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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

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

Comments (183)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

jeanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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!

Rhonda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

Ardis Barbre's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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!

Linzee Wainwright's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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?

Linzee Wainwright's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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.

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.

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