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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 greatness in educators. One of the nice things about my current position is that I can go into the classroom and see this greatness all around:

  • I saw 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 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 saw 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.

(A regular, everyday English teacher, Mary Catherine Swanson, started AVID because she wanted to help her students be truly successful and find and believe in their greatness. In doing so, she demonstrated her own greatness. If you want to learn more about it, read Wall of Fame, by celebrated journalist Jonathan Freedman.)

In those wonderful visits to your world, I saw many other elements of greatness in both the students and the teachers. We should all believe that we have the best students in the world and that they are certainly capable of being great. It is their right and our responsibility to help them achieve it.

That brings me to the point of my post: How can we expect the students to aspire to be great if we are not doing the same? We all have a certain amount of greatness that we demonstrate frequently, but 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.

I appreciate all that you do and especially the fact that you take the time to read my ramblings. 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 me in the comment section below so I can compile the answers and give a report next month. If you would like to respond but do not want your responses included in the report, just let me know.

Consider these questions:

  • If I think of myself as at least a good teacher, what would I do differently in order to be a great teacher?
  • What student outcomes do great teachers achieve that I don't achieve?
  • What qualities does a great teacher possess?
  • What sacrifices would I have to make to become a great teacher? What am I willing to give up to become great?
  • What does a great teacher's classroom look like?
  • What kind of relationships do great teachers strive to create with fellow teachers and administrators?
  • What will be my first step toward greatness?

These are great questions for you to discuss with a teacher aide or a partner teacher, or in your professional-learning communities and at grade-level meetings. Another book that has inspired these ramblings is Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't, by Jim Collins. It is on my list of books to read soon.

Please respond to the questions I have posed above, and share your thoughts.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Brian Siegfried's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To ask our students' to strive for greatness, I believe we have to be asking ourselves the same question. How can we expect our students' to achieve success, if we as teachers are content in carrying out the bare minimum to complete our jobs? To continue on my path towards being an expert teacher I have decided to continue my education by getting my master's degree. I also keep a journal for self reflection and daily events and how I can improve upon lessons.

I would describe the expert teacher as someone who has had years of experience, but still recognizes the fact that they too do not have all the answers, and are still willing to seek help from their colleagues. The expert teacher has experienced many different situations regarding students, parents, and colleagues, and knows how to resolve most problems in a constructive manner. This type of teacher would also be able to establish meaningful relationships with their students' and make them feel comfortable in their classroom. Furthermore, they would be able to identify what types of learners their students are, be it any of the 8 intelligences established by Gardner (1993). A teacher of this stature would also acknowledge their students' ethnicities and encourage them to share their culture in the classroom. Lastly, I think this kind of teacher would recognize the importance of continued education for themselves and keep themselves current with the times.

To become a great teacher I believe I must be willing to sacrifice some of my free time towards planning. If your planning for the week's events is done in a matter of minutes it will reflect in your lessons. I consider planning and organization to be a major factor in regards to how smooth your days will flow.

I think a great teacher's classroom looks like an exciting place in which a child would want to come in and be a part of. It should be vibrant and lively and create a mood that is joyful and inspiring. To add upon this the room should change with the times whether it is done through seasons, holidays, or topic related projects. I believe it should also be decorated with students work so they know you take pride in what they do.

A great teacher should strive to create meaningful relationships with their fellow teachers and administrators. After all, these are the people that you are depending upon for answers when might be in search of one. I view my fellow teachers and administrators not only as friends but as an addition resource that I reference when I need help.
Lastly, my first step towards being a great teacher is realizing that you never have all the answers, and I should always be striving to improve upon myself. In asking my students to strive for excellence I too must ask the same of myself.

It was a pleasure reading your blog I will look forward to future postings.

Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic, 1993.

Carole Barr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In an age where many teachers are just trying to make it to retirement,it is encouraging to see those who are striving towards greatness. I am currently enrolled in a masters program. I have been a teacher for almost thirty years. (I took ten years off to raise my children.) Now after having been back for over ten years, I have decided to fulfill my goal of earning my masters. Because I was licensed so long ago I am not required to earn my masters but it is a matter of personal fulfillment. I am hoping to teach for at least another ten years and want to improve every one of those years. Thank you for your inspiration.

Caressa Byers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that a lot of teachers hinder themselves from being great. We are our own worst critics. I know that I can be hard on myself a lot of the time. Therefore, I know that I need to learn that I am allowed to make mistakes, but must learn from them. That is how I will continue to grow. I have to be willing to reflect and see what works and doesn't and change to make things better. Things can always be better and we shouldn't settle for the same old thing every year. What worked one year with one class most likely will not work the exact same way with the next one, since you have a whole new group of students. I also know that I need to make sure that I am seeking out advice from teachers with more experience. They have been in my shoes and will probably have some good things to share. I am working on improving myself more and more every year that I teach. I have not been teaching long and know that I have so much to learn. I do not want to ever stop learning and looking for new knowledge and information that will help me be a better teacher for my students.

Ashley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Beth. This is my first blogging experience and I really enjoyed reading what you had to say about becoming a great teacher. Right now I am working on my masters through Walden University and we have recently been doing a lot reading and discussion on novice to expert teachers. When I think I expert I think of great. I dont think we ever truely become "experts", but I do belive we can become a great teacher. One of the first things you mentioned was stepping outside of the box and I totally agree with you. To be a great teacher you have to try new things. So much is always changing and our classes are different each year. What worked one year may not work the next. We as teachers need to be willing to take on challenges and try new things. Our students all deserve the best and for that to happen we can't get stuck in our old ways. We have to make adjustments for our students beacuse they come first. You had also mentioned how important it is to collaborate. You are right! Collaboration is the key to success. We constantly need to be collaborating with collegues, students, parents, and administrators. By doing so we learn new things and get to share our ideas with others. We can learn so much from each other and it is important they you make the time to collaborate. At the school I am at now we have a weekly meeting with out grade level team called PLC (Professional Learning Community) and this time is so benificial. We get to talk about our students and their growth, plan upcoming lessons or events, look at assessments, etc. It is a very valuable time we get to spend with each other. Some other ideas that I would like to share about becoming a great teacher are that you need to know your students! It is your job to get to know each and every one of your students so that you can help make them as successful as possible. You need to know how they learn so that you can differentiate your instruction and meet their needs. The most important thing that I think you need in order to become a great teacher is the understanding that you are a life long learner along with your students. If you are ambitious about taking courses and attending professional development then that shows how committed you are to learning. Thank you Beth for your thoughts on a great teacher. Hope my ideas have helped add to your thoughts about a great teacher.

Pasco, WA

Martine  Beaubrun's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Striving to become a great teacher I believe is our responsibility to our students. They deserve the best education. I was once a teacher that was satisfied with being just "okay" as long as I got my job duties completed. However, with time and teaching experience I have begun to feel a need to become better than I am in the classroom.

Great teachers are often effective communicators with creative minds. They are able to relate well with students and motivate them to learn. They adapt to different situations in the classroom and can teach their students using a variety of teaching techniques. They also manage their classrooms effortlessly.

My first steps towards becoming a great teacher will be obtaining my Masters degree in Education, joining professional organizations and reading as many educational literature as I can.

Of course these steps will take away from my free time, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make in order to become a "great teacher" for my students.

JM's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We need more things like this in Detroit---look at this sobering article:

Last year I was working as VP of Admissions and Marketing at a proprietary college in Detroit. One of my admissions reps came to me and said that her mother wanted to ask me for help.

I responded that I didn't know her mother, but that I would do whatever I could. She said, "My mom thinks that you can do anything, she lives in Florida but she wants you to help the students in Detroit because they can't seem to graduate and they need help protecting their future."

I'm keeping up my end of the bargain. Those early concerns of low graduation rates just seem to be the tip of the iceberg. And while the JM Show is poised with confidence to make a change----The state of the DPS are not so strong, as Rochelle Riley, the wonderful and talented writer for the Detroit Free Press points out in her August 14, 2008 article Detroit Public Schools -- RIP

Rise from the ashes indeed. The JM Show has filed its vendor paperwork (we are not charging the schools or students however) and we are anticipating being there hand in hand with the students and educators as class begins.

We are going to bring our support skills from proprietary colleges to the high school level, including recruitment and retention plans. Thank you Ms. Riley for this sobering article. It is clear that you are doing your part. The JM Show is now grabbing the paddles, and we hope to bring this thing back to life.


Without training, they lacked knowledge,
Without knowledge, they lacked confidence,
Without confidence, they lacked victory
---Julius Caesar

Kim Balstad's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The two articles and questions at the end allowed for reflection on my part.
There are so many "great teachers" out there, and many of them get unnoticed.

What qualities does a great teacher possess?

It's hard to imagine our world without "great teachers". These teachers inspire us with their abilities to make learning fun, challenging, memorable, and innovative, while allowing students to invent, experiment, take risks, make mistakes, and grow. These teachers know their content, their students, and their own abilities! "Great teachers" stand out when you look at them. They have fun with their students and work hard to know each one of them. Encouraging students to "think outside of the box" and be comfortable with themselves starts with the teacher, a "great teacher"! Look around; I am sure you will see many "great teachers" at your school tomorrow.

As teachers, I think we should have more of an opportunity to see each other teach and take advantage of seeing "great teachers" in action, expert teachers in action. As a cognitive coach, I am able to see many new teachers in the classroom (and they are great!), but I would love the opportunity to see my other peers in action too! Seeing "greatness" in action creates a vivid mental picture of what we need to do as teachers and provides us with new and exciting ideas.

Lansing, KS

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)


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!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


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

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