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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.

Originally Published April 13, 2014

Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lutz Mae's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a young novice teacher, my main focus was to learn all the things a new teachers need to learn, from school policies, classroom management to parent conferences. It was a tough time trying to learn all those while preparing my lessons for 50 pupils in a class (WHEW!). At that time, break for me meant going to the cafeteria on lunch breaks in order to get to chat more with my pupils. Those short 30 minutes each day allowed me to "join" their young world. I learned more about their worries, concerns, problems at home and shared so much laughter too. These opportunities made me connect with my pupils and made my lessons more interesting for them. These children were only second graders back then.

Now, after 8 years, and with the help of Facebook and Friendster, I was able to communicate with my former pupils as well. They send me wonderful and heart-warming messages telling me that I've made a positive difference in their lives. Their openness and warmth especially as teenagers now, inspire and humble me to continue my journey of becoming a great teacher.

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great teachers need to be life-long learners first and foremost. If the way our students are learning is constantly changing, then we need to be able to adapt as well. Relationship building is also a key to success. When students think the teacher cares, he/she will follow them anywhere, even if the subject matter isn't very interesting. Lastly, teachers who engage their students in learning and make learning relevent to the lives of their students are on their way to greatness. This takes time and effort, but learning about your students is the first step.

Yolanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that great teachers need to be life-long learners. Technology and the way of teaching is an ongoing process and teachers need to keep up with the latest research. Building relationships is a topic that may bring strange answers and those answers may not always be found in the classroom. Erwin (2003) states, "by building relationships based on what is internally motivating, students will be more likely to succeed." Last year, with a certain group of students I felt I could never really reach, I built a relationship with one in a rock wall racing competition on our field day. Another group of students loved to dunk me in the Dunk Tank on field day and others I enjoyed dancing the Cupid Shuffle or the Electric Slide with at our school dance. Also, playing board games with a group of students on a two hour, field trip, ride home was a laugh-out-loud experience. All in all, I love the privilege of meeting so many wonderful kids with personalities and differences.

Yolanda Bushong
White Knoll Middle School
8th Grade Math
Lexington, SC

Karen G's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great Teachers are sensitive to students needs, likes, and dislikes. They are firm, organized, and dedicated to their school, students, and parents. They understand how strongly children feel about peer relationships. Great teachers are spontaneous at times and are able to adapt to unforseen events. They are very knowledgable about the content they are expected to teach. They know how to motivate students in several different ways. They quickly learn their students strengths and weaknesses. Great teachers are consistent everyday in the classroom. Great teachers expect their students to create and reach personal goals as they model this skill.

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


My first thought is that it takes one to know one. I fully expect that you have most if not all of these qualities yourself. Thank you for putting the last part in. Many times teachers describe the characteristics, but never the main point of being a great teacher--that is, to inspire great learning in student! It follows that if the student did not learn, then no teaching occurred, either from the teacher or the student. Your perspective that the student is the one doing most of the teaching and learning is right on target. Talking a student to death is not teaching, and way too much of that happens in schools. We can tell a student what they need to know until we are blue in the face, and for the most part, they will never "know" it, until they try to do it themselves.

Thanks for your insightful comments.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


You said the most important element of being a great teacher! Have fun! Teaching can be a blast, especially if you are not afraid to be yourself, and engage the students on their level. Caution-- don't try to be a student, or a friend--you should always still be the teacher. But building that relationship means that you will have a better chance of pushing students to achieve their maximum potential because they trust you and do not want to disappoint you. I sincerely believe also that it is a privilege to associate with young people.

Keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

RC's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a graduate student at Walden University. In our recent assigned reading, the author talked about the novice teacher compared to the expert teacher. It stated that very few teachers will become expert teachers (Garmston, 1998). I think that is partly due to the fact that teachers often settle for being good enough. It is a message that students are being sent as well. As teachers, we need to strive to be the best at our job and accept nothing less than the best from our students. How can we expect students to have a love for learning if we are not lifelong learners? We are leading by the example we set.

I agree with many of the responses that are posted. To go from being a good teacher to a great teacher I must be a lifelong learner. I must be able to share and collaborate with my colleagues and be a leader in my school. I must have deep content knowledge and be able to reach students at all levels. I need to get to know each student to gain an understanding of how each learns. It takes much effort and determination to go from good to great. I think we must set our minds on greatness and not accept less. Settling doesn't enable us to take our students to the next level.

Garmston, Robert (1998). Becoming expert teachers. Journal of staff development, 19(1).

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


I am glad you are continuing your education and living the "lifetime" learner attitude. Settling for "good enough" is a problem in any field, but it seems that education has more than it's fair share. You hit on a key part of being a "great teacher". That is "leading". You said by example, but we should lead also by many other things. An educational leader will not be satisfied with good enough instruction, nor will he or she be willing to accept any mediocrity from students. A true educational leader will turn his or her classroom into a high performance learning team and will inspire his or her students to higher heights than they ever dream possible. This kind of teacher asks 'why' and asks 'why not?' This kind of teacher believes that as a teacher, he or she is the key to unlocking the future of the students, regardless of what their backgrounds are. To this teacher it doesn't matter that the students are unprepared for learning in many ways. This teacher accommodates his or her teaching to overcome any obstacle that a student may bring to school, but does not dwell on "oh you poor thing" syndrome. This teacher understands that successful learning is just as important as food, air and water to these students and that knowledge can overcome the negative effects of all these other needs in more significant and enduring ways than that of being a surrogate parent. Well... I just thought I would share my ideas with you. By the way, you gave me some ideas to share in my next blog. Thanks.

Best regards,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Carrie's picture

I have many steps to take to achieve "greatness" as an educator. I have only been a teacher for a year now and lack knowledge and experience that are essential in becoming an expert teacher. In order to educate my students in an efficient manner I am committed to becoming a life long learner. Recently I have become a graduate student at Walden University. My desire and passion for learning will not cease once I have obtained my masters. In a world that is always evolving in technology, strategies, and techniques it is critical for me to maintain new knowledge consistently.

To achieve "greatness" I need to become an increased a risk-taker, collaborate more outside my of my school district, gain new experiences, and reflect every day. There are steps I am currently taking that have shown a positive impact on student learning. One step is I challenge my students to excel to their fullest potential and then push a little farther. The phrases "I can't do this" or "it's to hard" have been eliminated from my classroom. I also instill in my students that in order to learn we must make mistakes. I have made them aware that I do not know all the answers and encourage them to point out any mistakes I make. My experience thus far is that students want to please and are afraid of failing. Creating a learning environment that supports the process of learning through errors allows my students to participate more often and freely.

Thank you for part 1 and 2 of your post, your words are insightful and inspiring.

Jade Benny's picture

I think make a great teacher is someone who cares about their students. If they care about their students, they will do whatever they can to ensure their students receive a good education.

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