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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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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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Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The trap of step to can be very overwhelming to a first year teacher. At my school site there is so much negativity that I really did not know where to go to avoid it. I consider you lucky. You had a mentor teacher that lifted you from the bitterness of step two. I am realizing through my graduate work that all people are not that lucky and that many times young first and second year teachers need to act as mentors for other teachers. I need to be the person that does it for myself and hope some of my colleagues can be rescued on the way.

Heidi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found Mr. Johnson's post to be very interesting and honest. Like many other bloggers on this site, I am currently taking a class in which we have reflected on "greatness" and what truly makes a great teacher. For me, greatness is like perfection: one may never feel that they are great or perfect. But luckily in life, and our chosen profession, greatness and perfection are in the eyes of the beholder. Truly great educators do not sit back and gloat on their greatness, they are humble and feel that they still have much to learn and aspire to. On the same note, people do not view their lives as perfect, however, others around them may think "wow, they have it all, their lives are perfect!" So, as long as we can present ourselves professionally, respect our students and peers while maintaining a positive attitude, wear our hearts on our sleeves and show others that we are here for them; then we are striving for greatness. We will be viewed as great by our students and peers. And in the end, isn't that all that really matters?

Megan Artrip's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Recently I have been asked to think about what it means to be a novice teacher and what it means to be an expert teacher. I have taught for two years and I feel that I am a step ahead of a novice teacher. I agree with the 3 step teacher-attitude cylce. My first year of teaching I went through both steps. I was very overwhelmed and I wondered if teaching was for me. I also experienced very negative attitudes about the students and the administration. The students seemed as if they did not care and the principle missed a total of 50 days of school so there was absolutely no support. My second year of teaching I changed schools and I suddenly did not express negative feelings anymore. I am no proud to say that I am in step 3. I have so much to learn but I love teaching and I love the students. It also makes it nice to have a supportive administration.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was so glad to have stumbled across this posting. I am about to begin my seventh year of teaching and The past two years have been extremely difficult due to a principal who lacked any leadership skills. I have been stuck in a negative place and I have even considered changing professions. I made a spur of the moment decision and decided to begin a masters program this summer. I am so glad I did. It seems to be exactly what I needed to start changing my attitude. Between the readings and the discussion board postings, I am beginning to see that I am not the only one who is struggling with these issues.
I also agree with many of the other posting on the topic of expert teachers. I don't believe that there is such thing. I believe there are highly effective teachers but I think that our kids change from year to year and come to us from different situations and with different problems. As soon as I think I've got it figured out, I get a whole new class and what worked the year before doesn't always work again. I also think that the research is changing on a pretty regular basis. What teachers were told to do when I was a student is far from what we are told to do today. To be an expert implies that you know all there is to know on the subject. Anyone who thinks that they know all there is to know about students or teaching may need to think again.

Kristin Buie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a graduate student and just finished my first year of teaching. I am by no means a great teacher. I feel that I am a good teacher, but being a great teacher comes with experience. Mr. Johnson hit the nail on the head with the 3 step teacher attitude cycle. I feel that I am on step 3, but it has been a hard road for me to get there. The teachers that I have had the pleasure to worked with this year have been great teachers. I have been able to learn so much from them. I feel that as teachers we gain experience each year that helps us become great teachers.

Melanie Wheeler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I will be beginning my first year of teaching in a couple of days, and I am currently at your stage one. I have attended meetings after meetings, and I feel like a tiny fish in a tank with a whale. I am very hopeful after reading your blog because it reminds me that great teachers once sat in the same position as I sit today. Hopefully, the first stage will quickly pass when my students walk through the door and ownership of my teaching and students will come. Until that day, I will continue to try to out swim the whale.

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too have never though of myself as a great teacher. I do inspire to be one though. Part of my low feelings is that I keep getting job interviews and then not selected for the job. I have a bacholers degree and I'm currently working on my masters, however I am only a teaching assistant. I would love to have my own classroom some day. Reading this, you have given my new ideas and thoughts, new insights. Thank you, I can't wait to read your next post.

Ryan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As part of my Masters program, I have been instructed to search for and participate in an education-based blog. I am already ecstatic to have stumbled upon this site- Mr. Johnson's views are fantastic and they parallel much of what we are currently covering in the course.
I think that all great teachers have one main thing in common- they don't consider themselves great, but their colleagues and students do. Great teachers spend their time living in the third phase of the teacher-attitude cycle, inspiring their students and urging them to be great. Their satisfaction is derived from the success of their students. As a new teacher, this inspires me to be the best I can be for my students on a daily basis.

Ericca Barnett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I found your barbed wire analogy hilarious and extremely relevant. You did an excellent job of capturing the feelings of frustration and the determination to keep trying that many teachers encounter in their classroom management. The rules you had to learn in order to deal with barbed wire definitely resonated within me because I am continually learning the rules to effectively running my classroom. When I first started teaching I fought to make the class bend to my will and I was convinced that classroom management was simply all students doing whatever task you assigned without incident. Needless to say, I was wrong and the harder I pushed my kids, the harder they pushed back. Over time, I think I have learned how to read the mood of my class. There are some days when students seem supercharged and bent on going left if I say we need to go right and I have had to channel that energy into something positive and worthwhile. Similar to your trials with the barbed wire, I think I got plenty of nicks and cuts while trying to figure out how to run an organized class that is conducive to learning.

Tina Crispino's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is the very topic we have been discussing in my graduate course this week. What does it mean to be an expert teacher? I don't really think there is a correct answer to that. In this ever-changing world how can we possibly declare ourselves an expert when what we learned today can possibly be obsolete next week. There is always something new to learn and a different way to approach that same old curriculum that one has been teaching for years.

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