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Motivating Teachers:
A Wire Side Chat with
Todd Whitaker


Great principals understand that people, not programs, make the biggest difference. "Outstanding principals know that if they have great teachers, they have a great school," Todd Whitaker, author of Motivating and Inspiring Teachers and What Great Principals Do Differently, told Education World. So what can you do to motivate great teaching? Whitaker shares his ideas in this week's Wire Side Chat. Included: Techniques -- including weekly memos, positive referrals, and parent contact -- that principals can use to keep teachers motivated.

In this weeks Wire Side Chat, Todd Whitaker, author of Motivating and Inspiring Teachers and What Great Principals Do Differently (see sidebar), responds to questions from Education World on such wide-ranging topics as the role principals play in inspiring teachers to do their best, involving parents in ways that contribute to teacher morale and benefit the entire school, and transforming the Friday Focus (weekly memo) into a motivational tool.

Education World: You write that one of the principal's most important roles is to remind teachers every day of the vital role they play in the lives of their students and of the high expectations their communities hold for them

Todd Whitaker

Dr. Todd Whitaker, a professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University, has written several books, including What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things That Matter Most.

Todd Whitaker: Our core belief is that education is the single most important profession there is. We feel it is essential that all educators approach their work every day with a positive and enthusiastic frame of mind. There is no room for cynics in education. We truly do have to believe in what we do in order to be effective.

I like to illustrate the importance of our profession when I speak to educational groups. Let me share how I do that with you! Picture yourself saying the following in an auditorium full of teachers:

I truly believe that education is the most important profession there is. I also believe that it is the profession with the highest expectations. I believe that the only acceptable standard for education is the standard of greatness. Now, this greatness standard may sound ridiculously high, but we have a room full of educational experts here, so let's take a quiz.

How many of you have children? How many of you want your children to go to okay schools with fairly good teachers?... I see a couple of hands raised. I am assuming that those hands went up because your children go to worse schools than that and have teachers less effective than "fairly good."

Okay, how many of you want your children to go to great schools with outstanding teachers? [Every hand is raised.] Well, the challenge we all face is that the family of every single young person who walks through our classroom doors each day has those same high expectations. The reason their expectations are so high is because what we do is so important. They have turned over their most prized possessions to us and they want the best for them.

The challenge for us as educators is to remember that we have chosen the most important profession; it is essential that we remind ourselves of this every day. The additional challenge for educational leaders is to help those we work with feel this level of importance each day. In education, we cannot afford to have a bad day -- because the students we work with deserve never to have a bad day because of us.

EW: You've studied the differences in the leadership at effective and ineffective schools. What key difference have you found among the principals in those two types of schools?

There are several main differences; ironically, my most recent book is titled What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things That Matter Most. The key is not in understanding what great principals do -- great principals supervise the cafeteria, but so do many others -- but rather in understanding what they do that others do not do.

And there is not just one key; there are several. One example relates to morale. Great principals understand that it is people who make the biggest difference, not programs. Outstanding principals know that if they have great teachers, they have a great school; without great teachers, they do not have a great school. More importantly, all their audiences take the same view.

If my third-grade daughter has a great teacher, I think highly of her school. If her teacher is not great, I see her school as less than stellar -- no matter how many awards my daughter wins, no matter how many students earn high test scores, no matter how many plaques adorn the main office.

Students share this perspective as well. If a high-school sophomore has four out of four great teachers each day, then believe me, that sophomore will think the school is great. As the quality of teachers drops, so does a student's opinion of the school.

All the way from kindergarten through college, the quality of the teachers determines our perception of the quality of the school.

School improvement is actually a very simple concept. Like many simple concepts, however, it is not easy to accomplish. There are really two ways to improve a school significantly:

1. Get better teachers.
2. Improve the teachers you have.

We can spend a great deal of time and energy looking for programs that will solve our problems. Too often, however, those programs do not bring the improvement or growth we seek. We must focus instead on what really matters -- which is never about programs; it is always about people. That doesn't mean that no program can encourage or support the improvement of people within our schools. No program, however, inherently leads to improvement. Believe me, if there were such a program, it would already be in place in all of our schools.

Each of us can think of many innovations that have been touted as the answer in education. Too often, we expect them to solve all our woes. When they do not, we see the programs themselves as the problem. We must keep in mind, however, that programs are never the problem and they are never the solution. If we cling to the belief that programs are the problem or the solution, we will continually lose sight of what really makes a difference.

Back-to-basics, whole language, direct instruction, assertive discipline, open classrooms, the Baldridge model, state standards, mission statements, goal setting, site-based management Nothing is inherently right or wrong with any of those ideas. We may have a fondness for one that has met with success -- or deep-seated resentment because another has been forced down people's throats -- but, if we take a closer look we might see what effective principals never forget: People, not programs, determine the quality of a school.

EW: You recommend creating a "positive referral" program for students. Could you explain briefly what that is? What benefits might that program hold for teacher morale and motivation?

Whitaker: Most schools have discipline referrals, in which teachers write up kids for misbehavior and send them to the office with the referral form. Assistant principals deal with the majority of those situations. However, I felt it was important to have a positive referral program. Our positive referral form was similar to the discipline referral in format, except we put it on bright red paper. Teachers would write up students for doing positive things. It could be that Tim got a B+ on a math quiz, or that Juan helped a student who was on crutches move around the school for a week, or that Megan's smiling face brightens up each day -- as long as it was something authentic, it was appropriate to write up a positive referral and put it in my mailbox.

When I pulled the positive referral out of my mailbox, I would send for the student. Initially, students were nervous, frightened, or defensive when they were summoned to the office. They would walk in and immediately tell the secretary, "It wasn't me!" When I called a student into my office, I would congratulate that student and tell him or her how proud I was of the accomplishment. I would share the name of the teacher who made the referral and explain the teacher's reason for making it. I would thank the student for his or her contribution to making our school a better place.

That alone might have been enough. I took it one step farther, however, by picking up the phone and calling the parent. If the student had two parents, I would call the one who worked. If both parents worked, I would call the one who worked in the busiest office or on the most crowded factory assembly line.

Think for a moment what it was like when I called Kenny Johnson's mother at work to report a positive referral.

"Hi, Mrs. Johnson, this is Bill Smith, assistant principal at Meadow Grove Middle School."

As you can imagine, this conversation was usually interrupted at this point by the parent with a loud moan, "Oh, no!"

I would then continue with the conversation: "Mrs. Johnson, I hate to bother you at work, but I just thought you might want to know that Kenny's teacher, Mrs. Smith, is running around here at school bragging about your son. She sent me a positive referral saying that Kenny did an excellent job leading his group in a science experiment yesterday. I called Kenny down to the office to congratulate him and I wanted to call and share the good news with you."

The conversation then would typically continue in a very positive manner, and I would let the parent know that the student was in the office with me and that they were welcome to talk with him or her.

A lot of principals have positive referrals and other programs in their schools. This is wonderful. However, the added twist of calling the parents at work led to several significant and positive contributions for me.

Interestingly, the most frequent comment I received from parents was, "A school has never called with anything good before." That was consistently the theme among the hundreds and hundreds of parents I called. It didn't matter if I was contacting the parent of a student who was frequently in trouble or the future class valedictorian. Parents had never experienced unsolicited, positive contact from anyone at school.

I thought this was very sad, and it helped me realize a couple of things. I understood why people believe the criticism of schools and teachers they read in the newspapers, and why they buy into the nonsense they hear on radio call-in shows criticizing educators and schools in America. It's because if the public doesn't hear good news from us, it may never hear good news about schools and teachers It is critically important that we consistently initiate positive contact with parents.

At this point you may be asking yourself a couple of things: Why did you call parents specifically at work? and This is all fine and dandy, but what does this have to do with building staff morale? I will take a stab at answering both of those questions.

I called the parents at work for a very selfish reason that relates to the publicity issue. When I called Mrs. Johnson in her crowded office and her initial reaction was a loud "Oh, no!," can you guess what was the first thing she did when she hung up the phone? She told everybody in the office what I had said! I don't know about you, but I don't mind having people say good things in public about me, my teachers, and my school.

I also know that my phone call resulted in an office full of other parents who were thinking to themselves that their child's school never called them with good news. Anything that builds your reputation or the reputations of your faculty or your school does nothing but help staff morale.

Just imagine how that referral impacted the relationship between the teacher who wrote it and the student who received it. So many times, the student would go into the classroom the next day and thank the teacher, telling her excitedly how happy the parent was to hear the news and how the parent had taken the student out for pizza. What a positive impact this had on teacher-student relations! As you can imagine, the relationship between the teacher and the parents was also greatly enhanced.

EW: Each week you publish a staff memo. You call it the Friday Focus? Why Friday? Why not some other day?

Whitaker: One of my first questions about the memo was when to do it. Is there any advantage to a certain day of the week? Another early question was about who should receive the memo.

The timing of the Friday Focus was related to morale. When I examined which day seemed to have the highest percentage of discipline referrals, the overwhelming winner was Friday -- which makes sense. The teachers are tired, the students are wound up, and everyone is just a little bit impatient. The result was that more students were sent to the office for discipline.

Well, I am a big believer in working smarter, not harder. So, I thought if one of the goals of the memo was to help the morale of the staff -- and thus help my morale with fewer disciplinary referrals -- then I might as well have it available on Friday morning. Thus, each Thursday before I left work, I would run off copies of the Friday Focus and put one in each staff member's mailbox. The first thing people would see when they arrived on Friday morning, therefore, was the Friday Focus. The memo would help set the tone for the school on the day when everyone was the most tired.

EW: You carry a notepad with you at all times

Whitaker: Principals, keep a note pad with you at all times! When you see something inspirational in a classroom, write a note of praise for the teacher while you are in the room, and place it on the teacher's desk as you leave or put it in his or her mailbox when you return to the office. Some principals jot notes of praise on post-it notes and place them on the teacher's desk or plan book before they exit the classroom.

In the quiet hours before the school's open house, one principal visited every classroom, leaving a short post-it note of thanks and inspiration on each teacher's desk. The note greeted each teacher that evening and provided motivation to "shine" for the night's events. Many teachers keep the notes of encouragement forever and read them periodically for a spirit boost. Most importantly, you are acknowledging what the teachers do well; this inspires them to continue their quest for effective teaching strategies.

EW: Why has so little been written for school leaders on the topic of motivating teachers?

Whitaker: Interestingly, because we know that high staff morale is so critical, and because that need applies to every school, we assumed many books on building staff morale were available to educators. Surprisingly, they are almost none. When I ask educators why they believe this to be the case, the most common answer is, "Having high staff morale is critical, but few people know how to create it."

With that challenge in mind, we [Whitaker and co-authors Beth Whitaker and Dale Lumpa] decided to develop a book for educational leaders and for all types of educators. We hope the book reminds us of the importance of positive staff morale, provides guidance for increasing the morale of those around us, and -- maybe most importantly -- increases our own morale.

Todd Whitaker

Dr. Todd Whitaker is a professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. He received his doctorate from the University of Missouri - Columbia. Dr. Whitaker taught math and business in Missouri and then served as a principal for eight years. In addition, he served as middle school coordinator in Jefferson City, Missouri, where he supervised all aspects of building and staffing two new middle schools.


Dr. Whitaker has written more than 25 articles and numerous books, including Dealing With Difficult Teachers; Motivating & Inspiring Teachers; Dealing With Difficult Parents; Feeling Great! The Educator's Guide For Eating Better, Exercising Smarter, and Feeling Your Best; and Teaching Matters. His newest book, What Great Principals Do Differently, was just released.

Dr. Whitaker, a highly sought after speaker who does professional development and motivational speaking with educators, businesses, and organizations, has made more than 500 presentations at the state, national, and international levels. Dr. Whitaker and his wife Beth -- a former teacher and principal who is now an associate professor in the elementary education department at Indiana State University -- are the parents of three children, Katherine, Madeline, and Harrison.