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Outstanding in Your Field: What It Takes to Be a Great Teacher

| Ben Johnson

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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The Center for Inspired Teaching

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It's so exciting to read these thoughtful responses to this blog entry. I have the privilege of working with teachers at Center for Inspired Teaching, and sharing their stories through the communications team. I always feel rejuvenated when I witness educators going through or even describing the moment when they recommitted to teaching, and stepped into phase 3.

One of my colleagues told me a few weeks ago that she hated her first year of teaching, and it only got worse the second year. But she knew she had the potential to have a huge impact on her students, on their lives and their outlook on learning and school. At some point before her third year, she looked at herself with brutal honesty and realized that she was the problem and solution. She changed her attitude and classroom management style with help from a great mentor, and relished the rest of her time in the classroom. Now she helps teachers to embrace teaching and grow in phase 3, showing them that everyone in schools--teachers, administrators, students--goes through a similar process, and that the positive change for teachers can have a ripple effect on whole school communities.

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Improve our Situation

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Rachel:

Your heart is in the right place. Help as much as you can, especially for the students. As a colleague, provide that support and encouragement to that teacher, but don't do their job for them. Don't expect change right away. As much as you want to help that individual change, you are not in the position to make it happen. That is your administrator's job. Keep them abreast of what your concerns are (this is not tattling) and they can apply the right pressure to cause change. Hang in there.

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Don't Give Up!

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Richard:

You already realize the most important things about teaching: 1) You are never going to be able to fix it. 2) You have a job to do and you want to do the best you can because you love teaching. 3)You have to leave the stress at school. 4) Don't try to do it alone! Get help! Administrators and your colleagues are there to help you--and sincerely want to help you. Reach out, ask questions, ask to observe a successful teacher at work. Find someone who can be your mentor. Be a collaborator with your colleagues--create partnerships--foster communication.

So don't turn your back on education. Get some rest this summer and make a plan of attack for next school year. Decide how you will respond to challenges that you know are coming next year. Most of all, have fun at school and at home! Make it fun, even if it isn't. Life is too short.

Good luck! You can do it!

Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Realities

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Stephanie:

Excellent question. How do you inspire teachers, or students, or principals? I believe I answered Michael's question differently so you might want to look at that too. My answer has nothing to do with reality, but everything to do with perception.

I discovered something that has helped tremendously. I tend to be an analytical person, somewhat of a thinker and problem solver combined. I use a lot of logic in how I operate. I attended a workshop that has changed my perspective on two counts. It was not the intent of the workshop, which I was attending mainly to be polite and support the teachers, but it was the result. The facilitator was trying to get teachers to be able to handle unruly students, parents and colleagues. Anyway, we took an simple attitudinal poll that emphasized your "take charge", "emotional", "analytical", or "collaborative" characters- two ends of a spectrum. The first thing I learned is that the typical stereotype for a teacher is all wrong--teachers are not the austere, serious, analytic creatures they are portrayed to be in movies and commercials. When we were asked to group up by our categories, a few were analytics like myself, the principal and a few were take chargers, a few more were collaborative, but to my surprise, the overwhelming majority of teachers considered themselves emotional! 2) I learned that if I want to reach the majority of teachers, I had to address their emotional needs and concerns first, then I can appeal to their intelligence and logic. I suspect that if this same sort of activity is done on every campus, most teachers would be emotional types.

To inspire teachers then, it must be on an emotional level, not an analytical one. A positively portrayed attitude is critical. Then roll up your sleeves and engage them with true customer service- as an administrator, your clients are your teachers and staff. With wheelbarrows full of encouragement, positive feedback, gratitude and sincere complements, the administrator goes about in the classrooms one by one shoring up, building and strengthening teachers and staff members. Certainly, if necessary, the boom must be lowered for some teachers, but even that can be done in emotionally sensitive ways, and it can be a good experience for that teacher.

All of this happens at the same time the administrator is taking care of business in the most efficient manner possible. People in general, need and want to follow a person that is in their mind, worthy of being followed--ie modeling the desired behaviors. You want master teachers that are self actualized? Then be one yourself.

Well, I hope that helps.

Good luck.

Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Taking Action

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Kayon:

It is so nice to hear that you are taking action to be your own solution. You seem to understand that being positive helps you in more ways than just attitude. You are correct, however, that we should not be satisfied when we do not get the support, collaboration, or mentoring we need- we should immediately take action to solve it. I love your attitude and your fervor for teaching. Never lose them!

Sincerely,
Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Self-actualized

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Anna:

You did the right thing in going back to school. Not only does it perfect and hone your professionalism, it helps you remember what it is like to be a student. Thank you for your kind words. It takes a lot of gumption to realize you have been in level two and then decide to do something about it. Keep reading and hopefully, I can keep inspiring you and others to greater heights. Have fun in level three!

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Starfish- one at a time

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Kim:

Thank you for sharing that insight. You are correct, of course. We teach individuals who need us more than they know or want. The high maintenance, obnoxious and unruly, even more than most. But even the quiet, low maintenance students need us badly. I am reminded of the story about the man on the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean. When asked how he could make a difference because there were so many, he said,"It makes a difference to this one." and threw one in the ocean.

I know a young boy who was troubled, angry and confused. Many people had already given up on him. I refused to. At every opportunity, I tried to find something positive to say to him. Quite by accident and almost in jest, I told him that he had serious musical talent when I heard him pounding on a piano one day. His response was immediate and sobering to me. He beamed, though his music did not improve immediately. Based on his response, I continued to encourage his musical talent and he now considers that to be one of his strengths. But most importantly, he found a center, a focus of self esteem and that has made all the difference in all other areas of his life.

You all could tell many similar stories. That is why we are teachers!

Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

BOHICA

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Abby:

I couldn't have said it better. We can't afford to get stuck in negativism- bohica (bend over here it comes again). A teacher not growing professionally is just bending over. Professionalism in education means we take pride in what and how we teach. We hang our diplomas on the wall. We behave and dress professionally. We enjoy ourselves more than anyone else because inspiring learners is fun!

You are bang on target and I'm glad you are a level three teacher--Way to go!

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
Natalia,TX

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

How to be great?

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Adrione:

I believe that you have made the first step on the road to greatness by simply asking, "...how do you achieve greatness?" Let me clear that I cannot answer that in the few pixels that I have available here. Whole books have been dedicated to that. What I can do is get you and everyone who will read this, started in the right direction.

First Understandings about Becoming a Great Teacher:
1) It must be deliberate- It does not happen by accident. It has to be planned and orchestrated every day you teach (that is where the reflection comes in handy).
2) Be a sponge- Learn from everyone around you. Find a mentor in someone you consider to be great.
3) Being a great teacher is not found in accolades from professional organizations and awards- Being able to inspire a student to learn and stoke a burning desire to learn is great!
4) Being a great teacher is found when you create that magical learning environment where students drop their facades, leaving pure curiosity, inquisitiveness and genuine interest as they hungrily devour the knowledge and skills that you, as the teacher, facilitator, organizer have prepared.--This is when you know you have a chance at greatness.

Stay strong in the quest! It will happen as long as you never forget the pure joy of learning.

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Book Study

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Kathleen:

It is a wonderful book and has made me think about what I am doing as a father, spouse and especially as an educator. I think a book study is a great idea for engendering greatness. The book talks about helping people in your organization find their voice. What I get from that is collaboration is essential. May I suggest Richard DuFour's on Professional Learning Communities to start the collaboration engine at your school.

When I finally realized that I had to be the solution, stage three, that is when teaching became fun. I hope you are having fun!

Sincerely,
Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

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