Today was another break from classes: students were off, but the rest of us had teachers’ institute today (which we shared with teachers from another local district as well). Despite having to get up early today after having the day off yesterday, it was well worth it for the half-day. We had Indiana State University (at Terre Haute) professor Todd Whitaker giving us a presentation entitled “What Great Teachers Do Differently,” and it was humorous, insightful, and engaging (and many other attributes would be appropriate). Whitaker is the author of several books, one of which shares the title of the presentation with the subtitle “Fourteen Things That Matter Most”; appropriately, we were given a list of these fourteen things, but Whitaker could only cover some of them in the four hours or so we would be there.

Here are the highlights (what, you thought you could get it above the fold?):

It’s People, Not Programs

In other words, the problem is poor teachers, not poor programs. Whitaker gave us this challenge: Which word is the problem in “poor lecturer’s classroom” (and he even excluded “classroom” for us)? The answer from a large portion of us in the audience – and I admit that I was one of them – was “lecturer,” which Whitaker pointed out was problematic since there are good lecturers, and we don’t have problems with those classroom. (Part of me thinks this was a trick question, but the point is well taken nevertheless.) The troublesome word, of course, is “poor” – it’s the bad teachers that present the problem.

Throughout the presentation, Whitaker referred to a phrase I’m not very well acquainted with: “shifting the monkey.”* This – from what I can make of it – is sort of a combination of shifting the blame and having a “monkey on one’s back” – that is, some burden or struggle. (I think this is generally used in the context of addiction, but it was still a relatively effective analogy.) What great teachers should do, according to Whitaker, is to “shift the monkey” to those individuals – students, teachers, administrators, etc. – who actually deserve them. Punishing all of the students for things that one or a few individuals do is putting the blame or guilt on those who did not transgress and actually takes it off those few individuals because they are now in the same boat as everyone else. It’s a pretty compelling argument against so many things that exist not only in education but in the real world – for instance, who gets the guilt for those “We will prosecute shoplifters” signs? People who don’t shoplift, since those who would (or do) shoplift do so generally with the understanding that it’s wrong; if they know, a sign probably won’t convict them.

At this point, Whitaker said one of the things that’s stuck with me: classroom management is self-management. The reason for this principle is such – the  teacher should be in control of what happens in the classroom, and most of the time, problems occur because teachers cannot get themselves under control. What do we do with problem students? Whitaker proposes that poor teachers engage many of these students when they could instead ignore them and not let problems grow and misbehaviors be reinforced. I think this is particularly interesting because – like most everything Whitaker said – it is incredibly teacher-centered. This strikes me as hopeful, as though Whitaker trusts teachers to make education better from the bottom up rather than the top down. (Hear that, Arne Duncan?)

10 Days Out Of 10

This point can be encapsulated in one question that is worth asking every day: Is today the day that matters? Whitaker proposed that we treat every student with respect and dignity – precisely what we demand of them – every single day. I don’t think this is even remotely controversial, but it’s surprising sometimes to see that it just doesn’t happen.

The Importance of Praise

I’ve heard lots of things about praise, and I’m a big believer in it, so it was nice to see that Whitaker puts a lot of emphasis on this as well. He presented the (perhaps slightly ungrammatical) motto “Raise the Praise, Minimize the Criticize,” which does seem to get at the idea of a positive approach. One amusing thing he said in relation to this was a response he gave to teachers who use the phrase “If I’ve told you a dozen times…” – “I call that a slow learner.” He also spoke out against the type of praise that – as he put it – isn’t “clean”: that is, it is accompanied by some other demand or followed immediately with a “but…” clause. It isn’t enough simply to establish credibility by listing two positives followed with the negative you’re really getting at; we have to praise enough consistently before the criticism to have that credibility.

There was a lot more that Whitaker said, but that’s all I can think of at the moment. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed his lecture greatly, and I was fond enough of his educational philosophy that I think his books would be worth looking into. (And I hope that everyone’s professional development workshops are this thought-provoking!)


*This unfamiliarity could either be because it is his own creation or because he’s from Missouri and the phrase is colloquial. A Google search, however, seems to bear out the former, since most of the options are either not the expression (e.g. “shift the monkey’s X”) or are citations of Whitaker himself.

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