The Artisan Teacher is our core program for teachers and teacher developers.  It is an ongoing study of the most recurring pedagogical approaches of particularly successful teachers.  Based on more than 40,000 classroom observations, the 23 Artisan Themes represent a comprehensive lexicon of terms that describe the core skills of excellent instruction.  The Artisan Teacher is designed to develop the craft of teaching by enabling teachers to identify and hone their most productive skills—and, to add new, complementary, skills to their repertoire.  The Artisan Teacher is also designed to be an aid to administrators, instructional coaches, college professors, and anyone who is engaged in the learning and development of teachers and teaching.

Engage with The Artisan Teacher program in these ways:

Buy the book.  The Artisan Teacher: A Field Guide to Skillful Teaching (Rutherford, 2013) is designed for individual teacher and administrator development, faculty book studies, and as a text for undergraduate and graduate work in effective teaching and school administration. Ordering information is on the front page of this site and also under the tab “Products and Resources.” Contact us for special pricing for faculty or district sets.

Bring Mike Rutherford to your school or district.  The Artisan Teacher is a workshop series for teachers and administrators.  Mike Rutherford teaches single day Artisan Teacher workshops, multi-day Artisan Teacher series, and summer Artisan Teacher Academies.  Contact us for availability and pricing.

More on The Artisan Teacher… below is the Introduction from The Artisan Teacher:  A Field Guide to Skillful Teaching.      

I have an incurable curiosity for teaching. For over three decades, I’ve been teaching, observing teachers, and studying teaching. In that time, I’ve personally observed at least ten thousand episodes of classroom instruction and have spoken with colleagues about thousands more. Since it is generally fulfilling to satisfy one’s curiosities, it has been a labor of love and not a bit of drudgery. Contrary to what one might imagine, these thousands of observations have never seemed repetitive or redundant. There is always something new to see, and, the more I look, the more I’m convinced that there are hundreds of ways to be excellent as a teacher.

Early on, I was expecting to be able to quickly spot some consistent actions that would support a template for describing successful teaching. I wished to say that all successful teachers do the same few things. Then I could logically tell other teachers, “Do these few things and you’ll be successful too.” As it turns out, successful teachers are successful in many ways. Some are well organized, but others, equally successful, are more spontaneous. Many effective teachers are energetic and enthusiastic, yet some excellent performers are quite low key. Some teachers are straight forward and businesslike and produce good results. Still others produce good results through a friendly, relaxed classroom climate. This is not to say that there are not observable, recurring patterns of instruction that especially successful teachers employ. There certainly are, and the remaining pages of this field guide are devoted to describing them. But there are many of them, and teachers employ them in many combinations and in many degrees. Successful teaching is a complex act.

A consistent, recurring pattern has emerged through all these observations. The most successful teachers are skillful. They do things. They make moves. They teach with an attention to detail and a level of execution that produces extra success for learners. They see teaching as a set of skills, some natural and some learned, that combine to produce optimal learning for students. As I have thought about this skillful approach and how it might be best described, I am reminded of an old term that has recently enjoyed a renaissance. The term is Artisan. The teachers who best exemplify this skillful approach to instruction are Artisan Teachers; skilled in the craft of teaching.

The word artisan, when used as an adjective, connotes a high quality, hand-made, unique nature. An artisan “this or that” implies that a craftsperson created a product in small batches, applying specialized knowledge and skill, with a measure of artistic creativity. We often hear of artisan bread, artisan cheese, or artisan jewelry. Historically, the word artisan is a noun. An artisan is a craftsperson. An artisan makes things. Stonemasons, coppersmiths, bakers, tanners, playwrights, songwriters, and tailors are artisans. The fruits of their labor have utility. They create items of value. The item’s value is not entirely based on utility, however. It is also based on beauty, design, and delight. An artisan creates an item that is not only sturdy and functional, but beautiful and delightful to use.

Artisans are not purely artists, though artistic expression is found in their work.

Artisans are not purely scientists, though scientific knowledge is essential to their work. Artisans are not merely technicians, though skilled labor is the core expression of their work. An artisan is one skilled in the applied arts, a craftsperson… a unique combination of artist, scientist, and skilled laborer. Excellent teachers are just like this. They are Artisans-artful, knowledgeable, skilled, masters of their craft (Rutherford, 2009a, p. 1).

The Artisan Teacher: A Field Guide to Skillful Teaching is an attempt to identify and organize the patterns of skillful instruction that have emerged from these thousands of observations. I should clarify here, that the field guide is a construction of my own mind. The twenty-three themes represent my best attempt at a cogent and comprehensive treatment of the patterns of successful teaching observed by me, in my career as a teacher and a developer of teachers. It is subject to the biases and misunderstandings that any one observer, however diligent, most probably commits. This work is not a peer-reviewed lexicon of instructional techniques that represents a consensus of the finest minds that ever observed a classroom. It is, rather, more like a field guide that catalogs beautiful birds, written by a single bird lover, an enthusiast, who has spent many hours in the forest looking for and at birds. One might also, keeping with the bird analogy, ask “by whose definition of beauty are these birds deemed the twenty-three most beautiful?” The answer is honest and straightforward, if not statistically comforting. It is by my own definition.

The themes are derived from thousands of classroom observations. Many, even most, of the teachers who were observed were chosen based on a recommendation from their principal. I asked principals to steer me toward three or four of their most successful teachers; teachers who excelled in creativity, innovation, classroom technique, classroom climate, test scores, and parent/student satisfaction. Not every principal knows who their most successful teachers are and some get it very wrong, in my opinion. But, mostly, they get it right. And, over the years they have provided me with a buffet of great teaching to observe and study. Inside the classroom I looked for instances of instruction that resulted in unusually high levels of student engagement, success, effort, clarity, thinking, and performance. I watched for instructional approaches that increased students’ speed of learning, recall of content, and transfer of knowledge and skills to new settings. When I saw these things happening, I took close and copious notes on the details of how it was happening. If I saw similar instructional results again and again, I began to craft a description of the instructional approach that most dependably delivered the positive learning results. These descriptions began to sort together as themes and the ones that recurred most often and most dependably became the twenty-three themes contained in this field guide.

Why twenty-three? I honestly wish it had worked out to a more compelling number. Ten would have been nice, or twelve. I’ve always liked the number eight because it has an elegant symmetry to it, I think. Twenty-one has a nice ring to it. There are twenty-three themes because that is the number of different patterns that had, in my way of thinking, substantially recurring evidence. There are twenty-three themes in the field guide because that number seemed to me, and me alone, to be the number that best described the patterns of successful teaching that I was repeatedly seeing.

The field guide is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all the ways teachers are excellent, but rather a useful way of looking at some of the themes that are most common and have the broadest utility. I have also noticed that successful teachers often have idiosyncratic skills; skills that are theirs alone and are not widely seen in other classrooms. It is intriguing to watch teachers use their “signature moves” at key moments of a lesson. This field guide does not attempt to describe these personal techniques since they are, by definition, not widespread. So, to be included on the list, a theme had to qualify in these four ways:

  • The theme must have utility in all content areas.
  • The theme must have utility for all ages and grade levels.
  • The theme must have a body of research and literature to support it.
  • The theme has to be observed repeatedly in the classrooms of successful teachers.

It is important to note that, in my observations of successful teachers, no one attempts to employ all twenty-three themes on a regular basis and certainly not in a single lesson. To do so would be counterproductive. Instead, Artisan Teachers tend to identify the themes in which they are already skilled and employ those skills first and most often, to the great benefit of their students.

Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, in their excellent book Now Discover Your Strengths, describe how peak performers in every field approach their craft… “they capitalize on their strengths and manage around their weaknesses.” (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001, p. 27). I see artisan teachers taking a similar approach. Instead of obsessing on areas where they are less effective, they identify their key skills, both innate and learned, and lean more heavily on those. They don’t ignore their weaknesses, but rather, seek to manage them. The Artisan Teacher: A Field Guide to Skillful Teaching is designed to support and enhance this process. Each of the twenty-three themes is presented in an easy to access format that will enable teachers to quickly recognize the themes in their own teaching, determine key skills and strengths, and enhance their practice. Administrators and others with a role in the development of teachers can use the field guide as a resource to support growth-evoking feedback and coaching.

I’d like to gratefully acknowledge the thousands of teachers, who in the midst of a thousand busy days, welcomed me and our observation teams into their classrooms and provided both the inspiration and the evidence for the twenty-three artisan themes. You have been and will continue to be the object of my incurable fascination with excellent teaching.


Mike Rutherford