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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

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Christina Martinez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A recent assignment in my Masters program was to describe the novice and the expert teacher. Then we were asked to place ourselves along the novice to expert continuum.
I had a difficult time with the second part of the assignment.
When I read the author's paragraph about never considering himself a great teacher it echoed my own feelings. I have a hard time considering myself to be an expert teacher. I know that I have my strengths but I also have many areas that require some improvement. Each year seems to bring its own unique challenges.
I think that it is the way one responds to those challenges that can make a teacher great. Reflection, willingness to adjust, and seeking out what's best for students are what I see as the cornerstones for greatness in one's teaching career.

Gabrielle Trees's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach first grade in an inner-city school and like our auther attend many trainings and are even pursuing a masters degree. What really struck me was how much I identify with Mr. Johnson's issues of what he has learned, knowledge, techniques, etc., verses what the school day actually allows you to incorporate. To be a great teacher you do need to constantly be persuing more knowledge and be a student yourself. The realism of time, tests, and general structure of what is expected of a teacher can squash the 'spark' he mentioned. Where this would discourage a new/novice teacher a great teacher would know how to pull themselves up having enough knowledge of how to look for greatness in themselves and their students. It was a little discouraging to hear that he had to change jobs (administration) to truly rekindle his goal of greatness.

Joe Wisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that becoming a great teacher is a life-time process, however I believe that every teacher is great in one or more areas, but I think that it is hard to have it all. Here is what I think that I need to reach the greatness as a teacher; Plenty of content knowledge, tons of experience, lots of passion, care, and love. (don't forget endless effort)
After reading Robert J. Garnston's article titled "Becoming expert teachers", I thought that one of the most important knowledge areas in teaching is to have a strong content knowledge, because that gives the teacher the flexibility in their teaching and provide the students with better learning opportunities, it also allows the teacher to be more focused on his students and to use an appropriate techniques based on his knowledge of their background, culture, gender, and style prefrences.

Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also had this assignment in my Master's program. I also had a difficult time with the second part. There is a lot of reflection that went into that second part of the assignment and I realized that reflection is not something I do enough of, on a regular basis. I think we are all working hard to go towards that expert end of the spectrum. In one of the DVDs that I watched for class, a teacher being interviewed commented that teachers never reach expert status. She stated that we should always be working to move forward and learning more. I don't know if I agree with that teacher 100%, but I think she may have a partial point. There are teachers in my building that I consider experts. I put myself in the novice category, as well. I agree with you wholeheartedly about refelction being one of the cornerstone of one's career.

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my Masters class I too just had the assignment to describe myself on the novice to expert continuum. I am in my fourth year of teaching and obviously do not consider myself an expert. I agree that one may never become an expert because things are constantly changing and teachers need to continue their education, keep up with the latest trends in education, and keep attending professional development seminars. After many years of teaching, reflecting on your teaching practices, changing as you see fit, and learning new ideas a teacher will become closer to being an expert teacher. I also think that one does not have to be an expert in order to be a great teacher. By continuing my education I feel that I am on my way to greatness and getting closer to being an expert.

linzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great comment, you don't have to an expect in order to be a great teacher. I believe that. Like everyone is relying teaching is all about learning, growing, exploring, and developing.

Ellie Alvarez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It was very interesting to read your post and very informative for those of us aspiring teachers. It's good to know that you went through that cycle that many teachers I'm sure go through. I hope to be able to put it behind me like you have and make the best of the career. I think teaching is a very honorable profession.

Thank you for sharing that post.

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts here. I feel as though they are very accurate. I am a fourth year teacher. I remember my first year very clearly, and I often thought that everything was way too overwhelming. I asked myself everyday, What will I do to get through today? If I didn't love teaching, there is no way I would have returned for another year. I am definitely in the second phase of the attitude cycle. I find myself commenting often about the administration's lack of interest in having our backs unless it benefits them. Your comment that it helps no one to complain and point fingers has had a huge effect over me. I have decided that if I don't change my attitude about things then I will no longer be able to find that love and passion for teaching that I have had my entire life.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I realize that part of my thought are somewhat pessimistic. Not all schools have self absorbed administrators and negative nay-sayer teachers. The point was that if you are in that kind of place, don't worry, you can handle it if you have a good attitude. I am encouraged by the Professional Learning Community movement and firmly believe that this will fill some of the gaps that many teachers experience in their cycle of becoming a truly effective teacher. Asking for help is not a weakness, and who knows, you actually might get it. If you don't, then just carry on and enjoy developing your strategies and learning skills for the kids as best you can.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Marie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Christina, I agree with you that reflection and willingness to adjust are cornerstones for greatness in one's teaching career. I have been reading a lot on novice to expert teachers and how expert teachers are able to cognitively process their disciplines better than novice teachers, and are able to also be more flexible with what they teach, because they understand the content at a deeper level than novice teachers. Each year can bring more growth in this area. The article I read also says that some teachers never really get to the expert point if they aren't able to work on how they process the information of their discipline. Perhaps you'd like to check the article out as well.

Garmston, R. J. (1998). Becoming expert teachers (Part one). Journal of Staff Development, 19(1).

I also agree that each year brings new challenges, yet I think that each year a teacher is able to improve on many things as well. It's sort of like a catch-22. Problems arise, but certain improvements are also made. It's always changing.

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