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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

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.

Marianne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, have discovered after 20 years of teaching, that it is really impossible to ever get to the top of the "great" or "expert" teacher mountain. Our profession is so dynamic, and there is so much to learn. I often tell my students that I learn something new from them everyday. Teachers who aspire to be "great" are truly the life-long learners that you described. They are always reading, reflecting, changing, or revising what they do in their classrooms. Staying informed by reading journals, attending workshops or conferences, and conferring with colleagues is part our professional responsibility towards our students and their parents. I agree that our focus should always be on our students. How can we improve so that we provide the best possible learning experience for our children?

Crystal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am taking the same course as Altamease. Reflecting on our effectiveness has really opened my eyes. I had lost touch with the reasons why I became a teacher and the special gifts I have to make a difference in my students. I am striving to stay current with educational trends and increase my professional growth. As I think about all of the great teachers that have influenced my life, I realize what an impact I can have on my students.

Michelle F.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Paula, I enjoyed reading your viewpoint about a "great" educator. I agree with your views. I also feel that a great person in general, is a life-long reflective learner. For some teachers, this comes a bit naturally because our job encourages constant reflection and adjusting.

cynthia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found Mr. Johnson's blogg very interesting. I think the normal human being would never believe they have achieved greatness. I loved how he put the levels of his teaching career into three areas. I have only been in the field three years and feel at times I have had many more levels. One level being step back and try again, I am sure I will succeed. I also found it interesting to see how he has gone up the level in his teaching career. At this early point in my career I am very content to stay right where I am at for now. All teachers I feel want to be life long learners and spread that learning to the children they hope to inspire.

Lori Wardingley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Paula while I do not have as many years in my journey as you, I think that I can elaborate on your posting. You said, "'great' educators never really reach that plateau," but I think the ones that are "great" are the ones who don't settle for the idea that there is not anything more than can do or learn. "Great" educators are not willing to flat-line on their pursuit of greatness. There will always be someone more skilled and more knowledgeable than them and that will drive them to keep pace and try to become the image of "greatness."

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