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

Brett:

Subbing is about survival, financially and pedagogically. You need to get into as many districts as you possibly can. But if all you do is show up-go to the class where you are asigned and go home, you are wasting your time. Instead, you need to make connections in every district. The principal needs to know how good you are and how well you can teach, even if you are only subbing. Show up early and chat with the principal. Write detailed notes of what happened and how well you accomplished the lessons left for you to teach. Let the principal know you are looking for a permanent position. If you have to wait, or make an appointment, do it. Ask the principal what they are looking for in a good teacher. Pick their brains and get pointers. Make sure they have your resume. If you are credentialled, and that happens, as soon as there is an opening, you will have a job--they have already seen you in action as a sub, so that gives you a huge advantage.

Subbing is hard work, but good practice for when you teach already. Just make sure that you are not a baby sitter and really do make the students learn.

Good luck and keep the passion strong!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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

Audrey:

Of course you make a difference. You are passionate about helping your students learn. Another thing that might surprise you is that all teachers make mistakes throughout their whole career. The fun about teaching is that there are so many challenges that finding new mistakes to make is never a problem. The key is that we learn from the mistakes.

You will be probably interested in my previous post about becoming a great teacher. Hang in there and make sure that you do have a balance in your life. You need outside experiences to be a good teacher, but if you spend all your time cooped up in the classroom, it is hard to stay relevant with what is going on in your student's lives and it makes you more interesting to listen to.

Good luck and most of all have fun!

Sincerely,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Kristen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Brett,

I started off as a substitute teacher in multiple districts as well. Through time, I discovered that subbing primarily for one district helped me get a permanent teaching position. After subbing for two years mainly in one district, I was able to network and build relationships with teachers, office personnel, and administrators within the distict. When a teaching position opened, I was called to fill it because of the relationships I was able to build. My advice would be to substitute in a district you would like to teach in. I wish you the best of luck!

Jamie Oliver's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a head start teacher and the beginning of a new school year throws me for a loop. We do home visits before students come to class and sometimes that can be scary but it is a good thing.

When students come to my class they have already seen me, I have been to their home (since they think I live at school)they are now coming to my home. I love each child and want each one ready for kindergarten. I strive to do everything possible to help these students to grow. Through out the year its amazing how they do grow and become more mature students. Then just when you think everything is good schools out and you begin all over next year.

Jeanna Kayser's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach kindergarten in an area of 16,000 people. I find teaching kindergarten is rewarding and stressful at the same time. My students come in at all different levels. I have students that are able to read and students who do not even now the letters in their names. I love to watch my students faces when they come up with the right answer. I am always praising my students. I would love to go home and forget about work but that is so hard to do. I take work home every night and weekend. I love coming up with fun and exciting lessons/workstations for my students. I would never change my profession!

Allison Remuzzi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Ben!
I really enjoyed reading your article. I feel like you really expressed how wonderful and fulfilling teaching is as a career. When you talked about how you thought about a 9-5 job, I really could relate. In college I too considered choosing a higher paying, 9-5 career, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I could never do that everyday. How boring would it be to have a predictable job?

I teach first grade special education in an inclusion class in New Jersey. I adore my job, and I don't think I would ever long to do anything else. When I completed my undergraduate degree I wasn't sure if I should minor in special education or something else, but now after working as a special educator for 2 years I realize it was definitely the right choice. I find children who have disabilities are just so interesting, and learning new ways to teach them both education and social skills is very rewarding.

I too just began a new school year, and I also reflect on the many ways I can make it even better. Best of luck with everything!

LaSonja Jackson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a kindergarten teacher, I totally agree that teaching is one of the most important fields of work that any individual can go into. Teachers are usually the first ones to spark the interests of most "reknowned" individuals. We are the ones who have lead leaders to become what they have become. We have guided and coached our students in ways that we did not even intend, in some cases. This just shows how profound our profession is to this country and this world...Without teachers, where would we be?

Amy Locke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Audrey,

Your comment caught my eye. Your passion and love for teaching and your students touches my heart because it sounds very similar to my feelings as a new teacher eleven years ago. The wonderful part is I feel the same today eleven years later. It is an invaluable feeling to wake up each morning and love the job that I have. I have nineteen students in my first grade class. Each day is an adventure and a joy. Realistically, there are struggles and frustrations and stresses along the way, however, through it all I continue to love my job and am committed to my profession.
Good luck to you. Enjoy each day with your students. They are lucky to have you.

Jennifer B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben-
When reading your article I laughed a few times to myself. I wonder all the time if others have the same feeling that I so as an educator. By reading your article, I can see that this is true. Not everyone has the ability to teach, or the patience for that matter. I find myself reflecting each night about ways I can improve my teaching or ways I can reach a student I didn't reach that day. I do find though that my deepest, and sometimes more successful reflections occur over the summer. I get angry when people outside of the teaching profession knock the job. They thing that because we have vacactions and summers off that we have the easiest job in the world. I challenge these people to spend an hour in my Kindergarten classroom and then talk to me! I enjoy going to work every day, seeing my class, and hopefully making a difference.

Jennifer B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I previously stated, I do most of my reflections over the summer. Each year, I choose a different area of my teaching that I would like to improve on. For example, I worked on my classroom management strategies this past summer. I examined my previous program, listing the positives and negatives I found with it. I then researched other methods that other teachers have used in the past. I was then able to change my program, incorporating other information I found. So far this year, my new program has been much more successful than in the past. Reflecting is a great way to improve yourself and I take advantage of this every day.

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