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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

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

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am familiar with the work of Steven Covey as he truly focuses on a proactive approach to teaching and to life in general. Rather than approaching situations in a reactive or emotional way, you must first think about the best way to act in a way that benefits everyone involved; in other words, a "win-win" situation. This directly relates to the idea that we as teachers should focus most on the third step in the "teacher-attitude cycle." Many aspects of teaching are out of our control, yet, how we deliver instruction and make learning enjoyable is something that we should embrace. By focusing on the positive elements of teaching, then and only then will we as teachers be proactive in our approach.

Shaun G.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson

Thank you for sharing the sentiments that are felt by so many in this profession. Hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the three-step teacher attitude cycle. Every year I find myself jumping back and forth from step two to step three. It took me a while to overcome step one my first few years, but now I can't see myself doing anything else but being involved in education in some capacity. Your words are an inspiration. Finding the right role models and mentors definitely goes a long way in helping us become not only great teachers, but expert teachers as well. Building a love for students and a passion for this profession his very profound.

Stephanie Manso's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson,
I really enjoyed reading your posting. I could relate my own experiences as a novice and semi-experienced teacher with your "three-step teacher-attitude cycle."

The first year of teaching was very difficult and challenging, and it was at this time I truly contemplated on whether or not I wanted to remain in the teaching profession. I felt somewhat isolated and alone, and very consumed by everything that needed to be done, and on time. It was the summer prior to my second year of teaching that I truly dreaded my profession. I felt very pessimistic and doubtful. I went through the emotions of whether students truly cared, and whether administration really cared beyond other than making parents happy at all costs. It took a couple more years before I dug myself out of that stoop. It was terrible and it took several teachers in telling me that I was ultimately responsible for my happiness in the profession. Mrs. Luque became a great mentor at that time as well. She made me realize that it is not worth putting so much stress on my shoulders when my only obligation is to my students and helping prepare them for the future. She said, "it does not matter what anyone else thinks(parents, administrators, other teachers) because your students will be the ones coming back to knock on your door (not them) to inform you whether or not you had a positive or a negative influence in their lives." She has joked and said, "I have managed to survive nine different administrators in my time at this school, you can surely do the same." (laughs) I really do miss her - she retired a couple years back.

I really appreciate your thoughts Mr. Johnson. As Michael Myers (another one of your respondents) asked, I would also like to know how you plan to inspire your staff with the realities you faced when you returned to the classroom.

Again, thank you Mr. Johnson.

Stephanie M.
(Walden University)

Rich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson,

I really enjoyed reading your entry. It really hit home when you said your "spark of desire was rekindled when you went into administration." I will be starting my 5th year of teaching and still have the desire. Hopefully in five more years I will be in your position. I want to bring new excitement to the classroom when I am in administration.

Stephanie Manso's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am taking a master's course called "Teacher as Professional." One of the main themes of the course is what it takes to be a great teacher. I would like to share with all of you the material we are reading:

Kramer, P.A. (2003, Fall). The ABC's of professionalism. Kappa Delti Pi Record.

Nieto, S. (2007). The Teaching Professional [Motion Picture]. United States: Laureate Education, Inc.

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Phelps, P. H. (2006). The three Rs of professionalism. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 42(2), 69-71.

I also have added these two books to my professional library:

Fried, R. L. (1995). The Passionate Teacher: A Practical Guide. Boston: Beacon Press.

Stronge, J.H. (2007). Qualities of effective teachers. Alexandria, VA: ASCD Publishing

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Shannon,
I agree that teachers must have a passion for working with children and helping them grow. I never thought of the attitude cycle as a way for individuals to assess if they are cut out for our profession. I have worked with those individuals who are not passionate about teaching and are working towards the next vacation or break. My question to you is how do you adjust and learn to collaborate and work with those individuals? It was tough for our teaching team to work with a certain teacher who didn't care. We often found ourselves trying to pick up any slack and were trying to help our students as much as we could. However, we could only do so much because they were not in our classroom throughout the day. Besides being respectful and civil towards this person, how could we have improved our situation? Thank you for any advice that you have.

Stace's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am going into my 4th year of teaching and am finding that step one and two are slowly creeping up on me. I still have more of a step three attitude due to the fact that I still am retaining some of the "newbie" excitement, but it is hard to not feel some of the negativity permeate the enthusiasm. The daily battles with trying to keep/get students motivated and dealing with the front office can be trying. I am working on just maintaining my ideals and working on improving myself, which can only help. As educators, I don't know that we are ever experts. There are always opportunities to improve and learn more to ensure success for our students.

Lori Wardingley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I imagine after 20 years of teaching you have learned many lessons. How do you stay motivated to keep current in your studies? Right now I am driven to be better than great but my biggest fear is that my drive will fade as the years pass. Do you have any advice or encouragement for a new novice teacher?

Mark Schutte's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anyone who is in education I believe experiences all three steps that Mr. Johnson wrote about. There are moments or days when the job is just overwhelming. There are the days when it feels like there are roadblocks at every turn keeping us from doing our job. And then there are the days when we can bust through the roadblocks and get back to the reason we all became teachers in the first place -- to teach children. The happiest times are in the classroom, when it's just the children and me. More and more, I think all teachers need to stay focused on the children in order to keep us going. The roadblocks will still be out there. We just have to remember the children are on the other side.

Mr. Johnson, I am curious how your perspective about teaching has changed, or if it has, now that you're on the administrative side.

Mark Schutte's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anyone who is in education I believe experiences all three steps that Mr. Johnson wrote about. There are moments or days when the job is just overwhelming. There are the days when it feels like there are roadblocks at every turn keeping us from doing our job. And then there are the days when we can bust through the roadblocks and get back to the reason we all became teachers in the first place -- to teach children. The happiest times are in the classroom, when it's just the children and me. More and more, I think all teachers need to stay focused on the children in order to keep us going. The roadblocks will still be out there. We just have to remember the children are on the other side.

Mr. Johnson, I am curious how your perspective about teaching has changed, or if it has, now that you're on the administrative side.

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