The Master Teacher Achieving Critical Mass - A Summary of Many Years in Teacher Development

The Master Teacher

Achieving Critical Mass - A Summary of Many Years in Teacher Development

I have spent many years in education and as a instructor in the Army and have been in many sessions of “Professional Development.” In my role before I came to Blue River Valley a large part of my job at Anderson Schools was hiring and developing new and veteran teachers and administrators with classroom management and instructional training and providing continuing professional development for new teachers throughout their entire first year.    

To steal a term from physics, teacher training is often far, far below “critical mass” - a term used to define the smallest mass of fissile material that can sustain a nuclear chain reaction. If there isn’t a critical mass of these atoms that can sustain fission, if there just isn’t enough... then it simply won’t happen. This is a metaphor for many things, and education is one of them.  Mastery in instruction, and becoming that “Master Teacher” requires that master-level instruction is sustained in every single lesson of every day that a Master Teacher is teaching. To be sustained it requires a “critical mass” -  but a critical mass of what?  What is required to becoming a master teacher? How do schools support master teacher preparation?

Even after college, teachers attend Professional Development (PD) pretty regularly across their careers.  PD often looks different in practice than in theory, and the most powerful types of training are usually a lot tougher and taxing than the typical PD, which is often not very rigorous, and unless there are serious controls, the immediate impact on instruction following structured training gradually recedes and teachers (and administrators!) can fall back onto comfortable, but less-effective habits.

There are many ways to structure and organize teacher performance, and here at Blue River Valley, we have a model developed by both the Teacher Association and the Administrators we have focused on the two essential and foundational questions:

  1. Is the teacher effective in managing the delivery and assessment of instruction? and
  2. Is the teacher effective in managing a classroom full of students?

In a practical application of methods proven to increase a teacher's effectiveness in instruction and classroom management - that is, making a teacher better at teaching, reducing distractions, redirecting interruptions, and managing time, resources, discipline and records - there are:

  1. Working with a veteran teacher mentor,
  2. Conferencing with a highly effective administrator,
  3. Continuing coursework in education or relevant subject matter,
  4. Observing masters in other areas than education,
  5. Working with other teachers in collaborative and creative ways,
  6. Carefully managing and maximizing on-task, meaningful and rigorous student work,
  7. Planning and preparing every single lesson or assessment,
  8. Studying child / adolescent psychology,
  9. Studying best practices in leadership and management, and
  10. Enjoying being around young people.

In terms of finding a “critical mass” in student instruction you figure out very quickly that there
are teachers that produce a self-sustaining program of lifelong learning early and easily and others that need a bit of mentoring and guidance early in their careers.

There are predictable and observable symptoms and outcomes of less-than-mastery teaching:

  1. A lack of organization,
  2. An inappropriate amount of classroom time without a structured instructional purpose,
  3. A lack of clear and trained/practiced compliance with classroom and school rules,
  4. A lack of consistent and progressive disciplinary consequences,
  5. Ineffective time management,
  6. Inadequate effort in preparation,
  7. Lack of age-appropriate rigor or excessive off-task time in student work,
  8. A practice of having “favorites” in a class,
  9. An insufficient understanding of what level of skill and knowledge that follow-on and higher-level courses need from students, and
  10. A lack of understanding that teaching is a profession and that teachers are professionals.

Earning that Master Teacher reputation, and actually working in that kind of role - when it is authentic - also requires a disposition of service and selflessness to the profession. And the number of true Master Teachers is a function of the quality of the whole school, not just the master teachers, and there is always a limiting factor as well: teacher shortages in certain areas or unexpected resignations, retirements or medical leaves, and cuts to programming. Still, good schools will always have more master teachers than low performing schools.

In my experience with working with master teachers, the quality of “disposition” refers to the nature of the character, focus, endurance,  and love of young people that a master teacher must have. Teachers who do not see themselves as teaching children rather than teaching the content also do not have an instructional disposition that allows for development into a master teacher.

Finally, master teachers understand the socio-economic and cultural circumstances of their students, and especially those factors that put students “at risk” and how being “at risk” differs from not being at risk. Master teachers have done their homework on the relevant at-risk factors in their district and can identify when certain expressed behavior which can be disruptive.  


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