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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.

Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (42)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.

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