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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.

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Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (42)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Janet S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A great teacher is one who knows his/her students, both as learners and as people. They are also ones that go the extra step to meet the students needs.
A great teachers classroom should show student ownership, it should speak of the children who are in that room.
Teachers who find a way to reach their students, will end up making a difference to those students. This also makes them great.
Greatness comes in many different shapes and sizes, I hope to be close to greatness someday. Right now though, I am still figuring it out. I work to show enthusiasm and find ways to help, but often feel as if it is not quite enough.
I also believe that once I consider myself great then the rules (students) change and I have to find a new way to greatness, so it is a constant thing to aspire to.

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

Janet:

You don't realize it because you see such a long way to go, but you are well on the way to greatness now. I think you will understand that the acquisition of greatness is not a destination but a journey and as you stated, the journey never ends. Rules are changing all the time. When I began teaching in one school, I was teaching Anglo kids Spanish. Only seven years later and I was teaching Hispanic kids Spanish. I couldn't expect to teach the same way if wanted to succeed. Every year, we have new challenges. The one constant however is our attitude. You correctly have the concept that true greatness does not come from what you can provide as a teacher, but from what greatness you can pull out of the students. The high performance learning team, owned by the students that you mentioned, is a product of that. An attitude of greatness inspires greatness and if you don't have it--fake it and it works the same way. Have a blast with your students!

Sincerely,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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

Kim:

Thanks for your definition of greatness. I could not have said them better myself. I wholeheartedly agree with your desire to see other great teachers in action. What you are expressing is a response to the isolation that most teachers, including myself have felt. Being on stage, in front of those students day in and day out with the spotlight on you kind of blinds us to realizing that we do not have to be isolated.

I believe that the next evolutionary phase of public education will only occur when we realize that teachers in isolation can never exert enough influence to help all student succeed. When we see as a matter of course, dedicated teachers meeting in small professional learning communities to diagnose, and prescribe learning activities for students using scientific, data-driven methods--that is when public education will be truly effective. When these small groups of teachers band together to perfect high power teaching and learning activities and then observe and critique each other, the level of professionalism, teaching skill and unity will increase exponentially. You are right, though. In order to do this, teachers need time! Try asking for it, the administration just might give it too you if you tell them why!

There are island of PLC's occurring all over the place, but it is not the norm. The Failure is Not an Option program by Alan Blankenstein is one group trying to make this happen. The Teacher Advancement Program is another. Unfortunately, "Isolation" still rules most of education.

I suggest you look up these programs and read Richard DuFour's ground-breaking book called Professional Learning Communities at Work.

Good luck!
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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

Martine:

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.

Sincerely,

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.

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