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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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