What Great Teachers Do Differently
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What Great Teachers Do Differently

Nineteen Things That Matter Most

Todd Whitaker

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  1. 132 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

What Great Teachers Do Differently

Nineteen Things That Matter Most

Todd Whitaker

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What are the beliefs and behaviors that set great teachers apart? In this internationally renowned bestseller, Todd Whitaker reveals 19 keys to becoming more effective in the classroom.

This essential third edition features new sections on why it's about more than relationships, how to focus on a consistent, engaging learning environment, and the importance of choosing the right mode—business, parent, child—to improve your classroom management.

Perfect for educators at any level of experience, for independent reading or for schoolwide book studies, this practical book will leave you feeling inspired and ready to do the things that matter most for the people who matter most—your students.

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Why Look at Great?

We often hear that we can learn from anyone. From effective people, we learn what to do; from ineffective people, we learn what not to do. Although this advice contains a grain of truth, think about it: How much can we really learn from our ineffective colleagues about being an effective teacher or leader? We already know plenty about what not to do. Good teachers already know not to use sarcasm, not to yell at kids, not to argue with teens in front of their friends. We don’t need to visit an ineffective teacher’s classroom to learn this. But we can always reap good ideas from successful educators.
Look at it another way: If teaching were a true/false test, we could raise our scores by looking over the shoulder of an unsuccessful colleague and choosing the opposite answer to each question. However, working with students is never as simple as yes or no, bad or good, true or false. Teaching is more like an open-ended essay exam. It won’t help much to copy from the least prepared test taker; we already know that doodling in the margins or writing “Kevin + Vicky 4 Ever” won’t earn us points. On the other hand, although we might not agree with everything in the best essay, we can still learn from it. At the very least, we would probably see some new ideas that we could build on. As educators, we face a myriad of choices. Simply eliminating the inappropriate options doesn’t move us forward.
Here’s one more example: Imagine that you have decided to build a rocket and fly to the moon. Now imagine that you have two choices about learning how to do this: You can go to NASA, or you can come by my house on a Sunday afternoon. Well, if you choose the second option, even the most diligent observation is unlikely to advance your lunar mission. Take all the notes you want: Leaning back in the recliner doesn’t inspire engine design; none of the buttons on the TV remote leads to liftoff; lemonade in the shade is not rocket fuel. (Does any of this come as a surprise?)
On the other hand, if you decide to visit NASA, how will that help? You might observe that the rockets they build are bigger than your garage, their budget looks enormous, and they have more engineers. Nevertheless, you can probably learn a good deal about the processes and technology that go into a successful launch.
These examples are simplistic, but the lesson is clear. Educators who want to promote good teaching find value in examining what effective teachers do that other teachers do not.

Studying Effective Teachers

I have had the good fortune to conduct or participate in many different studies examining effective educators and schools (Fiore, 1999; Fleck, 2003; Jay, 2011; Raisor, 2011; Roeschlein, 2002; Sudsberry, 2008; Turner, 2013; Whitaker, 1993; Whitaker, 1997). In each study, researchers visited a variety of schools, some with outstanding principals and some with less-than-stellar leaders. Although these studies yielded many insights, their greatest contribution was to focus on the question, “What do the most effective principals do differently?” Without visiting less effective sites, we may not have been able to determine the variables that distinguished the effective principals.
For example, if four outstanding principals hang the same banner in the cafeteria—”All students can learn!”—I might conclude that one key to effective leadership is an inspiring banner in the lunchroom. However, if two of the less effective leaders display the same banner, I would reconsider my conclusion. The banner alone does not guarantee success. Of course, this doesn’t mean that principals should not hang banners, or that each principal must mimic every behavior of the very effective ones. But the practices of great principals do not get in the way of their success—and others can learn from them. A valuable component of this work was the discovery that in every setting, teachers also exhibited a wide variety of skills. In our informal observations and interviews, we began to identify differences between the more effective and the less effective teachers. Of course, we found some behaviors that showed up in most classrooms. For example, almost every teacher—from the best to the worst—takes attendance. But as we sifted through our observations, we began to compile traits of the best teachers and discovered the variables that set them apart from their less successful peers.
One challenge in any profession is the ability to self-reflect accurately. Those who know how they come across to others and how others receive their behavior work more effectively. We all struggle to achieve this self-awareness, but all too often, we fall short. In the studies of principals described earlier, practically all of the principals thought they were doing a good job, but only some of them were right.
Those who know how they come across to others and how others receive their behavior work more effectively.
In my experience, many ineffective teachers also think they are doing a good job. But like most principals, most teachers are doing the best they can, and most of the teachers I encounter are willing, even eager, to learn a better way.
I recently participated in a forum that brought together a wide variety of educators to consider the future of the teaching profession. One of the questions was, “What skills will educators need if they are to be effective in this century?” I was amazed at the responses. The long list of esoteric (and seemingly unattainable) proficiencies included a computer coordinator’s understanding of technology, a lawyer’s grasp of special education mandates, the wisdom to lift every student to mastery of impossibly high and ever-changing state and national standards, and the best communication skills in the school. Whew! I had knots in my stomach just listening. No wonder teachers feel so much stress.
Then I realized that we were taking the wrong approach. What we really need—all we really need—is for all teachers to be like the best teachers. The best teachers probably do not have a barrister’s background, nor can they assemble an iPad out of an old soda can. But they do their jobs, and they do them well, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. They adapt to change without losing sight of what really matters. Think of it this way: If every teacher in a school were like the best teachers, would that be a great school? Of course it would. And if all schools had educators like the best teachers, the students who walk through their doors each day would face the future with confidence.
Many researchers have studied effective teachers (Borich, 2010; Breaux & Whitaker, 2014; Ehrenberg & Brewer, 1994; Ferguson & Ladd, 1996; Goldhaber & Brewer, 1999; Hardiman, 2003; Hess, 2001; Hunt, Wiseman, & Touzel, 2009; Kaplan & Owings, 2002; Stronge, 2007; Thomas, 2002; Walsh, 2001). Some have found that better teachers have more subject area expertise while others correlate effectiveness with an advanced degree. Still others indicate that higher scores on teachers’ tests relate to classroom success. Few of us would disagree with these findings on principle.
Yet most of us know intuitively that there is more to effective teaching than these factors. We all know effective teachers with advanced degrees and others who excel without them. High scores may be related to success, but they do not directly predict it. Knowing your subject is definitely important. Yet, what of the teachers who know their subject inside out, but fail to know their students?
This book is not about what we know. Many teachers know what works best. This book is about who we are. More directly, it is about what we do. Nothing in the following chapters is complicated. We all do some of these things some of the time; many of us even do them most of the time. The very best teachers do these things all the time. Everything described in this book is simple, but it’s not always easy.
I knew a teacher who taught fifth grade for thirty-eight years. She was absolutely phenomenal—the teacher you wish your own children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews could have. Her spark and energy never gave out. One day I asked her how she managed to stay inspired. She replied, “This is my thirty-eighth year teaching fifth grade, but for these students, it’s the first time around.”
That teacher brought her skills—especially her people skills—to bear on new experiences every day, and her students reaped the rewards. Whether we teach fifth grade or first, whether we have seventeen weeks of experience or seventeen years, we can learn from her.

It’s People, Not Programs

Outstanding educators know that if a school has great teachers, it is a great school. Teachers are a school’s keystone of greatness. More importantly, all of their audiences take the same view. If my third-grade daughter has a great teacher, I think highly of her school. Otherwise, I see her school as less-than-stellar, no matter how many awards she wins, no matter how many students earn top test scores, and no matter how many plaques adorn the main office. Students share this perspective. If a high school sophomore has four great teachers (out of four!) each day, then believe me, that sophomore will think the school is great. As the quality of teachers drops, so does a student’s opinion of the school. All the way from kindergarten through college, the quality of the teachers determines our perceptions of the quality of the school.

Programs Come and Go

School improvement is actually a very simple concept. However, like many simple concepts, it is not easy to accomplish. There are really two ways to improve a school significantly: get better teachers, and improve the current teachers.
It is never about programs; it is always about people.
We can spend a great deal of time and energy looking for programs that will solve our problems, but too often, these programs do not bring the improvement or growth we seek. Instead, we must focus on what really matters. It is never about programs; it is always about people. This does not mean that no program can encourage or support improvement of people within our school. Each of us can think of many innovations that were touted as the answer in education. Too often, we expect them to solve all our woes. When they do not, we see them as the problem. However, no program inherently leads to that improvement. Believe me, if there were such a program, it would already be in place in our schools. It is people, not programs, that determine the quality of a school.

How Open Classrooms Got Started

Some of you may know the true history of the open classroom movement (classrooms without walls). I do not claim to be the greatest authority on this topic, but, for what it’s worth, I’ll share my vision of how the concept took off.
The scene is an elementary school in Anywhere, USA. At the faculty meeting just before the school year begins, the principal announces that he has good news and bad news. The good news is that enrollment is higher than anticipated. The bad news is that he needs a teacher to volunteer to teach in the old auxiliary gymnasium. The response is awkward silence. Every teacher avoids eye contact with the principal. Finally, someone raises her hand to volunteer and, not surprisingly, it’s Mrs. Smith, the school’s best teacher.
Some teachers in her shoes might block off a classroom-sized rectangle and keep the students inside it. But this dynamic teacher uses every inch of space in the old auxiliary gym, even creating homey nooks and crannies. Then (as often happens in rapidly growing schools), within weeks the principal makes another announcement: He needs to move another class into the gym.
After a little hemming and hawing, guess who raises her hand? Mrs. Jones, the school’s second-best teacher. Together, these outstanding teachers create a phenomenal environment in that old musty gym. They use every inch of the space, group and regroup students as needed, and work consistently to maximize learning. There is so much excitement, energy, and engagement in learning that it gives you goose bumps just to walk in.
Later that year, visitors to Anywhere Elementary School walk around to all of the classrooms. Where do they see the best teaching and learning? That’s right! In the old auxiliary gym. They conclude that open classrooms are the secret to good teaching—and the rest is history.
However, what really energized the Anywhere Elementary School gym was the presence of excellent teachers, not the absence of walls dividing their classrooms. As educators, we must understand that programs are not solutions.
Below is another all-too-common example involving a classroom management approach.

Assertive Discipline: The Problem or the Solution?

All of us are probably familiar with some version of assertive discipline. Typically, if a student misbehaves the teacher writes the student’s name on the board. If the same student misbehaves again, the teacher puts a checkmark by the name. For each instance of inappropriate behavior, the teacher adds another checkmark. Specific, predetermined consequences apply for various numbers of checkmarks.
Some people swear by this approach; others swear at it. I have worked with many schools and districts that require assertive discipline and many that officially oppose it. I believe that these schools and districts, in viewing assertive discipline as either a solution or a problem, have lost sight of the critical factor: the teacher.
These schools and districts, in viewing assertive discipline as either a solution or a problem, have lost sight of the critical factor: the teacher.
Mrs. Hamilton was the best teacher I ever worked with. I had the good fortune to spend seven years in the same school with her as an assistant principal and then principal. During that time, I made at least two hundred informal visits to her classroom. In a casual conversation just before I moved out of state to take another position, Mrs. Hamilton mentioned that she was thinking of not using assertive discipline in her class the next year. I was stunned because I had never known that she used assertive discipline. Why didn’t I know? I rarely saw students’ names on the board, and I never noticed a student’s name with a checkmark beside it. Her classroom management skills were as polished as her teaching.
Mrs. Hamilton no longer felt the need for assertive discipline as a necessary classroom management approach. This was her professional decision. However, what if, at this point, I had decided to mandate assertive discipline in all classes? How would that have benefited her or her students? On the other hand, what if five years earlier in her career a principal had decided to outlaw it? How would that have helped her confidence? Having a structured approach may have been best for her at that stage in her teaching. If assertive discipline gave her confidence, then the students and the school were better for it.
If you see any effective teacher using a programmed approach, you may think that her success is because of the program and want to make it mandatory for all staff members, ...

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