Over 15,000 educators subscribe to my free weekly newsletter. Click here to sign up.

The Secret Skills of Master Teachers: Working Hard (and Smart)

By Dave Stuart Jr.

There's a pretty straightforward skill that master teachers — and maybe I shouldn't call them that, maybe instead I should say “good and sane” teachers — tend to have that I've not treated yet — the way that they work.

It's both hard and smart. They're constantly pushing at the edges of their expertise but also constantly asking themselves, “How could I do this more easily? What would be a more efficient way?”

This isn't out of laziness — at least not in the negative sense. They're realistic. They realize that their time and energy is finite, and that the goal is the long-term flourishing of their kids. And so they are very interested in the results of their work in the classroom and not very interested at all in what their work might look like to other people.

Perhaps the best (i.e., most effective) teacher of writing that I've ever met is my friend and mentor, Doug Stark. (You might recognize Doug's name, as he spends his summers creating and improving the widely used, much-lauded Mechanics Instruction that Sticks materials.) When I started working at Cedar Springs High School, I sort of scoffed at how early Doug would leave the school each day. I quickly learned that he had to be home to get his kids off the bus, but still — this young and arrogant part of me thought, “Man, that's what it looks like to mail it in.”

But over time, an odd thing started to happen. Whenever I would receive students in my English courses after they'd had Doug, I'd notice that they were consistently better (and more knowledgable) writers than the ones I was sending Doug's way. This led me to a humbling realization: in significantly less hours of work per week, Doug was doing more for student writers than I was.

This wasn't some inborn ability Doug had. Rather, he was 10+ years further into the work than I was, and his bent was toward hard and smart and efficient labor. It wasn't just years of experience Doug had on me — it was the right kind of experience.

As Eric Barker writes in his Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong, “Hours alone… aren't enough. Those hours need to be hard” (p. 209, emphasis his). And that distinction is why Doug was where he was — he had put in years of hours of sustained, hard, and focused work. And so, his writing instruction was dialed in, and you didn't need to agree with his philosophies to prove it — you just needed to look at how his kids wrote.

(How do we respond in situations like the one I found myself in with Doug — he the far superior teacher to me? We seek them as mentors! More on how to do that well here.)

If you'd like to get to master teaching faster (I would), then look at how you're working. Is it effortful? Is it on the edge of your ability? Is it in pursuit of big and timeless questions rather than the latest edufad?

We've got to work hard within constraints for a long time.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply