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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Pride of Profession: Striving to Become a Great Teacher

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

This is the second post in a two-part entry. Read part one.

In the first part of this entry, I discussed the process of achieving greatness as educators. In this part, I want to share some of the greatness I have seen in my career. One of the privileges I have had is to be able to go into the classroom and witness teacher greatness in a variety of forms:

  • I have seen a teacher treating her students like little adults, and those first graders responded accordingly by doing fourth-grade work and mastering parts of speech as if they were in high school.
  • I have witnessed a brand-new teacher vividly and effectively demonstrate the three states of matter by having the students be molecules and act out what the molecules are doing in the different states. Because of this, the second graders easily used the scientific method to establish the three states of matter in a hands-on experiment.
  • I have seen self-assured and responsible eighth-grade students catching the vision of how school can be a stepping-stone for college and careers in an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class. They learned the unspoken curriculum of how to overcome fear and doubt and how to effectively work with their teachers. Everything about this class empowered them to actually believe that through individual determination, they truly can advance.
  • I have struggled to follow the swift movements of students fluently speaking the language of logic with hand motions that their teacher had taught them in order to aid them in remembering the AND, OR and XORs.
  • I have been amazed as a teacher’s chemistry students demonstrated their knowledge by doing the chemical dance showing how covalent bonds are made and broken in chemical reactions.
  • I have witnessed a teacher expertly using the smart board to show pictures, words, and symbols to help English speaking and ELL students to understand the algebraic properties of equality.
  • I have stood in awe as a teacher mesmerized a group of rowdy 5th graders by creating a project based learning pizza parlor to help the students understand proportionality and the dreaded math of fractions.
  • I have tapped my foot to the rhythm of fourth-grade science students enthusiastically chanting the vocabulary and concepts related to mixtures and solutions.

Greatness can be found on every campus and in every school. Perhaps you are one of those teachers on your campuses that exhibits greatness in such abundance that others aspire to be like you. Greatness is not always found in the most flamboyant or gregarious teachers. For example, a regular, everyday English teacher, Mary Catherine Swanson, was the one that started AVID because she wanted to help her students be truly successful and to be able to find and believe in their own greatness. In doing so, she demonstrated her greatness. (If you want to learn more about it, read Wall of Fame, by celebrated journalist Jonathan Freedman.)

In my wonderful visits to the classrooms of great teachers, I have seen many other elements of greatness in both the students and the teachers. This privilege has helped me come to the conclusion that if we have progressed to the self-actualization stage in our careers, we should all believe that our students are the best in the entire world and that they are capable of being great. It is their right and our responsibility to help them achieve it.

This thought, brings me to the point of my post: How can we expect the students to aspire to be great if we are not also aspiring for greatness? As demonstrated above, we all have a certain amount of greatness that we demonstrate frequently, but according to Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't, the biggest enemy of success (greatness) is an attitude of "That's good enough.” In that spirit, I would like to inspire all of us to do some self-reflection.

Consider these questions:

These are also great questions for you to discuss with a friend in your department, with a partner teacher, with your professional-learning communities, and at grade-level meetings. If you can spare the time, I would like you to answer the following questions, at least to yourself. But I welcome you to share your responses with the Edutopia readership in the comment section below.

Comments (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You have the heart of a great teacher. Becoming a learner again will help you see what you can do to help your students. You find that going back to school you are a much better student than you ever were when you were young. It is a great way to revitalize your psyche from the daily battering we get in the classroom. Great decision and good luck.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Brittanya Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've read both blogs and I do I have to say that they inspired me. I've always known that I wanted to be a teacher and I envisioned myself as a "great teacher". As a beginning teacher, I felt the stages that you described in your previous blog. Although I was being pushed down, I knew I wasn't going to give up. I believe that it is very important to keep in touch with great teachers. By learning from them we can obtain the motivation and inspiration to continue the journey of becoming a great teacher. Thank you for motivating words!

C. Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think great teachers have several things in common. They possess knowledge of their content area, they are very familiar with the curriculum, they have good classroom and time management skills, they design lessons that are relevant, meaningful, and fun, they incorporate various strategies to address the needs of all students and different modalities, they integrate technology into the classroom, they collaborate with other teachers and they stay on top of their craft.

The classroom environment promotes learning and students' work/projects are displayed on the walls. There are very little discipline problems because students are engaged in learning.

Great teachers are constantly thinking of new ways to "reach and teach all students." They put in whatever time is necessary to get the job done. They believe in student success and strive to help them get there.

Andrea Austin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I strive everyday to become a great teacher. I am a first year 3rd grade special education teacher. I am constantly learning and researching new teaching strategies and methods for my diverse learners. I want to set my students up for success. I conference with my students everyday, all day. This gives me the opportunity to get to know them, and their particular learning style. I just started my masters in Literacy, which I am very excited about. Having this degree will be a huge asset to me and my students.

C. Peters's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

C. Johnson,

I find your definition of a "great teacher" to be interesting. How long have you been teaching? Are you in the public or private sector?
As I struggle to gain the knowledge and techniques necessary to become a better teacher. I do believe it comes with experience. While I don't consider myself a novice teacher, I am a long life learner and know there are many things I can and will learn on my journey to becoming an expert teacher.

Thanks for your comments

LeeAnn Carr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that great teachers have many qualities. Great teachers are those, in my mind, having the ability to keep the students involved; reaching those students that are in need (both academically and personally),and pushing those students that are capable of achieving. I have never considered myself to be a great teacher, but I have always considered myself to be more than competent. One quality that I have always had (and I think those that would be considered great has it also)is to be able to look at where I am professionally and see what more I can do that is needed. Great teachers continually strive to be better in their professions; it is vital to the success of our children and our future.

Jamie Oliver's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also strive to be a great teacher. I think a great teacher knows their students and their family. When you know a child's family you can understand more of why a child may act a certain way, is always hungry or in need of love. Great teachers must love thier children, students must know that the classroom is theirs and it does not always have to be neat.

Great teachers change lives, I want to be able to change a life for the better. Give them the education they deserve. It may be just a hug that makes them want to do better in class, so great teachers take the time to do that.

Zenab Farhan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truely do believe every teacher at some point in there teaching career goes through these stages.

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.

As a student seeking a degree in education it is very nice to know that I am not the only student or teacher feeling nervous about the effect I will have on my students. I too know I have the passion to be a great teacher, I just want to make sure that I do all that I can to back up that drive. Thank you so much for the books you recommended and I can not wait to hear about your journey.

Zenab Farhan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so relieved that I am not the only student or teacher who feels this way. I believe every teacher goes through the three stages.

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 too want to oneday be an effective teacher. I know I have the passion I just want to make sure I have the tools and equipment to back that drive.
Thank you for the books you suggested and I look forward to reading about your journey in other teachers classrooms.

Jackie Harris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! Just reading Ben Johnson's articles and other colleagues in the education field it is very motivating. I of course felt what a few of you were feeling with the 3 stages of teaching. I am in my third year of teaching and have had to switch curriculum each year. Although I am getting great experience, I feel like I am only giving bits and pieces to my students because I am not an expert teacher in any one grade. With switching each year I feel like a novice still. My time and classroom management is expert because I was a mom first before I went into the education field. Nothing prepared me more then raising my twin boys and daughter. I treat every one of my students as one of my own, expecting nothing but the best from them and giving them the best I can offer. I give them respect and they in turn give it back. It takes a while to earn that respect but once they realize that my classroom is a safe zone for them to learn, relax, share, respect, and trust, they want to do well to please me. I let them know that I believe in them, even when they make mistakes. I used to work in the automotive industry in accounting making more at age 25 then I do now at 43. The difference is that I feel more fulfilled, most days, then I did working behind a desk working 9-5. On the days I don't feel very fulfilled
I try to think about what I can do different to change a lesson or relationship with a student and try not to get negative. When I lose the drive, or think I can't possibly do anymore when parents don't seem to care, I see that child's face in my head and know that giving up is not a choice for me.
Thank you to Ben and all of you that give us that nspirational boost we need sometimes when we are feeling defeated.

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