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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Making Our Nation Great: Teaching Is a Special Calling

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

This is an exciting time of year -- brand-new classes and brand-new students. When I was a teacher, I didn't realize that I had an advantage over every other profession. Each year, I got a fresh start, a clean slate, a tabula rasa. I had all summer to reflect on how I did and to prepare to make the next year even better.

Yet I wonder what the result would have been had I done just a bit more, or taken more notice of that one student. I wonder about how many educational opportunities I missed because I was so wrapped up in me, especially in the first few years.

I understand that I have only so much time and energy and that I can't save every student. But I have noticed something about teaching and teachers. There is something extra there, something other professions do not have, besides what I mentioned above: Thinking about other professions, I always wondered what it would be like to have an 8-to-5 job. I felt the constant burden of lessons and grading and being prepared for the next day. I wondered what it would be like to go to work with nothing and come home with nothing. Then I remember thinking, "How boring!"

Don't get me wrong -- I had a good life outside of school with my family and my church, even when I became an administrator. I didn't constantly think about school. But when I was doing something physical, such as washing dishes or mowing the lawn, I found myself thinking about what happened at school that day, what I needed to do differently for the next. It wasn't deliberate. My mind just drifted that way.

You know, the surprising thing is that in those times, answers and solutions came to me as if out of the blue. Answers came easily, especially if I was concerned about an individual student and how to help curb bad behavior or develop a talent. When those moments of illumination came, I knew they would work. I could feel it in my bones.

I think that other professions are also entitled to moments of inspiration and brilliance. After all, that is what has made the United States do so well all these years, right? But I believe that there is something more to teaching and, ultimately, that it is that thing that keeps us in education, even with all the public scrutiny.

In all my years as a teacher, I don't ever remember not wanting to go to work. I felt engaged, needed, and depended on -- if not by the students, then at least by the administration and the parents. It was sort of a compulsion. I did not like to leave my students in other people's hands, and it was more than not trusting the sub: There was a connection between me and the students -- an unspoken bond of trust. When I had to attend a conference, I felt like I had to reestablish that connection when I got back. I am not sure how often that happens in corporate America, but it involved something more than just trust.

At times, when I was in the act of teaching and in my zone, I performed beyond my capabilities, and I saw students do some amazing learning, gaining knowledge and skills and having fun. But then I wonder, why wasn't I in my zone all the time? Well, two possible reasons just popped into my head: Either I did not have the skill or -- more important, perhaps -- I did not prepare in the right way.

Looking back on the best lessons I have orchestrated, I can see a pattern emerge. When I could think about a lesson with enough lead time to let it stew a bit, it was always better. When I happened to be concerned about issues of discipline, motivation, or student needs, the answers came to me. So the "right way" to prepare lessons is to cogitate over them in terms of student and classroom needs in order to open the door to inspiration.

I am sad to say, however, that as frequently as I did the above, it was not usually a deliberate act. It was more a reaction, maybe even an instinctual response to the need to resolve issues. Yet I got the help I needed anyway. That is what is different about being a teacher versus being a stockbroker or a plumber. I believe that teaching is a higher calling and, as such, is entitled to extra help. Where that help comes from is for you to decide. Take it for what it is worth religiously, ethically, morally, and spiritually, but that help is real.

Now we have come full circle. I can't help wondering what teaching opportunities I have missed because my heart was not in what I was doing as a teacher or because I was preoccupied about my own situation, or because I was lazy, or because I was simply not being deliberate about finding answers to solve student needs.

That is in the past, though. It is a new year, full of possibilities.

Doctor, lawyer, police officer, you name it -- no profession is more important than teaching. (And administrators are teachers, too.) As teachers, we are partners with all the stakeholders, both seen and unseen, and we need all the help we can get, because we fundamentally affect the lives of every child born in this country. And that is what really has made this nation great.

Have a great year, and please share your thoughts!

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (49)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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

Lindsey:

Substitute teachers are vital in keeping the school running smoothly. Your experience will serve you in good stead--especially in terms of classroom management--that is mostly what a sub does with students who typically don't respect you as a real teacher.

I substituted for six months before I got my first position, and had similar experiences as you--more good than bad. Let me assure you, that regular teachers do not spend a lot of time getting back into the routine when a sub has been employed. The transition is immediate and complete. Students surprisingly know but refuse to accept that even though they misbehave and get away with it with a sub, they will be called to account when the teacher gets back. Unfortunately, if subs do not leave detailed messages of who did what, the teacher's hands are tied and unless another student rats out the miscreants. If the note from the sub was generally bad, I would withdraw privileges from the class (bathroom, library...) If only a few individuals caused trouble, I would create something special them to do while the class participates in the fun stuff.

To make life easier on the subs, since I taught older students, I typically gave work that needed to be done in class and turned in. I told the students that there would be a test on what was done in class that day, when I get back. Even still, the students will try to convince you that the sub did not follow the plans. This is a startling truth, students know how to lie and are amazingly good at it.

If you are looking for a full time teaching position, you will see that it is much better than subbing and fighting the constant "whose in charge" battle.

When you go to a site to sub, aside from doing a magnificent job as a sub, make sure that you get to know the principal and leave a resume and application. You need to let them know that you are looking.

Sincerely,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Windy Campbell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can't believe that I have met someone else who has stepped out of the comfort zone. This year we were told to do cooperative groups. I am an old school, straight rows, only the teacher talking, classroom teacher. I am so glad that I have started to do like you and incorporate the graphic organizes and cooperative groups.
I haven't done the literature circles. This sounds so interesting. Thank you for being so honest here.

Johanna Rosemberg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great blog.

I'm still in school working on my bachelors. I know I have the calling to be a great teacher. I have the passion and desire. I imagine me on my first day of class and I get nervous and excited. I want to be a fun and reliable trustworthy teacher. I see myself teaching for the rest of my life.

Sonia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben,

Since the moment I arrived in this wonderful country I have worked from 8 to 5 pm. I liked what I used to do, however I wasn't satisfied and it wasn't really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Now a days I work as a substitute teacher almost every week. When I am in the classroom I feel the connection between the students and I and I have realized that I really want to do this as a profession. I am also aware of the great responsibility I have, because the work to be done is the continuing of the class routine and make sure the students take advantage of this time as if it was with their teacher. However, it is true what you commented to Lindsey about the student's discipline and their comments when they have had a substitute teacher, specially the High School students. Please note that even though I understand both of you have had good and bad experiences, I recognize that the bad experiences would have been avoided and we could have been respected by the students if we have the support you explained, i.e., 'turn in assignment, etc' that have a value to the student as extra credit or points.

Thanks,
Sonia
Miami, FL

Beth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben,
I enjoyed reading your blog. It is nice to know that other teachers have the same feelings. I teach a first and second grade loop, so I change curriculums every year. I have also wondered what it would be like to have an 8-5 job with no papers or projects to do on the weekends. I always feel like I am behind even though I plan and prepare. There is always something to do or change or a meeting to go to. I feel like I do not have enough hours in the day to get everything accomplished. I do love my job and know teaching is what I was meant to do. I can't imagine doing anything else. I was nice to read everyone's comments. Keep up the good work teachers!

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

Janida:

Congratulations for extending your instructional zone of comfort! I commend you for diligently seeking to satisfy the needs of your students. It sounds like you are doing it the right way too! What I mean is that you are not simply trying things out but you are matching the students with activities and strategies that will help them the best. Please do not forget the rule of three though. Just because you have good participation in an engaging activity does not mean the students will retain the information. Just as we have to repeat a telephone number as we walk from the phone book to the phone, students need at least three different opportunities to interact with the information or skills.

Keep expanding your zone!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Leesa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben

Like many others, I enjoyed reading your post. Your thoughts were refreshing, especially at this time of year when everyone is anxious to be done with school for the summer. I always feel as though I could do more if I just had a little more time. I am currently a middle school special education teacher; every moment counts. I am very passionate about my job and have learned so much about teaching and myself from my students and colleagues. Thank you for your thoughts and insight into the teaching profession.

Fran Siracusa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben,
GREAT post!
Here I am, at the end of July, and one week away from starting up again at the school where I teach for a brand new year. Unlike many others, I did not take the summer off completely, as I took some Grad School courses, which was tiring at times. However, this past summer, I have become SUPER-energized with countless ideas for my classroom and my students, and even my colleagues and school, and I can't wait to SHARE!
Reading your post made me reflect on the times I was disappointed with my instruction, possibly due to lack of preparation. And on the same token, those times when I organized myself for weeks orchestrating the perfect instructions for the perfect tech project, I was rewarded by seeing joy in my students as they produced videos that were outstanding and filled with understanding of content.
It was at those times that I remember why I became a teacher and why I continue to work diligently to always improve myself, and to help and encourage others to better themselves too!
So thank you again for reminding me how lucky I am to be a teacher, and how wonderful it is to begin each new year on a clean slate, and open for every awesome possibility that awaits!

Have a great '09-'10 year!
-Fran

Fran Siracusa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben,
GREAT post!
Here I am, at the end of July, and one week away from starting up again at the school where I teach for a brand new year. Unlike many others, I did not take the summer off completely, as I took some Grad School courses, which was tiring at times. However, this past summer, I have become SUPER-energized with countless ideas for my classroom and my students, and even my colleagues and school, and I can't wait to SHARE!
Reading your post made me reflect on the times I was disappointed with my instruction, possibly due to lack of preparation. And on the same token, those times when I organized myself for weeks orchestrating the perfect instructions for the perfect tech project, I was rewarded by seeing joy in my students as they produced videos that were outstanding and filled with understanding of content.
It was at those times that I remember why I became a teacher and why I continue to work diligently to always improve myself, and to help and encourage others to better themselves too!
So thank you again for reminding me how lucky I am to be a teacher, and how wonderful it is to begin each new year on a clean slate, and open for every awesome possibility that awaits!

Have a great '09-'10 year!
-Fran

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

Fran:

Thanks for your enthusiasm. which is the most powerful tool teachers have to motivate students to want to learn. When I hired teachers, I always looked for the teacher that had a sparkle in her eyes and that energetic confidence in her words and gestures. I wanted the students to see that every day so it would rub off on them. Obviously, you radiate that same brilliance and without saying a word, your students will enjoy your classes just by seeing your smile and your confidence. Please never lose that!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio,
Texas

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