What was your master teacher’s name? Mine was Mr. Nattress. What made Mr. Nattress a master teacher? Well, for starters, he had an incredible ability to forge strong relationships with his students. Recognizing the importance of relationship in building resilient, successful students, Mr. Nattress opened up his drama room and heart to students. He knew that believing in his students and having high expectations led to exceptional performance in class and life. He demanded a lot from us, and radiated the attitude that all the students who came through his door had buried inside them the soul and heart of an actor ready to bust out. He was a special breed of teacher who left his legacy with many. I would not have been able to define “master teacher” in high school, but I felt it every day. Now twenty years later, I have the privilege to work alongside many teachers with similar attributes to Mr. Nattress, each one uniquely world class in their ability to nurture and teach.
I have found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with what creates a Mr. Nattress. That is, the teacher students gravitate to, who has great classroom management skills, high expectations, unrelenting belief in their students and is able to craft outstanding relationships. Is the champion teacher the result of Mother Nature sprinkling her lucky genes? Possibly. Or is it continual and never-ending improvement (CANI) that creates the master teacher? Certainly. What I do know is that after reflecting on my own school experiences, talking with students, and collaborating with many teachers, probably much like yourself, I have found that the following qualities contribute to creating world-class teachers such as Mr. Nattress.
Great teachers constantly reflect on how they can become greater. One of the hallmarks of the master teachers I talk and collaborate with is that they are engaged in a passionate quest to find ways to perfect themselves and their craft. These teachers reflect on every aspect of their careers and relationships and are ferociously passionate about CANI. With each reflection, they make decisions around best practices and navigate small shifts and changes as required. Master teachers recognize that staying in your A game requires consistent and critical assessment. Research has demonstrated that individuals who make a practice of self-reflection can regulate emotional states, make right choices under stress, focus attention, quickly connect with others, and better relate with people. Some ideas for having a more reflective teaching practice include:
- Seek the guidance of a mentor who can support you in critically assessing attitudes, practices and relationships. Mentors provide objective feedback and another perspective on how to approach your teaching practice. Billionaires utilize success coaches such as Anthony Robbins and Robin Sharma. If it helps them, wouldn’t it help you too?
- Take a minute after every class and spend some time each day to reflect about how your day is going. Critically assess what went especially well this day, how you have delivered your lesson plans, the quality of your interaction with students and others, etc. Critically assess what you could have done differently, responded differently, etc.
- Take the time to brainstorm alternative ways of dealing with your work and relationships, journal your experiences and set goals that move you towards your best practices; completing a vision statement and mission plan is a nice way to help you with this.
Great teachers recognize that relationship trumps curriculum. Research on brain development and attachment demonstrates that students learn and thrive when they feel safe and secure. One of America’s premier attachment specialists, Brian Post, cites that the best intervention for many of the most common disorders cropping up in the school systems today (ADD, anxiety, stress disorders, insecure attachments) is staff and administrators taking the time to build secure and trusting relationships with students. Relationship guru John Gottman, author of The Relationship Cure, says that people engage in what he calls “bids to connect” hundreds of times per day. Bids are any “question, gesture, look, touch or expression that says I am connected to you.” Gottman says that as positive bids for connection increase, people are better able to access the type of feelings and cognitions and are more able to make good choices. He also found in his research that children raised in homes with predominantly negative bids demonstrated increased learning difficulties, trouble with concentration and getting along with others, defiance, and trouble with regulating emotional states. When it comes to students gaining a sense of mastery in school, relationship rules. Some ideas for building top quality relationships with students are:
- Take the time to get to know your students, what they like, what their passions are. This appears obvious, but it always surprises me to see how many teachers know limited things about the kids with whom they spend 6 – 7 hours per day, 5 days a week.
- Increase “bids to connect” with your students. This need not be overly time consuming. A bid can be as easy as catching the eye of a student, pointing out when a student does or says something good in class, or a pat on the back.
Great teachers know that it is more what is not said than what is said that impacts students. No matter how adept teachers think they are at hiding their true attitudes, body language reveals the truth to the student. Young students are incredibly intuitive and very proficient at reading attitudes, body cues, and other clues that communicate to them a teacher is not present or caring about the student. Allan and Barbara Pease in their internationally best selling book Body Language have demonstrated that body language is what conveys attitudes towards other people. Attitude shapes relationship with students, and so great teachers become masters at having their audio (attitudes) match their video (actions). Some ideas for being congruent with your attitude and actions:
- Take the time to reflect on your attitude and how you are feeling before addressing a student (especially when there is some conflict occurring between the student and you). Take the time during the day to critically assess your attitude towards students; if you are finding increasing negative emotions towards certain students then it might be time to find out what is activating these feelings inside you.
- Master teachers I observe will address their feelings and concerns with a student rather than keep it inside and have it fester. I cannot hide my true attitude for long since 90 percent of how I communicate attitude to others is non-verbally.
Great teachers adhere to the Jennifer Aniston principle. Author Robin Sharma in his book The Greatness Guide shares one of Jennifer Aniston’s secrets to forging her place as a successful Hollywood icon. Sharma says that in every life challenge Aniston first searches out her role or responsibility; it might be only one percent, but she will still be accountable for that one percent. It’s no wonder that Aniston has maintained her status as one of Hollywood’s elite actresses. In my interactions with master teachers, I have found they make the Aniston principle an essential part of their daily transactions—they take responsibility for their interactions with students and are acutely aware that they play a role in both the positive and challenged interactions with students, and recognize that often the small changes they make can have a monumental impact on students. One big way to incorporate the Jennifer Aniston principle into your teaching practice:
- Own your piece of the pie. It seems so simple, yet owning what we are responsible for and modifying our behaviour is not an easy task; it becomes increasingly complicated when you feel you are doing all the right things and still having challenging interactions with a student. In my years of counselling and consultation with hundreds of individuals, I have not once had an experience where an individual, including myself, could not potentially change an outcome by modifying their attitude or presentation slightly.
Goleman, Daniel. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishers, London. UK.
Gottman, John. (1998) Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. Three Rivers Press, New York, NY.
Gottman, John. (2002) The Relationship Cure: Transforming troubled relationships into positive ones. Three Rivers Press. New York, NY.
Pease, Allan and Barbara. (2004) The Definitive Book of Body Language: The hidden meaning of people’s gestures and expressions. Bantam Books, New York, NY.
Post, Bryan. (2009) The Great Behaviour Breakdown: The ultimate tool for your parenting toolbox. Post Institute Publishing.
Sharma, Robin (2007). The Greatness Guide: Powerful secrets to getting to world class. Harper Collins Publishing. New York. NY.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Coleman (B.A., M.A.P.P.C) is a transplanted Albertan who found himself moving to small-town Saskatchewan to work as a school counsellor. After the initial shock and awe of not being able to access a Starbucks on every block, he is now loving small town life. Scott has over 10 years in the counselling/ mental health field. He has a passion for writing about and delivering workshops in his school division on resiliency, relationship building, student leadership and stress management.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s January 2010 issue.