Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Great Educators Do Differently: A Conversation with Todd Whitaker

By Peter DeWitt — October 04, 2011 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” Todd Whitaker

Educators have read a great deal of philosophical literature in their careers. They are inundated with it at the college level, and many educational books on the market focus on it as well. As much as philosophy is important, educators really need practical information that they can use at the classroom or building level.

When I became a principal, I went from teaching elementary school in a small city school to being a building leader in a rural, suburban school system. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I knew that insecure leaders could ruin a building climate, and I did not want my insecurities to get in the way of my new leadership role.

My predecessor, who was a beloved principal handed me a book entitled What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker and said it may be one of the most important books I could read as a principal. In a matter of days I read the book, took notes and connected with Whitaker’s words.

Todd Whitaker has the ability to write and speak in a style that gets to the heart of an issue, and the insight he offers is important for all educators who are searching for ways to have an impact on their students. The following is a conversation I had with Dr Whitaker for Finding Common Ground.

PD: One of your quotes that I have used as the core of my practice as a principal is, “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold. This is neither good nor bad; it is just the truth. Our impact is significant; our focus becomes the school’s focus” (Whitaker, 2003, p.30). How do we get administrators to buy into this?

TW: I personally don’t think buy-in is the issue. In general, principals know that they set the tone in the school but they do not always know how to do that correctly. Principals who lack skills and abilities can try as hard as they want but it’s not going to work. They need to increase their knowledge and skills in order to have a positive impact.

A very small percentage of principals do not know how to have a positive impact on their staff, students and building. Most principals know how to have a positive effect. If I have any advice for principals, it’s to make decisions based on their best teachers because they have a worldly view. They do not look at how changes affect them personally; they are looking at how changes affect the school.

PD: How do we get all of the adults in a school to understand that their words contribute to positive or negative morale?

TW: First and foremost, adults need to understand that their words contribute positively or negatively to morale. That is new knowledge to people. Intuitive teachers know that their words are important to the building climate. Average teachers do not know this fact.

People in education become negative because they tend to look for the one answer that is going to change everything in a school system for the positive. Intuitive educators know that there is not one answer for all of those problems. Teaching is hard and it takes hard work. There aren’t any easy answers.

PD: What are your thoughts on high stakes testing?

TW: I had a track coach who had an interesting way to coach us about running. She used to stand on the sideline and yell, “Run faster!” We were all running as fast as we knew how.

That’s what is happening with the education department. They are standing on the sideline yelling, “Raise your test scores!” Schools are working as hard as they can to raise their test scores. They have their test scores as high as they know how to get them!

Good people know that high stakes testing has limited value and they keep operating anyway. They don’t let testing get in the way of doing the good work they want to do to get kids prepared for life. Schools need to understand that if their life is all about test scores, than they should hope like crazy that the test doesn’t change.

Education policy makers cannot mandate effectiveness. Generalizations do nothing to move us forward. Public education is not broken. There are some schools that are dysfunctional. There are schools that have a large percentage of dysfunctional students and it is very challenging to overcome that. There is not a magic formula that can change that.

We always hear that schools should be more like a business. What business are they referring to? Should schools be like fast-food chains? Should they be like banks, because what a wonderful job banks have done for us? Should they be like the small mom and pop stores? If all if this is what schools should be like, than why is it that all businesses are not alike? Why aren’t all fast food restaurants as good as McDonald’s? Why aren’t all technology companies like Apple? Why aren’t all retail stores as successful as Wal-Mart?

Since schools should be able to snap their fingers and become like businesses, why don’t businesses transform themselves to become like their top competitors? It is funny how easy it is to place demands on others and yet we can’t reach those expectations ourselves.

PD: In schools we always seem to focus on programs that can change our schools. You believe its people, not programs. Why do you believe that?

TW: We do not have a program that everyone can do successfully. Ineffective people cannot do any program successfully. The best people are successful at every program. The key component is the people, not the programs.

I use the phrase “poor lecturer’s classroom” all the time. I have 1,000 educators in front of me and ask which one of those words is the problem? 950 educators will say “lecturers.” “Poor” is the problem. Lectures are not an issue if the educator is engaging. Our best teachers need to be replicated, not programs.

PD: How can we be positive role models to our students?

TW: My first question back to you is how can we not be? How many parents are not positive role models to their students? We need to be positive to our students because we may be the only ones who are positive toward them. The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.

PD: Many teachers and administrators have students who have discipline issues. What do you think is the best way to get to the heart of these issues with students who seem to need our help the most?

TW: No single reaction is effective. The key is not what we do when they misbehave it’s what we do when they behave. It doesn’t not matter whether you are in a rural, urban or suburban school the first day of school all kids behave. After the first week of school, more and more students begin to misbehave. We need to get them to the point where they continue to behave. Students need to be engaged and respected.

PD: Why do you believe that teachers send misbehaving students to the office? What are their expectations of principals where that misbehaving student is concerned?

TW: The positive tool that the office has is the fear of the unknown. 95% of students have not been sent to the office because they are afraid to go there. There are other students who have been there 10 or 11 times and the main office has run out of tricks.

The most important thing that principals need to remember is that a student gets sent down to the main office because it is a big deal to that teacher. That teacher needs the help of the administrator in order to change the behavior of the misbehaving student.

However, it’s easier to treat it like a big deal if it’s a big deal. In most schools people can predict which teachers will send students down to the office, and they do not even need to look at the class roster. The same teachers will send students down to the office, and great teachers do not send students down to the office very often. When great teachers send students down to the office, it is a big deal.

As an administrator, it is very important to be visible and get into classrooms. The relationship between administrators and teachers has an impact on student behavior (End of Interview).

Teachers begin every year with the goal of honing their practices so they can be more successful with their students. Administrators have the same goal so they can be more successful with their students, teachers and parents. In order to meet that goal effectively, they need to be able to search for resources that can offer practical advice that they can use on a daily basis. In addition, it is equally as important to self-reflect on past practices to see what has worked and what needs to change. I encourage you to pick up one of Whitaker’s books as you go through that process.

Follow Peter on Twitter.

Todd Whitaker is one of the nation's leading authorities on staff motivation, teacher leadership, and principal effectiveness, Todd has written 24 books including the national best seller, What Great Teachers Do Differently. Other titles include: The Ball, Dealing With Difficult Teachers, Teaching Matters, Great Quotes for Great Educators, What Great Principals Do Differently, Motivating & Inspiring Teachers, and Dealing With Difficult Parents. Todd is a former teacher and principal, who is a professor of Elementary Education at Indiana State University.

Whitaker, Todd (2002). What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things That Matter Most. Eye on Education. Larchmont, NY.

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.