Reminders for Great Teachers

Review of What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker

I’m so thrilled that I get to go back to teaching this fall. I was able to take a position that is part time as I ease my way back in, allowing me to be present as you boys are still small. As I’m heading back in just one short month, I have as one of my summer reading assignments this book about the most important aspects of teaching and how to set your students (and yourself) up for success. I enjoyed the quick read very much and found myself nodding my head and writing, “Yes!” and “Exactly!” a silly number of times. But it made me feel like I was having a conversation with another teacher who was giving me a pep talk and reminding me of my values in the classroom – that I am the number one denominator and that I set the thermostat with my own expectations and positivity. Here are just a few takeaways I’d like to remember and have on hand as I become frustrated and need another pep talk or some guidance:

  • “Outstanding teachers can see things from their students’ point of view… and they know how they come across to others…” (xvii).
  • “When great teachers say something, they mean it. They choose when and how to address a situation to achieve the effect they want” (xvii).
  • He asked an outstanding teacher who had been teaching for 38 years and still had enthusiasm what it was that keeps her inspired. Her response: “This is my thirty-eighth year teaching… but for these students, it’s the first time around” (5).
  • Great teachers don’t focus on ‘What am I going to do if students misbehave?’ They expect good behavior, and generally that’s what they get” (14).
  • On page 23, he has a brilliant idea about a scenario that could be quite likely, which is if you have more than one troublemaker in a class (in this case, 4). Rather than calling all sets of parents, he suggests calling one. But not only that, but to not call the parents of the biggest problem but the parents of the student who will most likely be affected by the call. It is likely that student will tell the others and straighten up in class, causing a ripple effect. I’m liking it.
  • “When inappropriate behavior occurs, we should give ourselves time to think before we react” (24). Much like that famous quote by Lincoln, I think: “When angry, count to ten. When really angry, count to 100.” He made a strong case about how important it is to establish trust. If you don’t handle one student well, the other students will side with their peer, and you’d have all students against you. But the students want you to handle the misbehavior; however, they expect you to do so respectfully (of course).
  • In chapter 7, the takeaway is huge. And that is that when the ship is sinking, there is one person responsible: ME, the teacher. Now, it’s one thing if a student is struggling at home or has an issue that is unrelated to you and your class. But overall, if the class isn’t getting it, isn’t respecting the rules or things are insane in general, I am the variable. Not that I should beat myself up and call myself the worst teacher ever. But to take ownership and realize I’m in control and find ways to fix it. If a lesson plan isn’t working or if students are not grasping difficult material, I’m the variable to fix it. It’s actually empowering to take this approach than to grumble about what awful kids I have this year. It’s all about attitude. And taking responsibility.
  • “Great teachers resist the temptation to socialize when they should be supervising. They know the value of interacting with other teachers, and so they treat their colleagues as the second most important group of people in the school” (46). As a sociable person in general, I needed to hear this. Also, he later explains how it is important to avoid the negative people and not engage in the grumbling about this and that. Once you do, you’re sucked in, and that is not a good place to be.
  • “To be effective, praise must be authentic, specific, immediate, clean, and private” (51). This is a loaded sentence, and Whitaker breaks it down by providing examples and explanations for each. For authentic, this is clear. Students can smell inauthenticity from a mile away. He mentions how important it is to praise when things are going right. Specific relates to focusing on the behavior we want more of. “The behavior we acknowledge often becomes the behavior that will continue.” Immediate is also obvious so as to not allow us to lose the opportunity. By “clean,” he means to be careful about your intentions and to not expect things in return. Never say “but” after a praise. Don’t link a good behavior with a bad one and assume the good one was meaningless. Stay authentic and use the praise when appropriate with no strings attached. Finally, by private, we want to avoid calling students out when they get the highest grade or show favoritism in any way.
  • “We often hear the statement, ‘You have to earn students’ respect.’ Yet the students are on their best behavior on the first day of school. Did we earn that? Did we work with the students and their families one on one over the summer to build that bond? Of course not. On the first day of school, students hand us respect on a platter. We determine what happens to that gift. The best teachers continue to nurture and build respect all year long” (59). If only I’d read that my first year teaching. Ha. Seriously, this is wonderful and so very true.
  • “Effective educators… are so sensitive to every single statement they make or action they take” (66). Avoid cutting words or sharp or sarcastic remarks. Always work on feeding a high level of trust and credibility. Professionalism. It’s everything.
  • “Aim high” “Great teachers make decisions following three simple guidelines: 1. What is the purpose? 2. Will this actually accomplish the purpose? 3. What will the best people think?” (83). I loved this chapter because it broke it all down so well, from unit planning to classroom management. A reminder to not teach to the middle but to the top. If we establish the purpose, we move in a direction that is productive. As for that third one, I really took to this explanation, to think of what my best students will think. Rather than getting upset with the entire class about not turning in their rough drafts on time, the good students will wonder if I got theirs. We should “treat every student with the best students in mind” (86). I love this so much. Treat everyone as if they are good.
  • “Think of the teacher who spends the first day with a finger-pointing lecture about the rules. Which students are most uncomfortable? The ones who don’t need a host of rules to keep them in line. What are the others doing? Plotting!” (91-92). I will not do this.
  • Whitaker also advises against trade and grade. It isn’t good for the low performing students and it isn’t good for the high ones either.
  • Finally, don’t argue with hostile parents. It’s what they want and they will indeed use it against you

I loved reading this and feel like it brought me back into the mindset of teaching and gave me the boost I need to set up the school year on the right track. I pray that all goes smoothly with this transition for all of us.

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