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Outstanding in Your Field: What It Takes to Be a Great Teacher

| Ben Johnson

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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Comments (178)

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Linzee Wainwright (not verified)

Teacher Support

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Hello,
I was reading your response to Mr. Johnson's blog and I can identify with you about having colleagues that are supposed to be the wise ones we turn to as newer educators, being negative about things. It can seem like there is no one to turn to when one is in most need of help. I, too, am going into my fourth year of teaching and our district has issues of its own with budget cuts and so forth. My goal this year is to look for those "teachable moments" and use them to assist my students and reaffirm to myself that this is what being a teacher is all about. I think that if teachers do that, then we have some enery and enthusiasm to motivate us when things get hard. For me, there is just something about when I see that a student really understands what I'm talking about that motivates me to want to share more. Good luck to you.

Linzee Wainwright (not verified)

Outstanding Teachers

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I enjoyed reading your blog about being an outstanding teacher. In my masters class, we are also talking about what it takes to be an expert or "outstanding" educator. This will be my fourth year of teaching and I have already gone through steps one and two as you described and I'm hoping to make it to the third step this coming school year. My ultimate goal is to be a teacher that gives children some of the skills and confidence that they will need in life but, I am not sure if this will make me an expert teacher or not. I plan to reach my goal by continuing to learn strategies and techniques in how to become a better educator from my classes and I plan to look to those whom I work with for assitance with cirriculum and various student issues. My question is who really decides if a teacher is truly an expert or not?

Ardis Barbre (not verified)

No Excuses

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I loved your comment about some teachers who say they can't be great because of pay, student attitudes, etc. I get so sick of teachers blaming everyone and everything for their short comings in the classroom. As educators, we need to take responsibility for what happens in our classrooms and stop blaming everyone else. I wish all educators had your outlook on teaching. We need to do the best with what we are given and strive to be the best educators we can be for the students we teach!

Rhonda (not verified)

Great Novice To Expert Teachers

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Hello,
I also am a graduate student and I see a number of my classmates have responded to your posting. As stated, this week we are discussing the novice to expert teacher continuum. I have just completed my first year of teaching. It was truly a joy and I look forward to the upcoming school year. Needless to say, I do consider myself a novice teacher and I believe that I am on the path of being a great, effective, and experienced teacher. I do not think that educators truly reach expertise because there is always room for improvement and new strategies and ideas to learn and utilize. I appreciate the three step process that you have defined and I hope to progress smoothly through the steps. However, I do not foresee me possessing the negative attitudes towards teaching.

jeanne (not verified)

Greatness Thrust Upon You

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I am inspired by what Sarah wrote. How great for her students to be in the presence of someone who still loves their job after 30 years. How lucky she is (and we are) to work in a profession where we are surrounded by energy and eagerness everyday.
Sarah, sounds like you have reached greatness!

Richard W. (not verified)

I Agree

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I agree 100% with the cyclical pattern. Unfortunately I have tried extremely hard to rise above the administration and continue to do for the students. However, they continue to reward minimal efforts. My administration has a tendency to react quickly to problems such as parents and other political pressures and they have shown how they maneuver. They reprimand or document everyone's faults but give no recommendations to aid in your growth. They have transferred anyone who challenged the agenda, even those who have shown stellar performances as a teacher and mentor to students.

I am trying to figure out how to make a career out of something that I love to do, can be manipulated so easily by one or two people. I will find a way to rise above again, but as Steven Covey has said in his first book (7 Habits) I need to put first things first.

I am now married and my stress level carrying over into my personal is not acceptable. I care too much for what I do and I need to find a way to do this without any intervention from my administration. This might even mean I have to look in a different venue.

Scott Johnson (not verified)

Progressing through the steps

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I agree with what your saying. I think every teacher goes through the various steps, at various stages of their career. Just when you feel you've approached step 3, something happens to pull you back into step 2. I feel the number one priority of any teacher is passion. If you truly have passion for what you are doing, everything else will fall into place. It doesn't necessarily make it easier but desire can keep you going through the rough patches. It is easy to get caught up in step 2 indefinitely. As we grow professionally, the goal is to stop putting blame on what we cannot control and start focusing on what we can. The desire to better ourselves, through reflection and learning, will eventually get us closer to the expert level. I don't believe any teacher ever becomes a complete expert. At the rate at which education changes, whether it be standardized tests, curriculum, or technology, the best we can hope for is to stay a couple steps ahead. It's the journey and the motivation to become an expert, that will make you great.

Sandy (not verified)

I found this blog to be very

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I found this blog to be very interesting. I related to the three steps described. As I prepare to enter my fourth year of teaching, I feel that I am teetering between the first and second steps: I am still inspired and enthusiastic to make a difference, but the realities of budget cuts, unsupportive parents, and administrative demands are beginning to take their toll. I see my colleagues, who have been teaching for 15, 20, or 25 years and their attitude is extremely negative and seem to have little enthusiasm. They say it is because of recent political issues in our district but I'm not so sure. I know teaching is my calling in life...there is nothing else I would rather do. But I began to worry that discouraging conditions would someday jade my vision of helping others too. However, the third step of the process has given me hope for the future. Reading the other posts has helped me realize that these emotions are quite normal and will come and go.

I know Mr. Johnson's change to administration renewed his energy and inspiration, but what about those of us who do not foresee a career in administration? Is there any advice for us newer teachers on how to maintain our energy, enthusiasm, and commitment?

Scott (not verified)

I agree with what your

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I agree with what your saying. I think every teacher goes through the various steps, at various stages of their career. Just when you feel you've approached step 3, something happens to pull you back into step 2. I feel the number one priority of any teacher is passion. If you truly have passion for what you are doing, everything else will fall into place. It doesn't necessarily make it easier but desire can keep you going through the rough patches. It is easy to get caught up in step 2 indefinitely. As we grow professionally, the goal is to stop putting blame on what we cannot control and start focusing on what we can. The desire to better ourselves, through reflection and learning, will eventually get us closer to the expert level. I don't believe any teacher ever becomes a complete expert. At the rate at which education changes, whether it be standardized tests, curriculum, or technology, the best we can hope for is to stay a couple steps ahead. It's the journey and the motivation to become an expert, that will make you great.

Valarie Butcher (not verified)

Teaching Continuum

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Rachel,

I agree with your comments about "expert" teachers. I have also been focusing on the notice to expert teacher continuum, and I struggled with the concept of an expert teacher. I believe that outstanding teachers may be experts at certain aspects of the profession, but the idea of a teacher being an expert in all areas given the changing nature of education I too find to be difficult to imagine. I think the reality for most teachers is closer to your idea of teachers moving back-and-forth through Ben Johnson's three-stage attitude cycle many times throughout their career.

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