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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

Betsi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel much like you did a few years ago. Reading thoughts like yours, though, are helping me renew myself for the new school year. I am starting to look forward to tackling the problems I can fix for myself. I just have to stop dwelling on the shortcomings of the administration and do everything I can do for the students. I hope I can move on to step 3 this year!

Patrick A's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson, I enjoyed your post and would like to share the following comment. Your search for greatness is right on. Personally, I am driven to be the best as I hope we all are. Who would like to spend 30+ years in a career and just perform at an average level? If you cannot wake up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror and honestly look forward to going to school, you need to find another career. People want to be good at teaching, but some feel that some issues like pay, student indifference, or state/federal standards keep them from being great. Great teachers don't let any of this phase them in their quest for greatness. Once there, great teachers realize they are not perfect, but instead strive to one day get close to perfection. In the end, great teachers are proud of their accomplishments because of their students' accomplishments and success in the classroom.

Shannon Arrieta's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Having passion and will is the first steps in order to be successful at something that you chose to do. In teaching if there is no passion or will then there is nothing. Teachers are faced with many challenges and decisions that are made on a daily basis. I don't necessarily think that labeling a teacher as being great is exactly accurate. In the field of teaching we are learning and growing everyday. There are always adjustments to be made or new challanges that we are faced with. When I think of the word great,I relate it closely to perfect. In which being a perfect teacher is nearly impossible. The three steps that Johnson speaks about will ultimately let an individual know if this line of work is cut out for them. The unfortanute thing is that some stick with teaching even if it isn't for them. Or decide that having summers and holidays off is worth it. This is not the kind of job in which and individual is just collecting a pay check. We are preparing our future and strong role models is what they need.

Sarita's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also related to Mr. Johnson's 3 step teacher cycle. I clearly remember stage one. I considered leaving the profession at times. Currently, I find myself stuck in phase two. However, I have never looked at it this way. I need to step back a little and look at what I may be doing wrong and how I can change things for the better.

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I am a grad student and we are currently focusing on the novice to expert teacher continuum. Like you, I too struggled with the thought of teachers being experts and what characteristics expert teachers possessed. I am only in my third year of teaching and know that I am a long way from becoming an expert in my field. I know it is a process and a journey to become the best. However, is there such a thing as "expert" teachers? I believe there are great and outstanding teachers, but in a world where education is constantly changing, how can anyone become an expert teacher? I appreciate that you mentioned the three-stage attitude cycle, because I feel that every teacher constantly experiences each step numerous amounts of times throughout their career. Teaching is a profession where we are constantly reflecting and learning from our mistakes, making improvements and changing our ways. When we are changing ourselves, it is hard not to be emotionally involved and experience all of the attitudes mentioned in the teacher-attitude cycle.

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I am slowly moving my way out of the "feeling completely lost" stage. I am starting my second year at a new school and I am finally feeling like I can make the changes and adjustments that I need in order to make my teaching and curriculum effective for my students. I realize that I cannot control certain parts of the curriculum, but I can take what I have and "tweak" it to work in my classroom. There are times when I feel frustrated and like I have no control over what is going on in my classroom. It is so easy to get caught up in the "negative talk" and to get sucked into that rut. Your attitude and outlook is inspiring and from now on, I am going to start channeling my energy on more positive things that will benefit my students. Thank you!

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.

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