How to Think Like a Master Teacher - ASCD
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May 1, 2012

How to Think Like a Master Teacher

We can demystify great teaching by helping new teachers practice seven principles.

My first year of teaching was a trial by fire. I started in the middle of the school year, taking over for a beloved teacher who was retiring. The problem was, he didn't tell his students. So, the first day of the new semester they walked in expecting to see their favorite teacher, and instead, they got me. It was not a good start.

I missed all the new-teacher activities the school provided. Instead of the school tour, I received a map of the building. Instead of having a week of orientation, I was handed a stack of curriculum documents and given two days to prepare. Instead of being introduced to the staff, I was given an ID badge and told to wear it at all times so that security would know I wasn't a student. The most inspirational speech I was given consisted of two words: Good luck.

I had no idea what I was doing and was making it up as I went along. I rarely asked for help. Eventually, I was assigned a mentor who showed me the secret to unsticking the copy machine and where to find extra supplies. A few colleagues steered me away from the most uncooperative guidance counselors and hipped me to the best dishes in the cafeteria, but otherwise, I was on my own.

Luckily, I developed relationships with veteran teachers who provided me with valuable teaching tips. Otherwise, I'd never have gotten really good at teaching. I was lucky. But many other new teachers aren't so lucky. Even if they're present for new-teacher activities at the beginning of the year, they get little day-to-day guidance. Why do we leave becoming a good teacher to chance?

Training or Mentoring?

One reason new teachers lack guidance is that the teachers who set out to help them often providetraining when what novices need is mentoring. There's a difference between the two. Training helps new teachers learn information, procedures, and processes. Mentoring is a process of helping new teachers problem solve, trouble shoot, and understand the nuances of teaching.

At Mindsteps, we offer training, rather than mentoring, if the content we're helping teachers learn is standard, impersonal, and not open to interpretation, such as the school's attendance policy. Training can often be done online or through manuals, without much face-to-face guidance. Mentoring, on the other hand, requires a more personal interaction.

School districts should use mentoring relationships to help new teachers get comfortable with grade- or subject-specific content, skills related to instructional practice, or sensitive teaching issues that require trust and confidentiality. Many districts waste mentoring resources on showing novices procedures—such as how to operate the copy machine or where to turn in grades. Sharing such information is a poor use of a mentor's time. It's a better idea for teachers who are in the early stages of their careers to share procedural information with newcomers. Early-career teachers remember what it's like to be the new kid on the block and can better anticipate questions, areas of confusion, and sources of frustration for new teachers. By drawing on their early-career teachers, schools not only empower them, but also rally the school community to support new hires.

Who Makes the Best Mentor?

Although it may seem best to have a master teacher mentor a new one, this is often a mistake. The master teacher's practice is typically fluid. The teaching is seamless and appears to be a natural response to children, so they often have a hard time articulating how or why they do what they do. Because master teachers are good at adapting strategies to mesh with their individual teaching styles, they often carry out strategies idiosyncratically and can't easily show a novice how to add a strategy to his or her repertoire. It's better for master teachers to provide demonstration lessons, answer specific questions, and identify resources. Teachers who have achieved some success in their practice but still have areas they're working on make better mentors for novice teachers. Such educators are more able to articulate what they're doing and why.

What Is Mastery Teaching?

Mentors can help novices recognize and develop the skills they need to start becoming master teachers. Master teacher is still a fuzzy term in education, but some understanding of what the term entails is emerging. Through my work helping teachers, I've identified seven principles of effective instruction that the best teachers practice. Although mentors who guide new teachers may not yet have attained all the qualities of a master teacher, they'll have a better idea of what to aim for, and they can help new teachers understand what great teachers do.

New teachers often come with false notions of what makes a master teacher, which leads to frustration. When I first became a teacher, I thought a master teacher was a combination of Mrs. Crabtree from The Little Rascals, Michelle Pfeiffer from Dangerous Minds, and Sidney Poitier from To Sir with Love. So I dressed like a stereotypical spinster, talked tough, and strove for irreverent and imaginative lessons, thinking those practices would make me good at my job. Not only did I not become an instant master teacher, I failed to connect with students in my quest to be so tough and I failed to help students learn in my attempts to plan quirky lessons. I also acquired a closet full of ugly bow-tie blouses. I thought that if I just worked harder, I would magically turn into the kind of teacher they made movies about.

It took me years to figure out that I was working hard at the wrong things. I worry that many new teachers spend years trying to squeeze themselves into the mold of what they think a master teacher should be, as I did, instead of learning how to be masterful given their own teaching style, personality, and situation.

We can help fewer teachers meet this fate by helping them see, from the beginning, that mastery is the result of consistently practicing a few principles of effective instruction. For instance, veteran teachers might observe novices and provide feedback; plan lessons with novices, articulating their decision-making processes; take new teachers on walk-throughs to observe effective teachers; and meet with novices weekly to troubleshoot challenges and reflect on their overall practice. Such mentoring gives new teachers a road map to mastery and helps them understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

Here are seven principles of mastery teaching that mentors should explore with teachers early in their careers.

1. Start where students are.

Master teachers strive to see students in terms of strengths instead of deficits. They know students well enough to help them make personal connections to classroom material. They also try to understand the "currencies" students bring to class, meaning the behaviors students use to acquire knowledge, respect, or other rewards.

Teachers generally value such currencies as listening in class, whereas a student's preferred currency may be showing off his or her knowledge to gain peers' attention. Master teachers try to accept students' currencies—such as by allowing an outspoken student to make a class presentation—but also help students broaden those currencies.

Experienced teachers can provide guidance in how to relate to students as a caring adult would, not as a "cool kid." They should model strategies for allowing flexibility while maintaining classroom control and for finding ways to motivate reluctant learners. New teachers also need guidance in teaching studentshow to succeed in class by introducing and reinforcing "soft skills" like organizing one's time well.

2. Know where students are going.

Great teachers connect standards to learning objectives and activities (in that order). They know how to unpack standards, teach both content and processes connected to standards, and plan rigorous learning objectives. Novice teachers need planning time with grade-alike and subject-alike teachers who can help them understand the scope and sequence of each course. They need a conceptual understanding of rigor and the process of planning rigorous units, practice interpreting standards, and support in designing formative assessments.

Sheryl, a mentor teacher, worked with a novice who struggled in this area. Although Bethany wrote detailed lesson plans, she had trouble situating the day-to-day plans in the learning arc of her unit. When Sheryl observed Bethany's classroom, she saw no connection between activities day-to-day or even during the same lesson.

At their next meeting, Sheryl said, "Bethany, instead of going over your daily lessons, let's think about your entire unit. What is the point of this unit?"

"It's a unit on Reconstruction," Bethany began. "The students need to know these vocabulary terms and facts." She spread a stack of plans on the table. "I've already planned lessons on carpetbaggers, scalawags, and the rise of Jim Crow, but I still need to do lessons on the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, Grant's presidency, and the Ku Klux Klan."

"What's the point of the unit?" Sheryl repeated.

"It's about Reconstruction," Bethany replied, puzzled.

"But why are we studying reconstruction?"

Bethany looked confused. "It's in the curriculum?"

Sheryl smiled reassuringly. "Yes, but why?"

Bethany looked at Sheryl blankly.

Sheryl tried again. "Why is Reconstruction important enough that we make children study it?"

Bethany considered Sheryl's question. "I guess it's because the Reconstruction period defined much of the modern South. Some states have never really come out of Reconstruction. And that period gave rise to three constitutional amendments that define rights we hold dear today."

"So how do these lessons you've planned help students come to that realization?"

Bethany looked down at her plans. "They don't, I guess. I was just trying to cover the material."

"Let's start by conceiving the entire unit and figure out how you want students to be able to think about Reconstruction by the end of it. That might help you be more focused with day-to-day lesson plans," Sheryl suggested.

Sheryl and Bethany crafted a unit essential question: What was the impact of Reconstruction on the modern South and the U.S. Constitution? Using a graphic organizer, they outlined a unit arc that helped students both learn essential facts and marshal those facts to consider this question. Bethany then worked from this organizer to develop daily plans.

3. Expect to get students to their goal.

Master teachers maintain high expectations of both themselves and their students. They teachers acknowledge where they need to improve and take steps to broaden their teaching repertoires. They confront the brutal facts about students' learning gaps but maintain faith that students will learn what they need to, no matter the obstacles.

Veterans should help novices understand the anatomy of high expectations. This may involve reflective conversations about teachers' beliefs and values and how those beliefs affect their instructional choices and views of students' abilities. It should include problem-solving sessions that yield concrete suggestions teachers can try and strategies for maintaining unwavering faith in unpromising circumstances—including ways teachers can take care of themselves.

4. Support students along the way.

Rather than wait for students to fail, master teachers plan proactive interventions and supports for struggling students. They learn to anticipate confusion that students are likely to have with certain kinds of content and to uncover misconceptions early.

Experienced teachers should provide guidance on effective remediation practices and detailed instructions on how to set up intervention strategies that will catch students before destructive struggle derails them. Because master teachers focus on acceleration rather than remediation, even for struggling students, new teachers need to be shown how to set students up for success through accelerated work.

I once helped a new math teacher uncover what was making a project so frustrating for students. Rick had assigned students to enter some data into an Excel spreadsheet and use the various functions in Excel to compute mean, median, and mode. Rick thought students didn't understand the math concepts, but on a closer look, we realized they were struggling because they didn't understand how to use Microsoft Excel, not because they couldn't calculate mean, median, and mode. Such confusion can be tricky for new teachers to uncover.

5. Use feedback.

Part of supporting students along the way is providing feedback that facilitates learning. Accomplished teachers reinforce students for working hard, not for "being intelligent"; help students interpret grades; and help students internalize feedback and apply it to future learning.

New teachers need guidance on how to build meaningful grading systems, including examining models of experienced teachers' systems. They need instruction and practice in how to clarify the learning that an assessment targets, provide feedback that addresses that target, and give feedback that's specific, descriptive, and replicable.

6. Focus on quality, not quantity.

Master teachers know how to avoid overworking. New teachers often want so badly to do the right thing that they end up doing everything, and being ineffective. They need help to prioritize standards and objectives, assign purposeful homework, and separate what content students need to know from what is nice to know.

I once mentored a new middle school teacher who was trying to implement more rigorous instructional practices to help her students be ready for advanced classes. One day while working with me on developing a learning unit, Karen broke down crying.

"I'm so overwhelmed," she blurted out. "I'm trying to do a good job, but it feels like I'm doing everything wrong."

Karen wanted help with lesson planning, but she was so overwhelmed that she wouldn't get very far and would only end up more frustrated than before. She needed to free up space in her day before she could focus on developing better lesson plans. I suggested we create a "stop doing" list.

"A stop doing list?" she asked?

I explained that teachers are good at adding more things to our "to-do" lists. Sometimes we need to make a stop doing list to clear space in the day. I asked Karen to list all the things she did that day. We divided every activity on her list into one of four categories: time wasters, time consumers, empowerment failures, and important activities. Time wasters, such as working on ineffective warm-up activities, we simply eliminated. We found ways to automate the time consumers. For instance, Karen's district required her to keep a professional portfolio, and she spent hours on it each week. I suggested she set aside one day a week to organize her portfolio, spending no more than 30 minutes.

Empowerment failures are extra duties teachers acquire that don't connect to instruction and should be delegated. Karen had lots of these. Like many new teachers, she took on extra duties outside her area of responsibility because she was passionate about her students and no one else on her team was stepping up. We identified tasks that she needed to delegate to others, such as collecting permission slips for an upcoming field trip.

Finally, we looked at what was left and discussed why it was important. Karen began to relax as she talked about how much she loved helping students discover their own voices. We explored how she could spend more of her time investing in what was important to her.

7. Never work harder than your students.

Master teachers are careful not to do work that is actually students' work, and they ensure that students know how to do their jobs. This includes providing laser-sharp directions and expectations, picking one's battles in terms of pushing resistant students, using logical consequences, and tolerating a certain amount of discomfort and productive struggle for students.

Working harder than our students is an easy trap to fall into. We can help new teachers by identifying what constitutes teacher work and what constitutes student work and modeling strategies that make productive student work more likely, such as setting up classroom rules and using de-escalating language. Mentors should give mentees feedback on how well they are letting students do the thinking in the classroom.

Introducing new teachers to the approaches they should adopt as they strive for mastery takes the frustration out of the first years of teaching. By mentoring novices like this, we cultivate mastery from the beginning and make it more likely that new teachers will thrive.

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