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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

Comments (183)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Like many of those responding to your blog, I too came across this as part of a search for a blog that was addressing discussions we are having in a Master's course I am taking. So thank you for your interesting and informative take on what it means to be a great teacher.

The course I am taking is promoting a lot of self-reflection about where we are on the continuum from novice to expert teacher, and to whether or not we are great teachers. I really appreciated reading this blog because it helped me to realize that I am going through much of what you went through in your career. I think I am currently on Step 2, and have been realizing over the summer that it is time to take responisbility for my job, and accept the fact that it is my job to teach kids, no matter whether my administration is good or bad. So come September I think I will be in "Get out of my way and let me do it!" mode. I think you are very correct to say that we cannot be effective teachers until we reach the self-actualized phase. It is hard to be an effective teacher if you are allowing so many other things to get in the way.


Kim Pettit's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching for three years now and so far I'm in step 3 of the teacher attitude cycle. I think I only spent a little bit of time in step 1 during my first week of teaching but so far so good. I think what has helped me stay in step 3 are a few factors including workshops & wonderful mentor teachers. When I attend a workshop, class, seminar, etc. I always find myself inspired and recharged. I can't wait to get back to school and implement what I've learned. I have found that this helps me get through any slumps I may have. I also have a wonderful mentor who I can go to for any pep talks when I find myself sliding out of step 3.

The last part of step 3 when it says If I help just one student, then it worth it reminds me of a something I heard at a recent seminar I attended by Larry Bell. He said "On your worst day on the job, you are still some child's best hope." I think the thought of making a difference in even one child's life is what keeps me going and truly motivated.

Abby's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I don't think that there is a single answer to what it takes to be outstanding in our field. There are several qualities that great teachers have in common, or combinations of characteristics that make a teacher unique and effective. I really enjoyed reading this blog and am particularly interested in reading the book "The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness" that Ben Johnson writes about. It is intriguing to me that there is a book which describes a process for an individual to find their voice.

I also enjoyed reading Johnson's three stages of attitudes that a teacher goes through. I think that this is a truly honest depiction of some of the feelings that we as teachers go through. I think what is most important is moving on from phase to phase, and not being stuck on the negative phases. Once phase three is reached, a teacher needs to stay positive and continue their education so that he/she stays innovative and grows towards being a true professional.

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


Thank you for stumbling across my blog, although I am not sure I believe in coincidence. Your comments seem to reflect a pretty common sentiment among experienced teachers. It takes a bit of honesty to realize where we have been and where we should be. Congratulations on going back to school. I bet you are finding a couple of things that I found. 1st, Going back to school as a more mature adult, I discovered that I had become a much better student. I could actually listen, take notes and remember what was discussed. 2nd, and even more importantly, I was able to really get into the discussions and look at the text with a critical eye rather than just accepting everything as fact. A whole new world of connections opened up and I could see immediate applications of my new knowledge.

You are wondering what to do about the administrator problem? You already know the answer. Step three takes care of that! Good luck and most of all, have fun with your students!

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson (Author)
Natalia, TX

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


I think that it is possible to learn life lessons from everything we do. The more hilarious the better. I am glad you enjoyed it. Probably more than the message, the process of what I was trying to say is the important thing. Being a teacher is a 24-7 job and we are always thinking about how we can resolve issues in the class. Ideas for lessons and activities have come to me at all hours and in any situation. I have learned to trust these moments of inspiration. So when I had that epic battle with the barbed wire, the same kinds of frustrations that I felt as a teacher came back to me, along with the solutions for handling the issues. I wasn't going to let that wire get the best of me. As teachers,we just keep trying until we figure it out. Persistence is truly a "teacher" characteristic that helps us ignore the insignificant scratches we get along the way. Wear them with pride!

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson (author)

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.

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