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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

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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Francine Ferguson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben, as a part of my graduate studies, I had to visit educational blog sites and I must say I was pleased to see your post about Stephen Covey's the 8th Habit. I've written two papers for my class and both included insights from his work. I agree with you that it is a necessary read for organizations and for educators. I was pleasantly surprised. Covey's other book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has been extremely beneficial in my life and my career.
Francine Ferguson

Altamease Ford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Mr. Johnson,

My name is Altamease Ford, I'm from Lithonia Georgia. I am a kindergarten teacher. I could not have said it any better! I don't consider myself a great teacher. I have pondered over the same questions, done similar things in the classroom, but the biggest difference is that I am still in the classroom. I have reached a point in my career where I want to cross that bridge of being a "Great Teacher". I am presently working on my masters degree and my first class is Teacher as Proffessionals. In this class, I am examining my effectiveness as a teacher. I am finding out more things about myself than I anticipated. Some areas are good, then there are those areas that I recognize are in need of improvement. I look forward to expanding on these findings in the upcoming school year. I pray that I will be one step closer to crossing that bridge of greatness.

Paula's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As educators, we continually strive for the title of being a "great" teacher, however, if we think that we've finally reached that plateau, are we truly "great"? After 21 years in the classroom, I think I have finally figured out that "great" educators never really reach that plateau. "Great" educators immerse themselves in the latest educational research and keep abreast of policies that effect their profession. "Great" educators are life-long students, always eager to learn more about their "craft" so that they can do a better job of meeting the varying needs of their students. "Great" educators should be vocal about advocating for their students and for political issues that effect their students. If we feel we have finally reached that plateau, then there is no drive or motivation to continue to enhance your skills.

Carol's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with you about the levels a teacher goes through in this journey that each of us take in teaching. I also think that each teacher needs a mentor to have enouragement, someone to go to in a time of need and a professional to rely on for constructive assessment. This can only help us interact and increase learning for our students. This year our team for our 9th graders, will be using Sean Covey's book "The 7 habits of highly Effective Teens". This is the son of Steven Covey whose book you refer too. We as our students need to find ourselves and our voice.

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great educators are teachers who care enough about their students to always strive for more knowledge. They are always growing, looking for innovative strategies and techniques that will help them to assure success for all students. These teachers are passionate about what they do and dedicate long hours to creating meaningful and differentiated activities that engage students to their fullest potential. They create a caring and encouraging environment.

I too am striving for greatness. I look forward to each and every day that I have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of my students.

jeanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Mr. Johnson that we need to focus on what we can affect. We need to be sure we see the challenges of our job as exciting not daunting. We need to listen to wise colleagues and have a positive attitude. If we are not able to look at our teaching in terms of what we are doing to positively affect students, we will not find fulfillment. Maybe it is the joy and excitement in teaching that leads to greatness.

Leslie Bland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, Altamease. We have a lot in common! I am from Atlanta, Ga and I teach first grade. I am also working on my master's degree and am currently taking the Teacher as Professional course. We must not have the same instructor, though.
I found this blog posting very appealing since it ties in perfectly to what we have been discussing recently in class. I have enjoyed reflecting on my effectiveness and sharing my thoughts and opinions with others over the last few weeks. I feel that I am a passionate and dedicated teacher, but I have only been teaching for two years. I am therefore not prepared to call myself a "great" teacher. As I begin my third year teaching, I hope to successfully continue on my journey to becoming a great teacher. I wish you luck as you "cross that bridge" as well.

Leslie Bland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, Altamease. We have a lot in common! I am from Atlanta, Ga and I teach first grade. I am also working on my master's degree and am currently taking the Teacher as Professional course. We must not have the same instructor, though.
I found this blog posting very appealing since it ties in perfectly to what we have been discussing recently in class. I have enjoyed reflecting on my effectiveness and sharing my thoughts and opinions with others over the last few weeks. I feel that I am a passionate and dedicated teacher, but I have only been teaching for two years. I am therefore not prepared to call myself a "great" teacher. As I begin my third year teaching, I hope to successfully continue on my journey to becoming a great teacher. I wish you luck as you "cross that bridge" as well.

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