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

| Ben Johnson

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.

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Stephanie Manso (not verified)

What It Takes To Be A Great Teacher

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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

Rich (not verified)

Spark of Desire

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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 (not verified)

Three-Step Teacher-Attitude Cycle

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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)

Shaun G. (not verified)

Thank you for your insight

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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.

Kelly (not verified)

I am familiar with the work

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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.

Cynthia (not verified)

From Effectiveness To Greatness

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The book you recommend, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness sounds interesting and I think that I will try to purchase it at the book store. What teacher wouldn't want to improve his or her teaching from effectiveness to greatness. I have taught for 15 years and always find myself revisiting number 1 - "Whoa! This is too much." However, I bounce back and meet the challenge, whether it is new materials or curriculum changes, new assessments to be administered, or difficult students to deal with. What I do not find myself doing is number 3 if I understand you correctly. Collaboration is very important to me. My colleagues do share ideas about the curriculum, classroom management issues, and student interventions. We are a team. Do I close my door and teach the way I am comfortable? Yes, but it sure is nice to lean on a colleague when needed and hopefully I am helping many students not just one.

Stephanie M. (not verified)

Three-step teacher-attitude cycle

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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)

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Great Regardless

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Amber:

I agree with you. It is possible for teachers to be great right out of the box. I think all teachers initially want to be that. Fear is a major component of not being great. Fear of doing something wrong (or even doing something right, if others aren't doing it). Certainly somethings need to be learned and the best way to learn discipline for example is on the job training. But the most important thing about being a great teacher is being fired up about what you want the students to be know and be able to do. That enthusiasm, energy and electricity will overcome any deficit in experience.

It is time that administrators and experienced teachers quit assigning classes by seniority and by default giving the worst classes to our newest teachers. Yes we want them to know what they are getting into, but we run away our best and brightest in the process. Not only are the students in these classes the ones that need the most help, they need the help that experienced teachers can provide. Unfortunately for new teachers, some first year scars never heal.

The only thing that keeps most first year teachers going is that enthusiasm. Please don't lose it Amber.

Best of Luck,

Ben Johnson (Author)
Natalia, Texas

Lisa (not verified)

Three-Step

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Thank you for sharing your experiences. I (and many of my colleagues) have gone through the same "three-step teacher-attitude cycle" that you wrote about. I am glad to know that I am not the only one who has been ready to give up one day and then complete re energized the next. Too often we are bogged down with the negatives of our job. You have reminded me to focus on those positives and to aim for the third step in your cycle.

Deneric M. Forbes (not verified)

What it takes to be a great teacher

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I must say, in a respectful manner, I don't agree with that statement. Let me explain, in my district; you would be considered administrative material, provided you had your Educational Leadership creditials. Now, typically you would have to be a teacher for three years. Well, some individuals have successfully passed this time frame and are administrators and are so far behind as it relates to being a teacher. Then, there are individual like myself who have been teaching for one year, who knows some things to get by, but continues to be a life long learner by going to school in persuit of a graduate degree. Teachers must realize, as long as there are researchers trying to discover things that will help us, we will never know everything that relates to education.

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