To Be a Great Teacher

Today’s post is written by Ryan Steele, a lead learner and principal of an elementary school in Plano, TX. 


I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.


I am not sure when I made that decision. The story has changed so many times in my mind…was it because of the good moments growing up? Moments like Mrs. Shiffner who taught me to never give up, or Mr. Benzo who found a way to bring humor to almost any subject…Mrs. Griffith, the one and only teacher who ever sent me to the principal’s office, yet offered grace when I returned. Was it a teacher? A single moment?


The fact of the matter is it was all of those teachers, and many others. It was also because of the difficult moments growing up… I wanted to become a teacher so other students wouldn’t get ignored, passed along, or unprotected when being ridiculed and left on the outside looking in just as I had been. I wanted to become a teacher to build self-efficacy in others, create an educational foundation that could last a lifetime, or offer compassion and grace when a student continued to make bad choices…instead of being a teacher who simply gave up with the signing of an office pass.


I volunteered as a teenager in youth ministry and took early education classes in high school. I went to college with teaching as the one and only plan, and worked hard to get volunteer/observation hours in all grade levels K-6 because I planned to be an elementary teacher. After all, those were the things I thought you were supposed to do to become a teacher, and as I stated before…I always knew I wanted to be one.


I graduated, and with degree in hand I began my journey as a classroom teacher. It took only one week of my first year of teaching to realize something…being a teacher is one thing, being a great teacher? Well, that is on an entirely different level.


I could pass as a teacher pretty easily without even coming close to being great. After all, all one would really need to do is pass out a textbook, tell students to turn to page 13, ask them to read the next three pages and then answer the five culminating questions at the end. Keep the room quite, grade the scores when done. Boom…there you have it – a teacher. My boss could walk by and see kids on task through the small window in my door, and as long as the grades were good most of the parents and students would be happy enough. How do I know? I have had this teacher, I have seen this teacher…I have been this teacher. It was the first week, of my first year, and it was the only time since.


To be a great teacher…now that was the right target, yet I never knew it existed. I don’t remember seeing a textbook on it in college…didn’t read about it in an article, or hear about it in a lecture. I studied the content, I learned how to manage a room, set expectations, and plan a lesson that would end with an appropriate assessment. I took a state test on content, and was given a certificate that said I was ready to change the world one student at a time. Now to be fair, that might have always been the goal of my professors and published authors…but somehow, the idea of a great teacher passed me by.


Five days. Five days of “Turn here, read this, answer that, be quiet and pay attention.”


While I don’t pretend to be the expert on all things education. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, make all the right decisions, and never make a mistake. While I don’t pretend to see the next educational trend around the corner or have a program for all students. While I can’t offer any of those things, I can offer this…what I believe it takes to be a great teacher. While I never had this down perfectly, this is what I strive for:


Great teachers never give up, and never stop believing in the kids in their classroom. They understand a child’s worth is not measured by the letter grade next to his name, because they believe in focusing on the process of learning, and the power of the one word question… Why? Great teachers understand that learning is an ongoing process, and the team of people they work with are there to ensure every student’s success.


Great teachers are not afraid to be honest and transparent with their students. They are willing to take risks in the name of learning, and understand that a child’s education is invaluable. Therefore, are willing to push beyond bubbling letters and comprehending textbook material. Great teachers understand that an education is the key to a child’s future success, and so they never take learning lightly.


Great teachers understand it’s not about them, nor is it about presenting on stage to open ears ready to hear. They know it’s about the students in the seats, and the minds in front of them needing to be pushed to the greatest extent possible, even if that means it’s a different approach for every child in the room. Great teachers understand it’s not about a 40 hour work week, but however many hours it takes to ensure that every child’s education is created and individualized just for him or her. They understand the charge that comes with students in their classrooms needing to learn something new each day, and I assure you, it is quite a heavy responsibility.


Great teachers know education is about self-efficacy and self-esteem. It’s about risk taking and idea sharing. It’s about students coming to school every day excited because they don’t know what their teachers are going to be sharing with them that day. It’s the excitement that comes when learning is authentic and purposeful. Great teachers allow students to have ownership over their learning, and provide students with the opportunity to ask why, even at the risk of the teacher not knowing the answer. Great teachers believe it’s not about knowing all the answers, but knowing how to ask the right questions.


Great teachers can motivate the uninterested and challenge the student whose learning always comes far too easily. They know how to pick up a student when he loses hope, and is willing to take the tangent when the discussion provides a new untraveled and unplanned road. Great teachers are student focused and team driven. Great teachers, the very best…teach not only with their minds, but with their hearts.


I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. But today? I want to be great…Because our students, every one of them, deserve nothing less than great.


To Read More by Ryan


Lean Out a Little Farther

Today’s post is by Sandy King, an innovative master teacher in South Jordan, Utah. 

The climb to the top of the cliff had been exhilarating. I ascended without fear. As long as I looked up, with my site on the goal, I knew that I could make it up to the landing. Going down was another story. I couldn’t go back down that way that I’d climbed. I’d have to rappel. I had my safety gear on, and I had instructors that I trusted. I felt reasonably safe considering that I was standing on a cliff. But walking closer to the edge made my heart pound! I listened intently to my instructor. My safety gear was checked once more and then I walked backward to the ledge. My life flashed before me. “On rappel!” I shouted.

“Lean out!” I heard my instructor say. I looked down with trepidation and leaned out farther. “Lean out a little farther!” he repeated.  I took a deep breath and leaned out a bit more.

I took my first step over the ledge and pulled my right hand up to brake. One step led to another step. It was awkward at first, but I kept going. My confidence grew as I took each successive step down the rock face. Words of encouragement motivated me to keep going. Before I knew it, I was at the bottom being congratulated by others in my group. I was excited by the thrill of this personal victory. I had conquered a fear!

“Lean out! Lean out a little farther!” often echoes in my mind. Take a risk! Challenge yourself! Raise the bar!

But trying something new is scary. Feelings of being vulnerable, inadequate, and incapable are common. You no longer feel safe. The human body responds physically by initiating the “flight or fight response” that causes the heart to beat faster, breathing to quicken, and palms to sweat among other things. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a risk.

The choice isn’t between success and failure; it’s between choosing risk and striving for greatness, or risking nothing and being certain of mediocrity. –Keith Farazzis

In the quiet white space of self-reflection over the years, I’ve asked, “What can I do to improve my practice?” And I’ve heard the words, “Lean out a little farther!”

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received as a new teacher was to model lifelong learning by consistently acquiring new knowledge, but more specifically, to learn new skills. The difference between gaining knowledge and learning a skill is that learning a skill requires practice.

Name a skill that you’ve started to develop within the past month. Are you learning to play a musical instrument? Paint? Skateboard? Knit? Ski? Speak another language? Maybe you’re finding yourself in an all too familiar state of continually learning new information, but not necessarily new skills. Reading a book, attending a professional development class, conference, or even an edcamp facilitates gaining knowledge, but it doesn’t require practicing new skills. We ask our students to learn multiple skills every day. How long has it been since you have walked in their shoes?

In your mind’s eye, take a moment to envision yourself learning a new skill. How did you choose to learn? (book, video, teacher) Describe your level of success on your first attempt? Do you need to be shown how to do this skill more than once? Twice? What kind of feedback helps you learn best? How often do you need feedback? What motivates you to struggle, learn, practice, and improve? How important is growth mindset? How does “coaching” help you? What would make the learning of this new skill easier for you to learn? Describe the “zone” where you feel challenged but not frustrated.

Reflecting on teaching practices from the perspective of a learner opens the mind to possibilities. It cultivates empathy and compassion. Questions such as, “How will the reflections about my own learning impact or change my instructional practices?” brings metacognitive thinking to the next level. The reflection in the mirror may not be the most flattering. Do you need more patience? A change of tone? An ability to break down a skill into smaller parts? To be more encouraging? To give specific feedback? Being humble and owning what we know we need to improve is sometimes the most difficult. It requires action and accountability.

 The mediocre teacher or administrator will use any number of excuses like lack of time to avoid this step. But excellence takes effort! Great educators rise above the excuses, make an action plan, and have others (such as a PLN) hold them accountable. The status quo is not acceptable. If there’s room for improvement, the great educators welcome the challenge. They embrace the fear of being vulnerable with a positive attitude and courageously move forward.

So, I challenge you to “Lean out a little farther!” Get completely out of your comfort zone! Learn a new skill during the next few weeks. Put yourself in the position of a learner. Start a blog, record video of your attempts, or keep a journal of your progress. Share your mistakes, your learning, and your reflections. Let those that you lead see you as a beginner with all of the mistakes you’re bound to make. Lean into the discomfort.

Are you truly a life long learner? Will you walk the talk? Maslow said, “You will either step forward into growth or back into safety.” Will you accept this challenge as an opportunity to stretch, risk, and grow? You have a choice. Greatness or Mediocrity.

You’re on the edge.
“Lean out a little farther!” 

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