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

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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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Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


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!

Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

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


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)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


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)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


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

H.Y. Griffin, Washington, DC's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

H.Y. Griffin:

Teaching is hard. Inspiring learning is even harder as your work at the Center for Inspired Teaching has probably shown you. Teachers need amazing support and inspiration, especially in the first few years, and that is what it sounds like your organization is doing. Keep up the good work!

You mentioned ripples in a school from just one teacher moving to stage 3. I know this to be true. I was a Spanish teacher, and in the Foreign Language department at Fontana High School, in Fontana, CA. I moved into stage three while I was there and when that happened, ripples happened. I felt students should have a way to show what they had learned in their language. I mentioned my mentor, Mr. Devereaux in my blogg, he and I got our heads together and came up with a plan. Working with the other great teachers in the department, we established a day of Multi-cultural celebration. Each teacher's class would show-case their particular language that they had been learning by decorating their classrooms on the inside and the outside preparing talents, dances, skits, and fashion shows in the their learned language. We were in portable buildings in two rows facing each other and we decorated the space between with sidewalk chalk paintings, colorful banners, posters, displays, and country flags. We invited students from different cultures to also display their heritage and language in booths and a bazaar-like food court. One of the highlights of the celebration, was the multi-cultural dance festival where Tongans, Fiji Islanders, Philipino, Taiwanese, Mexican, Guatemalan, Pakistani, German, and several other groups of students performed their native dances. The first year was such a success that the entire school was invited to see it. The next year, it became two days, and the following year it was an entire week. It was a huge ripple and it changed the way that the school operated. Where once all of these cultures collided dangerously, now, they worked together and actively shared and appreciated the best of each others' cultures. It changed the students, the teachers and the community.

Ripples start small and we never know how big they will get or how large their effect will be.

Thanks for making ripples.

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson

Jamie Lewis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great teachers are people you want to be around. They are knowledgable but more importantly they are fun and interesting individuals who teach you as they continue to learn themselves. I believe I have experienced moments of greatness but it has not yet become a part of my everyday life. I do not think I have to give things up as much as I have to adjust my priorities and time management skills to become great. All great teachers do not have the same type of classroom. However, a kind welcoming environment where students feel valued and important is a must. My first step toward greatness, will be to continue to learn something new each day and to help my students do the same. I cannot ask them to do something I am not willing to do myself.

Jacquelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Schools need to share this same story at staff meetings more often. So many teachers worry about larger problems that they have no control over and as a result they loose their self efficacy and burn out sets in. As you said, reaching that one student is all it takes to make a difference. This not only will benefit that particular student, but it is very uplifting to know that you have made some sort of connection with that child.


Shannon Sly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Greatness is something that every teacher must believe they have. Weather it be the love for teaching all the way to knowing everything there is in education. By holding a small part of greatness will endure the success of ones career. One must believe before they can apply.
Even though I have only been teaching for two years I feel that I hold greatness because of the expectations I hold for my students and the amount of time and energy I put into teaching. However, I know that I have a great deal to learn but I believe in myself and my students to succeed. As my principal says to us after learning anything new: "If you don't use it, you lose it."

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching for three years, and I think I am still trying to get out of phase one. I am not quite as determined to run as I was in the first couple of years. I am at the point I guess that I will stick with it. Now, it is a matter of moving forward into the "I know what I'm doing" realm.

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