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Dexter Chapin’s Master Teachers

I recently read Dexter Chapin’s excellent book, Master Teachers: Making a Difference on the Edge of Chaos and underlined more passages than I had in any book in years. For my blog today, I wanted to share some of them.

“Nothing the federal government, the state government, or the school district does will improve education and schooling nearly as much as recognizing the impact and magic created by a master teacher connecting with students.”

“What really sets teachers apart are two traits. The first is that teachers are idealists. To a person, they believe the world can be a better place and they, all by themselves, can make a difference, and, perhaps, a big difference.”

“Everybody has moments of success, but teachers see it every time the kids’ eyes light up when they see and understand something never seen and never understood before.”

“By the time he retires, every good teacher has hundreds of heirs. Perhaps this is the best reason to teach. Teachers dream a better world and have a capacity to achieve that dream not for just one generation but certainly two and possibly three generations.”

“The good teacher needs student questions the way a thirsty person needs water. And no matter where the question leads, the master teacher can bring it back to where the students have to go.”

“Teachers are political animals. The decisions they make about what knowledge to include in their class is an intensely political act. This fact cannot be avoided because not choosing is an equally political act. College professors have the partial protection of tenure, but most K-12 teachers do not. Safety for many teachers lies in mediocrity, where the definition of mediocrity is what most people do most of the time. However, master teachers do have a safety net or protection that is not available to mediocre teachers, the trust of their students. Master teachers have compassion; the ability to meet students where they are. Over time, compassion breeds trust. Over time, trust allows the teacher to shake the students’ knowledge base to its foundations, while the students make a conscious effort to protect the teacher.”

“Integrity and empathy are the beginnings of a foundation for lifelong learning. Therefore the goal of the master teacher must be to increase both in students.”

“The flow of information from the teacher to the student dwarfs the flow from the student to the teacher. The measure of success is regurgitation. Can the student give back what was given? Yes? No? Success? Failure?…. It is a trivial system indeed that returns an input as output with no change. How trivial are we going to make education and our students?”

“Optimistic teachers are confident that the world can be changed. However, they do not believe that only they have the power to change the world. They trust their students. Therefore, their role is not that of a blacksmith hammering a piece into shape, but rather a gardener encouraging growth…. A second trait of optimistic teachers is the belief that they have never peaked as a teacher. What happened in their class yesterday can be improved on. It has never been as good as it might be. They are constantly looking for other ways to do things, to broaden the experience, to enrich the information sources, and to tailor the structure and function for the class to meet student needs and interests.”

“While we rush, rather thoughtlessly, to copy the rote memorization techniques that enable kids in Asia and elsewhere to score so well on standardized tests, the education ministries in Japan, China, and India are frantically dispatching minions into the field, exhorting teachers to ‘teach in a more American fashion,’ in order to stop squelching the creativity, imagination, and argumentative confidence that we encourage (or used to encourage) so well.”

“Part of the art of teaching is to be able to read the students as they come through the door… To make our lives easier, I built a eudemony meter for the classroom. Eudemony is a measure of general well-being. The meter consisted of an open pine cabinet with a layer of cork in the back with a seven-inch circle inscribed. At the base of the cabinet were five containers of push pins; green, blue, clear, yellow, and red. The cabinet was situated so I could not see the color pin the student put into the cork on entering the class. Before I started class, I would look at the pattern in the target and knew immediately what I was dealing with. Some days I could go for broke and some days I couldn’t. Some days, I just abandoned the lesson plan, and did something else entirely because it was really green or really red…. In those instances where I had a single red at the start of class for two or three days running, the students always made sure I knew who was having a bad time. They never did it outright; it was always in code, but they made sure I knew. The student in question was always grateful.”

“A necessary basis for students feeling safe is the presence of rules that are held inviolate. The rule that leaps to mind is the golden rule, ‘Do unto others…’ The trouble is that this rule is meaningless to precisely those students who have the greatest tendency to create social havoc. They are bullies who have ‘already been done to’ and see the world as being a place where you do first before it can be done to you. A better rule might be, ‘You can say, or do, anything provided it is true, kind, and useful (it gets us down the road to where we want to be).’”

“Competition between students has a bad aroma with some teachers…. However, done appropriately so that one person, group, or team does not metaphorically score ten runs in the first inning, it can generate very positive outcomes…. the competitive situation should have the following characteristics:
• It must be limited to a specific situation, assignment, or time, and not generalized across the context.
• The ‘rules’ must be the same for all players but the outcomes may be different.
• There must be multiple, limited competitions between variable groups.
• The competitive situation should always be novel and unpredictable.
• And finally, the competition must always remain a game and be fun.”

“… there are two questions to be asked. The first question is, if we gave any one of the high stakes tests such as the SAT, ACT, or NCLB mandated state tests to a thousand congressmen, CEOs, artists, or military officers, would a significant portion be embarrassed by their performance? Which raises the second question, what does a successful person need to know, and how and where can each person learn it? The answers to these last questions should drive a national organization of teachers. Forget the rest of it. If we can get this in front of the nation, everything else will follow.”

“Please do not even try to be a teacher if you do not have all of the attributes of character: integrity tempered by empathy, intelligence tempered by awe, risk-taking tempered by common sense, independence tempered by the desire to serve, and most important, self-confidence tempered by self-knowledge. Even with all the attributes, please do not start or continue on the journey just because it is possible. Start or continue on the journey because it is what you have to do, almost a calling.”

“In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and highest responsibility anyone could have.”

With hope for schools filled with master teachers like Dexter Chapin,

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach

About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


One thought on “Dexter Chapin’s Master Teachers

  1. These are wonderful quotes to share, Zoe.

    I think we teachers have to help one another remember this one, especially:

    Nothing the federal government, the state government, or the school district does will improve education and schooling nearly as much as recognizing the impact and magic created by a master teacher connecting with students.

    Budgeting and politics frequently intrude on teaching and learning, but ultimately we decide what we do in the classroom.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 16, 2011, 5:35 am

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