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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

Deneric M. Forbes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too agree with Mr. Johnson's statement. Just as Mr. Johnson went through the same situation with being a teacher so did I. As a new teacher, I felt that I was not adequately supported as a new teacher and that I was a failure. It was not until my mentor teachers advised me that my expectations for myself were too high and that I was doing a superb job. I, as all teachers are guilty of, spent hundreds of my own personal dollars to ensure tha tmy students were afforded the best things that hands-on education could proide. By stepping out on Faith, I was able to see my students actively being engaged with each other, but most importantly with me as the teacher. It was not until one of my students cried out for help in a specific subject area. When I offered this child additional assistance, he improved tremendously becoming one of my TOP performers in this particular subject. This must be what greatness feels like, being able to say, "I worked with this young man not to change him, but to improve the way he thought about school and that certain subject area."

Debbie Leonard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Striving to be a "great" teacher should be the goal of all educators. What a great article about keeping our passion for teaching alive. I too have gone through some different levels of thought, especially "the students don't care". However, I do believe that teachers make a difference and have an impact on all students. Reflecting on my teaching and how I need to focus on what I can affect has given me encouragement and excitement as I go into my 12 year in the classroom.

Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think all good teachers are on a quest for greatness, whether they see it as achievable or not. It is so important not to be content with where you are as a teacher or fine with how things are going. We want our students to be confident in themselves and always work hard toward greatness, we need to do the same ourselves. The thing about true greatness, though, is that once you get there, you're not done, I feel that there are levels of greatness to be achieved and someone who is truely great will never be satisfied with the satus quo.

Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree. Great educators are those that won't ever settle. They are those who their collegues see as great, but they still view themselves as "somewhere on the continuum," because they are life-long learners and know that there is always some way to improve, someone you can learn from, etc.

Craig Lubbers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What does it take to be a great teacher? This is a question that I have been thinking about and reflecting upon as I determine where I find myself on the continuum. I think that in order to determine how great of a teacher you are, you must also take into consideration how effective you are as a teacher and how knowledgeable you are. In my pursuit of becoming a great teacher and becoming a highly effective teacher, I have discovered that I need to be knowledgeable of the content I am teaching, knowledgeable of my students and how they learn best, knowledgeable of research-based best practices, as well as knowledgeable of myself. I like that Ben Johnson said that he "pondered his own shortcomings." My pursuit of greatness will take time and it should include constant reflection of my own self.

Being a great teacher is an ongoing learning process, and once you think you have achieved greatness, you realize all the more that you need to obtain and achieve more. Having that desire for greatness that Ben Johnson refers to must be rekindled on a consistent basis. For me, I find myself needing to rekindle my desire and pursuit of greatness as a teacher on a day-to-day or even on a hour-to-hour basis. Not doing so, results in me falling backward. As Ben Johnson said, "We ourselves need to be the solution to our problems." Part of being a great teacher is to determine what you can do to change, improve, or solve problems. Don't just sit back and complain, but instead be active, communicate well with others, and make good choices.

Laura's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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!

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.

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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!

Marsha Cody's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Pat K.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

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