Book Review: What Great Teachers Do Differently

I’d had my eye on this title for awhile, and when I spotted it in the exhibition hall at the ASCD conference, I couldn’t leave without it. I explained my intentions to read the book and blog about it to the publisher reps, and Eye on Education kindly gave me a review copy.

Personal efficacy has been a major theme with me lately, and I’ve been devouring any resources I can get my hands on. So what makes author Todd Whitaker an expert? He’s a former teacher and principal who now works with over 50 schools a year as a consultant, and he’s participated in five research studies on the effectiveness of school principals. He knows great teaching, and he knows that great teaching is not about knowing. It’s about who we are, and what we do. This book is not about presenting a cookie-cutter approach to success, but, in Todd’s own words, “shows the framework that sustains the work of all great educators.”

This was an incredibly readable book that I finished cover-to-cover on a short flight from Richmond to New York. Whitaker gets right to the heart of the matter, breaking down 14 qualities of effective teachers in a manner that is at once knowledgeable and relatable. He makes a number of insightful points that really resonated with me:

When a student misbehaves, the great teacher has one goal: to keep that behavior from happening again. The least effective teacher often has a different goal: revenge.

He notes that an effective teacher only pulls from his bags of tricks a few times a day, but less effective teachers are constantly reaching desperately for something that works, and when that happens enough times, the teacher is “bound to pull out something ugly”.

Whitaker decries the assumption that great teachers are the ones who have high expectations for students:

Even the worst teachers have high expectations for students. They expect students to be engaged no matter how irrelevant the material is. They expect students to pay attention no matter how boring and repetitious their classes are. They expect students to be well behaved no matter how the teacher treats them. Now those are high expectations.

What really matters, Whitaker argues, is the expectations teachers have for themselves. He notes the importance of focusing on the one thing the teacher can control–his or her own performance. Great teachers filter out the negative and focus on the positive. They work hard to create a comfortable and supportive learning environment, and actively seek to repair damaged relationships.

And great teachers focus on real student learning and keep standardized testing in perspective–no excuses about the mandates from on high. Whitaker suggests teachers ask themselves:

What determines what happens in my classroom–the syllabus or the students? Do I hold up the standards at the finish line and watch the students make their way down the track as best they can–or am I at their sides, helping them develop the skills they need? Great teachers know the difference.

A few critics have dismissed What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things That Matter Most as lacking practicality. I attribute that to the tendency in education to look to another program, another quick fix…that search for one miracle quality we can instill in all teachers to make them great, as if teachers were robots to be programmed. But Todd Whitaker understands that great teaching is about forming great relationships. Effective teachers understand that people, not programs, are what ensures success. As Whitaker concludes,

If everyone in a school is treated with respect and dignity, you may have nothing special. However, if everyone in a school is not treated with respect and dignity, you will never have anything special. Of that I am sure.

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jackie McKenna April 25, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Nice post! This book looks very interesting and seems to speak to the value of teacher professionalism – I’ll have to check it out.

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2 ateachingheart April 25, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Absolutely! I am here with a standing ovation for “Effective teachers understand that people, not programs, are what ensures success.”
I will have to get the book…great blog post!

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3 teachin' April 25, 2009 at 6:59 pm

This sounds fascinating, and what a great line about respect and dignity. Thanks for the heads up about it!

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4 Anonymous April 25, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Read this book about 5 years ago when I was a new teacher…think I’ll go back and reread for some inspiration! Thanks for the blog!

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5 Joan Young (aka Mancini) April 25, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Thanks for a great validation and reminder of a principle I always try to remember: teaching is SO much about building trusting relationships. I just discovered your blog and I am enjoying your posts so much! Thanks :-)

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6 vanessa April 25, 2009 at 10:52 pm

I also read this book a few years back, I think it was required reading for a staff development session or something. This is one of those rare books that really “spoke” to me. It was filled with validations and put into words what I knew in my heart to be true. I was nodding my head throughout the book, I couldn’t put it down. A real “must read”.

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7 msreagan April 26, 2009 at 1:24 am

I can’t wait to read this book. Thanks for your post.

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8 siobhancurious April 26, 2009 at 7:57 am

I read this book a few years ago, and it didn’t do much for me, partly because of the criticism that you mention above concerning “practicality.” But it was more than that – a lot of the ideas seemed vague: what does “reaching into one’s bag of tricks” really mean? What constitutes “treating others with dignity and respect” or being “at their sides, helping them develop the skills they need”? I’ve been meaning to give the book another try, though, and your post has inspired me to take a second look.

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9 Miss A April 26, 2009 at 2:23 pm

I’ll have to get ahold of a copy of this book for the summer. It’s been a hard year, trying to get my plans and attitude under control and keep in compliance with all the mandated stuff we have to do (testing, etc). I could use some inspiration :)

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10 Anonymous April 26, 2009 at 3:08 pm

We were given a copy of this at my new teacher orientation in the fall of 2007 (I was only new to having a full time contract — I had taught before). I didn’t read it because I had no time (got hired in November)…this year I love my kids but not my admin so perhaps its time I pull it out for some inspiration because I seem to be letting the BS on high get me down.

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11 Angela April 27, 2009 at 11:17 am

Smallest Twine: Yes, it’s definitely a great resource on teacher professionalism. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

ATeachingHeart: I’m not sure who first said ‘it’s about people, not programs’…somehow that got in my head a few weeks ago and stuck! Whitaker definitely subscribes to that philosophy.

Teaching’: You’re welcome! Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous: I’d be interested to see what you get out of the book the second time around…

Joan: You are so welcome. Building relationships is what it’s all about.

Vanessa: I felt the same way: the book just resonated as being true. And most required reads DON’T (at least in your experience, and mine).

MsReagan: You’re a voracious reader! Between the books, the blogs, and Twitter, you must be an amazing teacher. ;-)

SiobhanCurious: Do take another look at the book, and let me know what you think this time around. I agree the book is not a step-by-step practical guide, and the reader is definitely left to determine for him/herself how to implement the qualities of greatness. But I kind of liked that–you get to discover for yourself what works with your teaching style and situation. Maybe a practical guide could be a sequel…some sort of elaboration on HOW to achieve those qualities…

Amber: I definitely think you’ll find the book inspirational. It puts into words the things you are already doing, and encourages you to do those things that you’re not.

Anonymous: It’s a quick read–definitely pull it out when you’re laying by the pool this summer!

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12 Chris Bennett April 27, 2009 at 10:43 pm

I must read this book! I am going to the book store tonight…

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13 Angela April 30, 2009 at 10:00 am

Chris: Great! Let me know what you think. :-)

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14 WebsiteTraffic October 20, 2009 at 10:31 am

Wow!!! thank u very much for all this information. Keep on supplying such useful information. It really is interesting.

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15 Anonymous November 13, 2009 at 8:25 pm

would love some comments on how you actually put some of these things to practice in your classrooms!

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