The Personal and the Professional

Secondary Teacher Excellence: The Personal and the Professional

Zarra, Ernest J III


Since teachers drive the secondary school, improving teacher quality results in vast improvements for secondary schools, including student education, and overall community spirit (Berends, 2000). But what goes into the making of an excellent teacher who does excellent things? There are certain observable characteristics that distinguish excellent secondary teachers both in the classroom and out (Steffy & Wolfe, 2001). These characteristics emerge from within an educational and personal set of growth stages, suggested by this author as “Stages of Excellence.”

The suggestion of stages here does not imply that teacher excellence is formulaic, so that all who pass through these stages somehow arrive at excellence. Excellent secondary teachers possess certain characteristics, distinct of those found in just good or poor teachers. This is quite clear. What is also equally as transparent is that any such characteristics include personal and professional elements.

Education is one of the few professions where people of all ages, backgrounds, genders, ideologies, methodologies, nationalities, religions, and moralities are mixed together and expected to succeed. A school with good teachers is known as a good school. Excellence implies going beyond the good, the status quo, into what is best for students, schools, and the community.

Excellent schools have teachers that excel at many things. These teachers do not detract from this excellence by extremes, or by negativity. For example, secondary School A has a teacher (T), who is quite expert in her content area. She established rapport with her students, colleagues, parents, and the community. She is personable and outgoing. T exhibits qualities of compassion, commitment, and cares for students. However, T has a very short fuse and loses her temper every so often in class, sometimes peppering her speech with profanities.

Though T would have her educational advocates and collegial supporters, she would not meet the criteria for teacher excellence. Her “predictable” flaw would detract something from her classroom activities and instruction and thereby inhibit the educational process for her students. No doubt T would be labeled a good teacher, and one that probably would do some excellent things in the classroom. Yet, she would not have a handle on one of the very important elements of teacher excellence: Personal behavioral excellence (Ryan & Bohlin, 1999).

Doing excellent things in a classroom does not necessarily equate to professional or personal excellence. Excellence is much more than “what” teachers do. Nonetheless, excellence does make room for imperfections in us all and for those who are tripped up by an occasional circumstance of our humanity. But excellence of character and behavior are inescapable marks of an excellent teacher-the very foundation upon which other facets of excellence are derived.


When one thinks of meeting needs with excellence, thoughts often move to professions other than secondary teaching. For example, all people want their physicians well trained and highly educated, and thereby expect excellence. Many athletic coaches and parents constantly press for competitive excellence. Losing coaches are not considered excellent. So, what are the implications for education?

When it comes to teachers and teacher education programs, large numbers of students are admitted because of need. Schools of education are university’s “cash cows.” The fact is that teachers make up at least 4% of the overall work force in the United States (Ingersoll, 2001). The demand for teachers is great.

Universities and colleges follow prescribed models or systems for teacher training. These models contain theory, some practical application of the material within the university classroom settings, the preparation of extensive lesson plans (which are often the more irrelevant activities for those in training), and a host of other pre-professional prerequisites. There is no doubt that the demand for teachers is high. However, does this demand affect teacher quality?


The determination of whether a profession has chosen a person has quite a mystical ring to it. However, the idea is not quite that sophisticated, yet it does imply a certain compulsion, a “calling,” if you will (Fullan, 1993). Excellent teachers bring marvelous things to secondary classrooms. However, if one was to focus more on the routines of education, a set of holiday vacations, personal benefits, or any other similar elements, he or she would fall short of excellence. Excellence sees beyond these things. Excellence sees purpose.

Excellent teachers express quite clearly that “teaching is in their blood.” Teaching is both an extension and outlet for who they are, not just what they do. It comprises the sum of their professional existence. Their personality and profession are often fused together. Focusing on what excellent teachers do is the same as focusing on who they are. It is not just about a job.


There is another certainty among excellent teachers. That is, they do not merely “enjoy” their work. They have a deep-seated urge to see their students succeed, both in the classroom and out in the real world. Teaching helps to satisfy this urge, but is never completely satisfied by classroom activity only. This deep-seated urge is the offspring of “passion.” Fullan (1993) refers to this concept as “moral purpose” (p. 10), whereas Sirotnik (1990) addresses it by the phrase “moral requirements” (p. 298).

Passion is another distinguishing mark of excellent secondary teachers. This passion is not limited to content, or in-class enthusiasm. It extends beyond content into love for students, daily congenial and personal interaction, accompanied by a positive disposition, enjoyment of challenges presented, and dedication to betterment of all students. Passion is what keeps a teacher in her room during lunch to chat with students (Fullan, 1993). Passion is what drives a teacher to share personal accounts of life’s difficulties with his classes for the sake of learning. Passion can also be found by participation in after school tutoring, clubs, coaching, and online through e-mail lessons and communications when students and parents have concerns after hours. Passion leaves lasting impressions on students and drives the excellent teacher forward-even into the weekends and vacations out and about in the local community.


The issue of secondary teacher excellence lies as much in preparation for the profession as in the preparation of the person. That is, a trained teacher is as important as the person receiving the training. Prerequisites to teacher training are found in the completion of several professional education and personal growth stages. These include: (1) rigorous secondary education instruction, (2) professional “in house” training, (3) collegial mentoring, (4) personal reflection and application (Martorella, 2001). In order to be genuinely successful, each of these cannot be disconnected from the personhood of the teacher.

Most schools and colleges of education certainly do their best to meet state requirements in their teacher preparation programs. However, what is echoed by disenchanted classroom veterans is that, after they have settled into their jobs, they discover what they learned in college turned out to be mostly “irrelevant and inapplicable” to them in the real educational world. One of the major criticisms heard from teachers at conferences is that professors at schools of education do not approach education from a practical vantage point.

Excellent teachers have, at some point or another, come across one or more particular instructors who have literally “fanned the flames” of their educational passion. Quite possibly this could be a major factor as to why most would choose to go into education in the first place. Teachers are quick to credit their mentors. Rather than “burning out in the classroom,” excellent teachers act as educational incendiaries to their students, their families, and education colleagues, thereby passing on a legacy (Darling-Hammond 2001; Acheson & Gall 1992; and Coles, 1997).

Excellent teachers have been trained adequately in their content areas and have found the extra time to make it through their state requirements. They somehow find a way to use life’s circumstances and challenges to their advantage, as well. As one secondary colleague put it, “I know my life’s lessons somehow will help my students.” Excellent teachers allow their passion to shape them in the profession.


The reality is that students analyze their teachers. Analyses by students take on various forms. Some are overt and stated. Others occur at home, at lunch, or other informal settings. Excellent secondary educators welcome most student challenges. However, a challenge not welcome by teachers is any attack upon their integrity or reputation.

Too often, secondary teachers develop two distinct characters: One in the classroom and one outside the classroom. Students see this compartmentalization and definitely talk about it outside of class. In fact, some are brazen enough to use any teacher personal and professional lifestyle discrepancies to their advantage against the teacher, even while in class. Horror stories abound.

As an example, teachers who use profanity in the classroom, on the athletic field, or while at the store, are taking a lower path and can expect little more from their students. The effects of such practice can result in student’s tolerance levels of profanity increasing, and even an increase of student use of profanity in the classroom or on the field. Teachers that do excellent academic things in the classroom, yet care not about their regular displays of character flaws, send mixed messages.

Holding students accountable for their behaviors is made more difficult when teachers are behaving similarly on the job, or outside of work. Students watch for consistency and then are quick to forgive the occasional behavioral inconsistency. However, teachers-whether at the coffee shop or in class-are still the students’ teachers.

Let it be clear that no one is arguing for teacher perfection. Overall, there are very high state and community expectations for teachers-and some would argue too high! However, teachers have high expectations for students also and should model these expectations regularly, if they expect students to grow in character (Kagan, 2001).


A general framework that considers the pursuit of teacher excellence focuses on several components including: Mentoring and supervision, classroom management, interpersonal relationships with colleagues, personal portfolio and introspective reflection, effective issue-oriented discipline strategies, as well as continued professional development.

In addition, an excellent teacher remains active in the profession well after tenure. One of the ways teachers can stay vibrant and relevant to their students’ lives is to develop community (Putnam, 2000). Community refers to the idea that teachers demonstrate genuine professional and personal “actions” that affect both inside and outside the classroom and takes several years to develop (Putnam, 2000). Seldom will a newer teacher have even the time to begin the process. More often than not, teachers who are successful in developing a sense of community will have spent several years at one particular school. Time is essential in terms of relationships in an authentic educational community (Langer, 2000).

In a more practical sense, community generally pertains to what a teacher does while not actually performing duties related to instruction. Involvement in clubs, leadership activities, coaching, etc., helps to bridge a gap between student and family, or the larger community. Here are some effective community-building suggestions, all of which go beyond a teacher’s requirements for the job:

* Send home computer-generated reports

* Phone home when student receives an excellent grade

* Send out periodic e-mail letters

* Have coffee on weekends at the shopping centers adjacent to the school

* Be available during holiday vacations for group study sessions

* Invite students and their families over to your home during vacations

* Perform community activities of service with students

* Coach a recreational league

* Lead scouting group, or be involved in civic organization.


Nailing down “teacher excellence” is a difficult task, due to the changing nature of education. Nevertheless, the research indicates that teacher excellence has general distinctives, such as excellent secondary educators come in all shapes and sizes, are male and female, young and old, and teach in all content areas.

Finally, there are some specific characteristics derived from studies on teacher quality and effectiveness. For example, excellent teachers are (1) well trained in teacher preparation programs (Darling-Hammond, 2001), (2) have mastery of their content areas (Lemlech, 1995), (3) are able to practice and hone their skills in a monitored environment that was overseen by a excellent master teacher (Lemlech, 1995), (4) are able to secure employment and, while on the job (5) partner with colleagues (Acheson & Gall, 1992), (6) develop effective classroom management and discipline skills (Lemlech, 1995), (7), discover a genuine care and concern for their students (Coles, 1997), (8) continue professional development (Langer, 2000), (9), possess consistent and respectable character (Ryan & Bohlin, 1999; Lickona, 1991), (10) analyze themselves through professional and personal reflection (Acheson & Gall, 1992), and (11) give back to the school and community (Langer, 2000).

Passion leaves lasting impressions on students and drives the excellent teacher forward-even into the weekends and vacations out and about in the local community.


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Zarra, E. (1999). Character education: An analysis of state history-social science and English-language arts curriculum frameworks and content standards. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California.

Ernest J. Zarra, III was born in Montclair, New Jersey. he holds five earned degrees, including the Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. he has studied at other major universities in the US. In addition to teaching AP and CP Government and Economics in a public high school, he is an author, conference speaker, and adjunct university professor. Dr. Zarra is a member of several national honor societies, including Kappa Delta Pi, and is listed several Who’s Who publications, including Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, Who’s Who in the World, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His current research interests are Teacher Education, Character and Moral Education, and First Amendment Issues.

Copyright California Council for the Social Studies Spring 2004

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