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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.

Originally Published April 13, 2014

Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (179)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Maria Summers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am entering my 10th year in the classroom and sometimes feel that I am only just beginning to discover what it is to BE an educator. Alot of that stems from the fact that I am just now discovering myself and what it TAKES me doing to be the educator that I want to be. Being a "great" or and "expert" is much more about what the teacher knows about the students and his or her own self that about what the teacher knows about the topic at hand or even about teaching in general.

I anxiously await your next posting and the questions you ask.

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching for 3 years and have not gotten to the first or second step yet. I feel that I am a novice teacher and am still eager and willing to learn to make myself a better teacher. I am always eager to get to my classroom and often stay late at night to prepare for the following days activities. I feel that once a teacher feels that they have learned everything that they need to know and they feel they are an expert, it is time for them to move on. Expert teachers become administrators or coordinators for the school or district.

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that when you get stuck in phase two, not only do you need to step back and look at yourself as a teacher, but go to the administrators an tell them how you feel. They may be supporting you, but you may not be able to see it in ways that you think you should. I know at the school that I teach at, the administration is so busy and often stays at night until 6 or 7 just to get there work done. Support comes in many different shapes and sizes and may not always be visible.

Rosemarie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The "three-step teacher-attitude cycle" referenced by Mr. Johnson rang true for me. I went through all three steps. Just completing 16 years of teaching I find myself revisiting step two and three in a cyclic pattern.

The ultimate goal is to function as a highly effective teacher and have a proactive attitude. However, when I fall back into phase two, the issue is not the children, but administrative issues that put a damper on my spirit. Over the years I have grown as a teacher so I can see I have the power to get children excited about learning, but my frustrations with administrators can have a negative impact on my teacher performance. I do not like my reactive behavior and try to refocus my direction to be more positive. My direction tends to come in the form of change. This moves me into my highly motivated state of being.

Jennifer cox's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading about the three-step attitude. I have not been teaching long, but I do agree with the steps as I have already begun to go through them. I know, as do most teachers, feel overwhelmed during the school year especially during testing times. I have to remind myself to focus on the children in my classroom. If I come across stressed and overwhelmed, I fell as though this will be passed to the students. I try to be positive and encouraging as much as possible. As the third step says, teaching is fun and we should enjoy it!

Rosemarie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben Johnson's three-step teacher-attitude cycle was very much describing my career path. I have just completed my 16th year of teaching. As I reflect on my career, I find myself taking cyclic paths between stage two and three at different times in my career. However, I do find with experience I am no longer placing blame on children (stage 2) that do not want to learn. I have grown professionally to know I have control over that aspect of the learning process.

The frustration I feel is with administrative decisions. When I get to a reactive point in stage two of the cycle I have to be careful not to get stuck in this negative energy. I step back and become proactive. This comes in a form of change. The change may be in grade level, curriculum, assessment, or whatever you feel is a need and interest of improvement for you. This gives me the motivation I need to move from stage two to a positive outlook of stage three.

Deneric M. Forbes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in agreement with you. Until all educators come to the final consensus that we should be great in what we do, the totality of education and the respect we ultimately deserve will never be given. Some have the mentality that they are paid to teach, but they will only grasp the attention of those who have a desire. The students need the assurance that not only are we a teacher, but we serve several capacities as it relates to their education. When all teachers step up to the plate and become GREAT in what they do, the future of this great country will not be left behind, but in my point of view, they will be pushed ahead in life, being empowered.

Liz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson,

I can completely related to your feelings about being a teacher and the three step cycle. I believe myself to be a good teacher, but also acknowledge that I have a lot to learn. I am currently pursuing my Master's and the class that I am in right now has helped me moved into the third step of the cycle. I have been inspired by the teachers that I am learning with to be a "great" teacher and to do my best each day. I think that is the best part about teaching. You can always do better. You can always improve upon your skills and effectiveness. Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler write, "The basic idea is that to help others, you must be intimately aware of your own strengths and limitations so that you can present yourself in ways that are optimially effective" (Kottler, J., Zehm, S., Kottler, E. (2005) On Being a Teacher. 3rd ed. California:Corwin Press, p. 3). I think that if we can really self-evaluate and use that evaluation and reflection to constantly improve, we have a good chance of staying at step 3.

Jenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed the thought that I have to, "be the solution in all of my problems." I have been stuck in step #2 as described in the blog, and in order to move from that, I need to follow the advice given to Ben Johnson by his mentor. Thank goodness for great mentors. They allow us to become great teachers!

Deneric M. Forbes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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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