20 Things That Great Principals Do Differently

What Great Principals Do Differently: Twenty Things That Matter Most 
By Todd Whitaker
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2020 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Becky Johnson

Leadership is an active, living process. It is rooted in character, forged by experience, and communicated by example. – John Baldoni

Reading Todd Whitaker’s book in the context of the COVID-19 crisis brought into stark relief the critical habits and skills essential to being a great school leader, now more than ever.

With times as tough as they are for educators, it is ever more necessary for leaders to articulate core beliefs and act as not only a supportive base for the teachers they serve, but also as a guidepost for sound and respected decision making.

As a teacher for 20 years, I’ve experienced my fair share of tough days or weeks, but none can compare to the stress, fatigue, worry, and uncertainty that seems to compound more with each passing month – a cruel, interest-bearing crisis.

Meeting the pandemic challenge to leadership

Having leaders who are empathetic regarding teacher’s roles, focused on student well-being and success, and encouraging of a resilient and positive school culture is more vital than ever before.

Even the most seasoned school principal will find Whitaker’s practical and intuitive approach to leadership useful in the best of times, but also it will help steer them as they lead through the worst.

In 22 focused chapters, Whitaker details simple and powerful steps effective principals take to ensure their schools will thrive and meet the needs of students, teachers, and the community. Throughout, he places full focus on the importance of hiring and fostering talented teachers, at all experience levels.

“Superstar” teacher input is essential

And, when grappling with decision-making, he recommends first referring to the perspectives of the finest teachers, whom he calls the “superstars,” when addressing issues or resolving concerns. Without taking this approach, he posits that a slow demoralization and acceptance of mediocrity among the staff will result, and the best teachers will retreat behind closed classroom doors, or worse, will leave altogether.

If administrators enter decision-making regarding their schools with the assumption that teachers won’t work hard or meet high expectations, the locker room is lost, and it will be nearly impossible to win back the starting line-up.

Similar to the thought process laid out in Collins’s Good to Great, where he expresses the “First Who, Then What” platform, Whitaker argues that catering to top performing staff is the most efficient and effective way to bring less motivated or talented staff toward improvement while also ensuring the best teachers are valued and reinforced. Assuming that all are acting with good intentions is the starting point for creating a constructive school climate, which will lead toward a permanently positive school culture.

Anecdotes reveal effective relationships

By using anecdotes from both teacher and administrator perspectives, Whitaker lays out a straightforward and practical summary for how to get the most out of school relationships with the end goal of student and school success. He highlights the dual influence of both attitude and actions, and he stresses that consistency and clarity of purpose are essential elements of quality leadership.

With sections that center on relational and emotional aspects of leadership, fostering trusting relationships, developing a core value system, embracing change, enacting proactive rather than reactive management, self-awareness, and leadership accountability, Whitaker covers all the bases.

Without distilling the incredible importance and challenge of leading a school division or building, he also sets out a clear and understandable path to success and demystifies some of the unique aspects of school leadership. Any new or experienced school leader will find value, reinforcement, and solid advice within.

Becky Johnson, MA, NBCT has been an educator for the past twenty years, serving in both public and independent school settings. She currently teaches Sixth Grade Social Studies and serves as her school’s Director of Professional Development. Becky earned her Master’s degree in Education from the University of Kentucky in 2000, and subsequently her National Board Certification in 2007, with renewal in 2017.

In addition to her classroom experience, she attends and presents at national and local conferences. Her most recent professional presentation was at the Independent School Association of the Central States annual conference, and she chairs the Kentucky Association of Independent Schools Teacher Services Committee.


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