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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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ldean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Joe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Janis Hunt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

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


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

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


Thank you for being great for your students. It appears that the everyday challenges of teaching are the things in which you find excitement and enthusiasm. Those are the keys to greatness. When you can approach your class bristling with energy and urgency, the students become energized and adopt your sense of urgency, which in-turn, affects you even more. Creating that sort of learning environment is the ultimate challenge and cannot be obtained by traditional methods (coercion, intimidation, control, etc...). Students have to be active participants in obtaining knowledge and skills, not simple receptacles for it. A text book cannot do that, and neither can a talking head. A true teacher who is aspiring greatness as an instructional leader in his own classroom is someone that can. Keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson
Natalia, Texas

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


You are past the first hurdle to greatness already. You recognize your desire to be the best for your students, but you see the gap in your skills and experience as a teacher. The next step in your quest is to decide what you are going to do about it. I suggest that instead of waiting for a supportive mentor to come to you, start finding one. Find the best teacher you know and pick their brains, watch them teach, watch them plan their lessons.

The scariest thing a new teacher encounters about teaching is the performance--being on stage-- part. But that is not what teaching is all about anyway. Yes, you need to have a certain stage-presence (confidence and enthusiasm mainly), but the trick is to get beyond the focus on you performing and putting the focus on student active participation. In essence, the teacher creates a learning environment, scenario, problem, situation etc... and then lets the students go learn. Establishing the reason to learn is the key (more than saying,"It is going to be on the test."). Then just have fun!

It is natural to doubt your self, but get over it and get to work. Good Luck!

Best Regards,

Ben Johnson
Natalia, Texas

Traci Conklin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Right now I view myself as being at step 1 of Mr. Johnson's three-step cycle. I am just starting out in the teaching profession and I view myself as a tiny flicker of light. I sometimes feel that there is so much knowledege and information to be absorbed that it is often hard to find the "oxygen" to breathe and keep myself glowing. I am determined to keep going as a teacher and want to some day achieve excellence and greatness. As I move into step 2, I know that there will be times when it feels as though others are trying to blow out my tiny flame and I will struggle once againg to stay a light and glowing. Through these rough times I need to keep focused on step 3 of the three-step cycle. When I get to this third step, I know that I will be like a roaring fire of greatness that will burn with confidence and hopefully be able to light new tiny flickers of light and help those novice teachers to the greatness that I have achieved.

Mr. Johnson thank you for this insightful blog. This is my first time to the blogging world and I have really enjoyed reading your blogs.

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson,
I enjoyed reading your insightful article very much! I easily have identified with the three step teacher cycle. I seem to go in and out of the steps reciprocally. I also agree with you that we need to look at ourselves first as the solution to many of our classroom problems. This was a hard, valuable lesson learned for me. I try to see myself as the solution but many times I see myself as the problem. I sometimes go through a guilt cycle of not understanding and doing enough for my students no matter how hard I try. I try to resolve these thoughts by thinking that I am continually learning and building my strengths. I try to think that I am doing the best I can with what I know today.

Debbie Leonard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too am taking a master's course called Teacher as a Professional. As we have been reading and reflecting on becoming effective, professional teachers, moving from novice to expert I have a question to pose. I agree with Mr. Johnson that we must remain passionate about our jobs. In other readings I have learned that one aspect of becoming an expert, thus being outstanding in your field, is to have a deep understanding of the subject matter you teach. So my question is this... Why do some administrators move teachers to different grade levels every few years? If a deep understanding of subject matter is what teachers desire to make them greater at what they do, how does moving grade levels every 3-4 years help teachers to become experts? (This may occur mainly in elementary schools)

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