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Outstanding in Your Field: What It Takes to Be a Great Teacher

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Teacher standing alone in classroom reading off a clipboard

Steven Covey wrote a book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, to help organizations and individuals find their own voices. Covey describes voice as the internal drive to face challenges and rise to overcome them. He explains that each of us has a voice that lies at the central confluence of talent, need, passion, and conscience. The premise of the book was that if you didn't find your own unique significance (voice), neither you nor your organization would be able to achieve greatness. After I read this book, I considered the word "greatness" for a long time. Of course, being an incessant analyzer, I asked myself this question, "What does greatness mean in education?" Then I began thinking about my own career.

I know I was a good teacher, but I never thought of myself as a great teacher. I certainly had passion, enthusiasm, and creativity, but I never thought I had the stuff for greatness (though I did the best I knew how with the resources that were available). As a teacher, I found myself naturally drawn to thinking about what I could do to improve my lessons, to overcome negative student behaviors, or to encourage individual students. I went to conferences, saw other teachers with more experience, verbal acuity, and style, and I wanted to be like them. While I was well aware of my own shortcomings, I never quit trying to improve, grow, and learn to be a better teacher.

I achieved tremendous success in getting my students to take and pass the AP Spanish language tests and to actually speak Spanish, but my strategies and skills were not unique. Aside from a little bit of personal flair (my daughter Mercedes would say fifth-grade humor), these strategies were the compilation of wisdom and experience gained mostly from other teachers.

Although I was not a world-renowned educator, I would like to believe that I eventually found my voice (or unique significance) and achieved a moderate level of greatness. During this whole process of becoming great, the varied experiences in my career as a teacher deepened my knowledge and skills, strengthening my resolve to improve my craft. In that process, I went through the typical three-stage teacher-attitude cycle (this parallels research done by Frances Fuller and John L. Watzke):

The 3-Stage Teacher-Attitude Cycle

  1. Shock: "Whoa! This is too much, and I want out."
  2. Cynicism: "The students don't care. The administration doesn't support us."
  3. Self-Actualization: "I can do this. This is fun. If I help just one student, it's worth it!"

In each of these steps, I was lucky to have other caring individuals helping me. As a new teacher, I benefited greatly from the patient ministrations of several seasoned teachers who showed me the ropes of grading, discipline, effective lessons, and ways to manage the volume of work. Without their help, I would not have made it past the first year.

I was overwhelmed my first year, and I looked for anything to help me. As teachers are required to do, I attended workshops and teacher meetings in which I was inspired to be great. I saw Stand and Deliver, which depicts how a high school math teacher, Jaime Escalante, challenged the mental and social limitations that his students had placed on themselves, thereby bringing them to greatness. I felt that if I could be that passionate about teaching students, I could do anything. Then I went back into the classroom and faced the reality that I had only a certain amount of time, strength, and energy. I seriously doubted my own capacity to teach and my decision to become a teacher. I struggled through another year in which things improved to a moderate degree.

When Negativity Set In

In my third year, when I visited the teacher lounge or attended department meetings, I came to believe that all of the problems I faced were not my fault. I noticed that some of the other teachers thrived on loudly complaining about their situations and bemoaning their deplorable students. It wasn't long until I became cynical like them. I learned that the parents weren't participating in their own children's education. I learned to criticize the administration for not providing me with the best tools. I learned to blame middle school and elementary teachers for not doing their jobs in preparing my students. My attitude became extremely negative.

I was finally able to escape that trap of negativity in the second stage and move into the third stage of self-actualization only because of wonderful mentor teachers who helped me understand that complaining and blaming resolved nothing and just inhibited my growth. Mr. Devereaux, the Spanish department head, helped me most of all. He taught me that I first had to be the solution rather than add all my complaining to the problem. He helped me enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey, and not concentrate on the pebbles in my shoes. He helped my find my voice. Reflecting on my teaching career, I don't think I was an effective teacher until I became self-actualized.

The Great Shift

When I decided to become an administrator, that spark of desire for greatness was rekindled and refocused: I wanted to inspire other teachers to be great and thus pass that on to their students. I’ve seen that spark of greatness in teachers when observing classrooms and watching teachers interact with students. I saw this greatness through students' eyes as I shadowed one student each from first grade, second grade, eighth grade, and ninth grade, attending all of their classes with them. In each, I marveled at the relationships forged by teachers, as well as their excitement and enthusiasm. I've witnessed similar elements of greatness firsthand, while spending hours at campuses and in teacher classrooms in all grades levels and in nearly every type of school.

Covey's eight habits are designed to help individuals become highly effective people. Perhaps he needed to write The 8th Habit first because, without the "voice" or passion, few of us are motivated to improve or least of all pursue greatness. As I approach a new school year, enthusiastically anticipating a crop of new students, I have to ask, "What am I going to do differently in order to achieve greatness this year? How am I going to inspire the passion for learning in my students?" In the comments section below, please share your thoughts about becoming great and your plans on how to reach greatness this year in your classrooms.

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eoa's picture

The learnable skills and the inherent qualities of great educators and teachers in educational leadership involve many things from dealings with colleagues and staff and students and parents to dealings also with authorities and community and industry often, these ways of great teachers may hekp aspiring teachers and educators and inspire:

Frank Palatnick's picture
Frank Palatnick
Nobel Peace Prize Nominee 2008, Semi-Retired UN Advisor/Education

As I am reading these comments, I notice that you are on the right track. But what I am failing to see is one of the most important reasons to be a teacher. To be an effective educator ( my wording) is to ask the student " How can I help you? What can I do within my capacity to help you understand the concept? Ms. Ann Sullivan was, in my opinion, an excellent example of motivation. She literally bent over backwards to help Ms. Keller understand concepts. Another example of being a great educator is Ron Clark. ( see The Ron Clark Story ). Being a great educator an individual must have empathy, Socratic philosophy, passion, short....Heart.

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

I imagine that the portion about the "three-stage cycle" of shock, cynicism, and self-actualization is something that many educators have experienced throughout their teaching. The drive to remain positive and strive for greatness (in any profession) is challenged by your energy and resources.

I especially like the part about the department head who inspired you: "He helped me enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey, and not concentrate on the pebbles in my shoes. Reflecting on my teaching career, I don't think I was an effective teacher until I learned that lesson." Thanks for sharing your story! Looking forward to reading part II

HollyB's picture

What makes a great teacher? Patience, time, organization, structure, high expectations, kindness, creativity, knowledge, reflection, determination, trustworthiness, collaboration, reliability and above all else, the incessant improvement in each of those things. Great teachers never stop being students themselves; they model for students the importance of lifelong learning through their own actions and facilitate learning that enables students to think for themselves. Great teachers maintain a positive attitude despite the multitude of obstacles that they face on a day-to-day basis in order to make sure that each of their students learns. Great teachers don't focus on teaching, they focus on the learning of their students.

Danielle's picture

I can relate to much of your article. I don't believe great teachers ever feel that they are truly great. Great teachers are always looking for ways to improve instruction and teacher/student relationships. I believe relationships that teachers build are the foundation to their students success. Showing compassion, trust, and empathy I feel are necessary both with students and colleagues.

Kathi001's picture

It is so true that we, as co-teachers, can either bring each other encouragement or show cynicism. We need so conscious of how we speak to each other. I too want to be a great teacher! I want others to be encouraged around me and help build others up. What a compliment to be told by your principal that you show a "spark of greatness"!

vidhatanand's picture

All the above mentioned pointers can be inculcated fairly well.But the willingness of giving a personalized to every student is a dream of many teachers especially while teaching vocabulary. will certainly solve the purpose.

Nichole C R Wallinder's picture
Nichole C R Wallinder
Educational Programs School Turnaround Initiatives

What a wonderful column from Mr. Johnson. "Be the Solution" the article spoke to me on many levels, just at the right time in my career. Thanks So Much!

Lymarie Carl Baldesco Raganit's picture

That awesome Mr. Johnson you as a teacher is one of the great teacher - who inspires students and made them change their views in their studies by the help and guidance of the your thoughts and learning strategies. As I read this article of yours you have a great quality of being an educator your experiences have a good effect on the relationships with your students. :)

Kelly's picture

This article is inspiring for me. I am a first year teacher, feeling the pebbles in my shoes. I love the premise of the book, if you don't find your own unique significance, neither you nor your organization would be able to achieve greatness. I am finding my significance as a teacher, on a path to greatness. I gain confidence in my teaching as I navigate through the pebbles. Now that I realize I am not expected to be great in my first year, this journey is exciting, one I can enjoy the challenges along the way.

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