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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.

Comments (178)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Debbie Leonard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was once where you are now. I can tell you it does get easier in some regards as you experience more. The routines and management will become second nature and the content knowledge will become richer as you stick with it. Find someone who can help fan the flame and not try to blow it out. I think blogs like these can help as well as mentors in the field. Keep the flame burning and watch it grow stronger and brighter!
Best Wishes,
Debbie Leonard

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.

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