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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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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)

Alina:

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)

Heather:

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)

Lisa:

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)

Daniel:

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

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

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

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

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)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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

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