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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.

Comments (178)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Adrione's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow. I must agree with you, that when I think of myself as a teacher, greatness does not come to mind. In fact, when I think of myself as a teacher, I think more along the terms of improvement. That does not mean that I am not striving for greatness however because that's what I am doing. This year when school starts, I'll be a third year teacher, and some of the anxieties that I had as a first and second year teacher will not be present. I feel that with each year that goes by, I become more and more equipped to better educate my students. But I guess my question would be, you can continue to better yourself as a teacher by revising strategies and being self-reflective, but how do you achieve greatness?

Kathleen McGuinness's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading this article about being a great teacher. After, 17 years of teaching, I, too have given thought to whether or not I am a great teacher. Like Ben, I have passion, enthusiasm, and creativity. I also try to figure out how I can best meet the needs of struggling students, while constantly questioning how can I improve my effectiveness as a teacher.

I do not consider myself to be a great teacher. I am always assessing how and what am I teaching and is it the best way to serve my students. I think I will always go through that thought process because I believe that my job as a teacher is to find ways that are going to improve student success - therefore, I am a successful teacher.

I have gone through the 3-step teacher attitude cycle a few times. The first time was my very first year of teaching when I was a novice and my learning curve was huge. I think it took me about 3 years to complete the cycle. The 2nd time I went through the cycle was the year I almost quit teaching because I was hired into a position that would require that I "included" 3 identified special education students who came with very little classroom support. I did not have the background or training to be effective in that classroom environment. The 3rd time I went through the 3-step teacher attitude cycle was 2 years ago when I had the worst behavior class ever with an administrator that did not know how to handle or implement the discipline that was necessary. Luckily, I survived that year and was able to move on to step 3 the next year for which I could enjoy teaching again.

I look forward to sharing this article with my building administrator and leadership team as we start our school year in August. I know they will also be able to relate to going through the 3-step cycle. My suggestion to my staff, is to use Covey's book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness as a book study. Thanks for the insights to this book.

Daniel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's nice to see that other people go through pretty much the exact same thing that other new teachers do. I am a first-year teacher, and I felt the exact same way, I felt that I could not accomplish anything, and that I had very little support, and I did not know what I was doing. It's nice to hear that things will get better, and I look forward to reading more from you.

Heather Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is this amazing feeling of goose bumps and heart palpitations that my fear was recognized and real. As a first year teacher, I was in stage 1 right around October of last school year. Then again, in May when my students were antsy to enjoy the beautiful weather and I needed to prepare them for benchmark tests, I wanted out. However, when those feelings emerged... they were soon followed by an "ah-ha!" moment from one of my First graders. Thank goodness for them. Unbeknownst to them, they are the ones who kept me motivated.
One thought about the other stages that lie ahead in my career. I clearly see some of my colleagues fitting into those categories. It is evident when I hear the complaints about administration from the stage 2 teachers. I cannot wait for them to reach stage 3!

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've had the opportunity to teach in several different school districts. My current teaching position would be my dream placement with the exception of a number of colleagues who focus on negativity. I guess they are stuck in stage 2. I'm newer to the school and know what else is out there as far as limited resources and technology, support systems, and much more. When I see everything my school district offers both teachers and students I can't believe some of the attitudes my colleagues present. I decided not to isolate myself and maintain communication. I still feel having professional relationships with colleagues are essential. I just limit my exposure because if I'm not careful, the negativity could be passed on to me. I know I want to stay positive, problem solve, and stay focused on growing and moving forward. I want to continue having fun in the classroom.

Alina Moran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This year will be my first away from a formal classroom setting after having spent twenty years teaching K-12 in the US as well as abroad. I don't see myself as a great teacher, but I do feel I have become a meaningful educator.

I began teaching formally in 1988 and not in the manner most teachers initiate their careers. This provoked a need to excel among my highly qualified colleagues and the passionate desire to responsibly enhance the learning experiences of the students. This endeavor has yielded and continues to yield many delightful successes... more than I ever envisioned on that very first day of school back in 1988!

Teachers must understand that meaningful teaching requires a passionate, coherently knowledgeable, empathetic nature that perceives students' interests and needs, addressing such needs without ever loosing the thrill only learning something well offers. Teaching is about developing proactive life long learners.

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


Thank you for 20 years of passionate service. Blessings have a way of coming back to us when we engage in selfless work like teaching. Well done. Oh, and by the way, you are still an educator, because you understand the truth of it--always keep learning!

Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

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


You made it through the hardest part and you still have a positive attitude as denoted by your comment, "I cannot wait for them to reach stage 3!" That is the sad part about my career, that I spent any time at all in stage two. There is no reason a teacher cannot skip stage two entirely. I hope you are one of those. Keep that great attitude and you will be great!

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

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


You are not alone in your plight. Ingratitude abounds in educational circles. Educators really do have much more than they did just a few years ago and some districts offer much more than others and it is easy to get into the "habit" of complaining.

You are right to not isolate yourself from the negativism. I noticed something about the way people respond to situations. It is much like a balance beam. If it tips slightly to the negative, the whole thing then becomes negative. But there is the other side, if it tips slightly the other direction, positivism prevails. I believe that you could be that spark of positivism and tip the scales in the positive direction by speaking up and finding the good. Some of your colleagues may humor you because you are new, others may label you as a goodie-two-shoes, but I guarantee they will listen and this may be just the nudge that others need to speak up. Light dispels darkness.

Most importantly, stay positive yourself. I hope you can be that ray of sunshine for everyone around you. Good luck!

Ben Johnson,
Natalia, TX

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


It does get better! Once you get past what do I teach, you can focus on how to teach it better. You can pay attention to the student learning needs much more and you can have fun with the students rather than trying to perform. Teaching and learning is an exciting adventure and it is work, so why not have fun!

Glad you made it through your first year, regardless! That means that you are one tough teacher! Well done!

If there is anything I can do to help, let me know. (I am glad you like my posts)

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

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