How Todd Whitaker’s advice to principals inspired me

Ever feel like the universe is just messing with you? Like you don’t really have control over what you know you should have control over?

The last month of 2022 felt like that for me. I constantly felt way too busy and like I was trying to balance a bit too much when, wham, another thing would get put on the scales and force me to balance all over again.

Here’s what has been happening since reading and blogging about Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead last fall: The school year started out great. My team really enjoyed learning about cheap seat behavior and how to figure out who was in their square squad. The excitement about the book led me to volunteer to run a book club with interested teachers. I now have a group of 12 reading the book with me and our discussions are taking the learning to a whole new level. It’s so fantastic!

Roll the months by to December. (Yikes, it definitely felt that fast in real life, too!) I suddenly remembered I’d committed to reading What Great Principals Do Differently by Todd Whitaker for Teach. Learn. Grow. There was my balance, all out of whack again. But you know what? Like all things worth prioritizing, making time for this was invaluable. I learned so much that’s going to shape my work in 2023.

A trip down memory lane

I first got interested in Todd’s work when I attended a session he did at an ASCD conference called “Shifting the monkey,” based on his book by the same name. I had no idea what the session was going to be about; I just liked the title. And wow! I loved the content and realized I did, indeed, have much more work to do as an administrator. (You can check out one of his presentations on YouTube. Thank you, NAESP, for posting and sharing this.)

My biggest takeaway from that session was that people don’t really leave jobs. They leave bosses. I realized how absolutely true this is and how I never want to be the reason someone leaves our school!

After reading and shifting my practices (and monkeys) accordingly, I started exploring Todd’s other titles. What Great Principals Do Differently made me think, “I want to be great! I better check this out.”

How to read the book

You should know before you read What Great Principals Do Differently that this is a book you need to read more than once—and maybe only specific sections at a time. There’s a lot in this relatively short book. It’s so jam-packed with things to think about and ideas about things to stop or start doing that you need to give your brain processing time to see how all the wisdom can be used in your situation.

To begin, I recommend reading chapter 20, “Clarify your core.” It’s a fantastic summary of the book in just under three pages. Todd explains that the book is “not a cookie-cutter approach to leadership” and encourages us to “think of it as a blueprint. The principals are the architects. The teachers establish the foundation. The students move into the building and fill it with life and meaning.”

With all of that in mind, review the “18 Things That Matter Most” on page 143 (depending on your edition. Some editions have different pagination—and more than 18 things on the list!). Which one of these intrigues you most? Is it “Great principals know when to focus on behaviors before beliefs”? Or maybe it’s “Great principals make it cool to care.” Whichever of the 18 things matters most to you, go to that section of the book and read all about it. Take time to digest the content and then make a plan to put it into action.

Play to your strengths

I’m a people person. I like and get energized by the people around me. I chose to read “It’s people, not programs” first. Here are two quotations that jumped out at me from this section:

  • “The quality of the teachers determines the perceptions of the quality of the school.” This is as true about schools as it is about other organizations. So many of us judge an entire company (perhaps fairly, perhaps not) on a single experience. If we have a good experience, we typically recommend the place to others. If we don’t, we complain and paint the entire company as bad. Imagine what it’s like for your students and their families. It’s imperative that we support high-quality teachers in doing their work well.
  • “There are really two ways to improve a school significantly: Get better teachers or improve the teachers you already have.” How much time do you spend improving the teachers you have? There can be great value in creating time for teachers to observe other teachers. This might require you covering classes and teaching a bit to free up a teacher to observe a colleague, but it’s a win-win, really: you get to reconnect with teaching for a bit and your best teachers get to help a fellow educator build skills to improve the quality of the education your students are getting.

This section also got me thinking about how I put people before programs in my school. How do I show them that I care about them and that they are important—that they matter? The short answer is that I don’t always do this as well as I could. I’m busy, stuck in a lot of the “stuff” that has to get done for a school to keep running smoothly. However, we must all make time as leaders to show that it’s people, not programs.

In my day-to-day decisions, I now try harder than ever to include my staff in all the decisions that I don’t need to make myself. This slows the process down a bit, sure, but we always get to better decisions when all our brains help! And the community-building is gold.

I also try to find small gestures that help my team remember how important they are. This month, I took the time to handwrite personalized notes to everyone and place them in their mailboxes for a lunch-time surprise. What little thing can you do to show how much you appreciate your staff?

Keep exploring

I was so invigorated by Todd’s advice that I didn’t focus on just one chapter. The next section that really piqued my interest was on respect. “Great principals create a positive atmosphere in their schools,” Todd says. “They treat every person with respect. In particular, they understand the power of praise.” Here are my key takeaways from this section:

  • “We never forget that one time.” Unfortunately, most of us have a time when someone in our professional life treated us inappropriately. Go ahead, get that memory in your mind. Whether it was one day or five years ago, you likely remember the details and exactly how you felt at the time. As leaders, we cannot afford that “one time” to happen. We must treat all our staff with respect, all the time, whether we like them or not. If you find yourself not able to be respectful, walk away. Make an excuse and say, “I need to think about this.” But don’t let your unkind words come out! Let yourself take the time and space you need to find a more positive way to collaborate with this person.
  • “Take a positive approach each day.” Oh, my goodness. This is not easy! But I have a secret mission for myself each day I walk through the doors of my school. I never want anyone to ask, “What mood is the boss in today?” so my mission is to ensure I provide a positive approach to each and every obstacle thrown at me. Do some situations get me down? Sure! Do many problems seem unsurmountable? Absolutely! However, I don’t let those feeling ooze out onto others and pull our positive atmosphere down. Instead, I go out into my building and visit classrooms, see students in action, and chit chat with teachers. I praise the good work I see in an authentic way and also boost up my energy meter so I can go back to feeling positive and spreading positivity. I aim to make my thinking observable or recount situations to my staff so they can see my problem-solving and which paths I took to make sure I didn’t end up on the dark side. You might think this could make you way too vulnerable, but it won’t. My teachers have been so appreciative of seeing situations from multiple viewpoints that when something similar comes up again, I’ve often heard them say things like, “There’s more to this than just what I thought, so I wanted to come see you before making any judgments.” That’s a big win in the collaboration column for me and our school.

Lots of great ideas for how to do things differently

There are so many more “things that matter most” in Todd’s book. Whether you listen to the audiobook version or get yourself a paper copy or both, trust me: you are going to want to also take the time to make notes. (My strategy? I listen to books like this on my commute, making mental notes so I can later highlight key areas in my hardcopy and capture my thinking about how I’ll implement what I’ve just learned. Yes, there have been times that I’ve pulled off the road to write a note to myself so I don’t forget a great idea or reflection.)

Happy reading! I wish you a year of growth and reconnecting to your work as you explore how Todd’s advice can help you be just a little better each day.

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