The term "master teacher" is used generically to describe an accomplished teacher who excels in the classroom by increasing student achievement. An educator may also become a certified "Master Teacher" by completing a rigorous program from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Educational researchers have tried to identify qualities that are common to master teachers. Many programs have sprung up locally, within states, and nationally in the last twenty years to encourage improved teaching and have resulted in career ladder opportunities for teachers who wish to keep their focus on the classroom.
Keywords A Nation at Risk; Certification; Differentiation; Highly Qualified Teachers; Lead Teacher; Master Teacher; National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS); No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Scaffolding
Defining a Master Teacher
"Master teacher" is a term used freely to identify a model teacher who has excelled and proven effectiveness. The definition may be set by the state, the local school board, or a teacher education program; a master teacher's traits may be perceived differently by educators than the public at large. A master teacher may be recognized by administrators and peers, and even receive compensation for his or her accomplishments, or may simply be a teacher who excels in the classroom quietly and consistently. Experienced education professionals, and students, will "know one when they see one," but a master teacher's impact is felt long after she executes her teaching responsibilities.
Marge Scherer (2001) quotes the maxim of Henry Brooks Adams (1907) that "… a teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops." All public school teachers must be certified as defined by state statutes, and under the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), must also be "highly qualified," but neither of these professional imprimaturs assure that an individual is a master teacher. A master teacher has qualities that may transcend any amount of training received.
The term master teacher came into popular use after the release of the 1993 National Commission on Excellence in Education report, "A Nation at Risk." The follow-up Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy in 1986 issued "A National Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century" that put the teacher at the center of the responsibility to "redesign schools for the future." These reports spurred the initiatives of the last twenty years to improve teaching, teacher training and continuing education and cultivated the concept of master teachers.
Are master teachers born or can they be made? The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (1996) says that it is a myth to think that anyone can teach, and the ability to manage a group of children or adolescents in a classroom is an awesome challenge. In their report, they say that "The belief that anyone can teach - or the view that teaching skills cannot be taught - is misguided and dangerous" (p. 52); however, this is not to say that those with the motivation and innate talent cannot grow their capabilities and skills.
Although everyone is not cut out to be a teacher, those who have the ambition to be one can develop and be taught the skills; the road to master teacher should begin in the teacher education program. The NCTAF report includes the statement that "fully prepared teachers are more highly rated and more effective with students than those whose background lacks one or more of the elements of formal teacher education - subject matter preparation, knowledge about teaching and learning, and guided clinical experience" (1996, p. 52).
Common Traits of Master Teachers
Although a master teacher may have intangible talents, there are obviously skills and qualities that can be learned to allow them to surface. What are some of the traits that characterize a master teacher? Research conducted by Harold Wenglinsky (2000) in a report written for the Educational Testing Service found that there are three indicators that make a difference to improving student achievement:
• Classroom practice,
• Professional development and
• The teacher's education and experience.
Charlotte Danielson, also from the Educational Testing Service, was quoted as saying that,
. . . the mark of a distinguished classroom is a 'distinguished teacher' who has mastered a number of skills in four broad domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities. Teachers who are adept at engaging students in learning, a skill she defines as the heart of instruction, demonstrate mastery of a number of performance standards" (as cited in Black, 2004, p. 40).
The bottom line identity of a master teacher is his or her ability to effect measurable student achievement. Polk (2006) reviewed the research literature and named ten traits of effective teachers:
• Good prior academic performance,
• Communication skills,
• Pedagogical knowledge,
• Thorough and appropriate student evaluation and assessment,
• Self-development or lifelong learning,
• Talent or content area knowledge, and
• The ability to model concepts in their content area (Polk, 2006, p. 23).
Polk targets the traits that are universal and not subject dependent:
• Professional development,
• Personality, and
• Teacher ability or modeling.
Effective teachers, he says are lifelong learners and "do as the students do." Teachers need support to continue to learn and Polk does not believe that this support is found in in-service programs. He points to reflective inquiry as a proven practice to enhance lifelong learning - teachers staying current in their fields and a supportive learning environment in their schools: "Can teachers righteously chide students for complaining about attending class when they themselves complain about going to class?" (2006, p. 24).
Polk believes that good oral and written communication is defined by the clarity of a teacher's information delivery; i.e., how easy it is for students to understand the information that is conveyed. He also points to research that indicates that "teacher intensity" such as eye contact, closeness to students, voice, and gestures are part of a "global level of enthusiasm" (2006, p. 25) typical of effective teachers. Communication, he says, is a skill that certainly can be studied and practiced in teacher training.
Polk references a substantial body of research that indicates that personality is a major indicator of teaching effectiveness, but it is much more elusive than the other traits. Although it can be assessed from student evaluations, it is recognized that it is the most inflexible of the traits. Effective teachers, he says, know themselves and are able to "adapt their instruction to their personal strengths" (2006, p. 26).
Ability or Modeling
Teacher ability or modeling, Polk's, last universal trait, involves "alternating teacher demonstrations with student imitation" (p. 27). Polk goes on to say that less talk and more hands-on is a philosophy shared by most master teachers. He identified supportive research that indicates that if a teacher is good at modeling (making music), then she is likely to do it more often (frequency), resulting in better student performance (improved outcomes). As Scherer (2001) notes, "Students always outperformed their peers when they had a teacher who used hands-on learning activities and emphasized higher-order thinking skills" (p. 5).
Master teachers can handle the tough assignments. The best excel at discipline and like challenges such as working with students at risk. Robinson (2004) studied "at risk" students and asked master music teachers about the techniques that they use to handle challenging students. Their responses are full of common sense techniques, most of which are obviously not always so easy to execute. The master teachers reportedly are never confrontational, always treat students with respect and work to gain a student's respect, never lower their standards and have high expectations, and always try to make their classroom inviting.
Merrion (1990), also a music educator, asked why master teachers do not have problems with discipline. Her responses reinforce what the prior writers cited as she sees a "seamless web between their mastery of instructional and behavior management." Master music teachers are also good musicians; they know their subject matter. Also, they have high standards and are intense. They are also enthusiastic and skilled at time management. According to Merrion, the best teachers strike a balance between making music and being student-oriented.
Master teachers can handle complex teaching situations, such as accommodating a range of learning needs within a diverse classroom. One skill that master teachers develop is using differentiation within a diverse classroom, which is a technique to allow for varying solutions to problems so that students of different abilities, interest or learning needs have equal experience in ways to absorb, use, develop and present concepts during the learning process.
Carolan and Guinn (2007) say that "many expert teachers were master differentiators long before the term was popularized" (p. 44). They observed five master teachers in two middle schools who were responsible for regular education classrooms that also had students with physical and learning disabilities and identified four common skills that each of these master teachers tapped regularly. First, the teachers employed scaffolding, which is a temporary support that helps "a learner bridge the gap between what he or she needs to do to succeed at a learning task" (p. 45). An example of scaffolding is to give a student a metaphor that relates the learning task to their own reality. The teachers also used flexible means to reach defined...
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