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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 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.

Originally Published April 13, 2014

Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (39)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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.

carol's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, Yes I agree novice teachers are teachers just learning the rules, procedures, routines, the curriculum and classroom management. They don't have time at first to become experts. I believe expert teachers are always looking for new and interesting ways to keep students interested in what they are learning. In a book I am reading, "On Being a Teacher" I read that there is a difference between schooling and learning. Schooling requires students to pay close attention, listen, follow rules, and take responsibilty for actions. Where as learning comes from within ones self. This does not require outside motivation. It is done for yourself. It's what expert teachers do. They are always looking for more knowledge because they want to, not to please the teacher.

Lutz Mae's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a young novice teacher, my main focus was to learn all the things a new teachers need to learn, from school policies, classroom management to parent conferences. It was a tough time trying to learn all those while preparing my lessons for 50 pupils in a class (WHEW!). At that time, break for me meant going to the cafeteria on lunch breaks in order to get to chat more with my pupils. Those short 30 minutes each day allowed me to "join" their young world. I learned more about their worries, concerns, problems at home and shared so much laughter too. These opportunities made me connect with my pupils and made my lessons more interesting for them. These children were only second graders back then.

Now, after 8 years, and with the help of Facebook and Friendster, I was able to communicate with my former pupils as well. They send me wonderful and heart-warming messages telling me that I've made a positive difference in their lives. Their openness and warmth especially as teenagers now, inspire and humble me to continue my journey of becoming a great teacher.

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great teachers need to be life-long learners first and foremost. If the way our students are learning is constantly changing, then we need to be able to adapt as well. Relationship building is also a key to success. When students think the teacher cares, he/she will follow them anywhere, even if the subject matter isn't very interesting. Lastly, teachers who engage their students in learning and make learning relevent to the lives of their students are on their way to greatness. This takes time and effort, but learning about your students is the first step.

Yolanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that great teachers need to be life-long learners. Technology and the way of teaching is an ongoing process and teachers need to keep up with the latest research. Building relationships is a topic that may bring strange answers and those answers may not always be found in the classroom. Erwin (2003) states, "by building relationships based on what is internally motivating, students will be more likely to succeed." Last year, with a certain group of students I felt I could never really reach, I built a relationship with one in a rock wall racing competition on our field day. Another group of students loved to dunk me in the Dunk Tank on field day and others I enjoyed dancing the Cupid Shuffle or the Electric Slide with at our school dance. Also, playing board games with a group of students on a two hour, field trip, ride home was a laugh-out-loud experience. All in all, I love the privilege of meeting so many wonderful kids with personalities and differences.

Yolanda Bushong
White Knoll Middle School
8th Grade Math
Lexington, SC

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