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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

Kristen Schoonover's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These questions on the table are some that I have thought about recently as an elementary school teacher. I am currently taking my first class for my Master's degree and I would like to say I am doing it by choice. Unfortunately, I would be lying. I live in New York State where a Master's Degree is required. As I read the questions I was asking myself why I was content being a mediocre teaching with mediocre knowledge. This is not to say that I didn't learn anything in my undergrad, but why don't people choose to become more qualified for thier job whether they are required to or not. I believe that this relates back to what makes us "great teachers". To make myself a "great teacher" I could embrace every opportunity for professional development that comes my way. This includes my Master's classes. I should be using the skills and knowledge I am learning to better serve my school and students instead of doing it because it is required. When you talk about the achievements of students I don't think we can narrow it down to academic achievements. We also need to look at what kind of impact the teacher had on the child. A "great teacher" of mine recently attended my wedding. This wasn't necessarily because I scored high on tests. This teacher had an impact on my life that in my mind made her a "great teacher". These questions bring out a fear in me that I will never achieve the status as "great teacher". I would do whatever I could to make a difference in my student's lives. These questions should be pondered by all teaching professionals. If we continue to accept mediocrity how can we expect anything more from our students.

beth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that in order to become a great teacher I have to be willing to get out of my "box" and take more chances. Great teachers have their students full attention usually because they have made what ever it is they are teaching fun. Great teachers work closely with other teachers and administrators to gain insight on what they can be doing in their classroom to make it successful. I think that the sacrifices that teachers have to make are they have to give up some of their "free" time in order to plan interesting projects and to learn about new things.

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

Thank you for your comments. If we want to be great at anything, there is always sacrifice. You are correct. A teacher that has the passion, will not think twice about taking and making the time to do the extra things for student learning to occur. Collaboration and team work only just recently are becoming accepted as desired working conditions to provide high quality learning to students. Even still, there is a long way to go. Thanks for mentioning the fun word. It has to be fun for both the student and the teacher or we naturally will avoid it.

Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

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


Your comments demonstrate seeds of greatness because I think that you "get it" and are willing to make some attitudinal and behavioral changes. It is sobering to realize that you are behaving as the norm- (mediocre) when you have capacity to do so much more.

I suppose that the greatest teachers I ever knew, would never have considered themselves great. They were great because of the impact they had on my life. My sixth grade teacher was my favorite, because she was fun, did crazy things, had frogs all over her classroom and she was real. She became the model for my teaching career. I tried to mix things up like she did, and more than anything else, I tried to create a learning atmosphere like she did. I don't even remember her name, but her smile is burned in my memory. I remember that she had confidence in me and that was critical for a once timid and quiet boy. So her legacy, which she does not even know about, is living in me, and all of the people that I have helped along the way, and all the people that they have helped. Although my parrots (frog substitute) are packed up, there is no way to gauge my impact over time, but it is all worth it when one of your students invites you to a wedding!

Keep making an impact and you will be great!

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Kacie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I first wanted to comment on your statement about it being our responsibility as teachers to help our students achieve greatness. You are absolutely right. That is the most important part of this profession. Aside from all of the paperwork and meetings, my number one job as an educator is to do whatever steps necessary to help my students achieve their highest potential. I expect the best from my students. Why shouldn't they expect the best from me? They should and I should give them nothing less. I don't accept the "that's good enough" attitude from my students. If I don't accept it from them, I certainly shouldn't accept it from myself. I have only been teaching for 3 years but in those 3 years I have already grown tremendously as an educator. I have seen things that work and don't work, things I want to add or change, and things I want to learn more about. I am by no means a great teacher yet. I am realizing the steps I need to take in order to get there. A great teacher realizes the importance of higher, lifelong learning. If I want to inspire my students to become life long learners, I need to be one myself. Great teachers make sacrifices. They sacrifice time, money, energy, sleep, along with many other factors. Great teachers do not make these sacrifices for themselves or their families, or for fame. They sacrifice for their students. In one of my courses, I had to write my philosophy of education. After a lot of time reflecting and thinking about why I chose this path, this path to become a great teacher, I realized. If I could touch one student's life, make a difference in one child's world, it would all be worth it.

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