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.
In This Series
- 5-Minute Film Festival: Inspirational Teachers
- Transform Teaching With the Diffusion of Innovation
- 4 Things Transformational Teachers Do
- A Look Inside the Classroom of the Future
- Transformational Leadership: Engineering Creative Solutions
- Outstanding in Your Field: What It Takes to Be a Great Teacher
- Let Them Struggle: The Sweat Equity of Transformational Teaching
- 9 Ways to Plan Transformational Lessons: Planning the Best Curriculum Unit Ever
- Essential Habits of an Excellent Educator
- Insight and Outsight: 8 Strategies to Catalyze District-Wide Learning
- True Grit: The Best Measure of Success and How to Teach It