The Master Teacher
My belief in what makes a Master Teacher automatically defines for me noteworthy principles of instruction. For example, such a teacher does "not concentrat[e] on being [an] effective disciplinarian[ ]. [He has] better things to do, [like] preventing problems from developing in the first place" (Kohn, 1996, p. xii). Some call this professional judo--looking ahead for potential trouble and preparing for it. If that trouble arises, the teacher has a reasonable plan, tucked away in his mind, that should allow everybody concerned to walk away with his or her dignity intact.
One secondary alternate teacher I knew--Gerry Hogan--did that. He looked ahead to his first day with a new class, knowing about one big galook who'd notoriously made two previous teachers' lives miserable. Gerry knew that 18-year-old boy would be gunning for him. He nervously entered the class full of "those problem kids," scanned immediately for the biggest, meanest looking student, and then promptly walked straight to him.
"Hi, Bill." Gerry briskly shook the boy's hand. "I'm the new teacher. I've heard a lot about you, and I'm glad to meet you. Would you mind sitting up front? You can help me run this class."
Bill liked that greeting and proposal. In fact, he and Gerry became, literally, great friends. His teacher had "prevent[ed] problems from developing in the first place"--professional judo--aye?
The Master Teacher uses his "martial art" to promote a good learning environment in which he teaches his students how to teach themselves as lifelong learners. He "goes much, much further than the mere act of informing, explaining, and showing how .[The] end result is that the learner is enabled [sic] by the process. The outcome...is that the learner becomes more free to engage in a process of self-teaching" (Wassermann, 1987, p. 177). His teacher has a clear vision of how he will teach, and how he will treat his students.
Here, in Wassermann's words, are principles of how the Master Teacher treats them:
[1. The Master Teacher] communicates a genuine prizing and valuing of the student. (Ibid.)
[2.] The student does not have to be concerned about defending himself against ridicule, belittlement or rejection. There is a deep respect for the dignity of the learner--for his individuality, for his capacity, for his gifts, for his right to make choices--and there is also a sensitivity to the needs, problems and feelings of the student. (Ibid.)
[3.] The student experiences this teacher not as an "all-knowing sage" but as a resource person who has faith and trust in the learner's ability. While in almost every sense the [Master Teacher] is a model to the learner, the message communicated to the learner is that he is free to develop his own unique style. (Ibid.)
[4. The Master Teacher] not only provides for the development of knowledge and skill, but he does this in such a way that enables [sic] the learner to move to higher positions on the continuum of personal autonomy. (Ibid., p. 178)
Given those principles, no wonder the Master Teacher is "admire[d], value[d], prize[d] and respect[ed]" by students (Ibid., p. 181). "[He] is open and undogmatic about his ideas [, and] his actions seem reasoned and reasonable" (Ibid.). Empathy characterizes his approach. "He is considerate of the feelings of students and communicates genuine warmth and regard for them" (Ibid.). His classroom = dynamic energy,
achieve[d] through a combination of his own enthusiasm, his choices of curriculum materials, the content and purposefulness of the subject matter, and the way he organises and orchestrates the learning experiences. His class is never boring or routine; it is alive and zestful and rich. The student comes away from it inspired, knowing more, being more interested, and feeling good--and all these contribute richly to his movement along the self-teaching continuum. (Ibid., p. 182)
The Master Teacher wants his students to feel good, and that's one reason he critically considers new, progressive ideas on teaching, evaluating them through his experience and what he knows about his students' needs (Wolfe, 1998, pp. 61-64). The Putman-Weir [Educational] Survey of 1924 told British Columbians that "the 'progressive' ideas of John Dewey urged attention to the ways that children actually learned as opposed to imparting knowledge in traditional 'full pitcher-empty cup' fashion"(Barman & Sutherland, 1995, p. 412), and the Master Teacher thoroughly focuses his attention on such ways. He wants his students to benefit as fully as possible from good teaching methods, and he wants to prepare them for lifelong learning.
The Sullivan Report of 1988 epitomized lifelong learning for BC students, and although the report generally fell down before public opinion, which favored "accountability, higher standards, curricular relevance [Hunter and Russell, 1994, p. 95; also Egan, 1997, p. 20] and 'back to the basics'" (Barman and Sutherland, 1995, p. 423), the Master Teacher juggles teaching lifelong learning skills with that public opinion, not as a clown, but as a skilled and serious performer (although he certainly does have a sense of humor). Of course he wants his students to relish learning, and to years later be able to learn what they need to succeed!--whatever that means for each student.
He also juggles his students' interests, especially if they're narrow (consider the student who wants to spend each entire day of each school year wired to computer games), with opportunities to develop new, broader interests. That requires serving the broader view thoughtfully, enticingly to students. Why expend the effort? "What could be cruder than a human being who is limited to a narrow area of knowledge and practise and has the naiveté of a child in most other areas" (Saul, 1995, p. 15)? The Master Teacher expends the effort.
He also expends the effort to teach his students how to write about what they know. The ungrammatical, weird-spelled chat room-lingo of the World Wide Web (www) might draw a chuckle through his lips, but he's serious about written expression. His students learn to write clearly, thoughtfully, passionately. They
learn to "place" themselves on paper. Really, isn't "one of the signs of a healthy civilisation [or family, for that matter]...the existence of a relatively clear language
in which everyone can participate in [his] own way" (Ibid., p. 57)? Even in a world of many young, sleep-deprived, eye-glazed, information-sucking, net surfing addicts, the Master Teacher finds his students generally pride themselves on their ability to communicate in written form. He praises them for their hard work. Sometimes their compositions require improvements, but he lets them know that "there is no such thing as a low grade that cannot be improved" (Glasser, 1977, p. 602). He provides upgrading opportunities. They praise his efforts by turning in quality work.
The Master Teacher also expends effort in helping his students learn to read better--to help them deal with an information-obese society. He--in the spirit of the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the 16th century Bible translator, who wanted every "ploughboy" presented with a Bible in language he could read and understand (he said, "I long for the ploughboy to sing [the scriptures] to himself as he follows the plough" [When the Ploughboy Delights, 1982, p. 8])--passes on his skills of reading, promoting multilevel comprehension. He even helps his students who can't read properly due to problems in phonics.
Why does he focus on reading? To enable his students to teach themselves, certainly, but also to help them deal efficiently with the www-spawned Information Anxiety (Information anxiety, 1998, pp. 1-12) that makes many people today dizzy trying to digest what floods their monitor screens. E-mail. E-mail junk mail. Web sites. Web sites. Web sites. Although he encourages them to widen their interests, he encourages them to focus their reading on what will actually benefit them--given what precious time and energy they have.
To maximize on his students' time and energy, the Master Teacher makes sure they (in the words of John Amos Comenius, born in Moravia in 1592) are "not ...overburdened with matters that are unsuitable to their age, comprehension, and present condition" (Comenius, 1999, p. 24). Comenius hated the European education of his day, in which "no thought was given to establishing specific goals for learning[. N]or was instruction designed to lead students gradually from simple ideas to complex ones" (Ibid., p. 21). "[He] proposed a system that made learning fun, not drudgery. He called his educational scheme pampaedia, meaning 'universal education.' His goal was to establish a progressive system of teaching that everyone could enjoy. Children should be taught in incremental steps, he said, with elementary concepts naturally leading up to more complex ones" (Ibid., p. 22). The Master Teacher agrees with this instructional design: "one must...establish a rationale for what is to be learned" (Gagne, Briggs, & Wagner, 1992, p. 14).
The Master Teacher not only wants his students to enjoy their education; he wants them to benefit themselves according to their own free will, choices, passions. He doesn't place much faith in Plato's slotting of people into one of three categories: the administrators, the police and military, and the ordinary citizens (Plato, 1999). In the first place, he doesn't consider citizens as ordinary, but sees in each, at least in each benevolent, person a uniqueness, a splendor. In addition, he sees free will and passion as important factors that enable students to choose their (unslotted) destiny. Perhaps he recalls being told by his grade five teacher that he lacked ability in sports, only to, through sheer determination, go on to play soccer, and to play it well, through high school and college. So much for slotting.
The exercising of free will to make good choices, such as staying in school, getting a good education, preparing for the often-discouraging competition of getting a job, or preparing for entry into college, university, or trades school, could pave the way for a career beyond the hardship of a never-ending stream of minimum-wage jobs that require little or no education. And such a choice could save a student much idle, unprofitable time. I will explain this way:
Egerton Ryerson, the education-guru of 1800's Upper Canada might have been an Imperialistic snob, disdaining the importance of the common man's family values, but he was dead-on that idleness for the young person not in school or at work, who is gadding about through hours of non-commitment, could succumb to wayward influences that could end in debauchery or crime. In 1800's Upper Canada, "educators [such as Ryerson] especially seemed to feel growing qualms about exposing the young to the evils of possible 'idleness'" (Prentice, 1977, p. 37). The Master Teacher, concerned about such "evils" does what he reasonably can to keep students in school. As Proverbs 29:15 says: "A boy let on the loose will be causing his mother shame" (New World Translation, 1984).
Too many street gangs and street corners fill up with the idle and uneducated. For over two decades I've often seen downtown corners of Quesnel house bored, idle drop outs. The Master Teacher encourages these young people to leave their street-corners for desks. He adjusts to the special needs of many of these street-corner kids, addressing, in a school-based team setting, Individualized Education Plans that detail more than "a statement of the student[s'] present...educational goals" (Kellough & Kellough, 1999, p. 46), but socio-emotional1 ones too. These socio-emotional goals should help students make choices that will lead to healthy personal relationships and to career possibilities.
Dealing with these kids sometimes creates big challenges for the Master Teacher. But he remains undaunted. He has great optimism which breeds great energy. Even given the challenges as found in the poem called "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," by Stephen Spender, he tries to employ all his art and craft (skill) for the benefit of all his students. Undaunted by "[the] tall girl with her weighed-down head" (exhausted?, ill?), "the paper- / seeming boy with rat's eyes" (thin, hungry, and weak?), "the stunted unlucky heir / Of twisted bones, reciting a father's gnarled disease" (an inherited disease or disability?), and "[a boy's] eyes [that] live in a dream" (a mental illness?), the Master Teacher applies the principles of "1", "2", "3", and "4" as mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. Perhaps his students won't visit the "Tyrolese valley" or become the "governor, teacher, [or] inspector" or "break the town" (1967, pp. 101-102) by escaping the circumstances of the slum, but never will the Master Teacher cease trying to inspire them to
1. learn all they can at school;
2. prepare as best as possible for work or further education; and
3. acquire the skills needed for lifelong learning.
Never will he refer to them as the "slag heap" (Ibid.) of society. Some have referred to secondary alternate students as the "slag heap" of school districts. Never does he see students that way. You won't likely find him seated with that perpetual doom-and-gloom bunch in some staff-rooms who lament lament lament (until they mercifully retire) about their perpetually "rotten" students.
He focuses his attention on what strengths his students possess, trying to "help [them] realize [their] unique potential" (Egan, 1997, p. 10), even trying to unleash what Carl Rogers calls their "latent inner resources [strengths]" (1958, p. 1 of his article). He musters all his skill to build on those strengths. The results, he knows, are often wonderful. What is one proof that all his efforts are worth his often-felt exhaustion? When students from the past--sometimes from one or two decades ago!--return for a visit, and say, "Thanks for all your help. You made a difference."
1 As a secondary alternate teacher at McNaughton Centre, I have the good fortune of working with dedicated youth care workers, who directly help students establish socio-emotional goals.