What Makes a Master Teacher


What makes a master teacherThe 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.

Building Upon Strengths

I am a HUGE believer in trying not to mold kids/people into what we expect them to be, but finding their passion and strengths and building upon that.  As a firm believer in this AND a huge dog lover (I have two of my own),  I really enjoyed the video below.  It shows me that with ANYONE  (or anything) if you find their strengths, they can do amazing things!

Note to Principals

Recently I came across a video address by Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, talking to principals at a conference in Houston.  This address was definitely for principals and to motivate them at their conference, so it is biased in the viewpoint it presents.  Definitely there are some comments that I totally agree with that were made by Mr. Duncan, and some that I would say need modification.

“Education has the power to transform lives.”

This is something that is so true and it is imperative that government leaders not only recognize this, but fund schools to ensure that students are getting opportunities to further their learning and equip them to best serve the needs of students.  Great teachers need to be supported in their practice and that also includes in the funding that is received in schools.  Creating learning environments that are conducive to strong student learning will help students find their passion and reach their greatest potential.  The more opportunities we afford to our students, the more likely they will enjoy  success.

“Effective leadership is critical in all of our schools.”

Although I totally agree with this statement, I am assuming that the definition of “leadership” that Mr. Duncan and I use are different.  Leadership can be anyone in a school building if you are able to tap into their energy and passion for different areas in our learning environment.  This is so important to realize as a principal.  Principals always have good help and cannot do anything without being surrounded by amazing people.  My success is directly attributed to the talents and passion of those that I am fortunate to work with.  My job is to open up doors for them and give them opportunities to lead.  This type of “leadership” is definitely critical in schools as it transfers quickly to the students.  They are the future leaders and they must work in an environment that does not only “prepare them for real life, but is real life.” (Watch the excellent video by Chris Lehmann)

“Principals are always the catalysts for change in schools.”

Principals are not always the “catalyst” for change, but they sure  have the ability to drive innovation.  They also have the opportunity to crush it.  I want to make sure that as a principal, I let the incredible people around me stretch themselves and take risks in what they are doing.  We have to appreciate the amazing things we do now, but also need to continuously model lifelong learning to our students and see how much we can further our own practice.

If you are a principal or not, the Arne Duncan address is definitely worth watching.  I agree with him that we need strong principals in schools.  This is important to ensure that we are getting the best out of the teams of people we have the pleasure  of working with.

Keep Learning Fun

There are so many days that I do not feel my job is a job at all.  It is something that I love to do and I am inspired by the kids and staff that I work with.  Everyday is filled with laughs and smiles and I could not ask for more.  Keeping work fun and having a sense of humour are crucial to making a great learning environment and the following video proves that.  Enjoy!

Leading Our Way Forward Conference – Day 1

I have the great opportunity to work with 12 staff members at the Leading Our Way Forward Conference in Edmonton. Alberta.  I really believe in the power of school leadership teams going to professional development together to share best practices and how we can best implement them.  When I speak of “school leadership teams”, I believe that all staff can be leaders in areas that they are passionate about.  My team consists of teachers, educational assistants, a librarian, and school administration.  Working together and building from different viewpoints is something that is imperative to school success.

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that I have on different topics that have been discussed this morning.

Who is your customer?

This was an interesting question that was posed and ultimately I know the answer.  Students are always the customer in education.  Sometimes however, parents believe that they are the customer first.  I would not say that they are NOT the customer, but a school focus and a parent focus should always be the same.  What is best for kids?

My belief is that parents are partners in education and should always be listened to.  They have a say in the direction of the school but it is important that we help guide them to what students are wanting in their education.  Communication is key and letting them have a voice and understanding in the process is important to the success of the school community.

What will our school look like in 2020?

This is a question that often bothers me.  It immediately leads many people to the thoughts of the technology in the building.  This should not be the focus.  It should be on the environment that can be created to best engage kids in their own learning and have them as active participants in the classroom.  I have no idea what technology will be available nor do I care.  I do however care about how we can kids to connect locally and globally and be active learners.  Students who learn to learn is what I envision.  This can happen right now.  It does not have to wait ten years.

Helping kids to connect

As I have shared previously, the power of Twitter has helped me to connect with so many educators who share my viewpoints in the school.  I also think that students should have the opportunity to connect with others around the world to learn from different viewpoints and cultures.  This is something that is very powerful and beneficial to learning.  Doing this in a safe and effective way is what we need to work with kids on.  Digital Citizenship is something that all schools should be continuously working on and not just “throw” students into the fire without working with them on learning how to be safe.  I would never throw a student into the park without teaching them about safety, nor would I totally shut the park down because there could be some safety concerns.  We need to be the same way with technology.  Teach kids how to be safe in both the virtual and real worlds.

Great start to the conference and I am looking forward to more work with my team!

Making the Connection with Kids

Someone had recently commented to me that the word “connect” is used a lot in my blog and that should write my thoughts on it. The power to connect with the school community, especially the students, is one of the most important character traits a school leader can have.

My definition

Relationships are fundamental to the success of any school. The way you treat people and care for them can lead to either a positive or negative atmosphere in the school. Connecting with students means to me, how you take time and get to know them, but also how they get to know you. You need to be an open communicator with students and share parts of your life so that they feel you are willing to share with them the same things that you are asking them to share. The “two way” street is fundamental to building a connection.

How do I connect with students on a daily basis?

It is important that you work daily on building connections with your students, just as you do with on all of the relationships in your life.  Every morning that I am at school, I am one of the first people that the students see as I do outside supervision.  This is a HUGE way of building a relationship not only with the students, but also parents that are coming into the building.  Not only is it important that I am visual, but this is my opportunity to get to know the students on a personal basis.  It is important that when you are on supervision, that you take this time to engage with students.  It is great to walk around and talk to colleagues, but students are the main focus and should be during this time.  Yesterday on “casual Friday” I had the opportunity to play soccer with the students.  It was such a great opportunity to take part in the fun that was being shared, but it was also a way to show the students my interest in sports.  I have also been known to go on the playground and go down the slides.  This is great “water cooler” talk for the kids.

As the day goes, I take as many opportunities as I can to talk to kids and join the classroom.  I have never passed a student walking in the hallway without saying something.  I also try to comment on something that I notice about them.  Just yesterday, I stopped a student to comment on his shirt that I absolutely loved.  I asked the librarian to take a picture with the two of us.  It was a moment that student and I shared a laugh and now have built a memory upon.

Making school announcements every day is also a great way for the students to become familiar with you.  Often times I will make the odd bad joke or talk about my favourite teams, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Los Angeles Lakers.  This is a way to start some conversations in the school with kids about how much they like/dislike your team.  Taking this opportunity to share your something about yourself with the whole school is a great way to connect.

As I deal with student discipline, I also use these opportunities to connect with kids.  I have pictures of my family, dogs, and of me as a youth in my office.  I have started a lot of conversations with, “When I was your age…”, and show them a picture of me at that time.  Kids understand that you have went through some of the things that they have also gone through.  I have also shared with them that although they have made a mistake, I have had made many in my life as well, especially at their age.  I then tell them that obviously I have learned from it, so they should be able to as well.  Taking away the perception kids have that the principal is sometimes infallible is a great way to ensure kids are more comfortable in their own skin when talking with you.

It is also important to connect with students that have had issues after the incident. Letting them know that they may have made a mistake but today is a new day is of importance.  Talking about something with them other than the incident will show that you respect them as people.

What are the outcomes of establishing a connection with students?

Spending this time with students is as much for my benefit as it is theirs.  Connecting with people gives a greater job satisfaction and brings purpose to my job as an educator. On top of that, when students feel that they are connected with you, they do not want to let you down.  They want to prove you right when you tell them that you believe in their abilities.

As a teacher in the classroom, making the connection with students made my job more enjoyable. Talking with them and learning more about their lives will lead to less behavioural issues in your classroom.  I once heard that with “problem” students, if you take two minutes a day for ten days straight to talk to them about their lives, their behaviour will improve dramatically.  I challenge you to prove this theory the next time you find a student to be challenging.

How can you begin establishing connections with students?

Talking to students, being visible, and sharing yourself are ways that you can make a better connection with kids.

Be yourself and share your passion.  This will in turn get them to share their passions with you.

Have a sense of humour.  Laugh with them and definitely be okay with them laughing at you.

Talk about your family and friends.

Share your interests.

Be visible.