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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

Monique's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Betsi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Tammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"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.

sarahsmiles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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?

Paula's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Norma Leguillon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Michael Myers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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?

Amber Wilburn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

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