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Pride of Profession: Striving to Become a Great Teacher

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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This is the second post in a two-part entry. Read part one.

In the first part of this entry, I discussed the process of achieving greatness as educators. In this part, I want to share some of the greatness I have seen in my career. One of the privileges I have had is to be able to go into the classroom and witness teacher greatness in a variety of forms:

  • I have seen a teacher treating her students like adults, and those first graders responded accordingly by doing fourth-grade work and mastering parts of speech as if they were in high school.
  • I have witnessed a brand-new teacher vividly and effectively demonstrate the three states of matter by having the students be molecules and act out what the molecules are doing in the different states. Because of this, the second graders easily used the scientific method to establish the three states of matter in a hands-on experiment.
  • I have seen self-assured and responsible eighth-grade students catching the vision of how school can be a stepping-stone for college and careers in an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class. They learned the unspoken curriculum of how to overcome fear and doubt and how to effectively work with their teachers. Everything about this class empowered them to actually believe that through individual determination, they truly can advance.
  • I have struggled to follow the swift movements of students fluently speaking the language of logic with hand motions that their teacher had taught them in order to aid them in remembering the AND, OR and XORs.
  • I have been amazed as a teacher’s chemistry students demonstrated their knowledge by doing the chemical dance showing how covalent bonds are made and broken in chemical reactions.
  • I have witnessed a teacher expertly using the smart board to show pictures, words, and symbols to help English speaking and ELL students to understand the algebraic properties of equality.
  • I have stood in awe as a teacher mesmerized a group of rowdy 5th graders by creating a project based learning pizza parlor to help the students understand proportionality and the dreaded math of fractions.
  • I have tapped my foot to the rhythm of fourth-grade science students enthusiastically chanting the vocabulary and concepts related to mixtures and solutions.

Greatness can be found on every campus and in every school. Perhaps you are one of those teachers on your campuses that exhibits greatness in such abundance that others aspire to be like you. Greatness is not always found in the most flamboyant or gregarious teachers. For example, a regular, everyday English teacher, Mary Catherine Swanson, was the one that started AVID because she wanted to help her students be truly successful and to be able to find and believe in their own greatness. In doing so, she demonstrated her greatness. (If you want to learn more about it, read Wall of Fame, by celebrated journalist Jonathan Freedman.)

In my wonderful visits to the classrooms of great teachers, I have seen many other elements of greatness in both the students and the teachers. This privilege has helped me come to the conclusion that if we have progressed to the self-actualization stage in our careers, we should all believe that our students are the best in the entire world and that they are capable of being great. It is their right and our responsibility to help them achieve it.

This thought, brings me to the point of my post: How can we expect the students to aspire to be great if we are not also aspiring for greatness? As demonstrated above, we all have a certain amount of greatness that we demonstrate frequently, but according to Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't, the biggest enemy of success (greatness) is an attitude of "That's good enough.” In that spirit, I would like to inspire all of us to do some self-reflection.

Consider these questions:

These are also great questions for you to discuss with a friend in your department, with a partner teacher, with your professional-learning communities, and at grade-level meetings. If you can spare the time, I would like you to answer the following questions, at least to yourself. But I welcome you to share your responses with the Edutopia readership in the comment section below.

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


I am glad you are continuing your education and living the "lifetime" learner attitude. Settling for "good enough" is a problem in any field, but it seems that education has more than it's fair share. You hit on a key part of being a "great teacher". That is "leading". You said by example, but we should lead also by many other things. An educational leader will not be satisfied with good enough instruction, nor will he or she be willing to accept any mediocrity from students. A true educational leader will turn his or her classroom into a high performance learning team and will inspire his or her students to higher heights than they ever dream possible. This kind of teacher asks 'why' and asks 'why not?' This kind of teacher believes that as a teacher, he or she is the key to unlocking the future of the students, regardless of what their backgrounds are. To this teacher it doesn't matter that the students are unprepared for learning in many ways. This teacher accommodates his or her teaching to overcome any obstacle that a student may bring to school, but does not dwell on "oh you poor thing" syndrome. This teacher understands that successful learning is just as important as food, air and water to these students and that knowledge can overcome the negative effects of all these other needs in more significant and enduring ways than that of being a surrogate parent. Well... I just thought I would share my ideas with you. By the way, you gave me some ideas to share in my next blog. Thanks.

Best regards,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Carrie's picture

I have many steps to take to achieve "greatness" as an educator. I have only been a teacher for a year now and lack knowledge and experience that are essential in becoming an expert teacher. In order to educate my students in an efficient manner I am committed to becoming a life long learner. Recently I have become a graduate student at Walden University. My desire and passion for learning will not cease once I have obtained my masters. In a world that is always evolving in technology, strategies, and techniques it is critical for me to maintain new knowledge consistently.

To achieve "greatness" I need to become an increased a risk-taker, collaborate more outside my of my school district, gain new experiences, and reflect every day. There are steps I am currently taking that have shown a positive impact on student learning. One step is I challenge my students to excel to their fullest potential and then push a little farther. The phrases "I can't do this" or "it's to hard" have been eliminated from my classroom. I also instill in my students that in order to learn we must make mistakes. I have made them aware that I do not know all the answers and encourage them to point out any mistakes I make. My experience thus far is that students want to please and are afraid of failing. Creating a learning environment that supports the process of learning through errors allows my students to participate more often and freely.

Thank you for part 1 and 2 of your post, your words are insightful and inspiring.

tamika's picture

What an inspiring article! I am a new teacher, who will begin my first official year teaching 8th grade ELA. In my head and my heart, I am a "great teacher". I hope that I will not allow fear and anxiety to agitate how I translate my vision into my daily practice.

Rafranz Davis's picture
Rafranz Davis
Executive Director of Professional and Digital Learning, Lufkin ISD

The first step towards greatness is understanding the "why" of what brought you to teaching. That is your foundation which builds up to the next layer of "greatness".

Next, you have to be a reflective practitioner who understands not only the moments that need adjustment but also those moments that demand a pat on the back. We are the worst at seeing the greatness in ourselves while we pride ourselves on seeing it in others.

You also have to wrap yourself in the arms of joy. As cliche as that sounds, it is the truth for joy encompasses the building blocks where learning takes place. We forget that sometimes, I think.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator & Trainer, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI #GoogleET

Rafranz nails it. Totally agree that most people in general (and teachers in specific) tend to only see what went wrong and not what went right. It's too easy to gloss over the highlights and obsess about the negatives. Why is that? Anyway I love the three step system above - short, sweet and to the point! Thanks Rafranz!

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

I'm not sure how to respond to this. What does "Great Teacher" mean? It's such a fluid stamp. I saw an interview with David Foster Wallace (huge loss to the Literature world and the world in general) where he very briefly discusses, if that, how teaching well for a long period of time (years) is very difficult. This is nothing new, but it sat with me differently coming from a very intelligent man.

Here's part 1/4

I think "Greatness" comes and goes. Greatness is demonstrated in many different ways, especially with elementary teachers teaching many subjects. Can you be great in all subjects? I know I'm not. And I'm fine with it.

Greatness also depends on your students. Man, I've felt like an all-star teacher some years teaching a great group of kids who wanted to learn. Everything I presented them, they jumped in without asking questions. But then you have a year like I just had. You name the disorder/behavior problem, and I had it. Management is your first thought, not content. But then again, great teachers manage well, right?

I'm not sure if "greatness" is really the term or label we need for teachers. I'm just not sure.

math_and engineering_teacher's picture

Really enjoying this thoughtful and inspiring article.
One of your examples really caught my eye. I'll be teaching logic gates this coming year and would love to find out more about the hand signals that the teacher you observed used. I know this is a foundation skill for my electronics class and need as many tools as I can to help my students master the concept. I've searched youtube without success. If the teacher would be willing to share this idea , or if you can point me to a youtube of these, I'd be most grateful!

GabeM's picture

As a second year teacher I was inspired to read the thoughts in this article from a teacher with more experience. After reflecting on my first year it is overwhelming to think about what I wish I would have done more than what I have done. It is encouraging that greatness may just be the pursuit of greatness and can be found in many different ways.

mossk's picture

First and foremost, great teachers are life-long learners. They consistently view themselves as that. Those are some powerful questions presented that offer real opportunities for self-reflection. There are exponential benefits to putting these questions on the floor in grade level team meetings or professional learning communities. We all can benefit and grow from listening and discussion with our peers. What a great way to lead by example for our students! Wonderful insights from this.

jojo nepomuceno's picture

I am a special education teacher and administrator for more than 20 years. I did go through the typical three-stage teacher-attitude cycle that you mentioned in your 2-part inspiring article. The shock at the beginning of my career when I felt this was just too much and questioning whether my decision in becoming a teacher was right. The cynicism and frustration that we lack the support from our students as well as our community who may seem to just not care about what we are doing. I am thankful that finally I am in a phase of self-actualization realizing I love what I am doing and enjoy my profession and most importantly, making a big impact in the lives of my students.

I believe if we want to continue being great teachers we need to believe that we are life-long learners. We learn from all our experiences and gain knowledge on how best to become better at what we do. As I read your articles, I liked how you provided different situations in you career as you witnessed teacher greatness in a variety of forms. I like the questions you have suggested for self-reflection and will use them in my meetings with my staff as we reflect on our journey as teaching professionals.

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