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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

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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.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

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


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

Stephanie M.'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)

Cynthia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

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