Once upon a time, I had the greatest teacher ever. Her name was Mildred Funk, and she was my fifth grade teacher. She died unexpectedly after a short illness about halfway through the academic year. My classmates and I mourned our loss; she was a magnificent teacher. I've never forgotten Mrs. Funk, her magical skills in the classroom, or how much she made me want to learn. Over 30 years later, the sad part is that I cannot remember what she did exactly that made her such a great teacher. Was she born that way or did she acquire the skills through observation, effort, and dint of will?
Chances are you have a memorable teacher or two from your past. Can you pinpoint what puts her or him in your pedagogical pantheon? Was it one larger than skill or many smaller techniques that combined into something greater?
Fortunately, psychologists who care deeply about improving teaching have studied what it takes to be a master teacher. It may well be that the Mrs. Funks of this world intuitively know what to do-they are simply masters of their craft. For the rest of us mere mortals, however, we need to work at refining our skills.
William Buskist, a distinguished professor who studies teaching and learning at Auburn University, and his students have codified some of what it takes to be a master teacher. Bill is an award-winning teacher himself. He is quick to point out that being a master teacher takes time, effort, drive, and attention to detail, but that it is also something one can hope to achieve or at least work toward. Let's consider some of the characterizing qualities of master teachers.
Master teachers are apt to:
Be enthusiastic about what they teach. Content matters, as it can promote a teacher's passion. You need to love or at least care about the material you are teaching.
Care about currency. Master teachers do not rely on old, dated, yellowed notes from earlier iterations of a course. They engage in updating the content of their classes all the time. They "mix it up" by changing readings trying new activities, asking new questions, essentially reinventing the class (and themselves) each time they teach it. They also personalize the material, fitting in appropriate anecdotes and illustrative stories to make content come alive.
Are high self-monitors where teaching is concerned. Master teachers are not content to rest on their laurels or past routines. They ask themselves questions as they teach-am I being effective? Are all my students engaged in the material? Am I repeating myself or relying on a stale script? What can I do differently to ensure understanding and appreciation for dry or difficult topics?
Take risks in the classroom. To battle complacency in the classroom, master teachers try new things with the knowledge that leaving the tired-and-true demonstration behind can spell disaster. New topics that look exciting garner little attention, for example, or what enthralls the teacher bores the students, and so on. There are no guarantees, and yet master teachers prefer to work without a net because they can reinvent themselves when next the class meets.
Make learning fun—but not just to be entertaining. Some of us have had spellbinding lecturers who essentially act in the classroom. Or, we may have had what I think of as "Robin Williams"-type teachers. Funny, quick-witted, and nimble, but in the end, you remember only their personas and not what they taught you. Master teachers can be witty and clever-and often funny—but their goal is not to make the classroom a theater or a comedy club—it's to help students see the point of a discipline's content while helping them retain as much of it as possible in the process.
Encourage problem solving and higher order thinking. Master teachers teach students how to think rather than what to think. Facts and figures have their place, of course, but how to analyze and synthesize information—to go beyond the information given, in the words of great psychologists like Jerome Bruner—is the key.
Have high standards. Master teachers are friendly to all students but friends with none; an invisible line of evaluation exists that cannot be crossed. Learning should be a challenge, which means some student struggle and uncertainty are to be expected. Grades should represent levels of achievement, just as the rules of the classroom road (e.g., deadlines, requirements) must be enforced by the teacher and met by the students. Anything less diminishes the worth of the exercise.
Show concern for student welfare and learning. Master teachers make clear that they care about what and how well students learn. They make an effort to learn students names, to call on them as individuals in class discussion, to praise as well as critique student contributions; in short, they show abiding respect.
Demonstrate a deep love for humanity through teaching. This criterion is a tough one for many teachers, as it appears to be a significant departure from the course material. But while it may be something of an ineffable quality in the classroom—Mrs. Funk certainly had it, perhaps your favorite teacher did (does?), as well—Master teachers display a caring for others in the way they teach and share ideas. They truly touch, even change, lives, which is why some of us remember them and try to emulate them in our own teaching.
There is much more to being a master teacher, of course. We'll explore additional qualities in the future.