Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Outstanding in Your Field: What It Takes to Be a Great Teacher

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Steven Covey wrote a book called The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, to try and help organizations and individuals find their own voices. The premise of the book was that if you didn't do this, you or your organization might not be able to achieve greatness. After I read this book, I considered the word greatness for a long while. Of course, being an incessant analyzer, I asked myself this question: "What does greatness mean in education?" Then I began thinking about my own career.

I know I was a good teacher, but I never thought of myself as a great teacher. I certainly had passion, enthusiasm, and creativity, but I never thought I had the stuff for greatness, though I did the best I knew how with the resources that were available. As a teacher, I found myself naturally drawn to thinking about what I could do to improve my lessons, to overcome negative student behaviors, or to encourage individual students. I went to conferences and saw other teachers with more experience, verbal acuity, and style and I wanted to be like them. While I was well aware of my own shortcomings, I never quit trying to improve, grow, and learn to be a better teacher. I achieved tremendous success in getting my students to take and pass the AP Spanish Language tests and to actually speak Spanish, but my strategies and skills were not unique. Aside from a little bit of personal flair (my daughter, Mercedes would say fifth grade humor) these strategies were the compilation of wisdom and experience gained mostly from other teachers.

Although I was not a world-renown educator, I would like to believe that I eventually found my voice and achieved a moderate level of greatness. During this whole process of becoming great, the varied experiences in my career as a teacher deepened my knowledge and skills, and strengthened my resolve to improve my craft. In that process, I went through the typical three-stage teacher-attitude cycle (this parallels research done by Frances Fuller and John L. Watzke):

  • Shock: "Whoa! This is too much, and I want out."
  • Cynicism: "The students don't care. The administration doesn't support us."
  • Self-Actualization: "I can do this. This is fun. If I help just one student, it is worth it!"

In each of these steps, I was lucky to have other caring individuals help me. As a new teacher, I benefited greatly from the patient ministrations of several seasoned teachers who showed me the ropes on how to do grading, discipline, effective lessons, and ways to manage the volume of work. Without their help, I would not have made it past the first year. As teachers are required to do, I attended workshops and teacher meetings in which I was inspired to be great. I saw Stand and Deliver, which depicts how a high school math teacher, Jaime Escalante, challenged the mental and social limitations his students had placed on themselves, thereby bringing them to greatness. I felt that if I could be that passionate about teaching students, I could do anything. Then I went back into the classroom and faced the reality that I had only a certain amount of time, strength, and energy, and my desire for greatness faded a bit, though I never let it die completely.

The third year for me was another matter. When I visited the teacher lounge or in staff or department meetings, it was other teachers that introduced me to teacher cynicism. I was only able to get out of that trap of negativity in the second stage and move into the third stage of self-actualization because of wonderful mentor teachers who helped me understand that complaining and blaming resolved nothing and only inhibited my growth. Mr. Devereaux, the Spanish department head, helped me most of all. He taught me that I first had to be the solution rather than add all my complaining to the problem. He helped me enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey, and not concentrate on the pebbles in my shoes. Reflecting on my teaching career, I don't think I was an effective teacher until I learned that lesson.

When I decided to become an administrator, that spark of desire for greatness was rekindled and refocused: I wanted to inspire other teachers to be great and thus pass that on to their students. I have seen that spark of greatness in teachers when I have observed classrooms, and watched teachers interact with students. I saw this greatness through the eyes of students as I shadowed a first grader, a second grader, an eighth grader, and a ninth grader, and attended all of their classes with them. In each, I marveled at the relationships forged by teachers, as well as their excitement and enthusiasm. I've witnessed similar elements of greatness firsthand, while spending hours at campuses and in teacher classrooms in all grades levels and in nearly every type of school.

In the second part of this post, I describe these experiences in more detail and pose some questions about greatness for you to ponder, but please share your thoughts about what you think greatness means in education and in your classrooms.

Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (183)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Michelle 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my Master's Program we are also studying attributes of novice and expert teachers. I am learning so much from reflecting on my own teaching strategies and relationships with students and staff. I believe that in certain phases of our career, we slide back and forth on the continuum to an extent. However, I think if you are an expert teacher, changes in your career are easier to manage. The effective teacher can be flexible and can adjust due to their confidence in their profession. An essential part of being an expert teacher is knowing that our profession and our children are constantly changing and there will always be need for change and improvement.

K Teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your idea about the 3 cycle attitude. I realize myself that I am stuck in this second cycle. I often find myself angry at my administration wondering why they can't find 5 minutes to come into my classroom and see what my children are doing. I don't consider myself a novice teacher nor an expert but this blog has helped me to realize that I don't think I can become an expert teacher until I change my attitude. Thanks for the insightful post!

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Michelle:

In some ways teachers need to be flexible, especially when it come to working as a team. The principal and the needs of the school demand flexibility in teaching assignments and matching our skills. In other ways, a teacher should be totally inflexible: high standards, efficient use of time, student engagement, and high quality assessment to name just a few. Too much flexibility in these areas leads to shoddy professionalism (oxymoron?) and loosy-goosy teaching (baby sitting really). The goal is to keep the pressure on so we do not slip back and forth and that we are constantly making improvements. When we realize that we are not alone in this endeavor, ie we have a team of teachers, then the sunshine policy (your team teachers see how you teach and the results of your teaching) will keep us on our toes and keep us doing the best work we know how to do. Professional learning communities are the answer.

Good luck to you.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Darlene Calhoun's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am both an educator for 25+ years and owner of my own COMPUTER EXPLORERS business. so I have experience on both sides of the road. I understand that a teacher needs to be recognized for their teaching qualities, a students needs to be encouraged as they learn new skills and as a business owner, I need to get postive feedback as well as negative feedback about summer TechStars camps and ways to improve my service.

I went into a meeting this morning where one of my classes was being held to talk about some bad comments from parents of previous camps. I was there to work through a way of resolving the problems that kept coming up. The two directors seemed to be stuck in the 2nd phase of negativity. I later found out that not once had they visited my class to get a first hand immpression of what was going on. They even wanted to cancel the rest of the week's camp. I felt that cancelling the camp was not the answer, so volunteered to create a parent info sheet to inform parents what was being covered in that camp and to invite them to a Parent Share time at the end of the week. Next year I will probably provide a toolkit for each camp to let parents know their children are learning and to keep them inform.

As students, teachers or administrators, we'll all have our times of negativity, but to take the next step to GREATNESS, you really have to have an open mind and be flexible.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dariene:

You have helped the parents find their voice, and in so doing, you have also helped your directors find theirs. Thanks for sharing this magnificent example of the quest for greatness. Having an open mind on somethings is very important. The things that should not be negotiable are active student learning and participation in the learning process. How that happens is negotiable.

You have a plan and I am certain it will work for you and your students. Good luck on your journey.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

K Teacher:

You have taken the first step to greatness. That does not mean that you quit expecting your administrators to help, or you isolate yourself from other teachers. What it does is it gives you the self will and confidence to tackle problems on your own, and at the same time enlist fellow teachers and administrators to do the same. In education, greatness is found in instructional leadership. A truly great teacher inspires students as well as colleagues, administrators and parents to perform at their best. That is your quest. Enjoy!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Carol's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What it takes to be a great teacher: The first thing that came to mind was one must have an open heart. There are so many children out there with no adult interaction in their lives. You might be the only person they can rely on for stability. Once they develop the trust, the learning will come. Therefore, a good teacher must know his/her area of expertise. A good teacher must follow the bench marchs put forth by the state he/she is teaching in. This guarantees that the children are being exposed to and learning all that is required of them. A good teacher uses tools to measure a childs success. This gives him/her the opportunity to remediate where necessary. A good teacher is flexible because children are not born out of the same mold. We must be accepting of all no matter what the race, color, religion or disability.

Shawan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What makes a great teacher? I am currently a student at Walden University and my colleagues and I discussed the attributes of a novice teacher vs an expert teacher. We were asked to place ourselves in that spectrum, and I too, like the author, do not see myself as an expert, but I know I fall somewhere in the middle. One of the most important factors I have to realize in my 4.5 years of teaching is that becoming a great or expert teacher takes time and experience! I didn't learn everything in my first year of teachiing, but each year I learned a little more about my teaching style and the effectiveness I had in my classroom with my students. I think the expertise of the teaching field is learned through experience, reflection, and continued education in the field.

Shawan
Intermediate Level (3-5th)

Shawan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What makes a great teacher? I am currently a student at Walden University and my colleagues and I discussed the attributes of a novice teacher vs an expert teacher. We were asked to place ourselves in that spectrum, and I too, like the author, do not see myself as an expert, but I know I fall somewhere in the middle. One of the most important factors I have to realize in my 4.5 years of teaching is that becoming a great or expert teacher takes time and experience! I didn't learn everything in my first year of teachiing, but each year I learned a little more about my teaching style and the effectiveness I had in my classroom with my students. I think the expertise of the teaching field is learned through experience, reflection, and continued education in the field.

Shawan
Intermediate Level (3-5th)

Kristy Gugino's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with you that not everything can be learned in your first year of teaching. Not even by the time you reach 20 years of teaching do you know it all. We have a book in my district that outlines the different areas a teacher needs to focus on, such as communication, lessons, and assessment. It is explained on a continuum what a novice teacher does and what an expert teacher does. Now, I am in no ways an expert. I am only in my 5th year of teaching. To me, an expert teacher would be one that is an expert in all the areas outlined in the book. Let's face it, this is next to impossible. With the many interruptions throughout the day, the NTLB mandates that have teachers teaching to the test and teaching test taking strategies instead of teaching the important things, there isn't enough time in the day to be an expert on everything. I think this is really sad. Gone are the teachable moments when the moments don't deal with the curriculum. While I wouldn't consider myself a novice teacher any longer, I would never consider myself an expert.

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.