Tag Archives: leadership

Book Report — “What Great Teachers Do Differently”

I admit that I several years longer than I should have to read anything other than a few articles by Todd Whitaker. That was certainly a mistake on my part.
I first encountered him as an author when I bought my textbooks for the last semester I was enrolled in a graduate program in school leadership. The book is What Great Principals Do Differently. It was at that time that I determined I really didn’t want to be a principal and abandoned the program. The book was never assigned, and it still sits on my bookshelf now.

I acquired Whitaker’s book What Great Teachers Do Differently from a pile of discarded books in the teacher workroom. The teacher who discarded it was leaving our school after a really rough year. I don’t think he had read any of it.

This is not the most recent edition of the book, by the way. The subtitle of the most recent edition heralds “17 Things That Matter Most,” so this book report will shortchange you by definition. I’ll buy and read the new edition next August, and I think I’ll reread it every year in early August for the rest of my career.

I’m not a great teacher — but I feel that I have learned over 21 years to try to do these things. I don’t do most of them terribly well yet, but it has made a huge difference in my teaching just to be trying to do all of these things. Nothing in this book is terribly surprising to a veteran teacher, but everything in this book needs to be part of any teacher’s preparation for a new school year — or part of the preparation of any person entering the profession.

Whitaker writes extremely well. His examples are excellent, and it is clear that he must have been a very reflective and, over time, effective teacher and leader of teachers. While I no longer aspire to lead a building as a principal, I want to be a more effective teacher and an effective leader of teachers from my role as a classroom teacher and professional educator. This book has too much good material in it and Whitaker summarizes it too well for anyone with my goals to leave it out of my annual routine (but next year, I’ll spring for the new edition and learn about the three “things that matter most” that don’t appear here).

In this brief paraphrasing of the “14 Things That Matter(ed) Most” when this first edition was published, I have also highlighted those areas that are most relevant to Teachership — the aspects of teaching that require the teacher to be a leader and to model good leadership for students (spoiler: the vast majority of the stuff is highlighted).

Here we go:

  1. Teachers must remember that education is about people, not programs.
  2. Teachers must express and uphold clear and consistent standards at all times.
  3. Teachers must react to misbehavior with a focus on preventing its recurrence.
  4. Standards for teachers must be higher than standards for students.
  5. The teacher is the only variable that the teachers control in the classroom.
  6. Teachers must keep classes positive, modeling respect and praising correctly.
  7. Teachers must ignore little slights and keep a positive and focused attitude.
  8. Teachers must maintain good relationships with students at all times.
  9. Teachers must focus on important concerns, seeking to preventing escalation.
  10. Teachers must plan and revise each lesson to focus on its essential goals.
  11. Teachers must plan communication for the best people they are trying to lead.
  12. Teachers must treat each person as if that person is the best person they lead.
  13. Teachers must focus on student learning, keeping standardized testing in its place.
  14. Teachers must build a nuanced understanding of the role of emotion in determining behaviors and beliefs, and use it to strengthen their practices.

Read the book. It’s an awesome way to charge up your preparation for the year.

Prioritize and Execute

There are four Laws of Combat presented in the book Extreme Ownership by Leif Babin and Jocko Willink: Prioritize and Execute, Cover and Move, Simple, and Decentralize Command. As we delve deeper into leadership and how we can transform our teaching into teachership, we’ll refer to these.

The Laws of Combat are clear. There’s little chance that a teacher will not recognize their clarity and correctness. Let’s discuss the first one and then commit to applying it in our practice.


In Extreme Ownership, Babin relates a story from a mission in Iraq in which he and another American warrior left their unit mid-mission to chase down a “squirter” — an occupant of a building who responded to the pressure of American and Iraqi fighting men entering that building aggressively by fleeing after the forced entry but before the Americans and Iraqis could secure all exits. After catching the fugitive, Babin and his companion surprised several armed Iraqi enemies by their presence. Babin recounts that he needed to search the captive, determine his own position, determine his unit’s position, rejoin his unit and resume command and control on the mission, and deal with the enemies who had just turned a corner and were in the process of realizing that two Americans were lurking in the shadows.

Later in the book, Willink discusses a company that was struggling to return to profitability and had planned a host of actions to accomplish that. The term “decisively engaged” entered my vocabulary at that time, but as I heard and later read the definition, I recognized it from experience. To be “decisively engaged” means that the immediate actions in which a unit engages must succeed or face disastrous failure.

I thought of Custer at Little Big Horn as well as several occasions early in my teaching career: none of those turned out well. We do not want to put ourselves in situations where we have to overcome all of multiple challenges simultaneously just to survive: we need to prioritize and overcome single challenges, starting with the most crucial.

Babin made the armed combatants confronting him his first priority. He lived to participate in the writing of an excellent book on leadership. The unprofitable company directed every department’s discretionary effort to supporting the sales force. One would hope that the authors are not hiding a failure behind what appears to be a strong decision.

But what about teachers?

We do face multiple simultaneous challenges regularly. Some of the prioritizing that must be done can be done in advance. Students’ safety is always first, followed closely by the safety of all adults in the building. Building and maintaining strong relationships within the school community, first with students and then with colleagues, is next. Once these things are in order, it’s time to start looking at the implicit and explicit curricula students encounter.

At any given time, a teacher may also have to address a hodgepodge of competing priorities. For example, a student may have difficulty engaging in class activities after being a solid performer earlier in the year, students may await feedback on tests taken Thursday (and it’s Sunday night), a class may have a field trip planned for Wednesday and several bureaucratic tasks might remain to be done, and lesson plans for the week are not yet complete. This is to say nothing of our duties to ourselves and our families.

We must prioritize and execute just like any soldier in combat or business facing stiff competition. We must not be decisively engaged in multiple tasks. The stakes are too high for us to put ourselves in that position.

There is another reason we must prioritize and execute: our students are watching us. They know we have tough jobs. They are trying to manage parts of their own lives and failing (and learning) all the time. They know that their struggles with life and learning are important to us and that we have a hundred or more students to lead. Our approach to our own sets of simultaneous problems will be a crucial part of their learning, and this is one of those “soft skills” we’ve been discussing in recent years. It’s more important than content: if students can prioritize and execute, then they can improve as learners, and that is a win for everyone.

In a future post, I will explore how we can teach Prioritize and Execute to our students and get them to add Prioritize and Execute to their own problem-solving arsenals. That teaching, however, will fail unless our students see us trying and succeeding in applying it to our own situations. Successful actions inspire imitation and get students to learn independently. That is the best way to learn, if we can foster it.

When you face multiple simultaneous challenges and feel you are approaching “decisive engagement,” take a breath and asses the situation, select the most important and urgent task that you face, and do it. Review the remaining tasks, identify the most important and urgent task that remains and do that. Repeat. You will overcome obstacles and drive your work to success with this approach.

Do not deceive yourself into “multi-tasking.” What we call “multi-tasking” is “fast switching” between two tasks and is a sure pathway to decisive engagement. Dividing your attention among multiple tasks is a recipe for disaster. Focus and get after it.

Prioritize and execute.

First Check: Believe in the Mission

Leaders have to believe in the team’s mission and inspire teammates to accomplish that mission. Teachers are leaders. We have to inspire our students to accomplish the missions of our classes. We have to help them believe.


Chapter 3 of Extreme Ownership discusses a mission that commanding officer Jocko Willink had to sell to his task force of SEALs, one that was initially very unpopular with everyone. Higher-ranking officers had issued the order for that mission to Willink, and he had to find a way to believe in it and inspire his SEALs to accept the risks that the mission asked them to take.

My leaders want me to establish in my students strong conceptual and practical foundations for using and learning mathematics. That is very broad, which is good. The breadth of that mandate gives me freedom to devise a mission that fits my vision of what my students should become and which drives my practice in the direction I desire.

That might sound self-centered, but it fits my answer to the question “Why teach?” I teach to be the best teacher that I can be. This means that I need to assure not only my students’ growth and learning, but my own. I want to serve my students, but the overused phrase “for the children” does not explain why I am a teacher. I like teaching and supporting young people as they grow and improve. I teach so that I can help kids become learners. If I didn’t like teaching on my own account, I would begin searching for a new line of work.

I want my students to move as far as they can along Bloom’s taxonomy. They need to acquire an arsenal of facts, formulas, and concepts and remember all of them for at least several years, depending on their vocational choices. My students need to understand the facts, formulas, and concepts in that arsenal, and they must learn when and how to apply them.

Working at the three higher levels of the taxonomy will give their knowledge more permanence and depth. I want them to analyze relationships among the concepts they learn and link those concepts to other subjects. I want them to compare the concepts they learn to other things that they have learned or are learning. I want them to create illustrations, demonstrations, and tools using this knowledge.

Before the year starts, I have to prepare to get my leaders, my colleagues, and my students (and possibly their parents) to believe in the mission. I must distill the broad mandate I have from my leaders into a specific mission. I must propose that mission to my leaders and colleagues and secure their support. Then I will need to plan the process by which I will help my students believe in the mission and accept the challenge.

I have some mission development work to do. Check this blog for updates on my progress.

Welcome to Teachership

cropped-teachership-logo2.jpgThe idea of Teachership emerged from my reflections throughout the 2017-18 school year. I decided that the most important thing my students can learn from me is how to lead meaningful lives.

I use the world “lead” in this sentence purposefully, though it is a common phrase. I see “leading” a life to be a better act than “living” a life. “Leading” implies conscious control, deciding and acting intentionally. “Living” implies passivity, letting things happen and reacting to them. I embrace conscious control and I reject passivity.

My thesis is that classroom teaching using research-based strategies is most effective when the teacher leads the class well, but many teachers do not know enough about leadership. We must become good leaders to be the teachers our students need us to be.

I am going to spend the rest of my career studying and learning about leadership, a subject that is vital to my life and my profession, and probably to yours as well. I want to share my experience with you and learn with you.

Welcome to Teachership, my blog about teaching and leadership.