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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Todd Whitaker Already Said It

By Peter DeWitt — September 27, 2012 6 min read
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“If we visualize each student as a jar of potential, our responsibility is to take the lid off and point the jar in the right direction, not tighten the top so the highest level of creativity never gets out.” Todd Whitaker

Recently, I read an outstanding and very eloquent blog by Todd Whitaker. He wrote it for Smartblog on Education. The blog is entitled When We Get There Are We Going to Be Happy When We Arrived. Whitaker said, “I always tell my children that a follower will never cure cancer. And personally, I would like someone to come up with a solution as soon as possible. However, if it is not on the test, can we ever get there?”

A few years ago my editor at Corwin Press, who I had not worked with yet, contacted me because he saw an article I wrote that he liked and wondered if I ever considered writing a book. He thought I had potential, and everyone who writes understands that the conversation around a book is only one small step. As honored as I was, and as hard as I tried, I did not have any original ideas. I simply wrote him back and said I was sorry but anything I would want to write has been written by Todd Whitaker already.

I know that sounds hard to believe but it’s true. Thankfully I did end up working with him and wrote Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students. Fortunately for me, Todd did not write on that topic although he did provide a quotation for the book. This may seem like an ode to Todd Whitaker but I have been thinking of his book What Great Principals Do Differently: Fifteen Things That Matter Most quite a bit during these times. If you haven’t read it you should. In fact, it should be required reading for all administrators.

Whitaker doesn’t focus on point scales, Common Core State Standards or other aspects of APPR in the aforementioned book. He focuses on things that will promote the social and emotional health of students, teachers and administrators which will in turn create a positive school culture. A positive school culture helps students feel engaged in their own learning and a school will be more successful.

The Fifteen Things That Matter Most
It’s People Not Programs - Programs are only as good as the paper they are written on without the people who implement them. A school culture doesn’t exist because of a program. It exists because of the people within the building. That includes aides, secretary, food service, teachers, administrators, parents and most importantly students.

Who is the Variable - The main variable in the classroom is the teacher. They have a huge effect on how students learn, and that impact can be negative or positive. It’s up to the teacher to decide.

Treat everyone with respect, every day, all the time - I don’t like to be yelled at, and as the principal I certainly don’t yell at anyone. I treat them with the respect that I want to be treated with and yes, that includes the students. I look at a visit to the principal’s office as an opportunity to get to know a student. People make mistakes and so does students. It doesn’t mean students don’t deserve to be disciplined or corrected; it just needs to be done with respect.

The Principal is the Filter - Principals set the tone every day. If they tell staff it’s going to be a rough day, many staff walk away believing it. If they tell staff it’s going to be a great day and they point out the positive, many staff are going to walk away believing that as well.

Teach the Teachers - Principals need to make sure they are supplying teachers with the best opportunities for learning. Don’t just say “engage your students better.” Show them how to engage their students better. Hand them articles and send them suggestions.

Hire Great Teachers - I heard an interesting statement some time ago. “1’s hire 1’s but 2’s hire 3’s.” If principals are fortunate enough to be in the position of hiring teachers during these rough times, they should make sure they are hiring teachers that will challenge students and perhaps challenge their colleagues as well.

Standardized Testing - “Effective principals keep testing in perspective.” Even during these difficult times that statement still holds true. I dislike high stakes testing and feel as though it narrows the focus of schools. As a principal, it’s my job to make sure I fight to widen our focus.

Focus on Behavior, Then Focus on Beliefs - Work on engaging students and perhaps some of the negative behaviors will go away. The reciprocal benefit is that working on behavior will be beneficial to student engagement in the classroom.

Loyal to Whom - It’s important for staff and administrators to be loyal but that loyalty is not to the school. It should be loyalty to the students and then the school will reap the benefits.

Base Every Decision on Your Best Teachers - When making decisions principals should focus on what their best teachers will do. The best teachers think of solutions to problems and keep evolving. All teachers should follow that lead.

In Every Situation, Ask Who is Most Comfortable and Who is Least Comfortable - Positive people view change as a good thing, even those changes that aren’t always that great. They view it as a learning experience. Negative people view change as a negative thing and it makes them uncomfortable. It’s like being on a couch. If you’re uncomfortable one way or another you will have to change positions. It’s a principal’s job to help those uncomfortable people.

Understand High Achievers - I always tell my staff that I work with overachievers. When I began my tenure as a principal I wondered why simple things made teachers upset and then I realized it’s because they give their all. They come early and stay late. They don’t like to do things half-heartedly; they like to do things successfully. As principals and teachers we have to understand high achievers and foster that.

Make it Cool to Care - Every principal, every teacher and every student should believe it is cool to care. In these days of bullying, it’s more important than ever. We should care when a student is struggling academically or socially-emotionally. Everyone should care about one another.

Don’t Need to Repair-Always Do Repair - The best principals and teachers work hard to keep their relationships in good repair. They don’t fall into the trap of using the very behavior they hate to see in others (i.e. sarcasm, disrespectful comments, etc.).

Set Expectations at the Start of the Year - We are fortunate because we have a new beginning every year. Do your best, whether you are a principal, teacher, aide, staff member or parent to set proper expectations at the beginning of the year. This year I began my first faculty meeting as a flipped faculty meeting. It helped me set expectations for staff and for myself.

Some books and some philosophies are timeless. No matter when and how many times we read something it makes us reflect on past practice and focus on our present practices. Todd Whitaker has a way of doing that. If you haven’t read his work, you should. If you have read it, this is a good time to read it again. His beliefs, although sometimes difficult to reach, help engage every student and can bring out the best in teachers and staff.

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Read Todd’s newest book Shifting the Monkey

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.