I once observed a teacher whose catchphrase was “That’s great!” He used it all the time – when a child was kind, finished a task or answered a question. He said it whenever anyone sneezed. For him, it was a kind of stimulus-response mechanism. Whatever happened in the daily run of classroom life, unless it was heinous, would trigger a kind of Pavlovian bell somewhere deep inside his brain and he would say: “That’s great!” The trouble was that it wasn’t.
We know that mumbled errors, substandard work and sneezing are not great, but what is? How should we define greatness? And in an age where it’s widely perceived as fame, fortune or five minutes of notoriety in the Big Brother house, should we even mention it? If so, we need a definition that is genuine, specific and has integrity.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “great” as “of ability, quality or eminence considerably above average”. Considerably above average. That presupposes a certain excellence, a standing out from the crowd, which is surely possible for everyone in some area of their lives, whether it be cooking, spelling or creating unique models from discarded elastic bands.
But we rarely “stumble” across our greatness. Our talents need to be identified and nurtured. This is where a good teacher is key.
When teachers see children excelling, we exclaim, hold up work and display it for all to see. This is second nature to most and acts as valuable reinforcement for a child’s self-esteem as well as a role model of excellence for all.
But to focus exclusively on achievement as greatness is to miss another, perhaps more significant, element of the dictionary definition: quality that is considerably above average.
Greatness is not solely about what you can do but about who you are. It describes those who have allowed their failures as well as their successes to define them, shaping qualities of character – resilience, self-belief, risk-taking – that are companions on the road to potential.
The word “overcomer” is an old-fashioned one but perhaps sums up this side of success more realistically: greatness is not the odd victory, but victory against the odds.
The challenge, in today’s increasingly target-driven and competitive society, is to parallel our messages about achievement greatness (“You made it to Step 10! That’s great!”) with messages about character greatness (“You didn’t get Number 7 right, but I’m rewarding you for perseverance”).
Children need to know their failures matter as much as their successes. They also need to know that they are unique and interesting as individuals. If your teacher notices and values you just because of the person you are and the qualities you have, you begin to believe you matter. This frees you to pursue greatness, both of character and achievement, because your value does not depend on outcomes but on your inner worth. The theory behind this is “mattering” – being valued personally, not functionally.
As a young teacher, Angela Maiers had a revelation – significance matters more than success. She believes that this understanding, if properly communicated, can change lives and learning. Other studies, such as that by Gordon Flett et al (2016), support her theory: mattering to others results in high self-esteem and is a key element in building resilience and resistance to stress. The researchers write that this is particularly marked when a sense of mattering becomes a strong and stable element of someone’s personal identity – I am who I am because of the love of family, respect of co-workers and care of friends.
Others such as Julian Stern (2007) put this in context by comparing the concept of society to that of community. He states that societies are groups who have joined together for external purposes and treat each other primarily as means to an end. By contrast, communities are together for personal reasons and relate to each other as “whole people”.
This poses one of the biggest challenges for us in school in the 21st century. It would seem our growing need to demonstrate success in terms of measurable outcomes (society) poses a threat to the equally important task of nurturing resilient, compassionate individuals for the future (community).
Yet there is evidence to show that strengthening resilience and self-belief may lead to better long-term outcomes, boosting children’s capacity to adapt successfully to changing situations and environments (see review by the children’s charity NCH). In other words, you cannot have one without the other.
Unless we begin consciously to promote mattering as part of our mission to inspire greatness, we may wake up one day and find we have failed – producing a generation of young adults whose ability to excel is hampered by poor emotional literacy. And that’s not great.
I am lucky enough to work in a school where inspiring greatness is high on the agenda. Every week, in assembly, two children from each of four classes stand up to be publicly honoured in front of about 500 people. They are praised explicitly for demonstrating certain qualities – resilience, perseverance, kindness. Last week’s theme was “joie de vivre”. Imagine being told enthusiastically by your head or deputy that they have noticed you around the school because you’re always smiling, you have a great sense of humour, you’re fun.
I have seen children transformed by this – looking up, walking taller, because they know they are appreciated for who they are, not what they can do. The message at our school? People are valued here as human beings.
Now, that is great.
Deborah Jenkins is a class teacher at Heathfield Junior School, Whitton