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  • Writer's pictureDr. Sue Chapman

Learning to Become a Great Educator: Todd Whitaker Talks about Teaching and Leading

Updated: May 31, 2023

The best thing about teaching is that it matters, and the hardest about teaching is that it matters every day. Thanks so much for being a difference maker …every day.

~ Todd Whitaker


This is Todd Whitaker’s opening message in the third edition of his timeless and widely acclaimed book What Great Teachers Do Differently (2020). Todd has spent his life researching habits of effective teachers and principals. He is passionate about sharing what he has learned with fellow educators because he understands the importance of our work. Learning Forward Texas is excited to have Todd join us at the 2023 Learning Forward Texas Annual Conference on June 19-21 in Irving, Texas.



Todd Whitaker speaking to a group of teachers
Todd Whitaker speaking to a group of teachers

Todd Whitaker’s sessions at the 2023 Learning Forward Texas Annual Conference


Keynote: What Great Educators Do Differently

What are the specific qualities and practices of great educators that elevate them above the rest? This keynote address reveals what the most effective educators do differently than their colleagues. Participants will focus on what the most successful educators do that others do not. Everyone will leave knowing what great educators do differently, why their actions make them more effective, and how to immediately implement each of these practices into your own classrooms and schools.


Session: Motivating People During Difficult Times

Having high-energy staff members is critical to the success of every school and district. Everyone who works with students must come to school in a positive frame of mind each day. This is even more challenging during difficult times. This session will focus on no-cost ways for educational leaders to motivate themselves and everyone in their organization. Attendees will also learn how to take away the power from any negative people we come in contact with. During good times it is nice to have a positive focus, but during challenging times we must.



I recently had the chance to talk with Todd about his life’s work in support of educators. Here are some highlights from our conversation.


Sue:

You frequently talk about how fortunate you feel to have the opportunity to serve educators. It’s clear that you’re proud to be a career educator and to support teachers and principals. But it’s been a challenging couple of years in education. What continues to inspire you about our profession?


Todd:

I feel that part of my life’s calling is to lift up and defend teachers. Right now, there are lots of vocal opponents of education. Our proponents don’t currently have much of a voice. It’s wrong and very sad. The pandemic was a tough time for educators, but the current demonization of teachers is even tougher. As a result of the pandemic, test scores fell dramatically and so did students’ social skills. These facts offer irrefutable proof of how much schools matter.


Too many teachers are looking to leave our profession. The best teachers can do anything they want and there are lots of jobs available right now. It's such a loss when our very best teachers say, “I’m choosing a different career because I’m tired of being attacked.” No one benefits when the pool of teachers gets smaller and weaker. Children do not benefit, and communities do not benefit. Part of what I hope to do is to help educators realize how important they are.


I’m proud to work with people who have devoted their lives to making a difference. What a gift it is to spend time with people who have chosen to put service to young people and our communities at the forefront of their lives. I’m fortunate to be able to support educators and I strive to advocate for our schools and the educators who serve in our schools.


Sue: Your life’s work has focused on researching habits of effective educators and then sharing what you’ve learned. Why is this focus so important?


Todd:

I want to help all teachers to teach like the best teachers. That's the only solution to education. In every community in Texas and anywhere else, we can find highly effective teachers. We don't need to innovate. We need to replicate. Just think, if all teachers were like the best teachers, how that would impact the school, the community, and the world.


Nobody wants to be the average teacher. Nobody! There are lots of other professions where it’s fine to be average because then you’re left alone. But in education, because our work matters, average is the minimum. In my experience, teachers are extremely receptive to learning how to be more successful because they know their work matters.



The difference between more effective teachers and their less effective colleagues is not what they know. It is what they do.

~ Todd Whitaker

Sue:

So, you share the results of your research on habits of effective educators in the form of timeless principles that teachers and principals can use to guide their actions. Give us a couple of examples of these essential beliefs, please.


Todd:

One principle that I share all the time is “You are the filter.” This means that you’re in charge of what comes out of your mouth and what doesn’t. When people ask, “How’s your day going?” I say “Great” because it doesn’t help others when I am negative. In a great teacher’s classroom or a great principal’s school, when the teacher or principal is in a bad mood, the only person that knows it is that teacher or principal.


Another principle is “It’s people, not programs.” One of the challenges of the pandemic was that we didn’t have a dress rehearsal. We just went straight to opening night. It was just there, but with no practice. Everyone was on a level playing field because none of us had done it before. And yet, we could all have named three teachers who were going to figure out how to teach effectively in this new environment because they are the kind of people who figure out how to teach effectively in any environment. We can’t mandate teacher effectiveness, yet we try to all the time. Many times, we try to mandate effective teaching through programs. But it’s always about people, it’s never about programs.



Sue: You’ve written a couple of books with your two daughters who are both teachers about another one of your passions, supporting new teachers. Our first-year teachers are just completing a challenging beginning to their teaching careers. What advice might you give to year-one teachers and the school leaders who support them to help these early-career teachers feel eager about next school year?


Todd:

I want our soon-to-be second-year teachers to remember that, as they begin this next year, they are undefeated. They have the opportunity to learn from their first year and to build on their early teaching experiences. My number one piece of advice for new teachers is “Trust your gut. When you don’t trust your gut, you almost always make wrong decisions. You know who you want to be as a teacher. Make decisions that are true to the teacher you want to be.” I tell principals to let their new teachers know, and to let all teachers know, that they were hired because their opinions and unique strengths are needed and valued.


My daughters wrote a big chunk of these books (I did write the concluding paragraph) and they tell us that new teachers often feel alone. My daughters and I once presented a session to a couple of thousand principals. They asked these school leaders to do a quick online survey in response to the question “When do your new teachers want you to come into their classrooms?” The number one answer given by these principals was “Never” and the number two response was “Four to six weeks after teachers have a chance to settle in.” I’ve worked with hundreds of thousands of new teachers. Guess when they want principals to come into their classrooms - the first half of the first day! New teachers are thinking, “It’s lonely in here. I didn’t know teaching was going to be lonely. I want to be a great teacher. I got into education to be great, but I don’t yet know if I’m great. If I’m great, could you let me know? If I’m not great, could you help me to be great?” Getting into classrooms is a way for principals to let teachers know how important they are, how valuable they are.



Sue: We have about a month of school left, a chance to finish the school year strong and also to think ahead to the fall.


Todd: Yes, this is a great time for principals to take actions that will build success right now, like getting into classrooms to show teachers how important they are. It’s also a good time to think ahead to the new school year. The most important time of the school year for principals is the first day back because it’s an opportunity to establish expectations rather than correct behaviors. It’s like playing a board game. We all want to know the rules before the game starts. At the start of the school year, principals can help teachers understand the expectations for working together, how we operate, what we can expect from each other, how we treat people, how we communicate. Great principals know that our schools and teachers are full of potential and that their personal actions make a difference. Nothing is more exciting!

When we center on our own behavior, we feel empowered to make a difference.

~ Todd Whitaker




References:

Whitaker, T. (2020). What great teachers do differently: Nineteen things that matter most. New York: Routledge.


Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Connect with Sue at SueChapmanLearn@gmail.com and on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.

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