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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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Ben Johnson <author> (not verified)


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I got stuck on the word inspire in your question. Forgive me if I don't completely answer your other questions.

There are many things an administrator can do to inspire his faculty. I have found that walking the talk has to come first. I have to be a master teacher. I have to know how to teach. I have to model good teaching, every time I am teaching my faculty. I have to be in the classrooms, interacting with the teachers and students. That has to be the norm, not the exception. Once that relationship has been established, then teachers are willing to ask for advice and listen to what you say--in essence, follow your lead. For the principal, time is the issue. This means that teachers have to handle the discipline in class, rather than depending on the principal to do it for them. This means that paperwork and details are taken care of before and after teachers begin to teach each day.

As an administrator, I make sure that the curriculum is not the topic of conversation in department meetings and faculty meetings. It should all be about instruction and assessment. I promote professionalism in each teacher individually by encouraging them to keep learning and then holding them accountable for their professional growth.

Something I have not experienced but I truly believe is the best way to inspire teachers is to get them involved in professional learning communities described by Richard DuFour and Alen Blankestein. When a small group of teachers are driven to find solutions to specific learning needs by two or three simple data-derived goals, that is where true teaching excitement occurs. The biggest obstacle for improvement in the traditional school structure has been teacher isolation. Professional learning communities are the answer to that obstacle. When a teachers can feel part of a winning team in which they is a valued component, when teachers can feel that what they are doing makes them a true instructional leader in their own right, when high levels of trust creates a cohesive bond among professionals, that is when teachers can inspire each other and produce amazing results, much better than any of them individually could have done.

With this type of organization, the entire burden of "inspiring" teachers is not on the shoulders of the administrators. His role changes somewhat into that of a reflective coach and supporter who know when to intervene and stoke the slow moving PLC's and when to get out of the way of PLC's in full steam. His job is to keep the momentum going, make sure that lack of resources, or time do not derail the locomotion. He will continue doing the other things I mentioned above, but with a different emphasis. With true PLC's, teaching can become a rejuvenating and exciting experience rather than one of simple endurance. The future is bright for educators who are willing to form such teams.

Respectfully Submitted,

Ben Johnson
Natalia, Texas

Janis Hunt (not verified)

Great teaching

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I am in agreement with most of the postings that discovering greatness in our teaching is a lifelong journey. I have been teaching high school for the past five years. I feel like I have a lot to learn about myself and how to be a better teacher. Having a positive attitude is essential. Right now I am spending some time reflecting on what I have accomplished as a teacher. It is a strenuous process, but I feel it must be done to improve.

Joe (not verified)

I too am in graduate school

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I too am in graduate school and so far all of my readings have dealt with what seperates the good teachers from the great ones. I do agree that there are steps that one must take in order to become great. But I believe that as a teacher that field is not as narrow as some may think. There are very few great overall teachers but I believe that there are great mentors and motivators who may not be as strong content wise. As well as there are teachers who are superior in their content knowledge but may not be the best motivator or mentor to students. Overall, I think that the way you apply the label of greatness to a teacher is based in large part on what they are able to pass on to their students.

Ann (not verified)

After working for many years

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After working for many years in accounting and finance, I became a teacher. In my former profession, I felt confident in my expertise. However, after almost five years in the teaching profession, I wonder if I will ever think of myself as an expert. Teaching is so demanding and dynamic - there is so much to learn. At times I wonder if there is enough time in the day for a teacher to do all that they must do to be a "great" teacher.
What keeps me going is not so much my desire to be great, but my passion to help my students learn. If I can do that, then I believe that I will have achieved some degree of greatness.

ldean (not verified)

Mr. Johnson's three-step

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Mr. Johnson's three-step attitude cycle was right on. A few years ago I found myself sort of stuck in step two. I did what Cynthia mentioned in her post; I stepped back and tried to figure out what was not working and what could be done differently. My collegue's support and a more positive attitude and some self-confidence helped me move successfully to step three. I have a renewed focus and passion to keep myself and my students learning, while at the same time having fun. Like a couple others who have posted, I also am taking a master's program and teacher effectiveness is the focus at this point. As I look at my effectiveness and do some self reflection I continue to have renewed excitement for teaching.

Amber Wilburn (not verified)

Novice or Expert?

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Mr. Johnson,
I am a graduate student at Walden University. Our study this week is about being a novice or expert. I think both the novice and the expert could be considered great. The novice teacher is fresh out of college and has a lot of new ideas to offer. The expert has a lot to offer in areas of classroom management, discipline strategies, and communication. However, I do not consider myself either but somewhere in the middle. As an educator, I must continue to learn everything I can in order to be better qualified to teach.

Michael Myers (not verified)

Inspiring your faculty

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Dear Mr. Johnson,
I am interested in how you would/do inspire your faculty and how you would reconcile their own lofty expectations inspiration with the realities you found when you "went back into the classroom and faced the reality that [you] had only a certain amount of time, strength, and energy." How do your experiences as a teacher enable you to empathize with your faculty and continually inspire them?

Norma Leguillon (not verified)

What it takes to be a Great Teacher

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I also agree with Mr. Johnson. I believe we have to stay compassionate and dedicated to our profession to grow. I do this by talking to colleagues, taking workshops and continuing my education. I am currently taking a class “Teacher As Professional,” which I find very interesting and makes you reflect about your profession as well as yourself.
I do believe strongly in having a mentor in the school where you are teaching. They can help you through the difficult times, and help you asses yourself as a teacher and help you with different ways to reach students. Positive attitude with knowledge, efficiency and insight will help me become a great teacher who does make a difference in a child’s life.

Paula (not verified)

Covey Believer

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Francine, the reference to Stephen Covey's The 8th Habit is what actually caught my attention when reading through the blogs on Edutopia.com. In my school in Florida, almost every staff member has had training in The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and some of our staff members wrote a children's curriculum called, "Power Up Your Habits" that is based on Covey's book. It is our main social skills curriculum. I am extremely interested in reading Covey's next book, as I am just beginning, after 21 years in the classroom, to feel like I'm finding my voice.

sarahsmiles (not verified)

Great teachers

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If you stay emotionally and intellectually involved in education long enough, you will have greatness thrust upon you by students who are excited by the work they are able to do in your classes. After 30 years of teaching, I love my work more than ever. I don't worry about maintaing my energy for combining my students' learning with new technology; the kids transfer theirs to me everyday! Can greatness be far behind?

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