Outstanding in Your Field: What It Takes to Be a Great TeacherJuly 16, 2008 | 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.