Cultivating Master Teachers

Systems of apprenticeship began during the Middle Ages and usually lasted for seven years, revealing that both craftsmen and pupils understood:  Mastering a job doesn’t come cheaply.  Sadly, this awareness seems largely absent in the U.S. educational system.  In addition to coursework, education programs commonly require their students to perform two weeks of full-time classroom teaching duties.  Anyone who believes the profession is both important and complex understands the absurdity of expecting good educational outcomes to sprout from such flimsy roots.  If our country is to break free from the doldrums of educational mediocrity, we need a stronger teaching workforce.  To accomplish this, we must recognize the profession as a trade and treat student teaching as an intensive two-year apprenticeship, aiming to produce master teachers.

Master teachers synthesize physical, social, and organizational skills, while excelling in pedagogical delivery and interpersonal relationships.  In isolation, none of their competencies seem spectacular, but their aggregate is rare and educationally transformative.  Under a master teacher’s tutelage, children make significant social, emotional, and academic strides.  Because of this, education programs should design teacher trainings to resemble traditional apprenticeships, putting a greater emphasis on observation, managerial skills, and corrective pedagogical feedback.

On the first day of school, master teachers lay the foundation for a successful year, establishing routines, setting expectations, and creating a responsive classroom culture.  Few student teachers are privileged to witness this.  Instead, they begin their schooling by studying pedagogical theories and techniques.  Later, or concurrently, they do intermittent field observations.  This learning sequence leaves student teachers unnecessarily vulnerable to indoctrination, because they lack a holistic understanding of the profession.   Their coursework would be more meaningful if they first observed a master teacher every day for a semester, starting on the first day of school.

Continuity minimizes novel distractions in a new work environment.  Without routine observations, student teachers are likely to admire their mentor’s craft, but not fully understand the nuances of their work.  Subtle skills, such as working efficiently, adjusting lesson plans, and building community, are most appreciated when witnessed daily for extended periods of time.  When observation is shortchanged, understudies are ill prepared to manage or educate students.

Master teachers are expert systematizers, who maximize instructional time while maintaining a focused, nurturing learning environment.  The potential of any lesson and/or pedagogical theory is never realized without managerial proficiency.  Becoming skilled at hundreds of minute tasks is vital for a teacher’s success, but education programs rarely emphasize their acquisition.  As a result, most student teachers begin delivering lessons, having never rehearsed simple management duties.  This leaves them practicing sophisticated aspects of the profession without the necessary foundation to make them meaningful.  After one semester of observations, teachers should begin practicing non-instructional teacher tasks such as roll call, distributing materials, and monitoring students move within and outside the classroom.  As their skill improves, their responsibilities should increase.

Having practiced basic teacher duties and logged 700+ observation hours, apprentices are ready to meaningfully study educational theory.  At this juncture, their academic discourse becomes more powerful, because they possess the professional acuity to critically analyze their coursework and choose whether or not to implement it in their instruction.  They’re also better prepared to teach content, because they’ve learned fundamental classroom management skills and can focus solely on content delivery.

Master teachers have memorable lessons in their repertoire, but deliver them occasionally, after strong classroom systems have been created.  Eager to demonstrate their passion and individuality, many student teachers initially deliver elaborate lessons that require extensive energy, manipulatives, media, etc.  Although spirited and often meticulously planned, these lessons are poor simulations of normal teaching responsibilities.  Infusing creativity is richer and more impactful after teachers master the profession’s minutiae.  Therefore, apprentices should begin teaching core subjects after a year of observing and acquiring strong managerial skills.

When novice teachers deliver lessons for entire class periods, they impede their progress towards mastery.  This is because they invariably make many mistakes that exacerbate and compound the longer they’re in front of students.  Because the profession requires mental and physical stamina, apprentices should begin by teaching in short intervals of ten to 15 minutes, followed by immediate corrective feedback from their mentor teacher.  Concentrating on small lesson segments help prospective teachers focus their planning and develop strong pedagogical habits, while building fluidity and endurance to teach longer.  Over time, their stamina builds, they begin experimenting, and the natural creative process organically unfolds.   After a year or more of this deliberate practice, their apprenticeship ends and they’re awarded a teaching degree.

In Robert Greene’s, Mastery, the author outlines three stages of powerful apprenticeships:

  1. Observation

  2. Skill Acquisition

  3. Experimentation

Each ingredient is present in the traditional student teaching model, but they are introduced out of order and passed through too quickly for the training to be effective.  Master educators are craftsmen whose skill can be cultivated, but their artistry will remain elusive until teacher development practices change.  For our children to reach their academic potential, education programs must shift from crash course systems that expedite degree acquisition to apprenticeships that groom master teachers.