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The Secret Skills of Master Teachers: Are They a Thing?

By Dave Stuart Jr.

If you had walked up to me as a struggling first year teacher and said the kinds of things I needed to hear — something like, “Dude. Slow down. Focus. Breathe. You're working too hard.” — then I think I would have looked at you with eager eyes and said, “You know what? I'd love to. Please explain how that's done.”

And if you were me today — Dave the 12th year teacher — you would have looked at me — Dave the 1st year teacher — and said, “Um… Well, I don't totally know how. I mean, I know it's important. But, uh, here's a book at least, These 6 Things. You'll write it someday, in the future. It's a great start.”

“Oh,” I can picture Dave the 1st Year saying. “Um, thanks!”

And then this weird time paradox thing would happen and the fabric of the universe would be torn apart because we would have just altered the past via time travel.

Metaphysics aside, I've been enjoying an open mind lately, and it's got me wondering some things. With a new school year under way, and These 6 Things out the door and into the hands of the people I made it for (us), and the Student Motivation Course's third (and final, for a while) cohort wrapped up, it's like when I sit down at my computer to write, or when I sit amongst my books to read, my mind says, “Ooooh, yes, let's explore.”

And the questions I'm struggling with as a teacher are the ones I keep coming back to. I always say that I enjoy writing about the “internal work” of teaching. But what is that, actually?

How do you develop an internal environment from which great teaching can flow? There are all kinds of directions to go with this, but one lens through which to view the problem is “skills.” There seem to be certain skills that masterful teachers are very good at.

For example, satisficing is one of those skills: doing lots of things at the “just good enough” level. And even, sometimes, not doing pointless things at all. It seems like masterful, flourishing teachers are great at deciding which things to satisfice or skip. And I guess that's part of what These 6 Things was meant to do — to help us say, “Okay, let's not satisfice or skip these six things. Let's work together on these across our schools. Let's become experts at them.”

I've had numerous readers tell me, “Man, I love that word ‘satisfice.' I use it all the time.” And I'm glad for that because

1) it's an old word and a good word, coined by Nobel prizewinner Herbert Simon in 1956, and

2) it's always good to know if something I share is useful.

I often say to these people, “Yes, there should almost be an entire teacher credentialing course on satisficing, don't you think? I bet that alone could put a small dent in teacher attrition rates.”

But then I get to thinking: so, what would be in that course; what's on the syllabus for Ed 402: Satisficing for Educators? How do you actually teach a teacher to satisfice correctly? What shortcuts exist for mastering that skill — because to me, it often seems like one of those things you need five years or so of good experience in order to get a grip on it.

The trouble, of course, is that the average teacher doesn't make it five years — I didn't — and many of the folks reading this blog therefore aren't even five years in, and it's just sort of a harsh thing to say to someone, “You know, just keep struggling for a few more years, and then, if you're still teaching, you'll get it.”

We've got to be better at uncovering the “secret skills” that make teaching a sustainable and fulfilling career. This is something I mean to explore in the weeks to come: what are the “secret skills” that master teachers develop, and how might we shine light on these to a degree that makes them clearer and easier to think about?

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