Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

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.

Originally Published April 13, 2014

Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (179)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jeannette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As many of my fellow graduate students have mentioned, we have been exploring the difference between a novice and an expert teacher and have shared with each other many of the same qualities that make both. I have taught for 10 years and still feel that I am not an expert teacher. I agree that I am on step 3 as mentioned by Mr. Johnson, but feel to be an expert I must continue to look at my teaching style, methods, and presentation to grow and benefit my students. We have read about many excellent teachers and I see in myself that there are still things to work on.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rhonda-I hope you never have those strong feelings of negativity. I have had several school years of my 17 that I wanted out. I was dealing with drugged out-of-control kids who lived horrible homelifes, students who threatened to kill me, parents that were on my case and acting insane, students in trouble with the law and running away from home etc.. It was more of a depression about not being able to change things for these kids. I have also had students who turned themselves around and are doing wonderfully. This past year I feel I have moved into the more self-actualized phase. I found that it was in me- that I was the one who had to change. I went in my room and had an absolute blast this past year and when I reflected on why --it was because I was so positive and calm throughout the year. My expectations that my students were going to do wonderful work was there but even stronger than that was my expectaions that they were going to be the nicest humans I had ever had the pleasure to work with. And they lived up to that! My class did okay on their testing etc... but my big success was that my class was truly kind to each other and the respect was amazing. I will now always walk into the classroom with the attitude that I am going to work with the best people and enjoy it! Our expectations as teachers are probably the single most influential characteristic of a successful classroom. And even though the learning is important the human dimension is so much more important. I had to chuckle when the students said to me in the hall toward the end of the year-"You know, Mrs. A, we are not as wonderful as you think we are!" I of course said "OH, yes, you are!!"

Brian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with this three step program. Far too often do colleges fail to prepare us for the everyday tasks of a classroom as they spend more time focusing on the ideologies. For instance, knowing that you need 150 copies of an article when your school's 3 copies are broken is quite a daunting realization. That would fall into the first step. The second step I think is caused be desperation knowing that it will be a challenging task day to day. The third step is the realization that you can accomplish these tasks and excel at your position as long as you keep going and its quite encouraging. These three steps are a great life lesson as an educator because they are extremely appropriate and realistic.

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?

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.

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.