Mastery

In the field of education there is an ideal of becoming a “master teacher”. Of course, the notion of becoming a master is not limited to teaching. It is found in nearly all disciplines. But interestingly, it is only in a few that the status of “master” is part of the culture of that discipline. Craftsman, gardener, and electrician are a few that come to mind.

What does it take to become a master? What does it look like to achieve such a lofty status? What is the motivation for pursuing it? When it comes to teaching, some of the answers to these questions offer us all insights that we can also translate into each of our journeys.

Margaret Regan, teacher and founder of Martha’s Vineyard Master Teaching Institute, writes that the process of becoming a master teacher is the process of becoming a reflective practitioner. In this process, she identifies six elements: understanding your reason for teaching, cultivating ethical behavior, pooling patience and perseverance, designing curriculum that works, perfecting practices and skills, and connecting positively to school culture (https://www.edutopia.org/blog/master-teaching-margaret-regan).

One of the things that really struck me about this list, is how much it reminded me of a poem which is chanted on the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, in which it forms part of a larger liturgy of seeking forgiveness and righting wrongs. The poem beseeches the reader:

Prepare and meditate, commune in thought and ponder deep on what you are, your origin, who gave you form, who made you know and whose the power which moves you. (translation by Rabbi David de Sola Pool)

It seems to me this poem, written by the medieval Spanish poet Judah Halevi, takes an approach echoed by Ms. Regan’s points about master teaching, but instead shows how this kind of process is essential to mastering ourselves.

In essence, these lines push the reader to reflect on one’s motivations, patterns of thought and behavior in a way that bears a strong resemblance to elements of master teaching.

There is another more subtle similarity though that these authors, spanning centuries of time and worlds of context, both articulate. They both in their own way make it clear that the purpose of reflective practice and mastery is not just the growth of the self, but also, living up to our responsibility toward the community. In other words, Regan’s final element of “connecting positively with school culture” and the poem’s setting within a liturgy that is fundamentally about making amends with others, make the project of self mastery about much more than the self.

There are many insightful guides to mastery for various disciplines. What the examples we’ve discussed reveal for us is that when it comes to mastering the self, the method only takes us so far. In the end, self mastery requires us to dedicate the self to others.

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