Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What I Have Learned From Todd Whitaker

Earlier in the week I read Todd Whitaker's book: What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most. Dr. Whitaker is a professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University and a sought after guest speaker at school districts around the country. Back in the middle of October, I had the privilege of joining a group of our model teachers to hear Todd speak at Dunkerton High School. Normally I am not a big fan of the 'shotgun' approach to professional development (you know, the day long 'sit and get' model), but the opportunity to hear his message coupled with a deeper implementation of these ideas in Hudson was one that was well worth the time investment. When we returned to Hudson, one of our Model Teachers (I'll go ahead and give a shout out to Mrs. Puls here) shared some of her key takeaways from that day at an inservice for the 7-12 faculty. Thankfully, the grassroots leadership provided by Mrs. Puls made me realize that this particular workshop had some staying power. I'll credit both Dr. Whitaker and Mrs. Puls for these efforts. Clearly, Todd's message resonated enough for Mrs. Puls to see value in bringing it back to her colleagues at Hudson. As I sat and listened to Mrs. Puls recall her experience, I thought, 'Boy, I wish everyone in our district heard this message'. Perhaps that is why I picked up the book and read it.

While the intended audience of Dr. Whitaker's work is teacher and staff development, I would argue that it has a much broader appeal. The subtitle of the book suggests ''17 Things That Matter Most'. Oh, they are so applicable beyond the classroom! For example, an important concept that Todd reminds us of is that 'teachers establish clear expectations at the start of the year and follow them consistently as the year progresses'. Please allow me to explain!

Clear expectations certainly shouldn't be limited to how we go about managing a classroom! It is critically important to have clear expectations for our children at home, our employees at work, and even those we call friends. If our children are aware of our expectations and we are unwavering in those expectations, it is much easier for them to understand and meet those expectations. Likewise, it is important for our children to know that fair and consistent consequences are a critical variable in the equation. It does little good to not follow through on a consequence. Have you ever heard of a parent or a teacher saying 'if you do that one more time, then you will miss your entire recess for a week/or miss the neighbors birthday party'? The point is: say what you mean and mean what you say. Another critical point to remember about consequences is that they should never be about punishment! Whitaker uses the analogy of penalties in competitive sports. 'Rules just don't point out rule violations; they assign penalties' (p. 15). Hopefully they also teach the appropriate and correct behavior. We don't want to punish kids to hurt them, we want to administer consequences in a way that they learn from their mistake. Our real goal is to avoid a repeat of the behavior, not to 'exact revenge', as Whitaker so eloquently reminds us. 

Hopefully you notice that I italicized the word aware in the paragraph above. This week I learned a valuable lesson myself about expectations and what happens when people aren't aware of expectations. Yes, I have certain expectations about how employees go about their work here in the district! I erroneously assumed that everyone knew the expectations. What I originally thought was a failure to meet expectations in actuality was an unfortunate set of circumstances, and a set of very unclear expectations. Luckily the problem was resolved without any lasting impact, and we uncovered a weakness in communicating those expectations. Thankfully this is a problem we can solve!

Well, I could go on and provide examples and affirmation of everything Todd mentions in his book. But to do so would cover more paragraphs in this blog than you are probably interested in reading right now. Yet I will leave you with this, and I do believe this is a key theme throughout the course of this book (I'll forward this on to Dr. Whitaker and if he disagrees hopefully he will let me know). 

Respect. Great teachers, great leaders, and great parents treat everyone with respect. If we all can do this one little thing, have a little empathy for one another then surely we will have something very special. I can't remember who said this, but people may not remember what you say, but they will certainly remember what you do. All it takes is one cutting remark, one blow up to annihilate a respectful relationship. Often times the damage is irreversible and can never be undone. 

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