“Never Work Harder Than Your Students”: A Conversation with Author Robyn Jackson
The title of this interview, which is also the title of Robyn Jackson’s recent ASCD book, is sure to raise a hue and a cry among those who believe we should urge teachers to work more, not less. Yet Jackson is far more concerned with how teachers work than with how much they work.
We recently spoke with Dr. Jackson, a National Board Certified Teacher and former school administrator, about her book’s big lessons. She uses an old adage to sum up an overarching message: “The person working hardest in the room is the only person learning.” Even the most dedicated teachers fall short if they do the work their students should be doing. Master teachers, by contrast, inspire students to do the important work on their own.
By no means does Jackson excuse teachers from hard work. Master teachers, she argues, must understand where students are, where they need to go, and what support they need along the way. They must hold themselves to very high expectations for promoting student success and seek feedback on their performance.
Jackson’s work holds important lessons for policymakers, not just teachers: Support educators’ capacity! Simply urging people to work harder is not a feasible reform strategy.
You can download the entire audio interview here or listen to six minutes of interview highlights:
[A transcript of these highlights appears below]
Alternatively, download the following excerpts from
- What Is a Master Teacher? (3:01)
- Understanding the Principles of Mastery (1:29)
- Starting Where Your Students Are; Getting Them Where They Need to Go (2:32)
- Setting Minimum Standards; Preserving High Expectations (3:41)
- Holding Yourself to High Expectations (2:07)
- Catching Students the Moment They Begin to Fall (5:02)
- Never Work Harder than Your Students! (4:15)
- Weighing In on the Homework Debate (2:37)
- Charting Your Individual Journey to Mastery (1:19)
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Your book offers guidance on how to become what you call a master teacher. What is a master teacher?
JACKSON: Being a master teacher has been the subject of myth for years. There's the teacher that gets the movie made about them.
Normally, and in a lot of people's minds, the master teacher is a teacher who just has no life and devotes her entire life to teaching. But that's not really the right conception of a master teacher. In my book, a master teacher is anyone who can take every single child in her class and help that child meet the standards by the end of the year.
If I wanted to think about it a little bit more broadly, it's someone who can get at least a year's worth of growth out of a year's worth of school. There's been some research recently that's looked at teacher quality, and they've been [defining] master teachers in terms of people who can get a year or more's growth out of a kid for a year's worth of school.
I think that's a pretty useful definition because it doesn't pigeonhole teachers into being a certain way or having a certain kind of strategy: "If I'm not that way then I can't be a master teacher." Really, [teacher mastery] has to do with how well the students perform in that class. It's really about, is every student thriving and growing and meeting the standards?
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: It's interesting that in your book you never counsel teachers to teach to any kind of an assessment that would allow you to measure that year's worth of growth. You don't tell teachers that they should simply teach to that one test.
JACKSON: That test isn't the only gauge for a year's worth of growth.
Certainly, a state test is one measurement, but it's not the only measurement. [As a teacher,] you're looking at children who came to you who had no kind of study skill, and now they have a study skill. Some districts don't have [a test for that]. So you’re looking at the overall child, and you're also helping the kids meet the standards. So in addition to a year's worth of growth for a year's worth of school, you're also looking at, are the kids meeting the standards of your grade level or your course? If you can help every kid get there…
The reason I hesitate to say that's the only gauge of a master teacher--do the kids meet the standards?--is because if I've got a kid who comes to me, and… For instance, I was working with a ninth grade teacher, and she said, "My kids come to me with a sixth-grade reading level. And by the time they're done [with my class], I've gotten them reading on an eighth-grade reading level."
That’s still not enough to meet a ninth-grade standard. Is it fair to call that teacher not a master teacher because her kids aren't meeting the standard by the end of the year?
So I had to broaden the definition of a master teacher a little bit more to include, are you getting at least a year's worth of growth in terms of the kids' [academic performance] for the year that they spend with you in the classroom? Because if you do have kids who come [to you] so far behind, you may be making two, three, four years' worth of growth for every single kid in your class, and your kids still aren't hitting the standard because of where they're [starting].
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: As you talk about mastery, beyond just how to define that teacher you offer principles people can follow to make it there. Could you describe a couple of those principles very briefly?
JACKSON: The principles have to do with the whole process. One principle is starting where your children are. The more I work with teachers, the more I'm finding that's really a hard principle--a lot of the teaching challenges teachers are facing is because they haven't really taken the time to do that.
It's about understanding the currencies that your kids are spending, making sure that you are trading in the same kinds of currencies, and teaching your children how to carry more than one kind of currency so that they can acquire the capital of the classroom.
The next [principle] is to know where you're going. That means that teachers have to have a sense of what a year's worth of growth looks like and what mastery for the kids looks like, so that they can make sure that they're parsing that out for kids and making that achievable for kids.
The third [principle] is to expect to get the kids there. You want to have the faith in yourself that you can take any kid and move them where they need to be.
The fourth [principle] is that you need to support them along the way, and the fifth one is that you want to constantly get feedback for yourself and then give kids growth-oriented feedback so that they can continue to make it.
The sixth one is focusing on quality versus quantity in terms of the kinds of assignments you're doing in the classroom and the kinds of work you're giving to the kids.
The last [principle] is to never work harder than your students. There's an old adage that says the person working hardest in the classroom is the only person who's learning.
The bulk of our work happens before we go into the classroom. It happens in the planning, the preparation, and the provisioning for what we're going to be doing. Once we get into the classroom we should be setting our kids up to do their work on their own.
A big thing that I want to get across in this book is that you don't have to turn yourself into someone else to become a master teacher. You can find ways that fit who you are and fit who your kids are to develop mastery.
The other big idea of the book is this: It doesn't happen right away. It really is hard work, and it takes consistent practice. So you can't just read the book and say, "Oh, those are interesting," and then, "Maybe I'll start applying them in some sort of indiscriminate way to my teaching," and think that's going to get you to mastery.
It really does require sitting down, looking at the self-assessment results, reflecting a little bit about your own teaching, and then being very intentional about applying the principles to your practice. Then reflecting and seeing how it went, and adjusting and revisiting principles.
When you do that, your proficiency and your capacity to become a master teacher increases. But it doesn't happen just because you've read the book. It comes from practicing. It doesn't just happen.