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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

I am reading a book by Steven Covey called The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, which he wrote to help organizations and individuals find their voices. The premise of the book is that if you don't do this, you or your organization will not be able to achieve greatness. I highly recommend that you read it, and I will gladly lend it to you when I am done with it, but that is not the focus of this post.

I considered the word greatness for a long while. I asked myself this question: "What does it mean in education?" Then I started thinking about my career.

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; I did the best I knew how with the resources that were available. I found myself always thinking about what I could do to improve my lessons, to overcome negative student behaviors, or to encourage individual students, while at the same time, I pondered my own shortcomings. My strategies and skills were not unique. Aside from a little bit of personal flair, they were the compilation of wisdom and experience gained mostly from other teachers.

Although I was not great, I would like to believe that I was an above-average teacher. As most teachers do, I went through the typical three-step teacher-attitude cycle:

  • Whoa! This is too much, and I want out.
  • The students don't care. The administration doesn't support us.
  • I can do this. This is fun. Get out of my way, and let me do my job. If I help just one student, it is worth it.

I was able to get out of the second-phase trap of negativity and into the third, self-actualized phase because of wonderful mentor teachers who helped me understand that it helps no one to complain and point fingers. Mr. Devereaux, the Spanish department head, taught me that I first had to be the solution to all my problems, and then I could enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey. I don't think I was an effective teacher until I learned that lesson.

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.

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. So here I am.

I have seen that spark of greatness in you when I have been in your classrooms and watched you interact with the students. Recently, I have been a first grader, a second grader, and an eighth grader (and I will soon be a ninth grader), and I have witnessed elements of your greatness firsthand while spending the entire day at your campuses and in your classes.

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 I've discussed here.

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Kayon J.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson, without knowing it, I have followed your three-step program since the day I stepped into Teachers' College. However, I think I amended it and made it a two-step program with your number 3 as my number 1 and your number 2, combined with your number 3, as my number 2.
I have always been enthusiastic about what I do. I love adapting popular games for use in my class. I love challenging students and getting them to bring their experiences to bear on a text. I love the feeling I get when I see the look of pride on a student's face when his/her grades finally improve (even if only by five percent) and I acknowledge it. I love the feeling I get when a student comes up to me and says, "You were right. I gave the subject a chance and now I no longer hate it." I think I am a great teacher whose flaws and failings help to make her unique. I think I am a great teacher, but I want to be extraordinary! Closer collaboration with colleagues and a commitment to become a life-long learner should help me to achieve this goal ... some day. Sometimes my students ask if I like my job because they really do not understand why, if other options are available, anyone would want to be overworked and underpaid. I always reply without hesitation "Life is too short to waste doing something you do not love. Money is important, but it is not everything and it is not even half as important as being happy. Find something you love and make that your job. I love being a teacher."
As my sense of self-efficacy weakened, I combined your number 3 and number two so for me, they were no longer discrete steps. I experienced both simultaneously. (I hope I never get to your number 1!) However, I am proactive and when I find myself in this stage, I do not hesitate to approach my principal or Head of Department with proposals that might help us to effectively address the challenges that are threatening my self-efficacy. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they do not but I always feel better because I know I did not waste my time and energy dwelling on negative thoughts -I took action. As a result, I have now returned to your number 3. Exposure to the resources in my Masters program has also helped to revitalize my ailing belief in my ability to make a difference in students' lives. I have accepted that as a teacher, I will face many challenges. I have also accepted that some days will be worse than others and it is natural to feel depressed and ineffective at these times. However, I now know that if I surround myself with positive, supportive family members and colleagues, I can do almost anything! Besides, when all is said and done, there is nothing I love more than being a teacher.

Tina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have yet in my seven years of teaching to hear a teacher consider themselves great. I believe it is a difficult thing to even think about because not matter what we do, how hard we work, we still have some students fail. Being the perfectionists teachers usually are, this is hard to take. What makes a teacher great is to maintain that attitude of step three. Teachers that maintain that step three attitude by attending staff development, stepping out of the box to try new trends, or even take courses for a master's degree are the ones on their way to greatness.

Tina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Judy, I could definitely relate to your comment. It really is a slippery slope in our profession and I see many teachers in my building going down that slope.

I also started my master's this past summer and I could not believe how my motivation has changed from the end of last school year to now. I can't wait to get back into my classroom and do what I do best, teaching first graders and hopefully make a difference in their lives.

Good for you to realize you were slipping and have the energy to climb back on top.

Mindy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The second step of Ben's three step teacher - attitude cycle really resonated with me. I am a mentor teacher and I have a wonderful teacher that I work with who can get stuck in negative attitudes. I am going to approach her the way Ben's mentor approached him. It is very empowering to know that you can be the solution to the problems instead of dwelling in the negativity. Thanks Ben!

Malynda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was very interested in Ben Johnson's three steps that teachers go through. I find them to be very true. Unfortunately I have found myself slowly moving to step 2 in the past few years. As some others have mentioned I have found that returning to learning this summer has helped to rejuvenate my enthusiasm for teaching. Sharing with other teachers outside of my district and realizing that we all share the same concerns has helped me to realize that I am the one who needs to make a change in my attitude. The administration will not be changed by my poor attitude but my students can be. I need to start change where I can and what better place to start than with myself.

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.

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