't change is what comes within ourselves as teachers as educators – our values. A much quoted saying is that "teaching comes from within".

    Sometimes the word master implies – knows all – rather like a master of a ship or in this case a discipline.

    In our system in Victoria the closest thing we have to "Master Teachers" is a promotional title called "Leading Teachers". The one quality I look for first when employing leading teachers is your life long learners. It's in many ways like Roland Barth said of principals as the "lead learners".

  14. David

    I really think all your points are valid BUT they don't mean a thing unless you deal with the set of beliefs and values a teacher espouses. this is the bottom , thick liquid which gives all else its taste.

    What I mean is — what's missing is that a teacher not espouse any specific ideology or value set. This is the primary – a questioning and critical attitude to ALL – a la Socrates. Without this, a "master" teacher could have all your criteria in spades but fall well short IMHO.

    But very insightful stuff and I thank you for it.

    David

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  17. Deb Finney

    As I currently teach all of the students in three buildings, I had not thought much about the fact that others interact with students who are not their students. I teach them all and have joy in that, knowing each child, but a struggle to get to know them well in only 50 minutes a week. I want to know each child, to understand their needs. I think I feel like I know them at the end of six years with them, at the end of fifth grade. I once added up that I see a child in a quarter of the school year approximately the equivalent to one day of school. The students need time with me to get acquainted with the world of art, and have hands on creative time creating with clay, paint, drawing materials, paper mache, and other media. The subject I teach spans the globe for the entire history of man. Human's first record of being here is known through art. I need to teach them a huge subject area in a short time. I feel that even during the 11 years I have been here students increasingly come to school less and less connected to their creative side of their brain. They need opportunities to use art materials and most seldom get that in their homes. There is a huge difference between playing a video game which someone else created and creating something oneself. I hope to inspire of love of learning and a love of creating. And still I am learning, always learning.

    1. georgecouros

      Hey Deb…I totally agree with you about connecting to the creative side of the brain. You may enjoy reading "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel Pink who talks in detail about the importance of society tapping into that. I appreciate that you have a short time with students, but sharing your love for the arts is a great way for them to connect with you. I think that seeing someone who has a passion for what they do helps students get to know them very quickly! Thanks for your comment on my blog :)

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      1. Val Lustgarten

        When I meet with the Lower School faculty next week, my call to action will be Presence, deeper than being present. Really investing in learning about each student, being mentally, emotionally, socially, and intellectually present. It's the only way to forge relationships. Kids can tell if you are not paying attention. Being present is paying attention.

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  22. Stephanie Dulmage

    I agree with all of your points. I also believe a master teacher takes on the role of the facilitator as opposed to always being "the teachers" and the instructional core of the classroom is focused on big ideas, driving questions, and creates activities/discussions/problems that focused on inquiry at high-levels based on Costa's Level 2 and 3 questions. Lastly, a master teacher is a life-long learner, takes risks, works toward excellence and never strays from their vision.

    1. George

      I agree with you that the teacher should be the facilitator. They should never be the "holder" of knowledge as it impedes the progress of students. Thanks for your additional thoughts! I appreciate them.

  23. Joe Stahl (@jrsteach

    Great post. The term "Master Teacher" I think gets thrown around a lot and its hard to judge/assess/observe sometimes a master teacher. I think it also depends on who makes the call. I agree these are all characteristics/qualities one must possess to be a master teacher! I think at times a person could be a master teacher and then over time can lose some of the qualities. I have seen this in my district where a teacher is a master and then over time things change and their teaching changes. Just a thought.

    Joe

    1. George

      Joe,

      Totally agree with you. 10 years ago someone could have been a master teacher, but so much has changed that if they did not continue to change with it, are they still as effective. I know that as I grow older, my initial appeal of youth to my students is wearing off, but my experience and understanding of students has grown. If I just expected that being "cool" was enough for years to come, it would have just eventually faded. Knowledge and application needs to grow as you grow as a teacher.

  24. Giselda Aparecida do

    Hi, George! I really appreciate your list and I couldn’t agree more with you. I believe that a teacher must be a “number one student”, in order to inspire the other students and what fascinates me more and more is the fact that “teaching-learning” “learning-teaching” is a continuous process and there is no end to this process because is is always the next step/ work/ insight/ which will achieve the longed-for resolution. To teach/work kids is a great opportunity that we have to re-examine our practice and the reasons for our practice because they bring to the classroom a huge amount of abilities and a great capacity for learning that we can draw on in the classroom. All these characteristics are outstanding but if I could choose one super master-teacher characteristics, I would vote for passion, because I do believe that it’s the “fuel” that motivates us as human beings in all and every simple or complex task in our lives and it enhances all the other characteristics. Thanks for sharing this list; it is very inspiring. By the way, this blog is great.

    1. George

      Passion! One of my favourite words. I absolutely think that for you to be great anything, you need to have it.

      Thanks so much for your comment :)

  25. Carmel Crevola

    George,

    I have only just come across this blog page, although I see you thru Twitter. The name 'Master Teacher' always feels uncomfortable to me. I do not have an alternate title as yet, but the work of Donald Schon and the 'Reflective Practitioner' has been a huge influence on me as an educator of some 36 years (Classroom teacher for 23, school principal, lecture at the university, researcher in teh area of literacy development and now as an international independent educational consultant). To me Schon's theory of Reflection on and on is critical to the 'master teacher' …or whatever I end up calling this category.

    The reflective practitioner – reflection-in- and –on-action

    One of Donald Schon's great contributions was to bring ‘reflection’ into the centre of an understanding of what professionals do. In the Reflective Practitioner (1983) Schon begins by attacking the ‘technical-rationality’ as the grounding of professional knowledge. Donald Schon looked to an alternative epistemology of practice ‘in which the knowledge inherent in practice is be understood as ARTFUL DOING…don't you just love that?

    The notions of reflection-in-action, and reflection-on-action were central to Donald Schon’s efforts in this area… ‘thinking on our feet’. It involves looking to our experiences, connecting with our feelings, and attending to our theories in use. It means that we are building new understandings to inform our actions in the situation that is unfolding. Is this not critical for a 'master teacher'?

    The practitioner allows her/himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique.

    She/He reflects on the phenomenon before her/him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in her/his behaviour.

    He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (Schön 1983: 68)

    Isn't this the perfect model for each and every one of our students? The end of the 'teacher knows all'!

    REFLECTION ON ACTION. This is done later – after the encounter. Teachers may write up recordings, talk things through with a lead teacher or coach or colleague and so on. For me this is a reality in what i call my FOCUS SHEETS. The act of reflecting-on-action enables us to spend time exploring why we acted as we did, what was happening in a group and so o. This is the stuff of POWERFUL PLC's…not planned and isolated PD sessions that are not followed through. In so doing we develop sets of questions and ideas about our activities and practice

    In this way we engage with a situation. We do not have a full understanding of things before we act, but, hopefully, we can avoid major problems while 'testing the water'. When looking at a situation we are influenced by, and use, what has gone before, what might come, our repertoire, and our frame of reference. This is what marie Clay (Reading Recovery fame) called 'leading from behind') We are able to draw upon certain routines. As we work we can bring fragments of memories into play and begin to build theories and responses that fit the new situation. is this not what we want our learners to do? Is this not how you become a problem solving reflective learner?

    When we take reflection in and on action together it does appear that Schon has hit upon something significant. Practitioners are able to describe how they ‘think on their feet’, and how they make use of a repertoire of images, metaphors and theories. There is a clear relationship between reflection in and on action. People draw upon the processes, experiences and understandings generated through reflection on action. In turn, things can be left and returned to. ah…now there's a thought…actually coming back to something and going deeper and deeper when we have the time to focus and reflect.

    Master Teachers teachers should be ALL teachers, but if we have to have a group…then this for me is NO ONE alongside STUDENT CENTERED.

    Thanks for the Blog

    Carmel

    We have to take certain things as read. We have to fall back on routines in which previous thought and sentiment has been sedimented. It is here that the full importance of reflection-on-action becomes revealed. As we think and act, questions arise that cannot be answered in the present. The space afforded by recording, supervision and conversation with our peers allows us to approach these. Reflection requires space in the present and the promise of space in the future. (Smith 1994: 150)

  26. Shawn

    Great list George, it sounds like most of your descriptors are pointing in one direction. That a Master teacher is a master Learner.

  27. Don Breedwell

    George,

    Thanks for reposting this. I'm in the process of becoming certified and am just about finished… this blog post was better than anything I have heard so far from the professors and read in the texts we are using. Thanks for keeping the blog cycling and for all of the input and encouragement that you offer through the social media. I have decided after 35 years as a Software Engineer that I will become a high school teacher and now I'm sure that I will use the passion that I've seen in your posts as well as others that I'm finding that there are "great" teachers and then there are "master" teachers. The latter is the one I will strive to become. Thanks again!

    Don Breedwell

    @MrDDon

  28. missmac

    I think if a teacher is not doing or trying to do the list mentioned above, then they should not be called a teacher. While on one hand I get frustrated and saddened by those who get paid to just show up each day and do crowd control, the other hand is what I actually see more of-dedicated, always improving teachers who reach kids every day. We just need to keep these goals in mind and strive to do better each day.

  29. Karen Szymusiak

    George,
    Great list of qualities of a master teacher. So many teachers exemplify this list. I would add listen, observe and learn from children. I also think a master teacher is reflective.

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  32. Jill

    You have really captured the qualities of a Master Teacher. Just as we know that defining the learning target helps our students' learning, knowing what it takes to be a Master Teacher aids us in our quest for that designation. You wisely noted that none of us will ever be perfect, but we can certainly aim for that!

    When I reflect on the years when my professional growth has gotten me closer to the mastery level, I appreciate the vision that my principal had. She placed me with colleagues who would shore up my weaknesses and allow me to bolster theirs. Opportunities for growth were offered through cross grade level committees also. I think it is imperative that the instructional leader in a school fosters these growth opportunities and consistently evaluates needs among the staff. Growth never ends with a wise leader at the helm. The closer we are to mastering our craft the better off our students will be, right?

  33. G Murray

    The terms Master Teacher and Principal were once synonymous. If the above is indeed the definition of today's Master Teacher, then the relationship between the two terms no longer exists, as this definition does not match up very well with many in school administrators in today's schools.

    An unfortunate turn of events in the evolution of education.

    1. georgecouros

      Thanks for your comment Graham…maybe the term should be Master Educator? I agree with you that the principal should also hold these same qualities.

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  40. dickvelner

    Great post. When I see teachers responding to the thoughts here, my energies are re-charged. I will continue pursuing my ideas for the Russian School of Mathematics.

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  44. Paul Huebl

    I'm a big fan of teaching the student first. It ties in so closely with #5 – learning is a social function, so the creation of a social learning environment is vital. Great post.

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  46. Maurizio Vespa

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. Point number one is critical. If teachers are unable to connect with kids then the rest becomes even more difficult. After 31 years of teaching children, one understands that "children learn teachers, before they learn subjects". The many replies to this post are just as inspiring. It is great to read the responses of passionate educators.

  47. Sam Boswell

    Insightful discussion on a hot topic – I am wary as I read, though, that defining "mastery" becomes another set of benchmarks to judge our teaching arts, and to provoke trepidation in novices. How can anyone measure up?

    As a leading learner in my school with 23 years of teaching experience, and a novice in the field of studying towards my Master's degree, I feel more comfortable with the term "master learner".

    I am on the path you advocate so clearly, but with sufficient humility to maintain a beginner's mind.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this topic (I really have been inspired by your workshop last Friday @ Hampton SHS in Perth!).

    1. Tracy Caravella

      Wow, I was energized while reading your post and agree with you 100%. I’ve been teaching for 27 years… there is sooooo much to learn. The phrase “master learner” is so appropriate for people in our profession to aspire to become and it captures the importance of having a “growth mindset”. Thank you!

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  53. Clementina

    I want to know the definition of a Master Teacher. I got one that says: a master teacher is one who demonstrates excellence inside and outside of the classroom through consistent leadership and focused collaboration to maximise student learning. Does this definition embody a master teacher?

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  55. Chris Davis

    I come come from a long line of public school teachers and have, also, been involved in the homeschooling movement for 30 years. Now I substitute teach in public schools and wonder about their future viability. Men like Ken Robinson preach treating students as individuals; yet, with the financial constraints of school systems (which necessitates standardization) I see public schooling doing little more than nibble around the edges as it tries to find a reason to exist (other than the fact that parents insist that someone else takes responsibility for their child’s education). Almost every premise on which public education rests is wrong. Students know the Emperor is naked yet no one is allowed to say so.

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