The 10 Successful Habits of Master Teachers

originally posted on the Talks With Teachers blog

What does it mean to be a master teacher?

I can remember first hearing someone labeled a master while watching episodes of This Old House with my father when I was a boy. When the credits rolled, Norm Abrams was listed as master carpenter.  It added an aura to his skills akin to Jedi knighthood. But what made him so captivating in my young eyes was his affability; his excellence as a woodworker was cloaked in everyday flannel shirts and an unassuming nonchalance. This Old House producer/creator Russell Morash stuck that title under Abram’s name to signify someone who was both highly skilled and artistic in his approach to carpentry.

The Designation of Master Teacher

The way in which Norm Abram earned the title speaks to a larger point. In some ways these types of designations are completely arbitrary. There is no governing body to award such status. There are no clear standards. Nor does time equate to mastery. It is a label bestowed by one individual onto another, which can lead to unequal distribution, or worse, it can become an empty platitude said out of obligation rather than genuine appreciation.

So, if there is no governing body, no standard of achievement, nor time of servitude, why is it even necessary to label someone a master teacher?

It is necessary because it is meaningful.

The Necessity of Master Teachers

Teaching is one the few professions in which your responsibilities on the first day of your career are equal to your responsibilities on the last day. A first-year English teacher will teach the same number of classes with roughly the same number of students on their first day as a 30-year veteran on the last day of their career. And in between the span of those career markers there is little formal recognition as many great teachers labor in obscurity.

In a profession in which titles rarely change, small recognitions matters.

Michelangelo once said, ““If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” The label of master teacher is an acknowledgement of the toil necessary to achieve that glorious combination of skill, artistry, passion, and effectiveness.

It is a tip of the hat that someone has arrived or long gone unnoticed.

The Successful Habits

I asked master teachers to share the qualities that they recognize in others that are highly skilled and artistic in their approach to teaching. Here are some of the many habits that master teachers have developed. These are the traits they have internalized and have made intuitive.

I encourage you to tag one teacher that best demonstrates these qualities and share this post with him or her. Validate the work that they do and honor the impact their work has had.

1. They Read Professionally — Master teachers do not teach the same units, the same year, they same way. Ruth Arseneault pointed out that they constantly read research as well as personal accounts of effective classroom practice.

check out — the Talks with Teachers list of the 15 Best Books for Teachers.

2. They Monitor —  Liz Matheny recognizes that they regularly ask for feedback from their students about what’s working and what’s not.

check out — 3 Ways of Getting Student Feedback to Improve your Teaching

3. They Beg, Borrow, and Steal — Jill Massey sees master teachers seek out, glean from, and support other growth-minded teachers. They take the best that others have to offer and infuse themselves into it to create something new and exciting.

check out — Beg, Borrow, Steal: Secrets to Getting Teaching Strategies

4. They are Perceptive — Jennifer Isgitt believes that master teachers are situationally aware, knowing how to work a room. Not only do they have a sixth sense about where each kid is physically in the classroom and what they are doing, they also have a finger on their mental pulse as well. It reflects a level of classroom management that goes beyond procedures and routines, it exists on the higher plane of mutual understanding between teacher and student.

check out — The Key to Classroom Management

5. They Originate — Brandon Suever suggested that there is a drive to purposefully develop an innovator’s mindset. Susan Barber added that they avoid complacency by trying new things in and out of the classroom.

check out —The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros

6. They are Responsive — As Glenda Funk noted, master teachers do not march students through a curriculum, they tailor the course to the needs of their students. In essence, they don’t teach to a textbook, they teach students.

check out — The Testing Obsession and the Disappearing Curriculum

7. They Share — Roy Smith respects teachers that are willing to share their best practices and strategies with others rather than keep their cards close to the vest. Whether it is as local as talking shop in the faculty room or as global as writing for a professional journal, master teachers know that when we share ideas we do so to benefit all students, not just the ones if front of us.

check out — When Teachers Compete, No One Wins

8. They Remain Humble — Dan Sharkovitz admires teachers that approach their work with humility. They seek out nearby mentor teachers willing to enter into continuing conversations.
They seek out advanced degree programs and courses taught by professors working at the cutting edge of our field. All because they stay true to the Socratic paradox of acknowledging the one thing they know is how  little they know.

check out — The Socratic Paradox

9. They Are Self Guided — Jennifer Hargrave sees master teachers as autonomous. While they welcome open dialogue with administrators on self improvement, they don’t wait for it to happen. Instead their compass is always directs them toward honest self assessment.

check out — The 27 Principals to Teaching Yourself Anything

10. They Are Interested in Who Their Students Are, Not Just What They Know — Dawn Finley and Chris Heffernan both agreed that master teachers forge authentic relationships and get to know their students on a personal level. And as Heffernan pointed out, it should happen in and out of the classroom. Master teachers show up to their school events, engage with students in the hallways, and talk to them about their passions and interests in the small windows of opportunity in the classroom.

check out — Building Relationships: Share Passions with Students

Again, I encourage you to tag one teacher that best demonstrates these qualities and share this post with him or her. Validate the work that they do and honor the impact their teaching has had.