5 Things I learned from “What Great Principals Do Differently: Fifteen Things That Matter Most”

5 Things I learned from “What Great Principals Do Differently: Fifteen Things That Matter Most”

I recently read “What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things That Matter Most” by Todd Whitaker. An experienced educator and principal, Todd is certainly someone worth listening to. The book is short, but from start to finish, I struggled to put it down. There were some real eye-opening moments for me and reading led to a lot of introspection. Although the book focuses on principals, the ideas can be translated to teaching and many other walks of life. With all of this in mind, I’ll share 5 things that I have learnt from reading this book.

1. Treat everyone with respect, every day, all the time

This is a big one for me. The idea here is that a leader should treat everyone with respect 10 days out of 10. You might be tired. You might be frustrated. You might be drowning under a mountain of work, but when dealing with other people, you don’t let that affect your interactions with them. You don’t allow pressure and stress to cause you to snap at someone or treat them any differently to how you would treat them when things are going great. Whitaker suggests that “we never forget that one time” when someone in a leadership role has treated us inappropriately. So, it is likely that a staff member, or student, will remember that one sarcastic or cutting remark you directed at them (no matter how many times you have treated them with the utmost respect). If you want to lead, in whatever walk of life, don’t be the leader that puts other down. Instead, treat everyone with respect, every day, all the time.

I can think of many times I have been sarcastic in my early years of teaching. I can think of when I thought it was right to put a student in their place, in order to keep the respect of others. Looking back, this is laughable, and, luckily for me and my students, now ancient history. My paradigm has changed and my classroom is all the better for it. That is not to say that there are occasional lapses. The trick now is removing those occasional lapses completely.

What are some of the tricks you use to ensure that you treat everyone with respect, every day, all the time? 

2. It’s cool to care

The ‘Make It Cool to Care’ chapter was an important one for me. If I look in the mirror and reflect properly on the person looking back at me, I have probably found it embarrassing to care too much. This is an absurd state of being and is definitely not conducive to being an effective teacher. It’s as if I have been worried about being mocked for caring too much about an issue, a hobby, a student. In the chapter, Whitaker asserts that “best teachers make it cool to care in their classrooms.” Think about it. If students come into your classroom and know, for sure, that it is a place where caring about your work is cool, they become free from the burden of worry and ridicule for caring too much about the lesson. They are now free to create, to contribute, to innovate, to discuss. They are truly in a safe space.

How might we make an environment where it is cool to care? What does it mean to have a safe classroom? 

3. How do we know who the best teachers are?

Another chapter of the book suggests that every decision that you make should be based upon what your best teachers think. If you tell them about your ideas and thought processes, and they think it’s a great idea, then it’s probably a great idea. If you implement a decision, and they are on board, they are likely to set an example that other, less effective teachers might follow. If they think that it’s a bad idea, then, probably it’s a bad idea and needs some more thought. I tend to agree with this concept, but it got me thinking.

How to you go about deciding who your best teachers are? What are the criteria for this and how do you know these are the right criteria? How do you ensure that you don’t show favouritism? How do you ensure that other teachers are also involved in decision-making processes?

4. Don’t need to repair – Always do repair

I loved this chapter. Whitaker argues that some people never need to repair, but always do and that some people always need to repair, but never do. It is likely that your most effective teachers need to do little repair, but will always be trying to repair relationships. They invest in relationships and are their strongest critics. When they think they have let someone down, they will do their utmost to make amends. However, often the person they feel they’ve let down hasn’t even noticed. Still, that person is likely to value the effort made. Those that are less effective see little value in repairing relationships. They are likely to see the problems as lying with the other person, not themselves. These are those people that often make mistakes, but are never willing to admit them. I try to apply this in my classroom. I can think of an occasion recently. I introduced an activity very poorly. After ten minutes, it was clear that the students were not doing what I expected them to do during the activity. Now, in my early days of teaching, I might have got agitated and started getting frustrated at students for not following my poor instructions! The problem lied with them. What a ridiculous notion. However, now I deal with this in a very different fashion. I instead stopped that activity and apologised to the students for the poor instructions. I then calmly restated them in a better fashion, and low and behold, they got it. Although I have no evidence, I am positive that my students gained a greater respect for me during that lesson. Ego can be your biggest enemy. Humility can be your greatest friend.

How do you ensure that you notice when you have damaged a relationship, or let someone down? How do you approach the difficult conversation that follows? 

5. I don’t agree with everything Whitaker says

Whitaker talks a lot about dealing with ineffective teachers. The teachers that shout at students. The teachers who are sarcastic. The teachers who are overly negative. The teachers who are resistant to change. These teachers all have the ‘wrong’ idea when it comes to being an effective teacher and because of this, they exhibit harmful behaviours in their interactions with others. Whitaker argues that it is sufficient to just deal with the behaviours, rather than just the ideas. To some extent, I agree with this. It is not easy to change someone’s ideas and if you need results in the here and now, it is good to at least get on top of their behaviours. However, I do believe that it is important to focus on transforming that person’s internal dialogue also. Perhaps I have misinterpreted what Whitaker has to say here, and I would love to hear the thoughts of other.

What might be the advantages and disadvantages of changing behavious instead of ideas? Have I misunderstood Whitaker’s point here? 

My biggest question throughout this book has been what might this look like in practice? I’d love to hear some anecdotes about effective principals and teachers who have put the ideas into practice.

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