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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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Kelly W.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently taking a masters course and have been asked to reflect on what it means to be an expert teacher. From reading your article I know that is a journey that every teacher must take. I do not think I will ever be an expert because I have much more to learn and experience. However, I will always will strive for greatness. I agree that the the desire does not always feel as strong but that spark of seeing that I have reached at least one student always keeps me going.

Abby Grulke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed this blog because it hits close to home for me. I teach 9th grade, and the administrator in my Freshman Academy uses Steven Covey's habits for being successful educators during our staff meetings. We usually do one a month, and it's been very interesting to connect them to our every day life at the school.

The 3 steps are also dead-on. When I began teaching, my county set up monthly support meetings for 1st year teachers, and they really focused on helping us get from Step 1 to Step 3 without a lot of time in Step 2.

I am still a relatively new teacher, and I know the support and help from my administration has helped me spend very little time in Step 2. In a society where teaching is not always a universally valued career, administrators must do what they can for their teachers, especially the new ones, in order to keep them around.

Shannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I absolutely connect with the three step approach Mr. Johnson mentioned here. I was fortunate enough during the first three years of my teaching career to not get stuck in step 2, and do believe I am truly absorbed in step three. I just finished reading an article "Becoming Expert Teachers," in which the author, Robert J. Garmston, states that to be an expert teacher, one must possess "fluency, automaticy, and efficiency" in the classroom (p.1). I agree with this definition of an expert teacher and also with his beief that to be an expert teacher, one must not just have experience in the field, but, more importantly, reflect on his or her experience and learn, gain new insights, and implement findings from such.

Lauren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that becoming a great teacher is difficult. I am a novice teacher, about to begin my second year, and the idea of greatness right now seems so far away. What was said about outside influences effecting teaching is so true. There are so many things that a teacher has no control over, I think as long as teachers continue to be on track with everything happening around them greatness will be more reachable.

Lauren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

That 3 step cycle is so true! After finishing my first year, I definitely spent most of it on step 1. I am still there going into my second year but I have started to see signs of step 2 creeping up on me.

Stephanie Manso's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I totally agree with you. I posted earlier talking about how a mentor made it clear that I was the one who was ultimately responsible for my happiness in the profession. I spent time blaming others (parents, students, administrators)when I should have been looking at myself and doing what actually needed to get done. I think Ben Johnson hit the nail on the head with this article. It is clear - attitude is everything.

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?

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