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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Outstanding in Your Field: What It Takes to Be a Great Teacher

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I am reading a book by Steven Covey called The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, which he wrote to help organizations and individuals find their voices. The premise of the book is that if you don't do this, you or your organization will not be able to achieve greatness. I highly recommend that you read it, and I will gladly lend it to you when I am done with it, but that is not the focus of this post.

I considered the word greatness for a long while. I asked myself this question: "What does it mean in education?" Then I started thinking about my career.

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; I did the best I knew how with the resources that were available. I found myself always thinking about what I could do to improve my lessons, to overcome negative student behaviors, or to encourage individual students, while at the same time, I pondered my own shortcomings. My strategies and skills were not unique. Aside from a little bit of personal flair, they were the compilation of wisdom and experience gained mostly from other teachers.

Although I was not great, I would like to believe that I was an above-average teacher. As most teachers do, I went through the typical three-step teacher-attitude cycle:

  • Whoa! This is too much, and I want out.
  • The students don't care. The administration doesn't support us.
  • I can do this. This is fun. Get out of my way, and let me do my job. If I help just one student, it is worth it.

I was able to get out of the second-phase trap of negativity and into the third, self-actualized phase because of wonderful mentor teachers who helped me understand that it helps no one to complain and point fingers. Mr. Devereaux, the Spanish department head, taught me that I first had to be the solution to all my problems, and then I could enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey. I don't think I was an effective teacher until I learned that lesson.

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.

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. So here I am.

I have seen that spark of greatness in you when I have been in your classrooms and watched you interact with the students. Recently, I have been a first grader, a second grader, and an eighth grader (and I will soon be a ninth grader), and I have witnessed elements of your greatness firsthand while spending the entire day at your campuses and in your classes.

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 I've discussed here.

Comments (178)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

linzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great comment, you don't have to an expect in order to be a great teacher. I believe that. Like everyone is relying teaching is all about learning, growing, exploring, and developing.

Ellie Alvarez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It was very interesting to read your post and very informative for those of us aspiring teachers. It's good to know that you went through that cycle that many teachers I'm sure go through. I hope to be able to put it behind me like you have and make the best of the career. I think teaching is a very honorable profession.

Thank you for sharing that post.

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts here. I feel as though they are very accurate. I am a fourth year teacher. I remember my first year very clearly, and I often thought that everything was way too overwhelming. I asked myself everyday, What will I do to get through today? If I didn't love teaching, there is no way I would have returned for another year. I am definitely in the second phase of the attitude cycle. I find myself commenting often about the administration's lack of interest in having our backs unless it benefits them. Your comment that it helps no one to complain and point fingers has had a huge effect over me. I have decided that if I don't change my attitude about things then I will no longer be able to find that love and passion for teaching that I have had my entire life.

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


I realize that part of my thought are somewhat pessimistic. Not all schools have self absorbed administrators and negative nay-sayer teachers. The point was that if you are in that kind of place, don't worry, you can handle it if you have a good attitude. I am encouraged by the Professional Learning Community movement and firmly believe that this will fill some of the gaps that many teachers experience in their cycle of becoming a truly effective teacher. Asking for help is not a weakness, and who knows, you actually might get it. If you don't, then just carry on and enjoy developing your strategies and learning skills for the kids as best you can.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Marie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Christina, I agree with you that reflection and willingness to adjust are cornerstones for greatness in one's teaching career. I have been reading a lot on novice to expert teachers and how expert teachers are able to cognitively process their disciplines better than novice teachers, and are able to also be more flexible with what they teach, because they understand the content at a deeper level than novice teachers. Each year can bring more growth in this area. The article I read also says that some teachers never really get to the expert point if they aren't able to work on how they process the information of their discipline. Perhaps you'd like to check the article out as well.

Garmston, R. J. (1998). Becoming expert teachers (Part one). Journal of Staff Development, 19(1).

I also agree that each year brings new challenges, yet I think that each year a teacher is able to improve on many things as well. It's sort of like a catch-22. Problems arise, but certain improvements are also made. It's always changing.

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)


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)


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

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