My first introduction to the work of Todd Whitaker was through reading his book, What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things that Matter Most. Todd’s writing style immediately captured my attention. He aptly defined the characteristics of strong principals and described those things I most wished to accomplish as the principal of my school. Easier said than done, of course, but I certainly appreciate how Whitaker takes his many years of experience in education and offers inspirational guidelines for success for administrators (and teachers, another great read).

My next encounter with Todd – I feel like we’re on a first-name basis now – was through our interactions on Twitter. If you don’t follow him, you should, for both the educational resources he shares, and his humor. He’s truly a joy to know virtually, and has offered guidance and support to me over the past year.

And then, last weekend, I had the chance to meet Todd Whitaker for the first time, when he addressed a large group of educators who battled the temptations of the snooze alarm to attend an early morning session on the last day of ASCD. His session, entitled What Great Teachers Do Differently, was filled with amusing allegories, sage advice, and “why didn’t I think of that?” lessons. Warning: Long list of session highlights ahead. I took a lot of notes.

  • In a school, if we don’t have difficult teachers, we don’t have difficult parents.
  • When someone asks you how your day is, say you’re having a great day! How does it help anyone to tell them about the bad day you’re having?
  • The ability to know how we come across and how we are being received by others is the difference between effective and ineffective people – ineffective people have no idea how they come across- to students, to colleagues, to parents, etc.
  • Why do some teachers stay behind their desks all day? They’re afraid of the kids. They don’t know how to interact with them.
  • Some teachers and principals have a “Kids First” attitude. Others? “Kids first… right after me.”
  • It’s hard to envision what great teaching can look like until you see it.
  • Principals can name the teacher who will submit the most office referrals for the 2018-2019 school year. And class lists have not yet been made!
  • Parents bring you the very best they have.
  • Students do the best they know how.
  • Why do whiners whine? Because it works.
  • Stop treating people – teachers, kids, parents- like they are bad. Treat everyone as though they are good. When you see a child in the hall, assume they are doing GOOD. Ask, “How can I help you?” Don’t ask one child, “What are you doing? Where is your pass? Why are you out there?” and treat another child differently by saying, “Hi, and enjoy your day.” Why do we choose to do that?
  • Treat bad people like they are good. This makes the good people feel better and the bad people feel uncomfortable.
  • Great principals confront negative teachers and bad principals don’t. Neither WANT to confront those negative teachers. The difference is in the action.
  • Shift the monkey!
  • When bad people act inappropriately, it gives good people and good supervisors “the monkey.” The bad people have none. Shift the monkey.
  • Don’t take down all of the stall doors if one person keeps writing on it. Don’t punish the whole group for the actions of a single or a minority. (Let’s stop making the entire class put their heads down/missing recess/other consequences.)
  • In a great teachers’ school, nothing happens randomly. Great teachers have an intention behind every action: how the room is arranged, how partners are chosen…
  • Principals, one goal you should have when hiring a new teacher:  for the school to become more like the new teacher – not for the teacher to become like your school.
  • Admin, your teachers and staff want guidance, not corrections. Teach them how.
  • Don’t allow your new teachers emulate the veterans who aren’t good role models – get them to follow the leads of the strong teachers.
  • “Losers” pretend they are representing a whole lot of other people. The best people represent themselves.
  • Approach “crummy” people from the side, because they can’t stand it. The best teachers approach kids from the side, while the worst teachers approach them by drawing a line in the sand.
  • You can’t just win playing defense, you have to cultivate community.
  • Great teachers have an incredible ability to ignore. Ignore means, “I choose to respond or not to respond to something that’s taking place.” A great teacher has an unlimited ability to ignore. A poor teacher has no ability to do that.
  • “It is people, not programs.” Great teachers making a great school. 
  • To improve your school, hire better teachers or improve the ones you have.
  • The trend is to attempt to mandate effectiveness. You can’t do that!
  • “It is 10 days out of 10?” How many days out of 10 do you want students to treat you with dignity? They should expect the same from you.
  • “Arguing with a student is like wrestling a pig. You both get muddy, but the pig sure seems like he’s enjoying it!”
  • In a great teacher’s classroom, the kids don’t know the teachers have “buttons” because they’ve never been pushed. They’ve never seen them.
  • When is sarcasm appropriate in the classroom? Never. Humiliating someone in front of their peers under the guise of humor is unacceptable.
  • Leaders, make expectations clear from the beginning of the year.
  • Great teachers don’t have rules, they have expectations.
  • Teacher and admin evaluation systems systems are now mandating in attempts to teach the ineffective people how to be effective, when the effective people have been doing it right for a long time!
  • Every adults should say hi to every kid every time they pass them in the hall.  It doesn’t matter if that greeting is important to the adult, and it might not mean anything to the student, except for the one day that it does.
  • Classroom management has a lot to do with management of self
  • “The best thing about being a teacher is it matters. The hardest thing is that it matters every day. All the time.”
To close, Todd gave a shout out to Twitter and recommended that educators use the platform to connect with other great teachers and principals from around the world. I personally didn’t find ASCD to have an overly “connected” audience, but I did have the opportunity to meet with two administrators and get them started with developing their PLN, which was rewarding.
Thank you, Todd Whitaker, for your inspiring words in a time in the school year when it’s imperative to remember to “shift the monkey.” And thanks, ASCD, for the opportunity to share my conference experiences.

10 comments on “A strong #ascd12 finish with Todd Whitaker

  • Great post and list! It’s times like this, where I see passion in the people who principals, that I sometimes miss being a part of the action.
    Kudos to you, Lynn as you continue your admin journey. 😉

  • Lyn- My biggest regret of ASCD12 was missing this session with “Coach” Whitaker. I still remember reading the green covered ‘What Great Principals Do Differently’ during the summer of my first year on the job. His words are inspiring and make a lot of sense – much more after a few years of experience. Thanks for doing an awesome job of capturing his key points for those not in attendance.

  • I love this post! Thank you so much for summarizing so much of what was said! It was almost like I was there. You’ve reminded me that I need to get out some of Todd’s books that I’ve loved so much and reread them. He really is a great author, educator, leader, and person. He came to one of our administrator conventions quite a few years ago. I only wish I was more connected back then!

  • I loved this list. It is a great reminder of what it means to be an effective teacher. I love the line “The best thing about being a teacher is it matters. The hardest thing is that it matters every day. All the time.” It reminds me of why I went into teaching, love teaching and continue to teach!

  • Awesome summary Lyn, thanks so much for sharing. I’ve printed out your list and posted it on my desk – great constant reminders from an awesome book.

  • I love this post. I felt like it described my school and my principal’s philosophy so I forwarded it to her. Little did I know that she’s already read Todd Whitaker’s book! She embraces his principles and our elementary school is a wonderful place to teach and learn.

  • Thank you for a wonderful summary. These are so important and we sometimes need to reflect on these points, especially at the end of the school year. I plan to share these with my leadership team.

  • Thank your very much for the summary. I felt like I was in attendance at the conference with you. Many of the things outlined by Mr. Whitaker can be applied in any school in any state and county. As administrators, it is really important for us to find ways to empower our staff. When we empower our teachers, in turn they will motivate and encourage our students.

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