Whitaker's Wisdom: Why Great?

After my offhand reference to Todd Whitaker in last week’s entry, I realized I probably had some explaining to do:

Whitaker wrote a book called “What Great Teachers Do Differently,” which I read in my very first grad school course.  It was a methods course, and the teacher (still my favorite) had us read all kinds of perspectives in order to determine our own.

The book is divided into fourteen principles that Whitaker believes separate okay teachers from brilliant ones. They’re all pretty common-sense ideas, but the way in which he discusses them is at once humbling and inspiring.  He reminds us of our many flaws while encouraging us to get rid of them and move on to become better teachers and humans.

His work is on my mind currently because I heard him speak at a teachers’ convention a few weeks ago: it was the first school-related event of the year, so I think I was paying better attention than I generally do at required meetings.  The presentation he gave there included many of the same principles in his book: basic ideas, but presented in a snappy and engaging manner.

I have a bad track record of starting weekly features (to be exact, it’s 0%) but I’d like to make a more short-term committment to discussing these principles in an effort to put them into practice.  So, here is the first.

Whitaker begins the book with the seemingly-obvious principle that observing great teachers is more useful than observing okay or bad teachers.  Although we often hear that we can learn what not to do from a poor teacher, we can learn a lot more from a good one, and more still from an excellent one.

How can we identify an excellent teacher? Whitaker observes wryly that while all teachers think they are great teachers, most of them are wrong.  The key litmus test is that truly great educators are able to accurately self-reflect; they know when they’ve taught a wonderful lesson and when they’ve taught a mediocre one.  Poor teachers always think they’ve done a great job, and when things aren’t going well, they’re quick to blame others or circumstances.

Whitaker also stresses the importance of identifying the variables in a great teacher’s repertoire.  In other words, what is s/he doing that other teachers are not?  For instance, all teachers take attendance — great and terrible ones.  Many teachers decorate their classrooms, including poor ones.  But a great teacher will never, for instance, argue with a student.  (Or use sarcasm, says Whitaker, though I respectfully disagree.)  Identifying these differences will help us to improve our craft through better interactions with students.