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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

Comments (49)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kelly Helwig's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved this article. You make very good points throughout. I was wondering what your feelings are about inclusion of special needs students into regular education classes? How could teaching inclusion students influence your sense of self-efficacy?

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


Thanks for the praise, which should really go to all the teachers on the front-line. You sound like a teacher that is tackling some of the most challenging issues facing educators today. Perhaps my thoughts will help you clarify yours.

First, I need to state that I believe that every student is a special needs student (RTI is a good example of that). Some just have needs that are more obvious or more demanding.

The concept of inclusion is fairly well understood by all teachers. The implementation of inclusion, however, runs the gamut. Much of it depends on the teacher's attitude. I have gone through the phase of thinking that special ed students should be in a special ed school and not in my class. I am sorry to think that for a time I resented those students and their special needs. I think that is not unusual for new teachers to think. Then I learned something. It is not about the students, it is about me and what I can offer to all students. If I am doing my job, my learning activities will challenge the full range of students on both ends of the spectrum. It boils down to Just Plain Good Teaching (JPGT you can read more about this in my next post).

Special Ed. inclusion without support is a failure waiting to happen. The special ed teacher needs to collaborate with the regular ed teacher on the special ed students in the classroom and together come up with learning activities that can challenge these students and at the same time provide learning success. The special ed teacher and or aide need to participate in facilitating the learning activities and provide the added support necessary for the special ed student to be successful.

For some teachers, it is a no-win scenario to teach special needs students. They feel that no matter what they do, they cannot make progress with those students and they feel like they are neglecting the other students. That can be debilitating if you that is all you consider. I found self-efficacy in measuring progress, regardless of where the students started from. Building on successes empowers the students and the teachers with more enthusiasm to do the hard work of learning. That is why Response to Intervention is so important. Every teacher has been taught to give pre-tests and post tests. Few actually do it. How do we know if a student learned anything in our class? How do we identify students who need more and those that need less before we teach if we do not evaluate them? Response to Intervention requires that teachers be more professional and evaluate the progress of each student objectively and with enough lead time and with enough frequency to make intervention worthwhile.

Hopefully that answers your questions--probably more than you wanted.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Nicki Key's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You sound to me like you have been emmersed in the teaching profession for a while. This is currently my second year of teaching, but I worked my way through college as a paraprofessional and substitute teacher. So I have been on many sides of education.

I share your opinion on being absent from my class. I was recently out for 2 1/2 days with a sick child. I felt totally disconnected. I didn't realize until then how much I enjoy going to work and spending time with "my" kids. I have come to realize that I love teaching and children. I also love learning which is probably why I enjoy teaching.

I also have been thinking a lot lately about the impact I have on my students. However, my thinking has gone beyond my own classroom and to a bigger scale, what kind of impact do we have on our country's children, and beyond that our country's future? I believe we need a movement of support for teachers in this country. We need legislators to stand up and not just want to hold us accountable, but encourage and applaud the work of great educators. The great educators are shaping the future of our country. That being said, what kinds of changes would you like to see to the education of America's youth in the coming years?

Nicki Key

Caroline Coleman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben and Kelly,
This is year sixteen for me to teach and year one for me to teach an inclusion class. If anyone had asked me five years ago what I thought about doing this, I would have had a very negative response. I was one of those teachers who thought of the special ed. students as a "pain in my side." I am so glad that I have gotten past that. I have 20 students in my room and seven of them have IEPs. The special ed. teacher stays in the room with me and we team teach. At first, I was under the impression that shortening assignments and giving the students less responsibility was the best way to modify. After only six weeks of school, I already realize that we need to be pushing these students to their full potential and having more confidence in what they can actually do. I have learned that modifying means that not all students learn the same and that we must find ways to differentiate so that our teaching is effective. We also spend alot of time just working on organizational skills, listening skills, comprehension, and other core learning techniques to help them succeed in the classroom. I am amazed by what these students are capable of given the right atmosphere. I will admit that I am new at this and still learning quite a bit myself, but I really do believe in it and am so excited about seeing what kinds of gains are made by them at the end of the school year.
At our school we have just begun a reading recovery program along with intense focus on response to intervention. This program begins with kindergarten and first grade students. It is our hope that through this program, we can either drastically reduce or totally eliminate the need for special education in our school over the next few years. I believe that very few students truly have learning disabilites that require special services. I think that somewhere along the line, they have just missed out on learning the core aspects of reading comprehension. I know that some might think of this as just another fad, but I am more excited about it than anything else that I have done in the past fifteen years.
Caroline Coleman

Taya Combs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my third year teaching, and I too agree that there is a disconnect when I am not with my kids. My father passed away during the school year, and I was out for week. Even though I was sad, I still thought about what my students were doing and how they are learning when I'm not there. I went to the school to drop off lesson plans everyday. Just to see them and check on them. My job goes beyond just teaching, I care about the welfare of these kids. Teaching to me is an important job. I believe that without teachers, a lot of people would not be where they were. Someone had to teach them how to spell president,and how to say policeman. I just hope that with all the new changes in education, they dont forget we need to teach the students not always observe them and complete all this paperwork on them. I would just love to get back to teaching the students, and not making my room look good for all these "big" people.

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


Yes I have been an educator for 22 years, which I entered full of enthusiasm and desires to see students succeed. In my prior post, you can read about the phases that I went through to become self-actualized, but since you asked, these are the changes that I think public education needs to make immediately and in the long term.

I was speaking with one of the main scanning executives in the nation this morning about how conflicted teachers are. One half of the teacher feels that he is a blue collar worker at a student factory and the white collar side feels that he is a professional educator. I would like change teacher's attitude to being a professional all the time through the implementation of Systemic Data Cycles. What I mean by this is that a teacher becomes much like a doctor in looking at solid data about each student and making educational diagnosis and learning prescriptions.

In this era of accountability, two elements have been left out-- the students and the parents. How to hold all three partners accountable instead of just the teacher is going to be the exciting outcome of the next few years.

Teaching needs to change from a solitary profession to a collaborative team enterprise.

These are just some of the ideas that I am pushing to accomplish. Stay tuned for more.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


I need to congratulate you on your 16 years of service to our youth. I commend you for still being positive and professional. It is nice to see enthusiasm in veterans.

To begin, I believe that there are some students who really and truly need special education. Others, a large majority of them, are self-fullfilling prophecies - products of the system and follow the motto- Once in Special Ed, always in Special Ed.

The original idea of special ed was to give students something extra that a regular teacher could not provide. So the move was to take those students out of the classroom and place them in a special environment. Well, it wasn't long till people figured out that students (and teachers) isolated from rigor lose their momentum. So the push for Least Restrictive Learning Environment began. And now we are seeing students placed back in regular ed classrooms (inclusion), which is where they should have been from the beginning. It will be a few years till the damage that placing labels on these kids and pulling them out of the classroom has caused, will work its way out of the system. Now instead of over identifying students who need help for special ed, we actually help them (RTI especially in reading) so they can get over the hump and stay current with their peers--without the stigma and debilitating dependence of special ed. Is this the end of Special Ed as we know it? I hope so!


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


It sounds like you are approaching the self-actualized stage of being a great teacher. Congratulations! (see my earlier post)

You are absolutely right. Teaching is more than a job. It is is calling. The whole nation is beholding to what teachers do for our youth. No one other group of professionals can claim that. Yet, for several reasons I will leave for you to discern, teachers do not hold the esteem and gratitude that match their importance. That said, just as in any profession, those things have to be earned, and frankly, educators have a long way to go to demonstrate to the nation their level of professionalism. Accountability has helped teachers to realize in concrete ways, that what they do makes a difference in every aspect of a student's life and that they can make a difference.

Taya, my advice to you is to forget about making the room look good for the big people, ignore them when they come to observe, and find ways to minimize the paperwork so you can just have a blast guiding the learning of your students. The way you get "the big people" off your back is to gather data-- pre and post to show that your students are learning what they need to learn, and having fun doing it. Hang in there and create those pervasive learning environments and you will be successful.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Erica 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I cringe every time I have to call a substitute. I also don't like leaving my students. I teach kindergarten, but in years past I've taught third grade. If I have to take a day off my day is mostly spent thinking about my students, because I'm not there to see their smiling faces and I'm sure their day is not complete with someone different being their "substitute" for the day. Each of my students is special to me. Each of them bring something unique to the class. If one of them is not at school then our class isn't complete.

I believe that teachers are givers. Not only givers of our time but of our gifts that we have. We teach to the best of our ability and pray that they are safe at night. I teach at an inner city school outside of Orlando, FL and it bothers me to see some of the conditions that some of my students live with on a day to day basis. One of my students had a family member who had died that was very close to her. This was a tremendous blow to her. She has a sister and cousin at the same school and the other teachers and I decided to go out of our way to give money towards a gift certificate to a local grocery store for food. This family has very little money and it is very sad. You have to have a heart in order to go into teaching.

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