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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.

Originally Published April 13, 2014

Become a Transformational Teacher

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

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. Seeking greatness is what we all want, but we can get bogged down by things we feel are out of our control.

I also think that the "greatness" we speak of in teachers is also in other staff members, such as paraeducators/instructional assistants. Many assistants that I work with seek to become better as well. However, there is the other side of the spectrum too - those that do not like children and think they should never have to work with a group of students.

Rachael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also enjoyed the three step attitude, and believe it is so true! As a first year teacher, I was very motivated and excited to start my school year. I was unaware of many of the negative attitudes teachers can have towards students, administrators, and "the system". Despite my inexperience, I hoped to not gain these negative feelings towards teaching, and thought that hopefully, I never would. Throughout the year I came across students who did not want to learn, and a "system" that was failing our students. I also came across teachers who would complain and blame others for everything. The third step of this process, "This is fun. Get out of my way and let me do my job.", is where I try to stay while teaching. I try to stay away from the negative ideas and thoughts, and try to stay positive. The whole reason I became a teacher was to help students, not complain about things I cannot change. As I grow in my career, I must try to remind myself of why I got into teaching. I think then, I can become a "great" teacher.

Scott Pavalko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with what you are saying about just beginning to know who you are as an educator. When you first get out of college, you figure that you know a lot about the profession and that you are ready to go. Although this maybe for the most part true, it continues to amaze me how much I learn on a year-to-year basis about who I am as an educator. I also learn how to be better in the classroom and better ways to get the material across to my students.

I hope that the rest of my career is like that.

Scott Pavalko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with what you are saying about just beginning to discover who you are as an educator. When I graduated from college, I thought that I knew who I was and the best way to teach the material. I still continue to be amazed at how much I learn about myself and about my students on a year-to-year basis. I think that this is only going to get better the more into my career I get.

Amber Kreischer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a novice teacher and I can relate to your feelings in the beginning about not being a "great teacher". I believe that I am good, but I often wonder if I'm doing what it takes to be great. I love what I do and would say that I am in the third step of the teacher attitude cycle. I just need to have more confidence and continue my professional growth.

Scott Pavalko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really believe that becoming a great teacher is a very difficult task. I would almost say that it is near impossible. There are too many variables when it comes to the students and the outside influences that will effect your teaching. However, I feel that as long as a teacher never stops striving to be a great teacher, they are becoming the best that they can possibly be. I feel that when a teacher has lost hope or developed a negative attitude towards the students, that is when that particular teacher becomes ineffective.

I just hope that I can always strive to be great.

Jaclyn Londono's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! Ben Johnson really got it right with his 3 step teachers attitude cycle! When I first began teaching I was definitely on step 1 because I was extremely overwhelmed. The next two years or so I felt like I was between steps 1 and 2, but striving to be on step 3. Now I am going into my third year of teaching and I still find myself going back and forth between all 3 steps. I love teaching and it is fun, but there is also a lot of stress that is put on us, so I find it hard to maintain a high level of enthusiasm at all times. Hopefully one day I will be on step 3 and only step 3!

Greg Collins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems to me that too many great teachers are leaving the classroom to become administrators. I see that Mr. Johnson said that he became an administrator to inspire other teachers to become great. While I think that this is very commendable, I think that our profession makes getting out of the classroom too attractive. I do not wish to minimize the importance of administrators, but it seems like that we should be doing more to keep the best teachers in the classroom.

Judy Ledford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed hearing about the three-step cycle. I have been stuck in phase two for several years. My administrator lacked positive leadership skills, and morale has been slipping. I knew I was being less than positive, but it is a slippery slope once you are upon it, and difficult to quit sliding further down.

Having entered grad school this summer has given me the impetus to get off that slippery slope. Now I am climbing back up to being positive and energized. I, too, have realized I was letting forces out of my control to control me. Whether I have a good administrator or not, a good district or not, budget cuts or not, I must never lose sight of my misson - to teach the kids.

I believe there are such beings as expert teachers, those who have the knowledge and experience to get by in any situation, but also the knowledge that we must never stop learning.

Valarie Butcher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


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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