I have always wondered what makes a master teacher. In simplest terms, what makes some teachers so beloved by their students and others, not so much? Is it a question of personality? Of knowledge? Of procedure? Of some intangible quality? Is becoming a master teacher a trainable talent?
Over the years, I have given this question a lot of thought. As an educator who has done a fair amount of teaching and supervising, I find it an interesting topic not only as an intellectual exercise, but as a practical one.
We have all had master teachers whom we fondly remember, who made us want to be in their classes, even if the subject taught was not our favorite. We have also all experienced teachers who somehow made us dread their classes. Unfortunate, but true.
I dispense with the notion that master teachers are created by institutions conferring education degrees upon them. A degree that says you are an educator is simply the end of a process that states you are qualified to instruct and know the parameters and mechanics of how to be an educator in a certain topic or topics. However, that in itself does not make you a master teacher.
I also dispense with the notion that years of experience make a master teacher. Although experience is an integral component of the learning process an educator undergoes throughout his or her career, it does not, by itself, constitute a measure of effectiveness or ability. I firmly believe that experience makes educators better, but experience by itself does not make a master teacher.
After many years of observation, I think there are three key factors that make a teacher great and memorable, a master teacher.
First, the teacher must be fully versed in the subject matter he teaches. Second, the teacher must be able to effectively (and interestingly) communicate said subject matter. Third, the teacher must be able to connect with the students he teaches.
A master teacher has an inherent ability to connect and put himself at the service of his students. Students recognize when their teacher is fully invested in the material being taught and fully invested in them.
Master teachers make their connections to students in myriad ways, whether humorous, intellectual, emotional or something else, but it is that ability to connect that allows teachers to communicate to students they are the most important things in the world to them. There is no student who can possibly reject that connection. It is an inherent human instinct to gravitate to those we believe love us or will care for us. Master teachers convey that feeling.
Many teachers are authorities in their subject matter, but not as many have figured out how to impart that knowledge with zeal and clarity. Engaging students, making them want to learn and making a connection is only one piece of the puzzle for a master teacher. Taking that connection and filling it with instruction and information that will last a lifetime is a task of surgical precision. A master teacher brings that task to a zenith of perfection.
My observations cannot be turned into a formula, but every master teacher I have worked with, been friends with, learned from and observed has always had the qualities I have outlined. They are the qualities I model my teaching on and the markers that guide me forward professionally.
Jorge Salas is the educational technology specialist at The Pine School. He was the school's 2009 Teacher of Excellence.