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Pride of Profession: Striving to Become a Great Teacher

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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.

Become a Transformational Teacher

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

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.

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

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