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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
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Teacher standing alone in classroom reading off a clipboard

Steven Covey wrote a book, 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. Please share in the comments section below your thoughts about what you think greatness means in education and in your classrooms.

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Rhonda Kersey's picture

I know that this blog has been here for awhile, but it is just what I needed. Teachers can be great with the support of their administration and the support of a Professional Learning Community(PLC). As teacher it is not just enough to attend workshops and stay up with the newest strategies and trends we also need each other. Simple grade level meetings are helpful but it is not enough to just relate scores and student achievement we also need to be there as a team that is working for the success of the students as an individual and as part of your class. By working as a team instead of a grade level there is so much more that we can accomplish. By sharing and working together we move beyond being good teachers and on to being great teachers.

eoa's picture

The learnable skills and the inherent qualities of great educators and teachers in educational leadership involve many things from dealings with colleagues and staff and students and parents to dealings also with authorities and community and industry often, these ways of great teachers may hekp aspiring teachers and educators and inspire: http://www.geocities.ws/greatteachersari

Frank Palatnick's picture
Frank Palatnick
Nobel Peace Prize Nominee 2008, Semi-Retired UN Advisor/Education

As I am reading these comments, I notice that you are on the right track. But what I am failing to see is one of the most important reasons to be a teacher. To be an effective educator ( my wording) is to ask the student " How can I help you? What can I do within my capacity to help you understand the concept? Ms. Ann Sullivan was, in my opinion, an excellent example of motivation. She literally bent over backwards to help Ms. Keller understand concepts. Another example of being a great educator is Ron Clark. ( see The Ron Clark Story ). Being a great educator an individual must have empathy, Socratic philosophy, passion, ........in short....Heart.

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

I imagine that the portion about the "three-stage cycle" of shock, cynicism, and self-actualization is something that many educators have experienced throughout their teaching. The drive to remain positive and strive for greatness (in any profession) is challenged by your energy and resources.

I especially like the part about the department head who inspired you: "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." Thanks for sharing your story! Looking forward to reading part II

HollyB's picture

What makes a great teacher? Patience, time, organization, structure, high expectations, kindness, creativity, knowledge, reflection, determination, trustworthiness, collaboration, reliability and above all else, the incessant improvement in each of those things. Great teachers never stop being students themselves; they model for students the importance of lifelong learning through their own actions and facilitate learning that enables students to think for themselves. Great teachers maintain a positive attitude despite the multitude of obstacles that they face on a day-to-day basis in order to make sure that each of their students learns. Great teachers don't focus on teaching, they focus on the learning of their students.

Danielle's picture

I can relate to much of your article. I don't believe great teachers ever feel that they are truly great. Great teachers are always looking for ways to improve instruction and teacher/student relationships. I believe relationships that teachers build are the foundation to their students success. Showing compassion, trust, and empathy I feel are necessary both with students and colleagues.

Kathi001's picture

It is so true that we, as co-teachers, can either bring each other encouragement or show cynicism. We need so conscious of how we speak to each other. I too want to be a great teacher! I want others to be encouraged around me and help build others up. What a compliment to be told by your principal that you show a "spark of greatness"!

vidhatanand's picture

All the above mentioned pointers can be inculcated fairly well.But the willingness of giving a personalized to every student is a dream of many teachers especially while teaching vocabulary. www.vocabmonk.com will certainly solve the purpose.

Nichole C R Wallinder's picture
Nichole C R Wallinder
Rural school districts in Arizona working towards new technology and school improvements for their students.

What a wonderful column from Mr. Johnson. "Be the Solution" the article spoke to me on many levels, just at the right time in my career. Thanks So Much!

Lymarie Carl Baldesco Raganit's picture

That awesome Mr. Johnson you as a teacher is one of the great teacher - who inspires students and made them change their views in their studies by the help and guidance of the your thoughts and learning strategies. As I read this article of yours you have a great quality of being an educator your experiences have a good effect on the relationships with your students. :)

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