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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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Comments (178)

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Sarah (not verified)

Taking Ownership

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"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." How wonderful to have such insight from a mentor! I think many teachers who leave the profession do so because frustrated that so many of the problems in our educational system at large are out of their control. You cannot control the number of students in your classroom, the family structure and support, the resources at your disposal, or the amount of time you have with each student in your class. Your mentor’s advice to take ownership of the problems you could control must have given you a sense of usefulness. We can control our attitudes, effort, and knowledge. I think you are right on target that in order to be outstanding in your field, you must be positive and take control of your own destiny. Thank you for sharing such inspiring words to a 10-year teacher striving for greatness.

Tammy (not verified)

I enjoyed the typical 3-step

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I enjoyed the typical 3-step teacher attitude and can identify with it. I feel that being a "great" teacher is also a life learning process. I am also enrolled in the Teacher as Professional class and I would compare a "great" teacher to the "expert" teacher.

Betsi (not verified)

Great Teachers Need Reinforcements

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For a teacher to be effective, they must want to be great. The desire to be the best you can be promotes thought processes and actions that open a teacher up to new ideas and techniques that may inspire those hard-to-reach students. Even the most optimistic teachers, though, can be weighed down by ambivalent administrators. Teachers must strive to keep that desire for greatness, but administrators need to do the same. If a teacher feels marooned on the Island of Greatness, it doesn't take long for that spark to fade. I am very encouraged by the fact that Mr. Johnson continues to be inspired as an administrator. I wish all administrators were as focused on the quality of their teachers, rather than the "business" of school.

Heather (not verified)

I am a second grade teacher

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I am a second grade teacher and I am currently working on my master's degree. One reason I am continuing my education is that I want to be a great teacher! I love the comment "I first had to be the solution to all of my problems and then I could enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey." I need to live by that advice and not get sucked into the negative "lounge talk" that teachers often engage in.

Monique (not verified)

Staying Positive

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I agree with you Jeanne and Mr. Johnson about focussing on the aspects we can change and staying positive. I am inspired by my experienced colleagues and love to gain their insights and wisdom. This motivates me when I am challenged by a situation to rise above the obstacles and to keep up the morale of the workplace. I also liked what Mr. Johnson said about how pointing fingers and blaming others does not get you anywhere. You need to seek out answers and try to avoid getting caught up in the negativity that can easily happen in the workplace. I think of greatness as staying positive and being a role model to other teachers.

Pat K. (not verified)

Great Teachers!

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I have been teaching for 5 years and while I do not consider myself to be a novice any longer, I am far from being great. I would like to think that I am very effective on some days, in some subjects, with some students. I think the thing that growing teachers must never forget is that they ARE making a difference. This is the drive that gets us out of bed to face more meetings, lesson plans, paper grading, filing, etc. that we must do along with teaching. We all look for that "aha" moment when a child's face lights up and finally "gets it!" That is what keeps us all striving to be great (effective, expert) professionals in the field of teaching.

Marsha Cody (not verified)

Be the Change

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I related to Ben's "three phase teacher cycle". I can remember well the days of feeling lost, my first couple years of teaching. A few years ago, I entered the stage of blaming everything on the administration.

About a year ago, I decided that I was going to change the things that I can, and not worry about the things I can't change. I wasted so much energy upset over decisions administrators made. Now, I am very active at the district level trying to do what I can, but my main focus is my classroom.

I want my energy to be used so that it is benefical to others. I want to lead a positive and optimistic life. I don't want to end up bitter, grumpy, and wake up with the realization that with all my complaints...nothing has changed! When has complaining REALLY changed anything?

I hope to spend the rest of my teaching career fulfilling Gandhi's quote, "Be the change you want to see in this world." If so, hopefully I will leave my classroom, my school, and my world a little bit better.

Sarah (not verified)

Carol - Using Covey's book

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Carol - Using Covey's book with your 9th graders is a cool idea. I just might have to copy this for my classes. Thanks for the inspiration!

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.

Laura (not verified)

Too Scared for Greatness

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I am currently a substitute teacher hoping for a full time position next year. I am at the point in my career where I am scared of entering my own classroom. What if I can never hope to get close to achieving "greatness"? I guess the point where you say "whoa, this is too much". I hope that I can have a mentor like yours that helps me to achieve confidence. I have the desire and cretivity, but it does not take away the fear I have!

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