Reviewed by Linda Biondi
I’ve always wondered what if anything set me apart from other teachers. I knew I loved teaching and that teaching would always be a part of me. But was I the best teacher for all of my students?
Before I retired, I taught elementary school for forty-one years. Now I am a field supervisor for student teachers at a university near my home. What a perfect time to ponder what it is that makes teachers rise to the top.
Todd Whitaker’s book, What Great Teachers Do Differently: Nineteen Things that Matter Most, is not going to give you the magic formula on how to be the best teacher in the universe. He doesn’t have a crystal ball that will show you the answer, but he does have experience, research, data, anecdotes, and feedback from teachers and administrators that will help reveal what “great teachers do differently.”
When I started to read the book, I thought about my favorite teacher. I realized it wasn’t the teacher who gave out stickers and stars or the teacher who was the “easiest grader” that made the strongest impact on my life and on my teaching philosophy.
It was the teacher who stood on the desk to read Shakespeare, who introduced me to The Crucible, who had us write and write and write. It was the teacher who greeted us at the door and asked how we were doing and remembered little things about you that made you feel special.
She didn’t mince her words when she critiqued your writing, but you knew there was a lot of love and caring in every word she wrote. You knew she took time to get to know you and to help you.
That teacher was Mrs. O, a high school Language Arts teacher. I didn’t have the perspective to realize it then, but she had many of the qualities that make a “great teacher” such as:
• Have high expectations for students, but have even higher expectations for yourself
• Create a positive atmosphere in your classroom
• Understand that behaviors and beliefs are tied to emotion, and understand the power of emotion to jump-start change
• Have empathy for students and clarity about how others see them (p. 127 and 128)
A teacher and principal before becoming a professor, Todd Whitaker has participated in many studies that examine effective educators and schools. He’s visited with outstanding teachers and principals (and some not so outstanding educators as well). From his extensive research, conversations with educators, and data, he has been able to cite three areas of performance that really stand out. Great teachers:
1. Continually focus on students first;
2. Can see things from their students’ points of view;
3. When they say something, they mean it.
What makes the book a winner
There are quite a few things that I like about this book. It is written “from the heart.” It doesn’t prescribe a particular program that you can purchase for your school or district that will be “out of favor” in a few years. It’s about what great teachers have done since the beginning of time!
This easy-to-read third edition takes a look at topics including classroom management, building positive relationships with parents, decision making, and standardized tests. He also addresses areas such as how effective teachers view their students and their profession.
Whitaker creates an opportunity for teachers to reflect on their teaching practice and examine their own effectiveness. When you read the book, you probably will identify with many of his insights about what makes a “great/effective teacher.”
Effective teachers are always examining their teaching and skills, and trying to refine their skills to best meet the needs of their students. I am sure you will have some “I do that!” moments, and possibly some “Why didn’t I think about that?” moments.
What makes the book “real” to me are the stories that he shares about teachers he has met, blunders he “owns” from his classroom years, and tidbits that challenge you to reflect on your own teaching.
A book to share
If you work with novice teachers, you might want to share this book with them. If you are a department head or administrator, you might want to share the book with your staff and ask them what they do in their teaching practice that makes them a great teacher. This book is a good refresher to remind us of the importance of educators and the impact we make.
In recent years, the teaching profession has come under attack. Teacher burnout is at a new high. The number of students with emotional challenges and behavior problems has increased significantly. For this and many other reasons, teaching continues to be one of the most important professions in society. What Great Teachers Do Differently will challenge your thinking; give you the impetus to become an even better teacher; might reaffirm your teaching philosophy and methodology; inspire you. Most of all, it will remind you that “Every teacher makes an impact. Great teachers make a difference.” (p.126) Be that teacher!
After teaching fourth and fifth graders for 41 years, Linda Biondi is supervising preservice and student teachers at The College of New Jersey and Rider University. Last summer she co-facilitated a week-long writing institute in conjunction with the National Writing Project at Rider University. She volunteers for two service organizations: Homefront and Dress for Success of Central New Jersey – both have a mission to end poverty and homelessness. The mission of Dress for Success is to empower women to achieve through economic independence.